April 1, 2013  

COIN in the air

Army attack aviation must embrace irregular warfare

Classic COIN theory, as reiterated in the 2006 Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual, teaches us that force must be employed much differently when the battle is for political power, not military supremacy. Violence must be applied carefully and precisely, lest it rouse support among the population for the insurgency. Preserving order is the preferred option; raining destruction upon enemy forces is a last resort.

Yet despite the deliberate application of COIN practices in Iraq and Afghanistan, some in the attack aviation community remain focused on killing insurgents. As one Apache battalion commander in Iraq put it, attack pilots should not be concerned “with winning hearts and minds because that is ground-guy stuff.”

In part, this is because the Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine offers so little guidance for using attack aviation assets. Various policies exacerbate this isolation, such as exempting aviation leaders from the COIN academy other tactical commanders attend upon arriving in theater.

The aviation community is hardly blameless for the disconnect. Its own capstone field manual, FM 1-100, makes only slight mention of COIN operations. It acknowledges the blurring of the traditional boundaries of close, deep and rear operations but barely touches on how missions could or should change in response.

The community’s attack and reconnaissance manual takes a similarly shallow approach to COIN. Instead of discussing how various actions might affect the local population or the ground commander’s plan, it stays focused on defeating an enemy by traditional military means. During low-intensity conflicts, the manual says, attack aviation elements “simply perform the same mission sets described above [in offensive operations] with a different operational environment and certain specific mission planning considerations.” The reader is then encouraged to check FM 3-0, the Army’s operations manual, for further details.

Lacking a solid connection to COIN, many attack aviators in Iraq retained a conventional mindset. As ground commanders struggled to persuade the population that their best hope for economic and physical security lay with government forces, attack aviators commonly employed several tactics that unwittingly helped to foster the very disorder the insurgents sought to create. These included:

å Many attack aviation forces test-fired their weapons at pieces of land that, while essentially empty, were nevertheless close enough to major population centers to rattle local residents.

å Especially in the early years of the insurgency, AH-64 Apaches often flew at low altitudes because their first-generation forward-looking infrared systems could not accurately assess threats from higher altitudes. Similarly, OH-58D Kiowa Warrior aircraft often flew less than 150 feet above the ground while protecting ground elements. Such actions, while occasionally fruitful in detecting enemy activity, more reliably upset the locals. Helicopters can scatter a farmer’s sheep only so many times before he begins to view coalition forces as an annoyance rather than an ally.

å Aircrews often failed to fully take into account the second- and third-order effects of their weapons. For example, AH-64 teams were allowed to engage suspected IEDs with 30mm fire, but with very few exceptions wound up shooting at rocks or other roadside debris, unwittingly feeding a sense of chaos on the streets.

As recently argued in the pages of this journal, as an Army we should not view the past 10 years of war as an aberration. A doctrinal template for both decisive action and low-intensity conflict is necessary to prepare the Army for the nation’s bidding in the years ahead.


Clearly, it is undesirable for attack aviation elements to undermine COIN efforts on the ground. Stated more positively, attack aviation elements must focus on a larger goal than military supremacy. Because ground maneuver commanders work across multiple lines of operations in COIN operations — from political development to strategic communications — attack aviation forces must shape their operations to nest their goals and objectives with the ground maneuver forces they support. But without changes to aviation doctrine, too many pilots will continue to rely on the conventional training and tactics they know. So what needs to change?

First, attack aviation doctrine should make clear that conventional and COIN operations require different considerations. In counterinsurgency ops, aviation forces must always structure their missions — whether reconnaissance, security or attacks — so they separate the enemy from the mass of the population.

Second, attack aviation doctrine must expand beyond the conventional focus on companies and battalions. Even as ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan shifted to decentralized execution by teams — similar to the concept of “mission command” in FM 3-0 — missions employing aircraft in formations above team level are extremely rare. The revised doctrine must reflect the COIN emphasis on decision-making at the team level.

Third, doctrine must acknowledge the materiel and organizational changes demanded by the advent of unmanned aircraft and grapple with their proper roles in COIN operations. The Army has approved the concept of the Full Spectrum Combat Aviation Brigade, which integrates assault, general support, attack, reconnaissance and support elements. Unmanned aircraft are integrated into the reconnaissance squadron, allowing the brigade to train for and employ manned-unmanned teaming, which usually occurs only in theater. The next important step is to establish a doctrinal template that integrates unmanned aircraft into the FSCAB and emphasizes employment considerations across the spectrum of conflict.


Take reconnaissance, a critical task in COIN because the enemy relies on stealth instead of mass. Both helicopters and unmanned aircraft are well-suited for recon missions that do not call for developing relationships with locals, that do not warrant risking ground troops, or in which aerial assets can reduce intrusion upon the population. Examples include reconnaissance of borders, infiltration routes and key infrastructure such as power lines or pipelines.

