September 1, 2006  

The Air Force in the urban fight

As the world grows ever more urbanized, it is imperative that the Air Force prepare airmen to fight in cities. Cities are complex domains where military operations are constrained by congested terrain and, more significantly, by the danger of collateral damage and the risk to noncombatants. With the increasing urbanization of the world straining city infrastructures, it is quite probable crises will ensue, particularly in less-developed countries. As such, military operations in urban settings will become more likely, including disaster relief efforts, as was experienced in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Additionally, future adversaries likely will use cities for sanctuary as they realize the danger they face in open terrain, where the U.S. military is clearly superior. Although urban terrain hinders all types of forces during conventional military operations, high-density population areas and urban canyons are commonly believed to restrict air and space power’s role in the urban fight. On the contrary, air and space power’s ability to see over the next hill — its inherent capability to offer unobstructed vertical access — is a critical contributor to the joint force.

the vertical dimension

Air Force capabilities in the urban arena mirror those in other arenas and support the joint force to accomplish tactical, operational and strategic objectives. Urban is an environment much like any other. The crucial difference in urban environments is the presence of a large number of noncombatants and their properties. Hence, force application and discrimination of targets is one of many obstacles that air and space power must contend with. But this factor is a restraint on all the joint forces. Ultimately, the ability of the Air Force to overcome target discrimination and collateral damage concerns will be integral to increasing its value in any future joint urban operation.

It is important to note that the Air Force is not just the supporting force for urban operations. Its ability to provide strategic attack against critical urban targets — such as F-117 or B-1 strikes against suspected Saddam Hussein locations — to interdict logistical lines of operations and even its ability to provide presence over unpatrolled urban areas are vitally important.

Beyond its independent capabilities, the Air Force also supports the joint force in the urban fight by providing valuable airspace control; command and control; communications and psychological operations support; close-air support; terminal attack control; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; and combat search and rescue. These are familiar missions for the Air Force. The urban landscape of dense concrete jungles and large numbers of noncombatants are variables that require close attention but of themselves do not render air and space power irrelevant. In fact, the three core strategic capabilities of the Air Force — rapid strike, persistent C4ISR and global mobility — maximize the joint force’s effectiveness in the urban arena. In a sense, the Air Force’s urban fight is analogous to a joint force prizefighter — the Air Force is the right hook able to strike from afar while keeping the enemy at a distance, and is also the fighter’s eyes, giving him the vision to deliver a precise blow at the exact time and place it’s required.

“In the development of air power,” Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell said, “one has to look forward and not backward to figure out what is going to happen.” For urban operations, Mitchell’s admonition to look forward and not backward is prescient as the history of effective air and space power in urban operations has been limited largely by the lack of knowledge and precision. From the Spanish Civil War to Operation Desert Storm, airpower has created mountains of urban rubble. However, with improvements in ISR and weapons accuracy, as well as time-sensitive targeting, air and space power have assumed greater roles in urban operations. Rebecca Grant, a contributing editor to Air Force Magazine, assessed the second battle for Fallujah, Iraq, as a “benchmark for airpower in urban joint force warfare.” She noted: “Fallujah marked the unveiling of an urban-warfare model based on persistent air surveillance, precision air strikes and swift airlift support. Together, these factors took urban operations to a new and higher level.”

In April 2004, coalition forces halted Fallujah ground operations after political pressure from the Iraqi governing council. Despite ceasing active operations on the ground, air and space power continued to provide persistent presence over contested urban areas. Beyond the critical ISR presence, air power assets repeatedly struck targets in Fallujah without putting ground forces at risk. In November 2004, coalition forces again sought to sweep Fallujah of its insurgent activity, and air and space power were involved in the planning from the start. This joint planning resulted in the synergistic use of coalition forces with devastating effect. Persistent ISR and the Global Positioning System (GPS) enabled precision strikes against key targets in September and October 2004.

Surgical blitzkreig

“We put a Hellfire over the wall [of the house] and under the carport with no damage to the house,” an Air Force ISR tactician said. Air and space power provided 161 surveillance sorties and 379 kinetic attacks to help secure the city in eight days and continued support for the remaining mop-up operations. The joint planning effort resulted in a blitzkrieg of coordinated attacks with surgical effect. Former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper noted, “We had a significant number of airplanes in there, working against individual buildings. There are many accounts of our GPS-guided weapons plucking buildings out of the middle of very populated areas.”

Airspace control measures were thoroughly planned from the start using the Marines’ keyhole template as a means to deconflict aircraft, helicopters and ground artillery. In the end, a well-constructed airspace plan allowed freedom of maneuver for air assets to complement ground force actions and made ISR collection and rapid strike integral elements of the urban battle. Strike sorties, normally a 12-1 ratio over ISR sorties, were flown at a ratio of 2-to-1 in Fallujah, highlighting the modern importance of battle space awareness. Additionally, mobility airmen tripled their typical daily lift average to 1.3 million pounds to sustain the intense Fallujah offensive.

