President Biden and his Administration’s spokesmen state that the US will rely on an “over-the-horizon” (OTH) capability to identify threats and
- Landlocked Afghanistan borders
- Access via overflight of Iran and China is not viable, nor is access through Turkmenistan likely.
- Northern access through or overflight of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is possible.
- Pakistan access is politically episodic; overflight is required for access from the Persian Gulf.
- Aircraft carriers based in the Persian Gulf have fighters with precision strike capability.
- Fighters, bombers, tankers, strategic airlift, RQ-9s, and U-2s are or can be based in the UAE.
- Fighters, bombers, tankers, strategic airlift, and RQ-9s are or can be based in Qatar.
- Persian Gulf–based Tomahawk cruise missiles, range ~ 1,000+ NMs, fly at ~ 550 MPH.
- Airlift/resupply and tanker aircraft are or can be based in Turkey and Romania.
- Satellites and U-2s can cover all of Afghanistan and offer near-real-time intelligence.
- Space-based sensors can cover all of Afghanistan and offer near-real-time intelligence.
- Gulf-based MQ-9 UAS can loiter over/recon/strike any part of Afghanistan for 8-plus hours.
- Time from UAE to northern/central Afghanistan: 5 hours/4 hours; Qatar: 6 hours/5 hours.
- Sea-based fighters: launch to arrive over Northern Afghanistan ~ 2 hours; Central ~1.5 hours.
- Qatar/UAE fighters: launch to arrive over Northern Afghanistan ~ 3 hours; Central ~2.5 hours.
- Tomahawk missiles: launch to impact Northern Afghanistan ~ 1.5 hours; Central ~ 1 hour.
- Combat radius of bombers/Strategic airlift platforms allows complete coverage of Afghanistan.
- Timing same as fighters; enable strikes and resupply in support of SOF/opposition forces.
- Pakistan can deny Persian Gulf–based aircraft access to/return from Afghanistan at any time.
- The closest U.S. air base is 1,500-plus miles from an Uzbekistan or Tajikistan entry.
- Overflight of Kazakhstan may be required for overflight of Uzbekistan or Tajikistan.
- Overflight approval and tolerance for missions against the Taliban may be hard to secure.
- Air Force and Navy fighters require Air Force tanker support to strike targets in or loiter over Afghanistan.
- Very limited ability to recover downed aircrew elevates hostage potential and political risk.
- Launch and transient times for all weapons systems including the MQ-9 hinder strike success.
- Optical U-2/satellite sensors and MQ-9 employment are hampered by regular cloud cover.
Bottom Line: Satellites and U-2s deliver viable ISR capability, and unmanned MQ-9s are the most viable strike platform. All OTH options are limited by access, transient times, and/or weather.