The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 confirmed expectations that future adversaries would favor “asymmetric” strategies in challenging American interests. The goal of the Al Qaeda terrorist organization and the Taliban government that sheltered it in Afghanistan was to expel western interests from the oil-rich Persian Gulf region and establish theocratic dictatorships. Operation Enduring Freedom — the Afghan military operation — was the first step in a long-term campaign to defeat terrorism and assure access to the region.
The operation posed severe military challenges. Afghanistan was located far from the sea and U.S. regional bases. None of its neighbors had close relations with America. Al Qaeda forces were dispersed in the rugged Afghan countryside, presenting few fixed or high-value targets. Afghan domestic politics were riven with ethnic frictions and factional warfare. The strategy U.S. planners developed to defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban depended on diplomatic agility, new warfighting technologies and innovative tactics.
The Navy played an central role in the success of this strategy. A carrier battle group was on station within range of Afghanistan from the first day of hostilities, and soon was joined by three other carriers and an amphibious ready group. Through close cooperation with the U.S. and British air forces, the Navy was able to extend the range of its strike aircraft to establish continuous air presence over all parts of Afghanistan. During the first two months of the air war, carrierbased aircraft generated 80% of the sorties in the war and delivered 47% of the precision-guided munitions. Four out of five precision munitions used by the Navy hit their intended aimpoints, despite the elusive nature of many targets.
The Navy’s performance in Operation Enduring Freedom validated its post-Cold War emphasis on precision, agility, jointness and networking. Its operations were carefully integrated with those of other joint forces, minimizing duplication and conflicts to assure maximum warfighting efficiency. It provided tactical intelligence, jamming, and logistics support to joint forces while receiving critical tanking and targeting information from those forces. Operation Enduring Freedom also demonstrated the warfighting advantages of flexible sea-based forces not tied to land bases.
At the same time, the operation underscored the importance of proceeding with plans to modernize aging strike and electronic aircraft, in order to bolster the range, lethality and versatility of carrier air wings. A discussion of lessons learned from Operation Enduring Freedom appears on pages 18-20 of this report. The initial draft of the report was written by Dr. Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute staff. All members of the Naval Strike Forum had an opportunity to review and modify the final report.
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