Although Fallujah showed the important joint effects that are possible with coordination, it also highlighted continuing challenges that airmen face in discriminating insurgents from the local populace and avoiding unnecessary collateral damage. Better technologies must help minimize these obstacles to make air and space power more relevant in future urban operations. The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is pursuing a multitude of new technologies to improve ISR capabilities in the dense urban environment.

One promising initiative is development of the Gotcha sensor, which has the ability to provide persistent staring ISR over a large area and note changes in the environment, allowing for rapid diagnosis. Although still early in development, this capability, along with many other sensor initiatives, has the potential to be a powerful force multiplier to address the discrimination challenges we face today.

Similarly, space-based GPS location and time determination and satellite reconnaissance capabilities continue to provide a tremendous advantage to the joint force. In the future, the U.S. may deploy space-based moving target indicator radars that can detect movement, much as Joint Surveillance Attack Radar System does today, reducing the need to deploy aircraft and personnel. The Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle already helps in this way. And the Air Force continues to improve the fusion of sensors with existing intelligence to complete the battle space picture that contributes to information superiority, even within a cluttered city.

The Air Force is also pursuing new technologies to improve urban precision-strike capabilities. The 250-pound Small Diameter Bomb (GBU-39) — ready for use by the fourth quarter of fiscal 2006 — is half the size of the GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), the current urban weapon of choice. The GBU-39’s significant reduction in blast effect will decrease collateral damage while achieving intended effects. Another AFRL program under development is the Hardened Surface Target Ordnance Package, which offers the potential of a low collateral damage warhead for use against multistory structures with minimal explosives. Likewise, AFRL’s low-collateral-damage project, perhaps ready in five years, includes a munition built with a carbon fiber composite case that concentrates lethal effects while reducing collateral damage by eliminating steel fragments. AFRL is also developing small loitering unmanned strike platforms that can detect and strike targets with significantly smaller precision munitions.

Future Air Force UAV development will include the Predator B with increased payload (3,000-pound external stores) and the capability to carry the Paveway II guided bomb, JDAM, Hellfire air-to-ground missile and Small Diameter Bomb. In addition to improved optical imaging, the Predator B’s capability to laser designate from above the urban sprawl will be of great benefit.

AFRL is also making significant strides in nonlethal and directed-energy capabilities, many with urban applications that are less likely to harm noncombatants. Numerous directed-energy concepts applicable to urban operations missions are being developed by AFRL, including:

• The Active Denial System, which uses millimeter-wave electromagnetic wave energy to stop, deter and turn back an advancing adversary from greater than small-arms range. Its potential uses include crowd dispersal and protection of critical areas. It is being tested in the continental U.S., awaiting further direction from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the ground version could be ready in the near term, if funded. An airborne version could be tested in the mid-term if prioritized for development.

• The Advanced Tactical Laser (ATL), which is based on a chemical oxygen-iodine laser (COIL) device. The ATL is scheduled to demonstrate precision strike capabilities against selected ground targets in fiscal 2007. Advanced solid-state laser and beam control technologies are being developed that, in the longer term, could address some of the limitations of the COIL device (limited magazine, logistics support requirements) and increase performance and reduce laser system size and weight in a future gunship application. These technologies, once developed, would enable an AC-130-mounted weapon that could provide a surgical-strike capability against urban targets with essentially no collateral damage.

• The Tactical Relay Mirror System (TRMS) will enable energy beams from the ATL or a ground laser source to be precisely directed onto ground targets. Because the optical telescopes in the TRMS employ both wide and narrow field-of-view optics, the TRMS will enable enhanced surveillance as well as precision strike applications — initial full-up testing in the near term.

Better technologies and processes will enable Air Force contributions to be more significant in the joint urban fight. Yet presently, the urban fight is considered principally a ground-centric problem, and air and space capabilities are too often not at the forefront of the minds of ground commanders. Joint planning and training is perhaps the antidote to this problem and would reaffirm the inherent capabilities that each service brings to this fight. Air Warrior I, conducted at the National Training Center (NTC) in Fort Irwin, Calif., trains aircrew, airborne forward air controllers (FACs), tactical air control parties (TACPs), joint terminal attack controllers (JTACs) and brigade combat teams. NTC has built seven urban and cave sites with numerous connecting tunnels over the past 24 months. The Air Force has also constructed a live-fire site in the northern section of the NTC so JTACs and airborne FACs can control aircrews dropping or firing munitions in an urban setting. Annually, more than 1,100 joint Air Warrior I sorties have been flown in support of NTC rotations with more than 300 tons of live and inert munitions delivered. Yet, although the capability to practice the joint urban fight exists, not many Air Warrior I scenarios incorporate urban operations because of a lack of exercise joint fires integration and differing Army exercise priorities.

Air Warrior II at Fort Polk, La., endures similar constraints. The Army directs the scenarios and determines whether to incorporate urban training with the Air Force. Air Warrior II has generally been a fighter venue but now includes other types of aircraft. Many challenges remain to achieve comprehensive urban training, but Air Warrior I and II have at least provided venues to begin joint urban training.

