B-52s Are Dropping Hundreds of Dumb Bombs in Afghanistan to Literally Shape the Terrain 

The bombers, along with F-16s and drones, are blasting mountains and other cover to force the Taliban into the open.

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The U.S. military recently highlighted a series of air and artillery strikes against Taliban drug labs in Afghanistan as a visible indicator of America’s new strategy to defeat insurgents and terrorists in the country and elsewhere in the region. At the same time, though, the U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers and other aircraft has been conducting a less publicized and more grueling kind of air war to literally shape the terrain, blasting away mountain passes and potential cover to limit where and how militants can operate.

Reporting from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, Aviation Week’s Lara Seligman was the first to get a hint of these operations, noting that Air Force B-52s had flown “terrain denial” missions over Afghanistan loaded with dozens of 500-pound class Mk 82 “dumb bombs.” But in an Email to The War Zone, an U.S. Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT) spokesperson explained that this part of the aerial campaign was far more widespread and complex, involving manned and unmanned aircraft and unguided and guided munitions.

“Area denial missions can range from shaping enemy force maneuvers to denying key terrain to the enemy,” the public affairs officer said. “These terrain denial strikes are useful in enabling freedom of maneuver for our forces, elimination of cover and concealment by enemy forces, an [sic; and] affecting enemy pattern of life in such a way that allows us to gain invaluable intelligence on their networks.”

In short, the sorties are a deliberate and coordinated effort to strip away actual terrain features – narrow mountainous paths, rock-topped ridgelines, and even buildings and other man-made structures – that militants might use to move without being seen or ambush friendly troops on the ground in the future. It also attempts to funnel the insurgents and terrorists into particular areas or operating habits, which might make them easier to observe, isolate, and neutralize.

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B-52s bombers at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar in June 2017.

The Taliban’s use of hard cover has been a long-standing issue for American and other coalition troops in Afghanistan, as well as their Afghan allies. Recently, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps began purchasing hundreds of the Swedish-made Carl Gustav recoilless rifles specifically to give small infantry units more firepower against dug-in enemies.

These operations are not new, either, and AFCENT has employed various aircraft in this role. According to the public affairs official, the very first of these missions in support of the U.S. military’s Operation Freedom’s Sentinel and the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission – the names given to the refocused and officially non-combat  advisory efforts in Afghanistan in December 2014 –  occurred in June 2016 and involved F-16C Viper multi-role fighter jets.

Since then, F-16s, B-52s, and even MQ-9 Reaper drones, have flown terrain denial sorties. Though the unguided Mk 82 remains the weapon of choice for this task, aircraft have dropped a variety of laser- and GPS-guided munitions, as well. These include 500-pound class GBU-12/B Paveways, GBU-38/B Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM), and GBU-54/B Laser JDAMs, and 2,000 pound class GBU-31/B JDAMs.

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An F-16C loaded with JDAMs at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. 

The B-52s with their cavernous bomb bays definitely have an outsized capability in this regard. Since July 2016, B-52s have flown more than 225 strikes over Afghanistan and dropped approximately 1,050 munitions of all types, including standard Mk 82s, during area denial missions specifically, according to AFCENT.

Until November 2017, when the Conventional Rotary Launcher became available to deployed B-52s, the lumbering bombers at Al Udeid were not even able to carry precision guided weapons internally, limited instead to lugging a maximum of 18 of those munitions on external pylons. The revelation about area denial strikes thus helps explain earlier, conflicting reports about the BUFFs flying with as many as 30 bombs on individual sorties.

This is, of course, hardly the first time the United States has employed these tactics. From World War II through Desert Storm, the U.S. military employed carpet bombing, in which aircraft, especially heavy bombers, dropped strings of unguided bombs across wide areas.

During the Vietnam War, the American aircraft famously did this repeatedly over the Ho Chi Minh Trail that snaked from North Vietnam south through Laos. The United States also saturated the area with small landmines, irritating chemicals, and even a powder that was supposed to create permanent, made-made “mud” to slow down enemy personnel and vehicles. More infamously, the U.S. military sprayed copious amounts of toxic herbicides, including a mixture called Agent Orange, to deny cover to insurgent forces.

Early in the U.S. military’s campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, B-52s famously flew similar missions to bombard enemy positions in a mountainous part of the country near the Pakistani border known as Tora Bora. That campaign ultimately failed to keep key leaders, such as Osama Bin Laden, from escaping into Pakistan.  

