William M. Arkin / Washington Post – 2008-05-12 22:25:00
WASHINGTN (May 8, 2008) — Those predicting war with Iran or some Bush-Cheney October surprise attack on Tehran are constantly looking for signs of military preparations: a B-52 bomber that mistakenly takes off from North Dakota with nuclear-armed cruise missiles; a second or third aircraft carrier entering the Persian Gulf; a B-1 crashing in Qatar.
Since the most likely path to war with Iran is not Marines storming the beach but a strike on nuclear facilities and “regime” targets, signs such as these can often just be mirages. The true strike is not necessarily going to come with any warning, and the U.S. military has developed an entire system called “global strike” to implement such a preemptive strike.
A secret mission conducted last August over Afghanistan caught my eye because it tells us everything we need to know about the ability of the U.S. military to conduct a bolt-out-of-the-blue attack in Iran. It also tells us how useless such a strike might be.
On Aug. 12, 2007, four F-16CJ fighters took off on an 11-hour mission from Iraq to Eastern Afghanistan, crossing the airspace of six different nations, before dropping more than a dozen precision-guided bombs on Taliban targets. The crews of the record-breaking flight received the coveted Clarence MacKay Trophy for 2007, an award given annually for “the most meritorious flight” of the year.
The secret mission had never before been attempted, according to the Air Force, and the pilots were allotted a two-minute window of attack at the end of their 2,100-mile flight. The entire non-stop mission, which took 13 aerial refuelings, was the equivalent of flying from New York to Los Angeles and back.
The mission was a success, according to the Air Force: It resulted in “direct hits” that allowed coalition ground forces to “conduct raids on Taliban positions.”
However, a check of the news out of Afghanistan for the week of Aug. 12 reveals no real air strike of significance. On Aug. 12, the wire services reported fighting near the Pakistani border and the death of three U.S. soldiers and their Afghan interpreter from a roadside bomb. Further fighting was reported on Aug. 13 and Aug. 14, but no significant bombing missions in support of U.S. or Afghan forces.
On Aug. 15, the Afghan government announced a large scale three-day operation in the area of Tora Bora, an operation launched in response to the killing of three U.S. soldiers by IED earlier that week. Officials said nearly 50 suspected Pakistani and Taliban militants were killed in air and ground operations. Coalition aircraft carried out two sorties to target the Taliban positions in that area, an Afghan official said.
I don’t doubt that the F-16CJ night mission was complicated and historic, as well as physically and mentally demanding. The crews, according to the Air Force, worked with new operating instructions and went into the unknown. The squadron commander had only 18 hours to plan and prepare for the attack.
The mission was so secret, furthermore, it was not listed on the daily Air Tasking Order, the daily schedule distributed throughout the U.S. military, further complicating aerial refuelings and overflights.
If on Aug. 12, 2007, the United States had killed Osama bin Laden or scored some major victory in Afghanistan, one might fully appreciate the mission and the award of the MacKay Trophy. But I suspect that what was important here is that the mission went like clockwork, not that something important in Afghanistan was destroyed.
None of this is to besmirch the effort or the achievement. But if this was really a rehearsal to attack Iran, it was a mission where getting the airplanes over the target was more consequential than what was actually bombed.
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