The U.S. Air Force’s iconic B-52 Stratofortress bomber has been flying continuous missions over Afghanistan for months, as the American aerial campaign in the country expands in the face of resurgent and emerging threats, including Taliban insurgents and ISIS-linked terrorists. The flights have been part of an existing surge in air support as the service says it is still looking at how best to contribute to President Donald Trump’s new U.S. strategy for the region.
Since March 2017, the B-52s, or BUFFs, have dropped more than 800 individual weapons on Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS-K targets in support of U.S. forces and the NATO-led coalition, U.S. Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT), the top Air Force command for operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, told The War Zone in an Email. This works out to an average of approximately 150 bombs dropped every month.
ISIS-K, or ISIS-Khorasan, is the terrorist group’s franchise in Afghanistan, which first appeared in January 2015. The bombers had already been striking at the main body of the organization in Iraq and Syria from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar since April 2016.
At the time of writing, AFCENT’s public affairs office had not yet responded to a query about what specific types of weapons the bombers had been dropping in Afghanistan. In sorties against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the BUFFs have been carrying a mixture of 500-pound class GBU-38/B and 2,000 GBU-31/B GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs). These have been among the Air Force’s most commonly employed weapons in Afghanistan for close air support and other missions, according to an official presentation from earlier in 2017.
In addition to directly attacking targets, the aircraft can provide limited surveillance capabilities thanks to the infrared camera in its Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod. The bombers can drop inert bombs full of propaganda leaflets to help with psychological warfare missions, as well.
Regardless of the particular weapons they've employed, the aging B-52s have been able to use their large bomb load, long range, and ability to orbit the battlefield for extended periods, even when flying all the way from Qatar, to their advantage over Afghanistan. The bombers have reportedly carried as many as 30 bombs, which would require the use of upgrades to their bomb bays that allows the aircraft to carry precision guided munitions internally.
“In essence, if we had 30 targets, we could hit 30 targets,” U.S. Air Force Major General James Hecker, who runs the coalition air war in Afghanistan, told Air Force Magazine in an interview earlier in 2017. “It gives us a fairly large capability.”
Still, the distance, along with a lack of tankers situated within or in the immediate vicinity of the country, does impact the regularity of these operations. As of June 2017, the bombers were flying an average of just one mission a week, according to Air Force Magazine.
This hasn’t prevented the BUFFs from contributing to the most intensive month of U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan in five years. In August 2017, American aircraft released more than 500 weapons in total over the country, according to official statistics. This was the most since August 2012, when the figure reached almost 600.
After a sharp decline following the transition of the NATO-led mission from combat to advisory functions in January 2015, these numbers have been steadily rising since earlier in 2017. The increase does coincide with the reappearance of the B-52s over Afghanistan, but it is unclear just how significant the appearance of the bombers has been to the overall operation. This broad uptick also included the first ever combat drop of the so-called "Mother of All Bombs" on ISIS-K fighters in April 2017.
Beyond their large payloads and other capabilities, the lumbering BUFFs may have intangible benefits, as well, having been an important component of the U.S. military’s early operations in Afghanistan starting after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The bombers played a key and visible role in driving the Taliban from power and chasing the militants and their Al Qaeda allies into the mountains.
The aircraft notably carpet bombed enemy positions in the mountains around Tora Bora in December 2001. In June 2017, ISIS-K took control of the area, which had once served as a base of operations for Osama Bin Laden.
The Air Force reportedly stopped routinely employing the B-52s over Afghanistan in 2005, but some additional missions appear to have occurred in the subsequent years, as well. During 2016, the bombers briefly flew a number of missions
specifically targeting ISIS-K before another apparent halt. At this time, AFCENT has not yet responded to a request for more information about when the bomber flights ended before they resumed in March 2017.
In addition, the sporadic nature of the new missions seems to have led to some additional confusion about their present use in the country. After President Trump announced his new strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia in August 2017, the U.S. military as a whole began reviewing possible options for expanding their operations.
Requests for more air support have been a common theme in those deliberations. Later in August 2017, The Washington Post, citing unnamed officials, said that this could include the deployment of additional F-16 Viper fighter jets, A-10 Warthog ground attack aircraft, or additional support from the B-52s in Qatar, or some combination of these assets.
Earlier in September 2017, Afghanistan’s Khaama Press reported that the country’s defense ministry had responded positively to the news. Specifically, Defense Ministry spokesperson Mohammad Radmanish “said the return of bomber aircrafts could play a key role in eliminating the militants,” despite the B-52s having already been flying overhead for almost six months at that time. Of course, it is entirely possible that there was some confusion in translation or another error in paraphrasing his Radmanish’s statements.
The Air Force itself has played down the significant of any potential changes, insisting it is still reviewing its available options. In an interview with Military.com, Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein said that the total number of air strikes in Afghanistan “remained steady” despite the increase in the total number of weapons that the aircraft actually employed.
"I don't think you're going to see it change that much," Goldfein said. "We've never come back. We've been engaged in Afghanistan the entire time."
But given the visible trend, it seems almost guaranteed that additional air power in some form will be a core component of any new surge of operations in Afghanistan. Whether or not additional air strikes or other increases in the U.S. military posture in the country will be able to change the existing dynamic in the country is another matter entirely.
While serving as the top intelligence officer for the NATO-led coalition and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Major General Mark Quantock once “used the term ‘Afghan Condition’ to describe circumstances in Afghanistan culture that restrict or limit their progress,” according to a Department of Defense Inspector General report we obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. “The Afghan condition includes high illiteracy rates, internal language barriers, gender inequality, tribal or family influences, corruption, and security concerns.”
While dropping more bombs might keep Taliban insurgents and ISIS-K terrorists at bay temporarily, these are the issues that will continue to make or break the chances of any real resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan.
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