by Sean Naylor
The vastness of the moonless night sky swallowed the turboprop drone of the four blacked-out Combat Talons high above Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. Headed north, the planes crossed into Afghan airspace at about 11 p.m., October 19. Skimming low across the Registan Desert. On board were 199 Rangers with a mission to seize a desert airstrip and thus send a message to the world that the United States was able to put troops on the ground in Afghanistan at will.
Within days, the Pentagon would release a video of the operation— produced by a psychological operations unit—to the media. However, without the essential context that the airfield seizure was supporting a simultaneous mission taking place about 100 miles to the northeast. There, Chinooks and Black Hawks were slicing through the darkness carrying more than a squadron of Delta operators. Then a Ranger company on the night’s main effort would mount a surprise attack on Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar’s residential compound in the Taliban’s hometown of Kandahar. A mission that would be the farthest air assault in history. After five frustrating weeks, this was the night that the U.S. military’s ground war in Afghanistan would begin. JSOC was taking the lead.
Meanwhile at MacDill Air Force Base
At MacDill Air Force Base, Tommy Franks watched as icons representing the MC-130s inched across a map in the Central Command joint operations center. Dell Dailey called with an update from Masirah. “Missions on target in nine minutes.” Despite early indications that both targets were empty, “the freshest reconnaissance imagery revealed the Taliban had installed a security force at Objective Rhino,” Franks would later say. (One planner said the pictures showed “ people,” but not necessarily a “security force.” Other sources did not recall this imagery at all.) Now Franks checked with Dailey. “Any activity on the ground, Dell?” Franks asked. “Negative, sir. No issues, no drama,” Dailey said calmly.
But JSOC was taking no chances. A Predator unmanned aerial vehicle had already destroyed two armored vehicles on the target. Now, as the Rangers on the Talons made last-minute adjustments to their gear, ahead of them fiery orange blossoms punctuated the darkness of the arid plateau. Global Positioning System– guided 2,000-pound bombs dropped by B-2 stealth bombers were finding their marks. Circling AC-130 gunships also softened up the target, pounding it with 105mm cannon fire.
“Initial reports were that eleven enemy had been killed and nine were seen running away,” according to an official history.
The JSOC and the Rangers Lead the Way
The Rangers’ morale was high. The elite infantrymen saw themselves as the tip of the United States’ spear, ready to exact revenge for September 11. They had spent the last ten days sitting on a desert island becoming increasingly frustrated as their leaders worked to keep them focused. Now the time for action was finally at hand. They were just minutes from making the first Ranger combat parachute assault since December 1989’s Panama invasion. On each plane, the nervous soldiers together recited the Ranger Creed, the twelve-sentence articulation of the regiment’s ethos, ending with the defiant chant: “Rangers lead the way!”
Then, after almost four hours in flight, with the aircraft nearing the target and jump-masters barking orders. They stood up and lumbered forward in ungainly fashion. Under the awkward weight of their rucksacks strapped to their thighs, their reserve parachutes on their chests and main chutes on their backs. The Talons were a mere 800 feet above the ground. So low that an influx of dust coated the Rangers as the doors opened for the jump. Outside, the only illumination came from flares the aircraft dropped to ward off the threat of heat-seeking missiles. Fires were already burning on the objective. For this jump the Rangers would use a door on each side of the aircraft.
The Rangers Launch
After finishing their verbaland hand signal commands, the jump-masters told the Rangers to “stand by.” They then turned and readied themselves in the doors. As the muted lights above and beside the doors on the first aircraft turned from red to green. The jump-masters stepped out into the night.
The Masirah airstrip from which the Rangers had taken off had been transformed over the previous fortnight. Basically from a deserted stretch of tarmac to a high-tech hub of military activity. A few days into October, Risky Missions and Empty Targets massive C-5 transport aircraft carrying everything required to build JSOC’s space-age joint operations center began touching down every ten minutes on the runway at the northern end of the forty-mile-long island.
In the searing desert heat and stifling humidity, a tent city began to rise. The JSOC advance party deployed from Bragg October 6. Most of the JOC staff followed a day later. The first of eight C-5s transporting TF Brown landed October 8. To deceive any interested parties about JSOC’s plans, Dailey directed troops to deploy wearing woodland green camouflage and then change into desert uniforms once they were at Masirah.
