February 1, 2011  

Reality check

Close-air support detractors are clinging to outdated concepts

Misperceptions about close-air support (CAS) continue to plague the relationship between ground and air forces. CAS is a mission area where myth and reality often coexist.

The article by Lt. Col. Paul Darling and Lt. Justin Lawlor is a striking example of this mix [“Updating close-air support,” AFJ, November]. The authors claim that CAS doctrine and operational practices have not evolved sufficiently to meet today’s needs, especially in Afghanistan. Their assertion is unsupportable, and the mischaracterizations in the article do a disservice to the coalition forces putting their lives on the line every day using these highly evolved procedures. Contrary to points made in the article, joint CAS doctrine has changed dramatically since the Cold War, and especially since the first operations in Afghanistan in 2001. Command and control structures, tactics and systems have all undergone major adaptations that were either misrepresented or missed entirely in the article, leading to flawed prescriptions. We intend to set the record straight.

To suggest that the integration of air, land and sea fires “remains largely unchanged since the Cold War” cannot be supported by facts. Since 2003, under the lead of the Marine Corps, joint CAS doctrine has seen three major revisions, and the Joint Fires Manual has been updated accordingly. Perhaps the most noteworthy has been the introduction of Type I, II and III CAS procedures that allow for varying levels of CAS control. CAS is no longer restricted to direction by a controller who is able to observe the target, the aircraft and the ground forces (Type I). Now, battlefield commanders are able to apply air power’s devastating effects where observation is obscured, such as in adverse terrain or bad weather (Type II), or when only the aircrew can observe the target (Type III), relying on today’s much-improved communications and sensor capabilities. Other significant developments include the use of full-motion-video systems transmitted directly to the ground element for improved situational awareness and updates to Army close-combat attack procedures used by Army attack helicopters. CAS procedures and tools change continuously to meet the needs of the security environment through a time-tested process that has the full participation of all the major air and ground stakeholders.

Airborne employment and systems have also evolved to match the transformation of joint CAS doctrine. Leading up to 2001, it would have been contentious to suggest that bomber assets could operate in a CAS role. Now, for the first time since Operation Arc Light in 1965, “bomber CAS” is commonplace, and with modern technology such as targeting pods and the Joint Direct Attack Munition, it is also very accurate. The performance of bombers has been lauded by countless ground commanders who benefited from the Air Force’s material and training investments to make that capability available. Equally impressive was the introduction of unmanned aircraft into the CAS role — a concept fiercely debated a decade ago but now fully integrated. Even Air Force air refueling procedures over Afghanistan and Iraq have evolved to increase loiter time for CAS aircraft, to the point that response times to emerging firefights are extraordinarily low. We think the investment has paid off in spades in an environment where efficiency is secondary to effectiveness.

While the majority of these aircraft generally operate at higher altitudes, they have the freedom to adjust altitudes and tactics as required to meet mission needs. More importantly, their targeting sensors are now so advanced that altitude is rarely the limitation for threat identification. Still, it is routine for airmen to descend well below 20,000 feet or to adjust a method for weapons release to meet the needs of a situation: Low-angle strafing and nonkinetic show-of-force runs are two examples. With recovery altitudes as low as 75 feet above ground level, airmen executing these types of operations are well inside of the “20,000 foot grid coordinate drops” described by Darling and Lawlor.

Adjusting to the evolving combat environment is nothing new for airmen. It is a fact of life. Aircrews that initially launch to provide preplanned CAS routinely have their mission changed while airborne to provide armed overwatch, route clearance, convoy protection, improvised explosive device detection or immediate CAS to thwart attacks on isolated outposts. It is the inherent flexibility and mission orientation embedded in aviation culture that allows this type of seamless adjustment.

Adapting to mission requirements is exactly what the 2009 Tactical Directive called for. Its purpose was to send a message that civilian casualties were not acceptable, and it applied to ground and air operations alike. The directive reminded ground commanders that they “must weigh the gains of using CAS against the cost of civilian casualties” when they authorize weapons release in their area of operations. Airmen worked tirelessly with ground commanders to mitigate civilian casualties. Enforcing the directive’s more restrictive rules of engagement, redoubling training and employing low collateral damage weapons resulted in about 70 percent fewer civilian casualties from fixed-wing airstrikes in 2009. More significantly, although some 5,000 air weapons have been released through November 2010, barely 5 percent of confirmed International Security Assistance Force-caused civilian casualties resulted from those strikes — a true testament to the way airmen and soldiers responded to the directive.

Coalition airmen also led the effort to improve the distribution of air power through existing command and control structures, such as the introduction of an air component coordination element. These liaison elements provide a direct feedback loop for planning and execution that ensures high-level planning and integration. At lower levels, the air component commander integrates air power through the theater air control system, which integrates air-ground operations from the theater level down to the lowest tactical ground echelons at the company and platoon level. The air support operations center (ASOC) is co-located at ISAF Joint Command in Kabul, operating in direct support to the ground commander. Also, each U.S. division has an aligned air support operations squadron and a division-level tactical air control party (TACP) at division headquarters. Below the division, brigade combat team and maneuver battalion TACPs provide air liaison officers (ALOs) and joint terminal attack controllers (JTACs) to maneuver units. In 2003, this amounted to roughly 18 airmen attached to a brigade. However, as a result of the dispersed operating environment in Afghanistan, battalions now have double the number of JTACs able to be pushed down to individual platoons. In fact, a recent JTAC casualty, Senior Airman Brad Smith, was on patrol with his platoon when he was killed.


