At the end of 2021 the U.S. finally released the data on recent airpower use in Afghanistan. The data was no longer made public in early 2020, when a new government took over in the United States. Despite that blackout, other sources indicated that that air support diminished but continued until the end in August 2021.
Even though American air activity was lower, it still provided the bulk of what the Afghan security forces depended on. Until 2019 the air support was substantial. In that year air support was one percent greater than in the record-setting total for 2018.
In 2020 there was not much reduction in American aerial activity in Afghanistan. As always, most of the 2020 sorties (14,834) were for surveillance and intel collection, which was 16 percent fewer than 2019. In 2014, the year in which most American ground troops left Afghanistan, there were 32,000 of these sorties. After 2014 most of the American air effort was in support of Afghan forces. That means combat sorties dropped from 12,798 in 2014 to 4,603 in 2017 and over 8,000 in 2018 and 2019. That dropped to 5,533 in 2020 and 2,596 in 2021.
Not all combat sorties resulted in attacks (airstrikes) on targets. During 2019 there were 7,423 airstrikes compared to 7,362 for 2018. That’s about 20 a day for both years. This is a major increase from 12 a day for 2017, 3-4 a day for 2016 and 2-3 a day for 2015. Since 2018 American airpower has been used more often in Afghanistan than at any other time, including the 2011 surge. In 2018 coalition warplanes (mostly U.S.) used 15 percent more bombs and missiles than in 2011. Coalition warplanes performed more combat sorties a month, with 15 percent of sorties resulting in weapons being used. This includes AC-130 gunships but not attack helicopters or UAVs. In some months the U.S. Air Force used more smart bombs and missiles than at any time since late 2010.
In 2020 sorties that resulted in at least one weapon (gunfire, missile or bomb) used declined to one or two a day and in 2021 it was ten percent less than that. Airstrikes in 2021 peaked in August with 153. In January there were 142 but that declined each month to a record low of 15 in July and spiked to 153 in August, where the airstrikes ceased in mid-month. Adjusting for that there were 20 times more airstrikes each day in August than in July and twice as many per day than in January. One reason for the sharp decline in airstrikes was because there were fewer air bases in Afghanistan to launch then from and in 2021 most came from bases in the Persian Gulf or carriers off the Pakistan coast.
While 2020 saw a 20 percent increase in airlift sorties, in 2021 there were a third fewer airlift sorties per month and after August these sorties ceased.
The effectiveness of this air support relied on a communication system that enables U.S. air controller teams anywhere in the country to contact any American bombers or fighters within a few hundred kilometers or more, and get them to the target to deliver smart bombs. The fighters and bombers are equipped with targeting pods that enable the pilots to see detailed pictures of what is on the ground so they can assist the air controllers with sorting out what is going on down there. The communications are made possible by high flying (13,000 meters/40,000 feet) BACN (Battlefield Airborne Communications Node) aircraft that deal with the many high mountains and deep valleys found in Afghanistan and immediately connect air controllers, and any other American combat units, with U.S. aircraft. Because of this system, in use for over a decade, heavy bombers (B-52s or faster B-1Bs) could circle in a central location and quickly get to where they are needed and drop a few smart bombs. There are also F-16s and A-10 aircraft that can do the same, plus the A-10 can also come in low and use its 30mm autocannon. BACN sorties over Afghanistan were gone by 2021, meaning there were a lot more rural areas where there were no reliable communications with American or Afghan ground controller teams.
There is more to American air support than the quickly delivered smart bombs. In fact, there were only 8,773 strike sorties during 2019 and only 28 percent of those resulted in weapons being used. In 2020 that declined to 12 percent 14 percent in 2021. There were always far more air reconnaissance or surveillance sorties to keep track of the enemy. There were nearly as many 11,000 transport sorties Finally, there were 2,637 refueling tanker sorties, to enable the fighters and bombers to stay in the air longer by refueling. These refueling sorties did not decline as much because more aerial refueling was needed as fewer bases were available in Afghanistan.
American airpower had a dramatic and damaging impact on the Taliban. Prisoner interrogations plus eavesdropping on internal or public Internet chatter show declining morale, higher desertion, fewer recruits and demands for higher pay and benefits to keep numbers up. There was also more pressure on Taliban field commanders, by their own gunmen, to keep casualties down. This was done by avoiding actions that attract airstrikes. A common mistake is attacking army or police bases or staying in one place too long while blocking an army or police operation. “Too long” is often an hour or more and after that, if not earlier, the smart bombs arrive. In some situations, where the Afghan forces are carrying out offensive operations, air support will arrive in minutes. This put Taliban commanders in a difficult position as they cannot afford to stay in contact with Afghan forces for too long. Worse, it often meant that Taliban groups were under attack for a while, or at least until they disperse or otherwise evade detection from the air or ground forces. Some Taliban field commanders were better at dealing with this than others and all Taliban combat commanders knew that if they were too successful, they would get put on a priority hit list which often led to an early death. After the Taliban took over in mid-2021 they often mentioned that it was a great relief to no longer worry about aerial surveillance and unexpected airstrikes.
Afghan Air Force airstrikes eventually learned how to use laser and GPS guided bombs. Afghan soldiers and police were big fans of the smart bombs and missiles because it meant that, if they have cornered the enemy, one such smart bomb could cripple or destroy the opposition and enable the Afghan soldiers to advance without having to deal with much (if any) defensive fire from the enemy. Afghan soldiers and police were much bolder when they had air support and that led to more combat operations and more casualties, especially among their opponents. For the Afghans, losses are more palatable if you know the enemy is far worse off. Moreover, the Afghan Air Force use of smart bombs meant troops in the ground could operate more effectively at night. Finally, the air controller on the ground can talk to the pilot in Dari (the common language in Afghanistan) and this is a lot more effective and comfortable than doing it in English. This made Afghan air support preferable for Afghan forces. By 2021 the only reliable Afghan ground controllers were those who worked for the special operations forces, which were less than ten percent of the army strength. The Taliban concentrated their bribes and threats on air force personnel and ground controllers as these specialists became more effective. This diminished the effectiveness of aircraft maintenance and some pilots.
Since the Afghan Air Force began using laser-guided bombs in early 2018 they were using about six a week with the number increasing as more bombs became available. Since 2018 the major limitation on the use of Afghan Air Force support had been the availability of Afghan air controllers, who have proven more difficult to recruit and train than pilots. During the first half of 2021 many of those in the Afghan air force and special operations could see the government and regular army forces and police rapidly declining. There were fewer American troops around to pass this information on to and fewer people back in the Pentagon who would do anything about it.