1st Special Operations Wing arrives
The Rangers landed in chartered airliners. Combat Talons from the 1st Special Operations Wing arrived. Dailey himself flew over Twenty-one and a half years after the debacle that resulted in JSOC’s creation. America’s most elite special operators were back on Masirah. It was from here, hidden from the prying eyes of the news media, that Dell Dailey planned to run JSOC’s war in Afghanistan.
Within a few days, engineers had completed construction of the operations center. Dailey would oversee combat operations from 700 miles away. Consisting of scores of air conditioned tents arrayed in a spoked-wheel design, the JOC was a testament to the wealth and computing might of the world’s one remaining superpower. Inside, the tents were festooned with the communications gear the staff required to stay connected to operators and headquarters around the globe. As with everything else to do with JSOC, little expense was spared. “Within twenty-four hours of our plane touching down, we were watching the BBC on seventy-two-inch plasma flat-screen TVs,” wrote Blaber. Along with about fifty other Delta operators he was among the first to arrive.
However, all those laptops, squawking satellite radios, and video screens offered only the illusion of understanding, according to the Delta ops officer. “There was just one thing missing,” he wrote. “We had no situational awareness of Afghanistan, Al Qaeda or UBL.”
JSOC Renames the Deployment ‘Task Force Sword’
Despite the size of the tented Taj Mahal JSOC was building at Masirah, the command deployed only a fraction of its ground forces. One Ranger battalion (the 3rd); a squadron-plus from Delta (B Squadron, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Chris Sorenson. Plus A Squadron’s second troop, or A2—an assault troop); less than a third of the 160th’s 1st Battalion, plus a few 2nd Battalion Chinooks; and Team 6’s Blue Team. All came with headquarters elements that reported to the JSOC joint operations center. On September 17 JSOC had sent out an “alert force update” with orders to maintain forces ready to conduct 0300 global counter-terrorism missions. So the Aztec, Trident, and Bullet packages remained on alert at their home stations. Along with roughly half the JSOC staff, ready for any other crisis that might rear its head. Those elements that deployed forward acquired a new name: Task Force Sword.
Time on the island was to be fleeting for some of the new arrivals. However, because after steaming more than 6,000 miles in twelve days, the Kitty Hawk neared Oman October 10, ready to receive its complement of about 600 JSOC personnel. These included the Delta and Team 6 tactical elements; 3rd Ranger Battalion’s B Company; all twenty Task Force Brown Black Hawks and Chinooks and their crews; and a small Task Force Sword command and control element. While the helicopters and crews self-deployed to the carrier, most others flew out to the ship on a C-2A Greyhound turboprop aircraft.14 By October 15 the JSOC forces were in place aboard the carrier.
Kitty Hawk Crew Maintain a Five-mile Exclusion Zone
Task Force Sword’s operational security demands, required the Kitty Hawk crew to maintain a five-mile exclusion zone that no other ship was allowed to enter. The sailors began to refer to the ship as the “stealth carrier”. Nor was life for the task force elements aboard the Kitty Hawk without its challenges.
Unlike 1994’s Haiti operation, when the Navy took all the jets off the America and turned the carrier into a floating platform just for JSOC. This time a small number of jets, including eight F/A-18C Hornets remained on the Kitty Hawk. They flew missions over Afghanistan night and day and playing havoc with the “battle rhythm” of the Task Force Sword personnel, who were on a reverse cycle. Working through the night and trying to sleep through the roar of fighter-bombers launching off the deck during the day. Although the Kitty Hawk had sailed to the northern Arabian Sea with only fifteen of the ninety or so planes and helicopters it could hold, those aircraft still jostled for space with Task Force Brown’s Black Hawks and Chinooks.
“We made it work, but it was a lot of work.”
“It was very hard for us and them to juggle twenty-four-hour operations of two totally different types of mission,” said a Brown aviator. “We made it work, but it was a lot of work.”
Award-winning defense journalist SEAN NAYLOR is the only reporter who focused on U.S. special ops forces as an exclusive beat for Army Times and he has consistently broken news on JSOC operations since 9/11. He writes for Foreign Policy and contributes to the New York Times. He has earned the White House Correspondents’ Association’s prestigious Edgar A. Poe Award for his coverage of Operation Anaconda, which led to his New York Times bestselling book about the operation, Not a Good Day to Die.