November 1, 2010  

Updating close-air support

New doctrine and aircraft are needed for COIN warfare

When Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal took command of Afghanistan, one of his first orders severely restricted the use of fixed-wing strike assets in support of combat operations. The newly appointed commander of the International Security Assistance Force, Gen. David Petraeus, has been reluctant to change the order.

The order received much criticism, with many complaining that restricting strike assets posed too great a danger to soldiers on the ground. The order, however, reflected an unspoken reality, namely that the doctrine, structure and airframes currently used for close-air support (CAS) are fundamentally flawed and are an expensive and ineffective framework for counterinsurgency (COIN) operations. Our current CAS structure is hampering our mission in Afghanistan and reflects a reversal of lessons learned not only by U.S. forces in Vietnam but also by countries around the world engaged in COIN for the past 40 years.

How did we get to the point where the one area where we have unquestioned dominance is deliberately neutered to the point of irrelevance? It wasn’t easy, but fixing it can be. We can not only dominate the air, but effectively use it to our advantage as long as the military acknowledges our current failures, uses an analysis of our successful past and encourages an effort by all service branches to adjust to a post-Cold War environment. We can fight better, cheaper and more effectively only when we understand where we are and from where we came.

Cold War doctrine

Current CAS doctrine remains largely unchanged since the Cold War and, more specifically, the requirements of fighting Soviet echelons in Central Europe. Air Force CAS doctrine is centered upon the air support operations center (ASOC) doctrinally co-located with an Army corps headquarters. At the ASOC, CAS requests from lower echelons are vetted and prioritized. The ASOC is not subordinate to the corps commander. Rather, this is a liaison element subordinate to the air operations center, itself part of the joint functional component commander (JFACC) located at the combatant command level.

Below the corps level, the tactical air control party exists at the brigade and division with an air liaison officer (ALO) providing advice to the staff in the planning and execution of CAS. The ALO is responsible for obtaining for the ground units requisite interdiction, reconnaissance and airlift assets. Finally, there are normally five enlisted airmen assigned at the Army maneuver battalion level to provide joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) support to the maneuver companies as required. In all but in extremis situations, a JTAC is required to get weapons release authority.

The heart of all of this structure is the assumption that the “detailed integration” will occur at the battalion- or brigade-level military decision making process. Current doctrine assumes that the tactical planners will create a coordinated battlespace, ensure deconfliction of indirect fires and close-air support assets, and create effects at the decisive time and place. This “kill box” concept is trained incessantly at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., education courses and practical exercises at the combat training centers. This model, optimized for a 1980s vision of major combat operations, necessitates an advance planning cycle at the brigade level of four to seven days from receipt of intelligence to the movement off of the line of departure. In current COIN operations, however, the vast majority of intelligence is perishable within 12-24 hours.

The downside to this set-piece model is that it is rarely, if ever, effective and it’s stunningly resource intensive. Because of the difficulty of generating effective planned CAS, immediate and unplanned CAS is paradoxically more likely, with greater risk for all involved.

The end effect of all of this is the nonutilization of fixed-wing close-air support between the Army and the Air Force. While in Afghanistan, my forces often requested and received F-15s, F-16s, B-1Bs and RAF Harriers in support. Never did my forces request weapons release authority. The single- or dual-seat jet fighter at 20,000 feet above ground level is incapable of any level of support short of dropping a bomb on a grid. But inherent in a COIN environment is the absolute necessity to distinguish enemy targets from civilians. The perspectives of the ground command and the aircrew should be mutually reinforcing. But of the fixed-wing aircraft in support, only the B-1B proved capable of communicating back to the ground commander in a symbiotic fashion. The B-1B was also highly valuable in its ability to loiter for hours with the use of the typically conjoined KC-135 aerial refueler. Unfortunately, the B-1B and KC-135 are highly expensive assets to fly and maintain. But single-seat fighters like the F-16 can often be a detriment in support. Unable to relay any information to the ground commander, they will often loiter, awaiting a grid that the ground commander cannot confirm. Short loiter times mean that they often are cleared away — unused and ineffective.

Doctrinal mismatch

The problems with Air Force CAS stem from a doctrinal mismatch with the Army. Starting with Air Force’s “counterland” doctrine, its main objective is “to dominate the surface environment and prevent the opponent from doing the same.” Close-air support and air interdiction are both lumped into this counterland doctrine. It is ironic that in this joint environment the Air Force doctrine encompassing close-air support is not recognized by the Army. The JFACC is both the supported and supporting commander within counterland. Because of these dual roles, interdiction and close-air support appear to have become interchangeable concepts within the Air Force. The only difference from the counterland doctrine perspective is that in CAS the ground element defines the target, while in interdiction the target is defined by the air planning cell. In both cases, the aircraft is merely the delivery mechanism of the ordinance rather than an integral piece of the combined arms team. Interestingly, this limited definition is at odds with the Marine Corps’ CAS doctrine, which focuses on the fixing and destruction of an enemy element by either ground or air forces.

