Afghanistan: December 16, 2001

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: About 72% of the bombs (by weight) dropped in the Afghan War have come from only 18 planes: ten B-52Hs and eight B-1Bs of the 28th Air Expeditionary Wing based in Diego Garcia. Every day, four B-1Bs and five B-52Hs fly over Afghanistan. Because of their global range, each plane can orbit over Afghanistan for several hours, and except in rare cases, one of the massive bombers is over that country 24 hours per day. Each carries a variety of guided and unguided bombs, and the pilots do not know as they fly across the Indian Ocean what their targets are. Currently, 90 percent of the missions flown are simply assigned to "emerging targets" that will be spotted by ground forces or recon aircraft in real time. Cave entrances are considered emerging targets since nobody knows where they are until advancing ground forces or intensive air recon spots one. Bombers assigned to a target fly toward it along a curved path, allowing their ground-sweeping radars to see it from several directions. This improves the aircraft's lock on the target location to within 10 feet. The Air Force wants money from Congress to provide all bombers with satellite communications links, which would allow them to download better targeting data faster.

The favorite weapon of the Afghan War is the Joint Direct Attack Munition, which is being used up faster than it is being built. The Pentagon has ordered increased production to rebuild the stockpile, noting that future operations (e.g., in Iraq and Somalia) may need it. JDAM is a 2,000-pound guided glide bomb which is particularly useful against cave entrances. Other weapons carried by the heavy bombers include 500-pound Mark-82 bombs (with guidance kits these are the preferred truck killers), cluster bombs, and Wind Correct Munitions Dispensers. (Each B-1B has three bomb bays. Each bay could carry either 10 cluster bombs, 28 Mark-82 500-pound bombs, or eight JDAMS. The B-52s carry a dozen JDAMs, or a trainload of unguided Mark-82s. Some B-52s carry the Wind Corrected Munitions Dispenser.) A few B-2A bombers were used in the first week of the war, but the bat-winged planes did not fly in combat during November. Rumors circulate that B-2As have flown over Afghanistan in the last week using their powerful synthetic aperture radars to detect targets, particularly cave entrances. B-2A bombers have used several weapons, including the 5,000-pound GAM-113.

Overall, the Air Force has dropped 80 percent of the bombs (72 percent by the heavy bombers and 8 percent by F-15Es and F-16s) while the Navy has dropped 20 percent. The bomber community complains that the Air Force won't step forward and take this credit as to do so would make their moves to ground a third of the B-1Bs in order to raise money to build fighters look like a mistake.

The Air Force goal of destroying a target within ten minutes of detecting it has been met -- in some cases. In others, it has taken longer. One of the problems is the shortage of the new Link-16 broadband datalinks, which pass target information more swiftly and securely.--Stephen V Cole

Afghan forces fighting in the Tora Bora region say they have defeated the last al Qaeda forces in the area. They report that Osama bin Laden was not found. However, there has been no report from American special forces operating in the area. Moreover, there may still be some al Qaeda troops hiding out in the numerous caves in the mountains. Many of these caves, or at least the entrances, were blasted by 2,000 pound smart bombs over the last few weeks. Not all these caves have backdoors, so whoever was in one that took a one ton bomb in the entrance has dead, or alive (for the moment) people inside. One of those trapped could be bin Laden. There's also the possibility that bin Laden took off cross country for Pakistan. But US aircraft and UAVs circle the area, listening for radio transmissions and looking for heat sources (like people) on the ground. The only civilians normally seen in the area are occasional smugglers. American heat sensors won't spot everyone on the ground all the time. But especially at night, when it's colder, anyone out in the open is going to show up. Expect to hear more helicopters at night taking commandos in to check out such sightings. Bin Laden's voice was heard on the radio recently, trying to dissuade his troops from surrendering. You can confirm the identity of a voice by using a computerized voice print analysis. 

Pakistan has arrested 340 suspected al Qaeda fighters over the past three weeks. They were all caught on the border to a few kilometers inside Pakistan. Until recently, many were picked up by tribal militia, that receive a bounty (actually more of a "gift" or "tip") for seizing suspicious strangers in their territory and turning them over to the army. One group of 31 Arabs was recently seized that way. The men, mostly Yemenis, were unarmed and traveling on foot from the direction of Afghanistan. 

If bin Laden does escape to Pakistan, he still has to worry about that $25 million reward. While ten or twenty percent of the population in northern Pakistan is pro-Taliban to one degree or another, the vast majority of the population is pro-$25 million. 

At the Kandahar airport, a marine stepped on what was apparently a toe-popper mine, severely injuring his leg and lightly wounding two nearby marines. The wounded were flown to a field hospital at Camp Rhino southeast of Kandahar. The area the three marines were in had been cleared of mines, but the toe-poppers are small and made of plastic and are hard to clear. These mines are designed to blow a man's foot off.

Documents were found at an al Qaeda camp indicating that al Qaeda was trying to build nuclear and chemical weapon. 

The fighting in the Tora Bora area is being done by two different forces. Several thousand Afghans have cordoned off the region and are advancing behind American bombs towards al Qaeda fighters. But several hundred US and British commandos are also fighting the al Qaeda groups and investigating caves. The commandos are taking more advantage of information obtained by recon aircraft overseas and, because of their superior training, are able to overwhelm small groups of al Qaeda fighters more quickly.  

In the last two days, some 25 al Qaeda fighters have surrendered, and the bodies of another 200 have been discovered. The al Qaeda losses have been heavier, for many of the casualties have been caused by several hundred bombs dropped in the Tora Bora area each day. A direct hit on an al Qaeda position doesn't leave many body parts to identify.

 

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