June 1, 2013  

Fixing aviation intel

The Army must commit to proper training and manning

There are several reasons the Army might place particular emphasis on providing useful battlefield intelligence to its aviators.

Helicopters cost a lot to replace, with prices ranging from $9.5 million for a UH-60L Black Hawk to $28 million for an AH-64D Apache. Moving beyond mere finances, the loss of just one helicopter and its crew and passengers can have drastic effects on a tactical situation and the units involved. Most significantly, the downing of Army aircraft can have strategic-level effects; for example, the early-2007 rash of seven shootdowns undermined public support for the Iraq Surge.

Despite all this — and despite Army aviators’ record over the past decade of flying far more combat hours, taking more hits, and losing far more aircraft to enemy action than any other service — the Army has made no serious institutional effort to improve intelligence support to its aviators.

Certainly, individual aviators, units and intelligence professionals have made impressive efforts to improve the situation, and many have adjusted tactics, techniques and technology. But the Army, as an institution, has not. Among the symptoms: S-2 (intelligence) sections in the Combat Aviation Brigades (CAB) and their subordinate battalions lack formal aviation-related intelligence training, qualified and trained dual-track aviation and intelligence professionals, and the manning to provide enough high-quality intelligence support.

It is past time to implement several changes that would substantially reduce the probability of costly and devastating aviation losses from enemy activity.

No Training

Of the Army’s numerous formal military intelligence courses and the 103 supplementary Foundry courses, not one teaches the basics of aviation intelligence.

Instead, intelligence soldiers assigned to aviation S-2 sections must learn on the job. It is not an easy task. To predict and analyze threats to Army aviation, a good S-2 must understand the different airframes, the unique aspects of aviation missions, the various tactics used, and types of aircraft survivability equipment. Few do, even after a tour’s worth of on-the-job training.

The only course even somewhat related to aviation intelligence is the 5½ week tactical operations course for aviation warrant officers, whose first half covers threats, weapons, aircraft survivability and tactics. Since 2010, a few aviation and military intelligence officers (enlisted are not authorized) have been allowed to attend this TACOPS course in an attempt to help bridge the gap in training. But this initiative is informal, limited (about 20 officers in two years) and generally not known to CAB staffs and their S-2 sections.

This situation seems to reflect a belief that there is no difference between all-source intelligence in a ground unit and that in an aviation unit. Ask an Army intelligence professional about it, and you will likely hear this refrain: “All-source is all-source is all-source.”

The Army is the only service that holds this view. In the Air Force, perhaps unsurprisingly, initial intelligence training (four to six months) is focused on aviation intelligence, and airmen take an additional course (two to four weeks) on the specific airframe they will be supporting. Meanwhile, the Navy’s Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center offers several specialized courses for intelligence officers bound for air wings.

Perhaps most noteworthy, given the analog between mission and roles, is the Marine Corps. All new intelligence personnel receive training in aviation intelligence. Those destined for aviation intelligence positions also take a 12-week (officers) or four-week (enlisted) course that certify them as experts in the field.

Army medical evacuation aircrews who have worked for both the Army and the Marines over the past decade are in a unique position to judge the effectiveness of formal aviation intelligence training. Every such medevac pilot we interviewed called the Marines’ aviation intelligence support vastly superior, particularly in understanding aviation operations, the threat and the effects of aircraft survivability equipment.

Members of Army aviation intelligence sections, by contrast, often struggle to produce analysis in a timely, efficient and effective manner. This can undermine their credibility with the commander, staff and aircrews; worse, it can contribute to the loss of aircraft and personnel.

Given the known risk and cost of error, the current institutional method of hoping that these sections “figure it out” is reckless.

Oh, They Exist?

The notion that “all-source” intelligence techniques apply universally is not quite a universally held precept. The Army’s personnel management structure contains a designator, 15C35, for aviators who have also passed the Military Intelligence Officer Tactician Course and the Military Intelligence Captain Career Course.

The existence of a designator for aviation officers who also have detailed and extensive intelligence training suggests a remedy to many of the Army aviation intelligence problems. Such an officer might be placed in charge of intelligence sections to communicate the particular needs of aviation operations and provide invaluable perspective to the intelligence specialists under them. And indeed, this is supposed to be the case. Every Combat Aviation Brigade’s S-2 position, as well as the S-2s of the brigade’s four operational battalions, is supposed to be filled by a 15C35.

In reality, few of these 100 billets (five apiece for the Army’s 20 CABs) are actually filled by a 15C35. For one thing, they are rare; for another, they are generally snapped up by the Aerial Exploitation Battalions (AEBs) that operate the fixed-wing, special-equipment aircraft that gather tactical and strategic intelligence. As a result, most of the CAB S-2 jobs are filled with either aviation officers or intelligence officers, not the hybrids with the training to do the job right.

Essentially, the Army formally acknowledges the importance of intelligence-trained aviators but has not done much about it. Perhaps this is because the Aviation Branch has not sent enough aviators to the aviation all-source intelligence track; perhaps the Military Intelligence Branch has not offered enough classroom seats to aviators, but even a casual review suggests that the 15C35 effort is likely stuck in a seam in the bureaucratic boundaries among Aviation Branch, Military Intelligence Branch, Training and Doctrine Command, and Human Resources Command.

Shrinking S-2s

The manning problems in aviation intelligence sections don’t stop with the S-2s themselves.

