The Air Force will use an airfield in Tajikistan to conduct its first sustained tactical strikes in the U.S. bombing campaign against Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, two military sources said yesterday.
The sources said the Air Force could begin those raids within two to four weeks. It plans to station about 50 strike aircraft there on Afghanistan’s northern doorstep, the sources said.
The Air Force has been assessing facilities at three air bases since Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld visited Tajikistan last week to discuss military cooperation with the former Soviet republic. The team has filed a report that says at least one airport will fit Air Force requirements.
“That’s all we need for 50 aircraft,” one military source said.
The Pentagon has not publicly disclosed the assessment team’s results or how many planes it will put in the Central Asian country.
To date, Navy planes from three carriers in the Arabian Sea have conducted most of the tactical missions since the bombing of Afghanistan began Oct. 7. Most Air Force munitions have been dropped by B-2, B-1B and B-52 heavy bombers.
The Air Force has been debating which mix of aircraft to put in Tajikistan. One option is to fly in 48 planes, one squadron each of F-16s and F-15Es, which specialize in hitting units on the move. Planners may trim each squadron and also put in AC-130 gunships, whose rapid-fire cannons and night scopes make the flying battleships highly effective against buildings and troops, according to the sources.
A base in Tajikistan would allow the Pentagon to open a new air front against the Taliban and generate more missions, or sorties. Air commanders are hampered by the fact that even carrier-based jets must refuel during their flights, cutting down on the number of sorties. Most land-based fighters sit unused in the Persian Gulf region, a 14-hour round trip from Afghanistan.
In contrast, the Air Force enjoyed close-in land bases during the 1991 Persian Gulf war against Iraq and the 1998 bombing of Yugoslavia. The basing rights allowed a single fighter to generate multiple sorties in a day, if needed.
Mr. Rumsfeld touched on the problem during a Pentagon press conference Thursday. He was asked to compare sortie rates today with those wars.
“You have to look at the availability of airfields and the distances one has to fly,” he said. “If you can fly an aircraft two or three times in a day because of the distance being close and the access you have, you’re going to get a higher sortie rate. To the extent you can’t, you don’t. And I think trying to go back and in your mind compare numbers like that is a misunderstanding.”
Mr. Rumsfeld secured the framework for using the land bases during a trip to the region last week. Tajikistan wants the number of strike planes kept there at 50 or below. One possible location is the airport at Kulyab, which has been used by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance to replenish its troops and is about 25 miles from the Afghan border.
Opening a northern air front comes at an opportune time. The defense chief has said recently that the addition of special-operations soldiers inside Afghanistan has helped turn up more targets for fighter pilots to attack.
“Airfields closer to Afghanistan would give us an advantage in being able to generate more sorties,” Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem told reporters at the Pentagon this week. “We would hope to have a capability to get access to Afghanistan from the north and the south.”
A retired Air Force fighter pilot said a base within 25 miles of the Afghanistan border would allow pilots to fly to target areas, loiter and then return without refueling.
More Navy aircraft are on the way. The Navy yesterday confirmed an earlier report in The Washington Times that the carrier USS John C. Stennis would deploy to the region on Monday, instead of its scheduled departure in mid-January.
Pentagon officials said that once on station, the Stennis, the Carl Vinson, the Theodore Roosevelt and the Kitty Hawk will give commanders the option of running operations off three flight decks, as the fourth carrier pauses for replenishment.
A Navy source said that, depending on the war’s status this winter, the Carl Vinson could be kept in the region past the end of a six-month deployment in January.
“Right now, there are no six-month deployments,” the source said.