Furthermore, increased emphasis on close-air support training has resulted in better joint integration of urban ops. These efforts have been spearheaded by the Air Force’s 6th Combat Training Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. All these efforts improve Air Force precision-strike capabilities and give more options to the urban joint commander.

If improved training is the first step, improved command and control is the final step to linking the ground warriors with capabilities from above. This step is arguably the most challenging, as beyond-line-of-sight communications are extremely difficult to maintain for ground forces in urban areas. However, Air Force airborne relay capabilities were recently demonstrated during Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment 2006 that are worthy of further joint investigation. These UHF/VHF/cell phone communication relay capabilities could be expanded to overcome the line-of-sight issues that plague ground forces in urban canyons. Assuming the soldier better understands the Air Force capabilities available through improved planning and training, effective communication is the critical link to bring those capabilities to bear.


The increasing urbanization of the world, coupled with the use of urban areas as sanctuary by U.S. enemies, dictates that the Air Force should place more emphasis on urban operations. While urban air, space and information support is consistent with normal Air Force mission sets, joint commanders are perhaps reticent to request these effects because of fratricide and collateral damage concerns. Much of the future fight will be in urban areas, and the Air Force must get more involved so the joint force can fully exploit the vertical dimension. Ten recommendations to help accomplish this are listed below.

In the near term:

• The Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Air, Space and Information Operations, Plans and Requirements (A3/5) should partner with AFRL and publicize current and future urban operations capabilities to involved Air Force parties, such as Air Combat Command (ACC), Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) and others.

• A3/5 should support ACC, AFSOC and other commands to focus and synchronize efforts in urban exercises, experiments, training and lessons learned.

• Air Force elements should educate the joint services on Air Force urban operations capabilities during urban war games, conferences, etc. Air Force planners at relevant echelons must be part of joint planning from the start to integrate air and space capabilities.

• A3/5 should partner with AFRL, ACC and AFSOC to develop a science and technology (S&T) plan that synchronizes the significant work done by AFRL directorates with urban operations implications. The Director of Operational Plans and Joint Matters and ACC should encourage the U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCom) Joint Experimentation Directorate to conduct a joint S&T summit focused on urban operations.

In the mid-term:

• A3/5 should initiate dialogue with the operations directorates at ACC, U.S. Air Forces in Europe, Pacific Air Forces and the Air National Guard to encourage continued emphasis on urban scenarios that involve air and space power in joint training. A3/5 should partner with ACC and AFSOC to encourage more joint requests for Air Force involvement in ongoing joint urban training.

• A3/5 should coordinate with the Army and Marine Corps senior operations staffs and partner with ACC and JFCom to improve urban training venues while opening new training centers (accessible by joint force) with dedicated airspace to routinely exercise direct/indirect fires and ISR coordination.

• The Air Force Command and Control, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Center and Air Staff should continue to encourage a more robust joint crosstalk to better horizontally and vertically integrate the joint command-and-control process, a process that acknowledges the unique challenges inherent in urban terrain.

• A3/5 should initiate discussions with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition (SAF/AQ) to adopt urban operations prioritization and rapid acquisition processes similar to IED development and rapid fielding mechanisms currently in place.

In the far term:

• A3/5 should discuss with the Chief of Warfighting Integration and Chief Information Officer (SAF/XC) the state of joint urban operations modeling and simulation. SAF/XC should encourage sister services to discuss urban operations simulations so as to share capabilities and encourage interoperability.

• A3/5 should discuss with the commander of the Air Force Doctrine Center development of urban operations doctrine complementing Joint Doctrine 3-06, Army Doctrine FM 3-06 and Marine Corps doctrine MCWP 3-35.3.

Education of the joint force is the starting point for shaping and improving urban awareness, but there are also training opportunities that can and should be leveraged in the near term that can have the greatest immediate effect. These efforts, coupled with a commitment to S&T relevant to the urban fight, will help us prepare for a future of increased urban operations.

Air, space and information capabilities, by their very nature, are able to provide access from the vertical dimension to bridge difficult terrain, including the urban jungles. The issues of collateral damage and discrimination will continue to challenge air and ground commanders, but air and space-based ISR and kinetic/nonkinetic solutions offer the potential to maximize the ground forces’ battlefield awareness, staying power, security and lethal effectiveness while minimizing their exposure and vulnerability.

Although future technologies offer glimpses of more relevant urban effects, current air and space capabilities are clearly aiding joint forces, as was most recently demonstrated in Fallujah II. Increased joint urban planning, training, and a robust air-ground command-and-control system will yield an even stronger partnership on future urban battlefields.

Certainly, airmen will fight in the cities, and it is incumbent upon senior leaders, focused staffs and resourceful airmen to provide the Air Force the ability to excel in this uncertain and complex environment.

Lt. Col. Brian Newberry is the chief of safety for the 62nd Airlift Wing and a senior pilot with more than 3,800 hours flying the C-17 and KC-135, including combat time in operations Allied Force and Enduring Freedom. He most recently was chief of joint operations in the Concepts, Strategy and Wargaming Division on the Air Staff, where he helped shape the future role of the Air Force in urban operations.