Under the 2011 modified tables of organization and equipment, each CAB S-2 was supposed to have 14 personnel. The 2012 and 2013 tables reduced this by three. When asked about this reduction, the office of the Department of the Army G-2 told one of the authors of this paper that the Military Intelligence Branch provides recommendations about the composition of Aviation S-2 sections, but ultimately, the Aviation Branch and TRADOC “make a decision on the size of each staff section taking into account the overall size of the organization and what is affordable and what level of risk they are willing to assume.” It appears, then, that the Aviation Branch used these three Intelligence billets to pay for additions in other staff sections within the CABs. Overall manning in the CAB increased from 128 personnel in 2011 to 144 in 2013.

The last decade has revealed a prevalent threat to aviation assets in operations, the high cost of aviation losses, inadequate formal training for aviation S-2 sections, and a dearth of qualified 15C35 personnel in the CABs. The decision to shrink the CAB and battalion S-2 sections, therefore, exacerbates an already dangerous problem.

Time To Fix This

We suggest a solution in three parts.

The most urgent step should be to create a formal Army aviation intelligence course. Taking the TACOPS course and the Marine Corps aviation courses as guides, the Aviation and Military Intelligence branches should devise a course that covers at least these topics: Army airframes and capabilities; aviation mission sets (attack, recon, lift and heavy lift) and planning; aviation tactics and targeting; enemy weapons, air defenses and hybrid threats; aircraft survivability and reviews of aviation combat losses; electronic warfare; intelligence collection planning and preparation of the battlefield from an aviation perspective; intelligence support for downed personnel and their recovery; and aircrew briefing techniques.

Considering the portions of the TACOPS course relevant to aviation intelligence is three weeks, this course should be at least four weeks and would be appropriate for a TRADOC environment course. Those who complete it should have an additional skill identifier that would be attached to all aviation S-2 section positions and tracked as a personnel measure in Unit Status Reports. This will ensure units are sending their personnel to this course and will allow Army Human Resources Command to find trained individuals as needed.

Until this comprehensive course is ready, near-term improvements could be realized by adding slots to TACOPS course, securing slots in the Marine courses for Army Aviation intelligence personnel, and seeking out slots in the Air Force and Navy Aviation intelligence courses.

In an informal communication with one of the authors of this paper, the director of the Marine aviation intelligence officers’ course said he would be willing to send mobile training teams to help Army aviation S-2 sections prepare for deployment. Perhaps TACOPS instructors could do the same. Funds might be drawn from the Army Foundry intelligence training program.

The second step is relatively straightforward: The Army should restore the three military intelligence personnel deleted from CAB S-2 sections. This will, of course, require some other part of the CAB to give up billets, but since the 2012 modified table of organization and equipment increased the total number of CAB personnel, this should be less difficult than it may otherwise be.

Third, and last, the Army should fill its CAB and aviation battalion S-2 billets with 15C35s, the aviation all-source intelligence officers. To start, it should be giving these slots a higher priority than the Aerial Exploitation Battalion positions.

It should then look at whether the AEB jobs — which focus on gathering intelligence in fixed-wing aircraft for the Army’s broader requirements — actually need to be filled by aviation all-source intelligence officers. If not, it would allow training 15C35s to focus on aviation all-source intelligence, getting “need to have” training to future S-2s instead of “nice to have” training to AEB aviators.

The Army should also look at changing regulations to allow 15C35s to be recruited from the military intelligence community. If a military intelligence officer has the interest, a few years of MI experience, and can meet all the physical requirements, this individual should be sent to the Initial Entry Rotary Wing Course and the Aviation Officer Basic Course. This would add the benefit of having an officer who likes and wants to do intelligence work.


In an era of shrinking budgets, an inevitable argument against these types of training and manning changes will be a perceived lack of funds for such initiatives. Certainly, creating an aviation intelligence course and properly training 15C35 officers will incur new costs for personnel, temporary duty pay and instructor pay. But the case can be made quite easily that the expenses are quite likely to pay for themselves by improving the operational effectiveness of existing aircraft and reducing future shootdowns.

Indeed, the estimated cost of running a TRADOC aviation intelligence course is well below that of losing even a single airframe in combat. Assuming the course would be four weeks long, require at least two instructors in addition to the TACOPS instructors, and would take place at an Army post with lodging and classrooms available, we can roughly estimate that it would cost $1.4 million to train all 700 CAB intelligence personnel. In subsequent years, the estimated cost would be about $550,000 to train 200 students.

Despite lacking formal training, qualified leadership (15C35s) and adequate manning, the personnel assigned to Army aviation intelligence sections have performed superbly in the past decade of combat. However, they have often had to do so in spite of, and not due to, the institutional Army’s support to their efforts. It’s impossible to say exactly how much our recommended steps would improve the safety and effectiveness of Army aircraft in combat, but common sense and experience indicate that it would certainly increase markedly from the status quo. AFJ

Maj. Corby Koehler is the ACE Chief for the Army’s 34th Infantry Division. He has served as a Deputy G-2 for the 34th, S-2 of the 34th Combat Aviation Brigade and S-2 of the 2-147th Assault Helicopter Battalion in Iraq. He has experience in the attack, scout and lift aviation mission sets. He is a qualified 15C35 and a qualified UH-60 Black Hawk instructor pilot. Christopher Tatarka, serves as a supervisory intelligence analyst in the U.S. intelligence community. A retired Army lieutenant colonel with more than 20 years of active service, he served as the G-2 for the 34th Infantry Division in Iraq, as a professor at the U.S. Military Academy, and in a variety of intelligence and infantry assignments.