The tactics, techniques and procedures of COIN warfare are simply not supported by the doctrinal application of close-air support today. The infantry platoon is the decisive element in small wars. Constant presence patrols combined with night ambushes provide the bedrock of operations. The JTAC will almost never be found at this level of operations. Company-level operations and higher, due to the longer planning time and their inherent “signature,” allow the Taliban to dissipate rather than stand and fight. A platoon in contact will often be the first and only intelligence piece gathered in spotting the enemy. Any CAS for COIN must be capable of responding with lethal effects to a platoon-level troops-in-contact situation and remain there for the duration of the engagement.

Air support must also be able to deal with the Taliban “break contact” battle drill. Realizing that large groups of armed men provide irresistible targets for JDAMs and large-effect munitions, a Taliban force will break contact by breaking up into innumerable two- or three-man groups and ditching their weapons. Should a fixed-wing fighter at 20,000 feet be able to identify these groups, it is impossible to positively identify weapons. Even if the fighter is able to relay their position, due to distance and terrain involved, it may take hours for the ground maneuver element to close effectively. By then the aircraft will have cleared the battlespace. The lighter-equipped Taliban, with often better knowledge of the area, can simply walk away and prepare for another engagement, unscathed. This scenario has been replicated untold times throughout eastern and southern Afghanistan.

This compressed timeline for CAS can lead to tragically mistaken decisions in employing ordnance. Most of the time, the munitions are dropped on the proper target. But in the absence of ground forces to conduct immediate battle damage assessment, the tactical victory becomes the strategic loss. AK-47s are replaced by shovels and the dead Taliban become murdered farmers. Buried within hours, there is no refutation possible. A successful kinetic engagement becomes a strategic Taliban information operations victory.


McChrystal and Petraeus both identified this problem as a strategic weakness and acted within the limits of their authority. We own the air, yet remain nearly impotent to use this domination effectively. Thus, we require a new aircraft for COIN operations in addition to completely rethinking our doctrinal structure. Such an aircraft requires the following:

• ISR capability. The aircraft must have the ability to communicate directly to the senior ground commander, regardless of rank, on the SINCGARs family of radios. Inability to communicate directly makes the asset nearly worthless. Not only must the technical ability exist, but so must the ability to communicate in the same doctrinal language. Currently, the translator exists at the JTAC level in the battalion. With the platoon being the decisive element, this is unacceptable. The translator must exist in the aircraft itself to be of use or at the platoon level consistently.

• Forward air controller (airborne) (FAC-A). The aircraft must be the coordinator of the airspace. In Vietnam, this was done by two-engine propeller-driven aircraft or twin-engine jet trainers. The Air Force, Marines and Navy procured the OV-10 Bronco, a twin-engine, high-winged turbo-propeller driven aircraft. The JTAC on the ground generally does not have the perspective required to coordinate the battlespace properly. In Vietnam, the Air Force originally attempted to use F-100 Super Sabres and F-4s as FAC aircraft, but their speed and lack of loiter quickly proved them poorly suited to the task. The O-2 Cessna and even older Bird Dogs were quickly placed in this critical role. Later, these aircraft were supplanted by the OV-10. The FAC-A concept still exists, but current doctrine has these roles filled by F-16s and A-10s. In a preplanned kill box, perhaps a single-seat jet engine fighter can accomplish this mission. However, in the longer and more confused COIN environment, they are unsuited to the task, much as their ancestors were in Vietnam.

• Strike. The COIN CAS airframe must be able to deliver ordnance on target accurately. But large effect or high-cost munitions are poorly suited and can be counterproductive. Small-effect munitions, carried in ample quantities, are what are required. These include minigun pods, 2.75-inch rockets (with a mix of flechettes and white phosphorus for marking), and an occasional precision guided munition for suppression of enemy air defenses. These munitions must be designed for anti-personnel work first.

• Availability. There must be enough of them to provide support to multiple engagements simultaneously and remain overhead for several hours without allowing a break in aerial coverage or support.

The single-engine, two-seater (with single-seat variants) Super Tucano is an aircraft being procured now by countries with both a COIN mission and a limited budget. This aircraft has a six-hour endurance with internal fuel. The specific air frame doesn’t matter, however. What does matter is long loiter time over the battlefield, a mix of small-effect and large-effect munitions, dropped from an aircraft slow enough to see a complex, mixed battlefield and capable of communicating with and supporting the ground force commander, not merely plugging in a grid and dropping a bomb.

