ABOARD THE USS BATAAN, LHD-5 -- America's generals and admirals are often accused of preparing for the next war by refighting the last one. Whatever the validity of that charge in the past, it certainly isn't the case in Operation Enduring Freedom. This campaign against Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror network and the Taliban despots in Afghanistan is being made up "on the fly" by soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, who are rewriting military textbooks with one hand while they fight this new kind of war with the other.
After a week of firsthand observation for FOX News, I see similarities to all other wars: massive numbers of ships, planes, men, materiel and munitions; days and nights of back-breaking, sweat-drenched work being done by young Americans, thousands of miles from family and friends; countless hours of mind-numbing boredom punctuated by brief moments of stark terror; and loved ones at home, hoping and praying that a father, son or brother -- a mother, daughter or sister -- returns safely and soon. But beyond these common connections to wars past, there is much more that is unique about Operation Enduring Freedom than anything our military has ever done before.
Right from the sneak attack on Sept. 11, this war has been one for the record books. Most U.S. civilians killed in any war: 4,800. Greatest number of aircraft hijacked in a single day: four. Shortest time to build an international alliance to fight back: 26 days. Most journalists killed in a single week of war: eight.
Since Oct. 7, when our counterattack began, records have continued to be set. The longest duration combat sorties in history: 44 straight hours (more than 14,000 miles by the B-2 bombers based at Whitman Air Force Base in Missouri). Longest Close-Air-Support mission in aviation annals: 11 hours (by the U.S. Air Force 332nd Air Expeditionary Group). Highest number of Close Air Support sorties flown in a single day in direct support of non-U.S. forces on the ground: 71 (by Navy, Marine and Air Force F/A-18s, F-14s, F-15s, F-16s and AV-8 Harriers).
Deepest amphibious air assault ever conducted: 441 miles (by the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit). Longest resupply route to support a unit in hostile territory: 950 miles -- roundtrip (for the Marines at Forward Operating Base "Rhino" near Kandahar). Number of countries helping to win a war that do not want to be identified as "U.S. allies": seven.
That last entry in the record books is one reason why this war is so very challenging for those who are fighting it. U.S. commanders on-scene with whom I met this week know that the heads of state in the region don't dare risk being seen as too close to the U.S.-led war effort for fear that we will again abandon the theater once Osama bin Laden has been run to ground. And because Afghanistan is a land-locked country, surrounded by nations where we have no U.S. military bases from which to launch offensive operations, it has made the fight to finish Al Qaeda and the Taliban an extremely complex, long-distance effort.
Over the course of four days this week, I was afforded a unique opportunity to see, firsthand, just how sensitive and difficult this entire operation is. A brief chronology of my trip reflects the extraordinary challenges in this campaign -- and how steadfast and creative young Americans are overcoming them in order to win the first war of the twenty-first century.
The trip began at Fifth Fleet Headquarters in Bahrain, where Vice Admiral Charles Moore Jr. and his staff provide the Naval Component -- the ships, sailors and Marines -- to the U.S. Central Command for this new kind of warfare. From there, it was a four-hour flight aboard a twin-engine Navy C-2 packed with replacement personnel and critically needed equipment to the flight deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) in the Arabian Sea. While there, "The Big Stick" launched dozens of F-14 Tomcats and F-18 Hornets for six- and seven-hour strike missions against targets in Afghanistan.
After linking up with two Navy doctors who were headed for "Rhino," the Marine forward operating base some 450 miles inland, we boarded a 30-year-old CH-46 "Sea Knight" helicopter for the 60-mile trip to the USS Bataan (LHD-5), one of our newest amphibious assault ships. In the brief time we were aboard, the 844-foot warship took on food, fuel, bombs, ammunition and spare parts from the USS Detroit, launched and recovered AV-8 Harriers for strikes against targets in Afghanistan, and coordinated another highly sensitive operation in support of the Marines in Afghanistan.
As darkness began to close in over the Arabian Sea, the Bataan launched its two high-speed Air Cushion Landing Craft (LCACs) for the 45-knot, 30-minute trip to the venerable USS Shreveport (LPD-12). There we loaded tons of weapons, ammunition, water and equipment for the Marines ashore. Once it was totally dark, our "pilot" -- a Navy chief -- donned his night vision goggles and we headed inland from over the horizon, "flying" at almost 50 knots without lights across the surface of the water.
When we arrived at "Red Beach," Navy and Marine Shore Party personnel leapt to the task of unloading all the supplies, personnel and equipment, reloaded it all aboard a well-protected convoy and trucked everything to a small, but well-guarded airfield less than 10 miles inland. Just moments after it all arrived, in a remarkable demonstration of inter-service coordination, a U.S. Air Force C-130 landed, hastily loaded the contents of the trucks into its cargo bay and took off for the Marine base near Kandahar.
By dawn, there was no sign that tons of munitions and cargo, and scores of U.S. military personnel had staged across "Red Beach." No U.S. ships were visible offshore. And at a dirt airstrip in Afghanistan, the Marines were unloading another planeload of vitally needed supplies and personnel. Less than 48 hours after they arrived, the doctors I first met aboard the USS Bataan were treating more than 20 casualties inflicted by an errant U.S. bomb.
Next: Why this war is the way we will fight in the future.