U.S. Escalates Air War Over Afghanistan
There may not be quite as many bombs falling from the sky. But don’t let that fool you. The United States has dramatically escalated its air war over Afghanistan.
Spy plane flights have nearly tripled in the past year; supply drops, too. There are even more planes buzzing over the heads of troops caught in firefights (.pdf), according to statistics provided to Danger Room by the Air Force (.pdf).
The increased numbers show how the American military has retooled its most potent technological advantage — dominance of the skies — for the Afghanistan campaign. But so far, at least, the boost in air power doesn’t seem to have shifted the war’s momentum back to the American-led coalition.
An influx of Reaper drones and executive-jets-turned-spy-planes allowed U.S. forces to fly 9,700 surveillance sorties over Afghanistan in the first seven months of 2010. Last year, American planes conducted 3,645 of the flights during a similar period.
The United States may not have reconnaissance flights “blotting out the sun,” as one senior defense official predicted. But there are many more than before — mostly providing overhead footage of the battlefield to troops on the ground. In addition, more than 30 million pounds of gear was airdropped from January through July 2010 — compared to 11 million through July 2009.
Also, 398,000 people were transported into, out of and inside the Afghan theater. In the first seven months of 2009, that number was 212,000.
It wasn’t long ago that Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in an all-but-open war with the U.S. Air Force, when the service didn’t seem to be moving fast enough to meet commanders’ needs in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Air Force had fewer than a dozen unmanned air patrols over the war zones in 2007. Today, there are more than 40. The battles between Gates and the air generals have largely subsided.
“Today, unlike the contests of the past, our joint forces go into combat with more information about the threat they face, provided in near real-time. And they get that information … from air and space,” e-mails retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who stepped down this month as the Air Force’s intelligence chief. “Today, unlike the past, our joint task forces are able to operate with much smaller numbers, across great distances and inhospitable terrain because they can be sustained over the long-haul … by air.”
When Gen. Stanley McChrystal imposed strict new guidelines on airstrikes, the number of attacks from the sky immediately dropped in half. Many pilots weren’t sure exactly why they were flying. Some troops complained that they couldn’t fight the Taliban effectively.
But during the last few months of McChrystal’s tenure, those airstrike numbers had stabilized, and began to move ahead of their mid-2009 lows. In June and July of 2010, the Air Force flew 5,500 “close air support” sorties — missions over ground troops locked in active combat. On 900 of those flights, the planes fired weapons. The previous year, those figures were 4,600 and 809, respectively.
The unanswered question, of course, is whether all this extra air power will have much of an effect. Right now, NATO has more troops going into more places and encountering more resistance than at any point in the war.
Violence is way up. And it’s not clear if additional eyes in the sky or warplanes buzzing overhead will alter that lethal equation.
Photo: Noah Shachtman