Enduring Freedom, 7 October 2001: a naval operation

(To Tiziano Ciocchetti)

The main feature of the war led by the American-led coalition in Afghanistan against the Taliban regime - following the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington - is represented by the fact that it was a purely naval operation.

When the Bush administration decided to attack Afghanistan, the United States did not have land bases in neighboring countries. Some governments supported the war against the Taliban regime, but did not want to allow their territories to be used to launch attacks. However, even if they had allowed the use of the area bases, it would not have been enough, since the combat aircraft need a complex logistics.

In fact, in order to carry out prolonged missions, which include the conduct of even a small number of sorties, it is necessary to have infrastructure for maintenance and repairs, as well as spare parts. In addition, prolonged air campaigns require large stocks of weapon systems and support equipment.

Avid proponents of air power have pointed out that aircraft are able to fly directly from the United States to airports located at great distances thanks to in-flight refueling. However, once they arrive at their destination, they do not have the necessary support. The proximity of ports and transport ships also takes time to adequately prepare support infrastructures.

An exception could be represented by the nations that owned the same aircraft models used by the USAF, such as Saudi Arabia with the F-15, although specific capabilities may not be compatible.

The naval forces make it possible to avoid these problems. They are self-sufficient, including the necessary to conduct prolonged operations (at least within certain limits). A Carrier Battle Group usually has a team supplier that can distribute fuel and weapon systems, extending the duration of operations over time.

It is also true that the limit of self-sufficiency in the case of an aircraft carrier is represented by the quantities of fuel and armaments that can be loaded, therefore operations cannot be conducted for long without refueling. Once a base has been established on land, it has sufficient capacity to be strengthened to be able to support long-lasting operations.

On the other hand, once a base has been set up and supplied, it takes a long time for its infrastructure to meet a different strategic need.

The comparison between aircraft carriers and land bases is very similar to that between the Marine Corps and the US Army.

The former are characterized by their high strategic mobility. The amphibious units they dispose give the Corps self-sufficiency.

Army units are generally significantly heavier, and therefore much less mobile, but have higher firepower.

The Special Forces are far lighter than the Marines, and consequently have less ability to withstand enemy ground forces, and often even less mobile once they are deployed.

Being light makes it relatively easy to deploy special forces from the sea.

When the war on Afghanistan seemed near, a high Russian official commented that the United States would be in great difficulty, as they did not have air bases near the borders of that country. For this reason he believed that American forces were not able to attack in a massive way, but only to carry out a limited number of sorties through the use of aircraft based in America or on the island of Diego Garcia.

The Russian officer had not considered one of the main options available to the Pentagon: the Persian Gulf. The fundamental difference between the typically Russian (ex-Soviet) and American situation was represented by full-spectrum naval power.

With a sufficient number of attack aircraft on board, the United States was able to organize effective air strikes. In Afghanistan, the problem was to correctly identify the targets. Often the value of particular objectives was evident only to those who were on the ground. The best solution was to include teams of special forces, in depth, in the Taliban-controlled areas.

However, as in the case of aircraft, the detachments of special forces could not be infiltrated by nations bordering Afghanistan.

Following the example of the air attack, the solution was to use a naval unit as a base. The aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk (photo) was emptied by most of the aircraft on board, replaced by helicopters of special forces (it would seem that there were also GOI raiders on board). The Afghan territory was on the verge of operating helicopter autonomy, and the Pakistani government agreed that these be supplied on its own air bases.

The Marines aboard large amphibious units located in the Persian Gulf represented a heavier (but still self-sufficient and mobile) land force capable of being transported directly to Afghanistan.

When the tactical situation on land became sufficiently fluid, the Marines equipped a base, called Camp Rhino. From here they had the opportunity to operate as a conventional land force, both independently and in collaboration with the anti-Taliban forces of the Northern Alliance, such as the battle of Kandahar.

All these components, the aircraft, the Special Forces and the Marines embarked, have meant that Afghanistan was essentially an naval war, even if the country has no access to the sea.

The war in Afghanistan has given many lessons, two of which are specific to the operations carried out with the aircraft carriers.

The first is that distance is important, and aircraft carriers, in many situations, can be the only tool available to exploit American air power. In Afghanistan the need to reach areas distant from the sea emerged regardless of how close an aircraft carrier can be to a coast.

The second is that the ability to carry high war loads is still important, accuracy cannot replace massive bombardment.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that the success of the United States (at least initial) in the conduct of operations in Afghanistan was due to its naval capabilities.

Photo: US Navy / US Air Force