Other recon missions are particularly suitable for unmanned aircraft, which are generally less detectable, are harder to hit with small arms, often have better sensors, can loiter longer and more slowly, and can provide a real-time feed to operation centers at some fraction of the cost (in terms of risk, dollars and manpower) of rotary wing assets. But when there are troops on the ground, helicopters are generally the better choice. An attack helicopter pilot can bring intuition, a sense of the big picture on a battlefield and a lethality that an unmanned aircraft cannot replicate.

Another broad mission area is security operations, such as convoy security, aerial escort, air assault security and response to troops-in-contact situations. Helicopters can also provide security for ground patrols, where their visible presence deters insurgent forces, lessening the chance of hostile contact and thereby building trust with the local population. Similarly, attack aviation assets can help establish security for key leader engagements, then leave the immediate area during the actual meeting, thereby avoiding an overbearing presence.

A recent study by the Aviation Center of Excellence predicted that unmanned aircraft will perform 50 percent of security operations missions by 2016-25 and 80 percent by 2026-35. Still, unmanned aircraft are arguably better suited for some missions than others, and doctrine must grapple with and reflect these considerations. For instance, a UAS is ideal for a long-distance convoy security mission when the risk of hostile contact is low.

In any case, METT-TC (mission, enemy, terrain, troops, time and civilian considerations) will dictate particular platforms and associated tactics depending on the type of security mission. These considerations should be discussed in a doctrinal template that maneuver commanders can draw upon.

Perhaps the area of doctrine most in need of updating for COIN considerations is attack operations. Aviation doctrine should emphasize proportionality and the overwhelming harm collateral damage can have to the counterinsurgent’s mission. Extreme care should be taken to engage only targets that are clearly insurgents. The most limited means necessary should be employed. Even nonlethal means such as flares can work against the counterinsurgent if the flare falls to the ground and burns a farmer’s crops.

The use of terrain denial fires should be seriously questioned in COIN operations. Since the insurgent’s goal is to instill a feeling of disorder among the population, such fires aid his efforts by disrupting life for neutrals or those who support the host government. It is doubtful that the denial of a small area through the temporary employment of attack aviation weapons is worth the costs.

The arming of unmanned aircraft gives commanders another platform option, but here again the value of destroying a given target must be weighed against overall COIN goals. David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security, among others, argue for tight restrictions on unmanned strikes, citing evidence that such operations in Pakistan kill as many as 50 civilians for every targeted militant. Proponents of increasing the use of unmanned aircraft in COIN operations note that civilian casualty rates in Afghanistan have decreased markedly since 2009, due in part to restrictions on ordnance released from manned aircraft, plus greater integration of unmanned ones with intelligence and maneuver commanders.

The jury is still out, but a technique to consider is maximizing the benefits of both systems with joint employment. Such procedures often occur in theater with the practice of manned-unmanned teaming among rotary wing aircraft, unmanned aircraft and the battlespace owner. For example, an unmanned aircraft may observe an IED emplacement team, then pass information to an attack aviation team for more detailed reconnaissance and target engagement. This practice minimizes collateral damage while freeing the battlespace owner from committing ground forces to support such operations.


Maneuver doctrine should underscore the importance of nesting attack aviation operations with the actions and intent of supported ground commanders. For example, aircrews must know whether a supported unit is clearing the area of insurgents, conducting stability operations to build goodwill or somewhere in between. The failure to consider the psychological impact of attack aviation operations on the civilian populace may undermine the counterinsurgent effort.

A recent after-action review from a reconnaissance squadron operating in Afghanistan offered a good model. Understanding that every supported area of operations is different, the squadron conducted face-to-face and liaison officer operations with the supported ground units as often as possible. They fostered habitual relationships and kept abreast of the enemy situation, civil considerations and military operations within the different supported areas. This integration improved their understanding of possible second-order effects of weapon employment and flight profiles within different areas. For example, low-flying aircraft may comfort one local population and terrify another.

Close integration with the supported ground units also allows an aviation unit to develop relevant measures of success. In COIN, the conventional metrics of hours flown and enemy targets killed have less relevance than, say, the safety of roads or security of villages.

Lastly, doctrine should emphasize that a well-trained, two-aircraft patrol can provide far more than simple close combat attacks for a ground force commander. A thinking, officer-led maneuver force brings a sense of intuition, knowledge of the battlefield and ability to perform reconnaissance, security and attack operations within a single sortie. By more comprehensively addressing the role of attack aviation in COIN warfare, doctrine can help better integrate attack aviation assets with the maneuver units they support.

As the Army shifts to decisive action scenarios at its training centers, the danger exists that the lessons of attack aircraft employment in COIN operations will be lost to the next generation of aviators. Recent National Training Center rotations feature a complex, hybrid threat of a sophisticated enemy force backed by a guerrilla wing intent on establishing political supremacy over a host nation government. In this scenario, and arguably, in future conflicts, Army aviators will be called upon to fight across the spectrum of conflict, sometimes in a single mission. Capturing the lessons from previous COIN operations will equip aviators with the doctrine and tactics appropriate for deliberate attacks and the messier business of political legitimacy, which ultimately makes the difference between winning and losing. AFJ