San Diego Union-Tribune

October 10, 2001

U.S. needs air bases closer to targets, experts say


WASHINGTON -- With Afghanistan's air defenses substantially reduced by three days of air-and missile strikes, U.S. air power will shift increasingly to
attacks on Taliban ground forces and to support for any possible offensive by opposition troops.

But the change will be hindered considerably by the lack of bases for allied warplanes in the countries surrounding the remote land-locked nation, defense experts said yesterday.

Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the early attacks, conducted mainly at night, have given the allies "air supremacy"
over Afghanistan, allowing operations around the clock.

Myers also said U.S. aircraft would attack Taliban forces facing the Afghan resistance fighters seeking to defeat the oppressive regime.

But it would be difficult to attack small mobile ground targets or to provide close air support using heavy bombers flying thousands of miles or carrier-based Navy jets coming 600 or more miles from the Arabian Sea, which is the way the air war has been conducted so far, the analysts agreed.

"Use of land bases is important," said Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer and military analyst. "Some of the Navy pilots said operating out of the
Arabian Sea was a stretch . . . It's a long haul."

Navy fighter pilots back aboard the Enterprise after the first night's attacks told reporters they barely had enough fuel to return to the carrier after their

Just to make straight runs against a fixed target and to return to the carrier required in-flight refueling both ways, said Krepinevich, who is director of the
Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

"It's really slamming the square peg in the round hole. That's why we've been so keen on getting those bases in Uzbekistan," he said, referring to one of
Afghanistan's northern neighbors.

But Uzbekistan has said its bases cannot be used for offensive operations.

Michael O'Hanlon, national security analyst at the Brookings Institution, said the long-range bombers and Navy strike aircraft could be useful for the current phase of the air campaign, "when we're trying to prepare the battlefield for an offensive planned by the Northern Alliance."

The alliance is one of the groups fighting the Taliban, which controls nearly 90 percent of Afghanistan.

In those kinds of strikes "we can pick the time of our attacks . . . That's the easier part of the problem," O'Hanlon said.

Even under those conditions, the experiences of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 1999 fight over Kosovo showed that airstrikes can reduce dug-in tanks and ground forces by only about 1 percent a day, "if we go all out," he said.

But "you must be able to fly on a moment's notice to provide really close air support in the classic sense," O'Hanlon said.

To do that, "you really do need to think about putting attack helicopters inside of Afghanistan, in areas controlled by the Northern Alliance," he said.

There have been indications that the Pentagon is considering sending in elements of the Army's 101st Division, which has AH-64 Apaches, the most
sophisticated U.S. attack helicopter.

Krepinevich said using the early air raids to reduce the Taliban's air defenses opens the door to using air bases in northern Afghanistan to fly in relief supplies for Afghan refugees or war supplies for the Northern Alliance, or supporting U.S. operations, including close air support for the alliance.

The alliance holds the Baghlan airfield north of Kabul, but cannot use it because Taliban forces hold the nearby high ground. Other opposition forces have been hinting at an attack on another airfield at Mazar-e Sharif to the west.

Although those airfields are badly battered after years of war, Krepinevich said, the Air Force has become good at quickly improving bases under the Aerospace Expeditionary Force concept. And the Marine Corps "has had a tradition of going to austere locations," he said.

Asked about providing close air support without local bases, Gen. Myers said, "We would not be prohibited, technically, from doing that."

Fighters could not provide air support from distant bases "unless you were in a CAP (combat air patrol), waiting for hours," Myers said, using his hand to
show circling aircraft. "And that is technically feasible."

But that would take repeated in-flight refueling.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a former Navy pilot, conceded long-range air support was not the preferred way, but he noted: "Nothing is preferable in Afghanistan . . . It is all difficult. But what it is we're about to do is all doable."