November 07, 2021

Over-the-Horizon Does Not Have to Mean Next Door

By Stacie Pettyjohn

The United States is shifting to an over-the-horizon presence to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a terrorist safe haven, but there is a range of options for what that might entail. In July, President Biden stated that the United States would develop “a counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in [Afghanistan], and act quickly and decisively if needed.” The Pentagon is not going to be able to hunt terrorists as effectively as it did when it had boots on the ground and an extensive intelligence network in Afghanistan. Yet American drones can apply significant pressure on terrorist groups, limiting their ability to attack the U.S. homeland. Relying primarily on drones operating from Central Asian or Persian Gulf bases offers an effective and economical way of containing terrorists, but it does require access to third-party airspace and air bases.

Military pressure is only one element of a broader counterterrorism strategy to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a launching pad for terrorist operations against the United States.

The Defense Department’s preferred approach to counterterrorism operations uses a limited number of U.S. special operations forces and advisers to integrate American airpower with capable partner ground forces. In Iraq and Syria, for instance, anywhere between approximately 300 and 4,500 U.S. ground troops advised and assisted Iraqi and Syrian forces that were responsible for leading the fight on the ground against the Islamic State. Because of the U.S. military withdrawal and the collapse of the Afghan military, this medium-footprint approach that destroyed the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria is not possible in Afghanistan. With this option foreclosed, the Pentagon is left relying on airpower exclusively. Three remaining over-the-horizon options for Afghanistan counterterrorism operations include securing access to nearby air bases in Central Asia, flying from a U.S. aircraft carrier, and relying on bases in the Persian Gulf. Each alternative has strengths and weaknesses, but ultimately drones operating from nearby or distant bases offer a cost-effective way of weakening terrorist groups in Afghanistan and protecting the United States.

The first option is a just-over-the-horizon approach where U.S. aircraft operate from air bases adjacent to Afghanistan. Just-over-the-horizon counterterrorism operations are the Pentagon’s favored approach when a government is too weak to cooperate effectively, or is unwilling to work with the United States to combat terrorists on its territory, and lacks air defenses that can threaten U.S. aircraft. Armed drones, like the MQ-9 Reaper, patrol the skies monitoring terrorist activity but also occasionally launching strikes to kill senior terrorist leaders or to disrupt their operations. Proximity is important because it allows aircraft to continuously keep watch with relatively few forces and to be more responsive to emergent targets. Because they are uncrewed, drones can remain on station for a long time and are also equipped with an array of sensors, including full-motion video, which help to identify and track terrorists who are trying to blend in with civilians. Special forces nonstandard surveillance aircraft, like the U-28A Draco, are crewed and thus limited by duty-period limits and are not armed, but they offer a low-visibility way of collecting intelligence when close bases are available.

Read the full article from Lawfare.

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