It’s not clear how effective these new sorties have actually been in stemming the Taliban’s resurgence and the emergence of new threats, including ISIS’ Afghan franchise, ISIS-Khorasan, or ISIS-K. It does beg the questions about the ability of Afghanistan’s own military and their coalition allies to reliably exert authority in and provide security for large portions of the country.

The situation was “about the same as last year in terms of territory and population control,” U.S. Army General John Nicholson, head of American and coalition forces in Afghanistan told reporters on Nov. 20, 2017. “We didn't see the enemy attempt to take cities like they did previously.”

Still, in October 2017, a complex Taliban attack nearly wiped out an Afghan military garrison in Kandahar Province. There have also been growing reports about the insurgent group’s elite elements using increasingly advanced equipment, including night vision goggles, to launch unsettling surprise attacks on government security forces even near larger population centers.

It also calls into question just how limited American forces have actually been in their ability to conduct air strikes. Now, both Nicholson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have publicly stated that before President Donald Trump and approved the easing of various rules and restrictions, U.S. aircraft could only fly missions against insurgents and terrorists who were in close proximity to American personnel. We don’t know whether or not any of the area denial missions have been in direct support of nearby friendly forces on the ground, but AFCENT categorizes them as separate and distinct from close air support missions.

“I need to say these new authorities give me the ability to go after the enemy in ways that I – that I couldn't before,” said during the November 2017 press conference, though he declined to elaborate. At the time of writing, the Resolute Support Mission public affairs had not responded to a request to clarify how these new authorities, which have been in place for less than three months, changed the situation.

In addition, AFCENT spokesperson stressed that these new area denial missions shouldn’t be considered carpet bombing and underlined the command’s stated objective of seeking to minimize collateral damage and avoid potential civilian casualties as much as possible in all of its operations. “Factoring in release angle, aircraft speed, winds and other variables, our aircrew are expertly trained to deliver unguided munitions in such a manner that they often hit a target with nearly the same degree of accuracy as a guided munition,” they explained.

It is hard not to wonder whether these area denial efforts have contributed to a significant increase in reports of civilians being caught in the path of American air strikes in Afghanistan, though. This is especially true given that AFCENT had acknowledged that area denial missions include the practice of dropping bombs near inhabited buildings in order to chase people out before another strike flattens the structure.

“We may drop munitions near a structure to cause occupants or people nearby to flee,” the spokesperson for the command noted. This tactic is specifically “to avoid causing non-combatant casualties when we hit the structure in a follow on strike,” they added.

That being said, this type of mission can only invite comparisons to Russia's air war in Syria, which routinely involves Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers indiscriminately dropping strings of unguided bombs in and around populated centers. If nothing else, it suggests that the United States has adopted a far more aggressive tactics against the Taliban and other Afghan militant groups than it has previously acknowledged, which would be in line with other details emerging about the state of the fighting.

Earlier in November 2017, The New York Times published one such deep investigation, questioning the U.S. military’s process for investigating and accounting for potential civilian casualties in Afghanistan, but no mention was made of area denial missions in particular. This followed years of other reporting highlighted the limited resources the United States had available to accurately assess the impact of strikes, though.

In October 2017, the United Nations had already reported that there had already been a 50 percent increase in civilian casualties from both Afghan and U.S. aerial attacks over the previous year. Then, in November 2017, U.N. officials said that 10 innocent bystanders had died in Kunduz Province, contradicting U.S. government claims that the strikes had not resulted in any collateral damage.

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A B-52 lands at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar in 2016.

It is important to note that there is no evidence whatsoever that suggests that the U.S. military targets civilians or acts with reckless disregard for their safety in war zones such as Afghanistan. The U.S. military’s efforts stand in stark contrast to those of the Russian and Syrian Air Forces in Syria or the Royal Saudi Air Force in Yemen, where there is considerable evidence to point to active and deliberate strikes on civilians and civil infrastructure.

“The Russian ministry of defense statements are about as accurate as their air campaign [in Syria],” U.S. Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the American-led coalition fighting ISIS, said earlier in November 2017 after the Kremlin accused the United States of supporting the terrorists in Iraq and Syria. “I think that is a reason for them to start, you know, coming out with their latest barrage of lies.”

But in conflicts such as the one in Afghanistan, perception can make or break the overall effort and errant bombs can give the enemy valuable propaganda victories. It can also give opponents elsewhere, such as the Russians, an opportunity to deflect attention from their own actions. As such, transparency is always paramount.

As American involvement in Afghanistan intensifies yet again, and the air war expands anew, it seems likely that area denial operations will continue to be an important tool in containing the Taliban and other militants. At the same time, the U.S. military will have to be especially careful to ensure these and other air strikes are not doing more harm than good.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com