The Air Force’s Light Attack/Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) program quietly announced last year made specifications closely matching the recommendations. Indeed, a fixed-wing aircraft supporting COIN is only common sense. However, a technological solution unmatched by a doctrine, training and employment solution will be of limited success. Yet the Air Force specifies that “LAAR operations will integrate with traditional Command and Control (C2) concepts and organizations and existing joint Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs). Mission planning will require access to theater air tasking order (ATO) and airspace control order (ACO) dissemination networks.”

The specifications for the LAAR lists ground communication capability. This technological capability alone will again not be of significant use in the absence of a pilot or observer untrained in infantry combat. How the Air Force addresses the ISR communication and integration piece of the LAAR program should not wait until the aircraft is fielded. A recommended solution is for pilots selected to fly these aircraft to attend the Maneuver Basic Officer Leader’s Course at Fort Benning, Ga., or attend the Marine Corps Basic Course at Quantico, Va. A specially developed course taught by the Army or Marines would probably meet this requirement, but the request must first be made. Further, when identified for deployment, pilots should accompany their supported brigade to their training rotations at the combat training centers and develop the requisite relationship with the people they will be talking to later in combat. Our technological disadvantage is secondary to our doctrine and training deficiencies. All must be addressed in unison for our COIN fight in the air to be successful.

A smaller gunship

A smaller gunship must be developed and made available to conventional forces. Miniguns should provide the basis of this aircraft’s armament. The AC-130U is overly complex and too expensive for this role. Special operations may need a 105mm cannon in the air, as organic artillery doesn’t exist in special operations, but most conventional operations do not.

The larger size and payload capability of an AC allows the .50-caliber or 20mm minigun to be an option. Just a single medium-caliber minigun with enough ammunition and hours of loiter using standard forward-looking infrared and a crew of three to six would be an immense improvement over our current air support. Should targets or threats appear requiring heavier ordnance, the FAC-A can use the F-16s or F-15Es to use large-effect munitions. The specific frame is unimportant, merely a frame that can meet the requirements. The AC gunship’s great advantage is its ability to apply unending fires to an area due to its circling flight plan with side-mounted armament. This ability to continually engage and fix a target is critical while friendly ground forces are maneuvering to close with and engage the fixed enemy.

The benefits of this long-term solution are many. The amount of time F-18s, F-15Es and F-16s are flying in ground support roles would be greatly reduced. This would minimize time on their frames with heavy loads. Fewer pilots would be required to sacrifice air-to-air skills while training on interdiction and strike missions. The very expensive desire to cram air to ground into what should be dedicated air to air frames would be minimized.

The loss of rotary-wing assets would also be minimized. The Army has made do as best it can, at great cost to both the taxpayers and the soldiers. As noted by Army Times, Army aviation has lost more than 300 helicopters, 70 to ground fire, and more than 500 soldiers in these crashes since 2001. Rotary-wing aircraft have been doing CAS because it must be done, not because they are the optimal airframe for the job. Fixed-wing CAS can be done and done well. The U.S. has done it. We can do it again.

The cost to the taxpayer would be greatly reduced. The suggested aircraft are an order of magnitude cheaper than what is currently being procured. The savings extend well beyond the initial procurement and into operation and maintenance costs. These aircraft are inherently multi-mission and could easily convert to a domestic use while unarmed for counterdrug, search-and-rescue and border security. Well after the conflict in Afghanistan passes and assuming that no other war is on the horizon, these aircraft would continue to conduct missions important to our country at home. It is critical that the desire to have every technology possible crammed into these aircraft be stifled. This will unnecessarily increase cost, delay procurement and further task-saturate a pilot doing a complex job. It will also limit the number of aircraft procured so that the availability is reduced to the point of minimal gain. That over one year after announcement of the LAAR no decision has been made on the airframe shows that this may already be occurring.

Finally, and most importantly, these would be the best aircraft available for the mission. COIN is not an aberration that we can hope goes away. COIN has been a fixture of U.S. military history, and may well be the predominant form of warfare for the foreseeable future. In the gaps between inevitable interventions, these aircraft can support the country in many ways. But first, we must fight and win the war we are in. In the absence of the Soviet Union, we must diversify both our thinking and our capabilities. We can do so in a manner that maximizes the Air Force’s capabilities, maximizes the effectiveness of our ground combat forces, minimizes costs, minimizes loss in men and materiel and minimizes the negative effects that our current failed doctrine, equipment and execution bring about. The many complexities of COIN are not an excuse to avoid simple solutions. AFJ

Lt. Col Paul Darling is an infantry officer serving with the Alaska Army National Guard. He recently served as the provincial lead mentor with the Afghan National Police in Zabul, Afghanistan. Lt. Justin Lawlor is a Navy Reserve officer attached to U.S. Strategic Command. Their views are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of their parent commands or the Defense Department.