Washington Desk April 2002

Behavior Modification

Soon after the Afghan war began, the Air Force dramatically altered its tactics. What lay behind the change?

When fighting begins, military establishments are nearly as eager to observe and record the results as to win. This emphasis is natural, since claims about what did and didn't work may be used for decades afterward to settle arguments, justify new weapons, and affect military doctrine. Long before the first bombs were dropped on Afghanistan, some of the Pentagon's official historians had been invited into the building to observe the proceedings.

The process of interpreting battlefield results can be surprisingly slow. William S. Lind, a military analyst, has observed that it took several years after the end of the Gulf War for the American public to realize that much of Iraq's Republican Guard had escaped. The full answers about the first stage of this war, the battle against the Taliban, may take as long to emerge as the Bush Administration says the war on terrorism will last—again, years. But it is already clear what one significant question will be: Why did the Air Force change its approach so dramatically in the early days of the war?

That there was a change is obvious. Last October the Air Force for a week or two followed what had been its classic twentieth-century doctrine of "strategic bombing." A strategic air campaign is intended to weaken an enemy's military force indirectly, by attacking its underpinnings, rather than directly, by attacking the force itself. Therefore the United States blew up airfields, attacked radar sites, and destroyed such command-and-control centers as it could find.

By late October the bombing campaign had been retooled as something more like "close air support." This is the Army's term for what it thinks the Air Force never wants to provide, in which bombers and attack planes serve as a kind of mobile artillery, aiming right at the enemy soldiers and tanks. This kind of attack requires more flexibility and faster response times than strategic bombing does; targets may change minute by minute, rather than being picked days in advance. It also requires closer coordination between air and ground forces, and in effect makes the Air Force an adjunct of the Army. The ground soldiers are the ones choosing the targets, and the pilots are supposed to respond right away.

By late October news accounts were referring to air attacks on the Taliban as being directed by Army Special Forces soldiers plus para-military agents from the CIA working with Northern Alliance ground troops. At this point the war against the Taliban became a rout. With guidance from the ground, Air Force planes could drive Taliban soldiers out of protected positions, destroy their tanks and equipment once they were on the move, and quickly make it impossible for them to fight on.

The question is why the Air Force started behaving this way. It would be nice if the answer were, simply, Because it made military sense. But in previous battles coordinating ground and air efforts took much longer than this. In a number of recent interviews I found no one who was sure of the explanation, but I identified two main hypotheses.

One view, favored in the Air Force, is that this new collaboration between air and ground forces was a natural response to the arrival of new technology— specifically, reliable precision-guided weapons. American ground troops could use sighting devices to get the exact coordinates of a target as small as a tank; bombs with the highly reliable and relatively cheap JDAM ("joint direct attack munition") guidance system could use those coordinates to follow the target through wind, smoke, and cloud.

"No one expected [this combined approach] to work out as well as it did," a retired Air Force officer told me. "No one in the Air Force, and no one in the Army. We've had the ability for quite some time. But we never practiced having a sergeant on the ground get a B-52 to attack a target from thirty-five thousand feet." One reason this was never practiced, he told me, was that "the possibilities for error are unlimited." Indeed, the first major "friendly fire" episode in the war, in which five Special Forces soldiers were injured and five Northern Alliance soldiers were killed by an American JDAM bomb, resulted from a targeting error. The spotters relaying the target's coordinates to the bomber circling overhead mistakenly sent the coordinates of their own location. But this was the exception. The Air Force man continued, "They got real good at it, the green-suiters [in the Army] and the blue-suiters [in the Air Force]. Instead of hitting a cave and having nothing happen, you'd hit a cave and Taliban would come streaming out. It was inconceivable just a little time earlier that they could work that closely together."

A less uplifting interpretation of this view is that the Air Force began cooperating with the Army because in doing so it could outflank the Navy. During the first two weeks of bombing the Air Force's presence was mainly big bombers operating from miles up. This fit the strategic-bombing doctrine and also fit local realities, because there were no nearby bases from which Air Force fighter or ground-attack planes could operate. But it left the tactical role—for fighter and attack aircraft—to naval planes operating from carriers. Past conflicts would lead to the natural assumption that these more agile aircraft, operating closer to the ground, would do the precision-bombing work. By showing that its old, lumbering bombers could hit tanks and troops with the help of spotters, the Air Force created a new role for itself.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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