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Monday, 8 October, 2001, 18:45 GMT 19:45 UK
Enduring Freedom - the first strikes
These F-14 fighter jets will be vital in the allied mission
These F-14 fighters will be vital in the allied mission
David Shukman

In the early light at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire this morning, another wave of British planes headed for the Middle East.

Climbing into the grey autumn skies were transport aircraft and VC-10 tankers to be used for airborne refuelling.

It was not a particularly striking sight but it was a significant one - because these are just the aircraft you need to fight a long campaign. And that's what this will be.

Last night was just the first of many blows in the initial phase of a sustained and potentially dangerous war.

Explosions

Pentagon commanders always try at the outset of any campaign to seize control of the skies. They want to make things as safe as possible for what may come later.

That is why Sunday night's targets were mostly linked to the Taleban's air defences. The first reports we heard were of explosions at three of the biggest cities - Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad - where Taleban planes may be operating from.

Overnight, airports at towns in the north and west were reported hit - Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz. Here it seems the Pentagon is trying to clear the way for future operations.

But at the same time terrorist training camps were struck as well.

Boyce: 'We are in this for the long haul'
Boyce: 'We are in this for the long haul'
The first full details came at a news conference at the Ministry of Defence, where we learned that the full extent of the attack covered 30 targets. According to the Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, seven of those were in Kabul or other cities, the other 23 in remote locations.

Long haul

The targets included air defence sites, airports and training camps run by the Al-Qaeda terrorist organisation.

Similar targets, we were told, would be struck again in coming days. Only then would the next phases unfold in this lengthy operation.

As the Chief of Defence Staff Admiral Sir Michael Boyce described it: "We are in this for a long haul."

One of the first blows was struck by a British submarine. Although the US has more than enough firepower on its own, getting Britain to contribute early on sends a powerful signal that this is an international campaign, not just an American one.

The submarine's cruise missiles were fired at a terrorist training camp. Every shot fired in this first wave was from long-range.

B2 Stealth bombers, the most sophisticated in the US air force, flew direct from their base in Missouri in America.

B1-B bombers flew from the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia carrying satellite guided JDAM bombs which may have used against underground targets.

And giant B52s fired cruise missiles, the mainstay of last night's attacks.

Cruise missiles

As it turns out, cruise missiles played by far the biggest role on the first night of the attacks. They have become the Pentagon's weapon of choice.

These weapons have a range of up to 1,000 miles which means there is no risk to aircrew.

Carrying warheads that weigh 1,000lbs to deliver a massive blast, they are guided by satellite, which usually means fair degree of accuracy. But not always.

During the Gulf War in Baghdad ten years ago, we saw how cruise missiles steered themselves to their targets and sometimes went astray.

By the time Britain bought its first cruise missiles three years ago the Pentagon had tried to improve their accuracy.

In this campaign, hitting the right targets could destroy the terrorist network. But hitting the wrong ones could destroy the coalition.

See also:

07 Oct 01 | Americas
Guide to military strength
24 Sep 01 | Americas
US faces new kind of war
08 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Backlash fear for Westerners abroad
18 Sep 01 | South Asia
The Taleban military machine
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