By Dr. Greg Bereiter, Naval History and Heritage Command Historian
On Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers took control of four American airliners and perpetrated the worst attack on U.S. soil since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, killing nearly 3,000 people and injuring thousands more. U.S. intelligence agencies quickly linked the horrific attack to the al-Qaeda terrorist organization headed by Osama bin Laden, which was using territory in Afghanistan as its base of operations. Less than a month later, the men and women of the U.S. Navy were engaged in combat operations in the skies over Afghanistan and the waters of the Arabian Sea.
Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), launched on Oct. 7, 2001, sought to remove the Taliban regime from power and destroy al-Qaeda’s infrastructure in Afghanistan. A joint and multinational military campaign, OEF represented the opening salvo of a Global War on Terrorism that would extend well into the next decade.
The Navy was at the forefront of OEF. Naval forces performed a vast array of military operations, including integrated strike operations, amphibious operations, and maritime interception operations. The Navy also provided critical support for combat operations on the ground, which shifted to counterinsurgency warfare following the overthrow of the Taliban regime.
Aircraft carriers and their embarked air wings executed long-range strike operations, demonstrating the importance of sea-based air power in a remote region with limited access to land bases. Some of these missions entailed distances to target of over 600 nautical miles, with an average sortie length of more than four and a half hours. Carrier-based F-14s and F/A-18s carrying precision munitions flew around 75% of all strike missions during OEF’s intense opening phases, pummeling Taliban airfields, air defense positions, and command and control nodes as well as al-Qaeda training bases. These strike aircraft were supported by Navy EA-6Bs, which jammed Taliban radar and communications transmissions. Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from destroyers, cruisers, and submarines in the Arabian Sea also destroyed many fixed high-value targets inside Afghanistan. USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63), which deployed without the bulk of her air wing, served as an afloat forward staging base for joint special operations forces.
Amphibious Ready Groups (ARGs) and their embarked Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) surged additional naval power and performed numerous expeditionary missions. Task Force 58 – formed from elements of the Peleliu and Bataan ARGs and 15th and 26th MEUs – conducted the longest range amphibious assault in U.S. naval history on Nov. 25, 2001, deploying more 450 miles inland to capture a desert airfield southwest of Kandahar as a forward operating base (FOB). Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 133 maintained runways at FOB Rhino and at Kandahar airfield, which the Marines secured several weeks later. ARGs and MEUs also jointly conducted crisis response, humanitarian relief, and limited contingency operations, and regularly supported special operations forces. Furthermore, ARGs and MEUs took part in multinational training exercises designed to enhance regional stability and cooperation between the U.S. and its allies. ARG-MEU operations during OEF provided flexible power projection capabilities and underscored the enduring close relationship between the Navy and Marine Corps.
The Navy also conducted wide-ranging maritime interception operations (MIO). These operations initially focused on leadership interdiction in the northern Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman, in order to prevent the seaborne escape of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders from southern Pakistan. Yet they quickly expanded in scope to include the Horn of Africa maritime area, as part of a broader effort to disrupt or defeat other international terrorist groups and to deter states and non-state actors from supporting terrorism. MIO forces also worked in the Arabian Gulf to contain the illegal smuggling of oil from Iraqi ports, continuing enforcement of the maritime embargo enacted in 1990. MIO operations were carried out primarily by Navy surface combatants and patrol aircraft, as well as by surface combatants of coalition partners like Great Britain, France, Canada, Australia, Germany, and Italy.
As OEF stretched into subsequent years, the men and women of the U.S. Navy performed countless other roles both at sea and on land. They served, for instance, as “individual augmentees,” as members of provincial reconstruction teams, as maritime security forces, and as combat logistics forces. Confronting an increasingly violent insurgency in Afghanistan as well as persistent security challenges within and around the Arabian Sea, forward deployed Sailors endeavored to protect U.S. interests and meet the wide-ranging commitments of the Global War on Terrorism.