A significant Air Force change in CAS doctrine and organization is the planned move of the ASOC from corps down to the division. The Air Force is funding this ASOC transition, which will more than double the number of ASOCs for a total of 13 by fiscal 2015. In addition to its traditional CAS role, these ASOCs will also provide responsive intelligence, airlift, air interdiction and airspace command and control to the commander.

Some misconstrue the air planning process because they do not understand the air tasking order cycle. ALOs and JTACs assist with planned unit requests, which are submitted through ground channels. The ground command and control process decides which missions will receive air support and which will not. Once prioritization is finalized, the joint fires cell funnels the information to the air operations center, where priorities are matched to aircraft. However, ground forces still can interject CAS requests anytime in the process; aircrews can receive new target assignments and missions right up to aircraft launch.

The immediate CAS process is even more responsive. Aircrews are routinely redirected in flight because of emerging situations or troops in contact. In these circumstances, ground commanders request immediate assistance through their JTAC or ALO, and the air support operations center redirects the appropriate aircraft to meet the need based on ground commander priorities. The highest priority goes to troops-in-contact situations. In Afghanistan, a country roughly the size of Texas, the average platoon in contact with the enemy has aircraft overhead within 10 minutes of the call.

The changes made to joint doctrine, employment, structures and systems mean that air power provides ground personnel in Afghanistan with unprecedented responsiveness and overwhelming firepower. Air power allows ground forces to work more closely with the population, with fewer requirements to man defensive positions. Conversely, insurgent groups, intent on not becoming a lucrative target for air power, rarely mass for an attack or press attacks for any meaningful period. Beyond CAS, casualty and medical evacuation, airlift, space assets and airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance provide an immeasurable advantage to coalition forces. Air power has proven to be an essential, increasingly important component of modern counterinsurgency operations.

CAS in a counterinsurgency environment is a complex problem that has evolved significantly in the last 10 years. Effective CAS integration is not accomplished by fixating on platforms. Counter to what Darling and Lawlor suggest, a new aircraft that delivers “an occasional precision guided munition for suppression of enemy air defenses” or employs “minigun pods” and “2.75-inch rockets” designed for “anti-personnel work first” does not represent a more effective solution than proven CAS platforms. Current systems employ a variety of extremely precise munitions with effects that can be tailored to the meet a broad array of combat environments, and are in line with the Tactical Directive’s emphasis on minimizing collateral damage.

Those wishing to improve the CAS process should concentrate on people, not platforms. Recently, the Air Force and Army partnered to create the Joint Fires Observer (JFO) Course to improve expediting fires in a rapidly evolving conflict. Soldiers acting as JFOs and airmen JTACs now work hand in hand to provide CAS. If employed as envisioned in the U.S. Joint Forces Command memorandum of understanding, JFOs serve at the company and platoon level and are organized, trained and equipped to integrate with the theater air control system. The joint Air Force/Army school at Fort Sill, Okla., has trained more than 2,000 JFOs since 2006. Unfortunately, JFO deployment and training has not been consistent across the Army, especially at the company and platoon level. The Center for Army Lessons Learned highlighted this issue in several recent reports.

In any relationship, reciprocity matters. Army commanders need to understand CAS procedures and capabilities, and the Air Force needs to assist in that education. The recently published Army Operating Concept (Training and Doctrine Command Pamphlet 525-3-1) calls for increased levels of joint and interagency participation to broaden both Army and partner understanding and expertise. Lacking knowledge and familiarity, some officers may cling to archaic conceptions of CAS, joint fires and air-ground integration. As CAS continues to evolve, commanders need to understand and integrate those changes on the fly.

With respect to leader development of those who fly CAS sorties and serve with Army units, we agree with the authors that there should be a program to educate airmen about Army operations — and it already exists. The Air Ground Operations School (AGOS) has been doing that job since 1951. There, a talented staff of Army and Air Force officers teach ALOs, JTACs, forward air controllers (airborne), Predator pilots and myriad other Air Force members how the Army works, plans and employs. The AGOS Joint Firepower Course is also open to more than 200 Army personnel a year and awards a 5U additional skill identifier to those who attend.

In conclusion, the “Updating close-air support” article represents a misguided effort to improve CAS in Afghanistan. Sadly, the article perpetuates myths and misperceptions at a time when the services need increased integration and understanding to meet the challenges in Afghanistan and the future. CAS is not the antiquated Central Front relic described in the article. Instead, CAS represents one of our most responsive, innovative areas of force employment. Coalition air forces provide unmatched responsiveness and unprecedented precision fires to provide an asymmetric advantage to coalition forces in counterinsurgency operations. Based on this article, it appears the challenge consists largely of eradicating misconceptions even while CAS moves forward. AFJ

MAJ. AARON W. CLARK is an Air Force officer who served as an air liaison officer with the 4th Infantry Division, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, during exercises at the National Training Center and while deployed in Iraq. LT. COL. J. BRAD REEVES recently returned from a deployment in Afghanistan where he was the lead planner for the Air Component Coordination Element at International Security Assistance Force headquarters. He has more than 1,400 hours in the F-15E. The views expressed here are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Air Force or the Defense Department.