After the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, the United States government determined to respond with force against those responsible. Additionally, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) invoked the "mutual defense clause" for the first time in its history in response to the attacks. Other countries, including Russia and Pakistan, pledged support. The strategy pursued by the United States and its coalition partners centered on overthrowing Afghanistan's Taliban government and destroying the al-Qaeda terrorist group the Taliban harbored. The United States reserved to right to engage in combat operations against any terrorist group that had the "reach" to harm the United States.
Central Command Air Forces (CENTAF), the air component to United States Central Command (CENTCOM) and under the command of Lieutenant General Charles F. Wald, was responsible for the air campaign during Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. CENTAF's primary command and control organization was the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC), located at Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia. Because of its location, the United States government sought and gained permission from the Saudi government to use the CAOC to control air operations in Afghanistan. General Wald also served as the Combined Force Air Component Commander (CFACC) until November 1, 2001, when Lt. General T. Michael Moseley assumed command of CENTAF and became CFACC. A key planning assumption was that combat operations would rely heavily on the use of precision guided munitions, in part to attempt to limit the number of civilian casualties during airstrikes.
On October 7, 2001, Operation ENDURING FREEDOM began with coalition aircraft, including USAF B-1 and B-52 bombers, performing night strikes against 31 targets. On the second day of the air offensive, coalition aircraft began operating during the day; and by the tenth day of operations, planners established "target zones" throughout Afghanistan to engage targets of opportunity around the clock, because the Taliban's air defenses were negligible.
During the initial months of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, the Air Force played a significant role in the campaign as the United States relied on coordinated airstrikes with Special Forces and Air Force forward air controllers, or Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs), to assist the Northern Alliance in their fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The first major gain occurred with the capture of the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif on November 9, 2001. The use of airpower in the campaign to capture Mazar-e-Sharif was considered a major breakthrough in the struggle to oust the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Through December, 2001, USAF and coalition aircraft continued to support Special Forces teams and the Northern Alliance as they routed the Taliban, capturing the capital city of Kabul and the southern stronghold of Kandahar. In an effort to wipe out the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, coalition forces attacked the Tora Bora region in Eastern Afghanistan, where coalition intelligence believed Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership, including Osama Bin Laden, had sought refuge. Although some Taliban and al-Qaeda members managed to escape into Pakistan, the coalition air campaign essentially ended on December 18, 2001. In just 102 days after the September 11 attacks, the Taliban regime had been overthrown and the al-Qaeda leadership dispersed.
Airpower played a major role in early 2002, when Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) Mountain launched Operation ANACONDA, an operation designed to destroy the remaining al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in the Khowst-Gardez region before they could regroup and destabilize the nascent interim government of Afghanistan. Despite hasty planning, the operation began on March 2, 2002. Almost immediately, ground forces came under attack by al-Qaeda forces in the mountains along the Shah-i-Kot valley. Calling in close air support, coalition aircraft dropped 177 precision guided munitions and conducted strafing attacks in the operation's first 24 hours. Forty-eight hours later, coalition aircraft had dropped 751 bombs in support of ground troops. The pace of close air support for ANACONDA did not let up over the next ten days. For example, on March 5, 2002, a USAF MQ-1 Predator pilot spotted a concentration of several hundred enemy fighters in a ravine and was able to direct A-10s, F/A-18s, and an AC-130 gunship to the area. Coalition aircraft dropped 667 bombs on March 9 and 10 while ground troops secured a final objective. Operation ANACONDA concluded on March 16, 2002.
While airpower played a central role in Operation ANACONDA, it was clear that there was room for improvement. Two immediate lessons were acknowledged. First, unity of command was essential. A single commander needed the authority to control all elements on the battlefield. Second, ANACONDA exposed differing views on the effective use of airpower. To improve future coordination between the Army and the Air Force, the Air Support Operations Center (ASOC) at Bagram Air Base was "strengthened to improve air-ground coordination and airspace management." Strike aircraft were called on to serve as airborne forward air controllers, and the CAOC selected pre-planned targets and designated three engagement zones. The Army and Air Force absorbed those lessons and applied them later in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM.
After Operation ANACONDA ended and through 2011, the situation in Afghanistan has remained unstable. The United States Air Force and its reserve components the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve maintain a continuous presence in the country and perform many tasks associated with logistical sustainment as well as security and stability operations, including strategic airlift to and from Afghanistan using C-5 and C-17 aircraft, intra-theater airlift with the C-130, and aerial refueling operations using the KC-135 and KC-10. Combat operations, including combat air patrols, continue to support "troops in contact" situations. Aircraft used included the F-15E, the F-16, and the A-10 working with Air Force forward air controllers. The U.S. Air Force provides Combat Search and Rescue capability, as well as aeromedical evacuations using C-17 transports. Additionally, the use of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) has dramatically increased during Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. This included the first use of the MQ-1 Predator armed with missiles as well as the first "combat" deployment of the RQ-4 Global Hawk. Furthermore, Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) were used by the B-1 and B-52 for the first time. In line with initial planning efforts, in the opening months of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM nearly 70 percent of the munitions expended were precision guided.
Other Air Force missions include Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) operations through the use of satellites and the U-2, RC-135, E-3 AWACS, and E-8 JSTARS, while other support functions included aerial port operations, civil engineer construction projects, air base defense, convoy operations, and thousands of "In lieu of" taskings in which Air Force personnel performed duties supporting U.S. Army operations. Also, in 2011, the Air Force deployed the newly acquired C-27J Spartan to Afghanistan for the first time. The 179th Airlift Wing of the Ohio Air National Guard became the first unit to deploy in a direct support role to an Army combat aviation brigade. Although Operation ENDURING FREEDOM refers primarily to operations in Afghanistan, it also includes military operations in other areas, such as the Horn of Africa and the Philippines.
In sum, Operation ENDURING FREEDOM demonstrated the ability of the Air Force to conduct sustained combat and support operations over an extended period of time. While working within the constraints of a high operations tempo, the Air Force conducted familiar missions, undertook new ones, and used technology in innovative ways to enhance situational awareness at all levels and provide a significant level of intelligence information to war fighters, all while operating in some of the most austere and forbidding terrain in the world.
Read the report: Operation Anaconda: an Air Power Perspective, Headquarters, USAF, AF/XOL, 7 Feb 2005.
Read the 2005 Rand report by Benjamin S. Lambeth: Air Power Against Terror: America's Conduct of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Capt Gregory Ball, USAFR, Ph.D.