Afghanistan: the role of "show-of-presence" aircraft in the first democratic elections.
Throughout this build-up to election day, the joint fires element (JFE) of Combined Joint Task Force-76 (CJTF-76) worked closely with task force-level fire support elements (FSEs) as well as multiple Air Force components to create an air support plan that would ensure mission success. When executed, this plan to use fixed-wing air in "shows of presence" would provide maneuver units an overwhelming advantage over the enemy.
The goals of this pre-election air support would be three-fold: provide security to Coalition Forces operating throughout the combined joint operations area (CJOA); instill a sense of instability and insecurity in anti-coalition militia attempting to disrupt election safety and participation; and provide a sense of security and support to local nationals as they prepared to participate in their first-ever democratic voting experience.
Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB). The integration of fixed-wing air support into the elections process began with an analysis of the terrain and historical enemy activity. Terrain analysis was modified from its standard observation, cover and concealment, obstacles, key terrain and avenues of approach (OCOKA) that dealt with slope grade, foliage, etc. Rather, our terrain analysis was quite unconventional and tied into the effects-based goals of providing the greatest security to the greatest number of voters in the highest threat areas.
To that end, the realization that population centers would be the primary focus areas of air support took hold. Terrain analysis, therefore, came in the form of gathering census data and considering where the greatest effects of air coverage would be throughout the country.
This terrain analysis, however, conflicted somewhat with our ongoing enemy analysis started well before our arrival in country. We were very aware of where the enemy operated from, where he considered his safe-havens and where he likely would try to attack and influence the elections. Maneuver FSEs wanted as much air support as possible over these high-threat areas. They surmised that this would enable their friendly elements freedom of maneuver while they patrolled the villages and main supply routes (MSRs) in and around their high-threat regions.
Historically, the anti-Coalition militia has operated in low-population density areas. Yet to create a globally recognized impact on elections, we believed they had no choice but to focus their attention on harassment and intimidation in main population centers (given the increased number of targets that these centers presented).
Incorporating both the supported regional command's operational requirements and overarching election coverage mandates presented a dilemma for the allocation of resources. The bottom line was there simply were not enough assets to provide every task force all the air support requested and still provide adequate cover over the population centers in their areas of operations (AOs). The decision was made to keep aircraft planning under centralized control at the CJTF-76, thus providing theater-wide support where it would best be used to achieve the objectives.
Pre-Election Build Up. To best employ air coverage leading up to the election, the tactic of shows of presence would be established over the main population centers of the country. Shows of presence are non-threatening, lower level aircraft flights that ensure ground personnel are keenly aware of aircraft in the area. Specific guidance during Afghan election flights was for A-10 pilots to fly no lower than 5,000 feet above ground level (AGL) and B-1 pilots to fly no lower than 8,000 feet AGL. This ensured the aircraft would establish both a visual and audible presence without being overbearing on the local populace.
Exactly where these flight patterns would take place was still undecided. A compromise was devised between maneuver unit requests and population analyses as pre-election routes were created. (See the map.) These routes were over distinct regions of the country and incorporated all major population centers in the CJTF-76 AO.
Many of the largest cities in the country are located in the International Security Assistance Force's (ISAF's) AO, and fixed-wing assets where specifically allocated for them to support these areas. Therefore, while British GR-7 Harriers and our F-16s worked in both ISAF and CJTF-76 AOs, there was no integrated planning effort between the two organizations.
Analyzing the areas inside the specified air routes, major cities were selected and designated for at least daily shows of presence. Guidance to pilots would be for their aircraft to be seen and heard from within the city as they flew overhead, maintaining their presence in each area for approximately 10 minutes. This tactic of low-altitude missions could only be possible with a lack of a substantial surface-to-air threat; intelligence provided such an assessment for those flights. Once outside the city, aircraft would climb back to cruising altitude and proceed to their next designated target area.
Air requests were created by CJTF-76 Fires and passed through the battlefield coordination detachment (BCD) and air support operations center (ASOC) on DD Form 1972 Air Support Requests (ASRs). The newly created routes were submitted in early September and provided to the Air Force master air attack plan (MAAP) cell as well as aircraft squadrons so they could become familiar with the desired effects. At the same time, task force FSEs continued to submit their own ASRs, based on their evolving tactical picture and in synchronization with friendly operations.
Bottom Up Revisions. With everyone on board, the show-of-presence flights began approximately three weeks before election day. At the same time, battalion fire support officers (FSOs) and air liaison officers (ALOs) continued to work their elements' fire plans and submit their requests to CJTF-76 Fires.
CJTF-76 Fires then "flexed" air support in combination with the show-of-presence routes throughout the country. This flexibility was key and likely could not have been possible had there not been a well founded relationship between CJTF-76 Fires, the BCD and the ASOC. Communications with the BCD and ASOC about operational plans and their integration into those plans paid enormous dividends that continued in future operations.
Implementing the Election Plan. Feedback on the shows of presence from the ground was almost immediate. The local populace conveyed to civil affairs and provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) the feeling of safety they received from the air presence over their cities and villages.
Freedom of movement for locals to carry out their daily activities without the threat of attack was a great burden lifted from their shoulders. The realization that coalition Forces were in Afghanistan to help protect its citizens, ridding them of terrorists who had tormented them and their way of life for so long, truly had sunk in.
Additionally, with this increased force protection, coalition elements moved freely on their presence patrols with little harassing fire or engagement from the enemy. The immediate results validated the tremendous psychological effects air presence can have. Even without the coalition's employing munitions, the anti-coalition militia respected the quick-strike capabilities and devastation close air support (CAS) can produce when incorporated into a ground maneuver plan. These low-level flights reinforced not only the possibility of coalition air responses to the enemy, but also served as a visual presence and the ultimate deterrent.
To capitalize on the success of this pre-election support, a significant increase in fixed-wing air coverage was requested as the election drew near. Our intelligence reports and enemy analyses pointed toward the likelihood of increased enemy activity on the days immediately preceding and directly following election day.
With help from the air combat control element (ACCE) and BCD, requests for additional air strike assets were sent to and approved by the combined air operations center (CAOC). The tactical nature of exact missions, flight hours and locations will not be discussed in this forum; however, the average daily CAS flight hours nearly doubled for what we deemed an "election surge."
These additional flight hours came from extended A-10 sorties, additional B-1 sorties and the added presence of GR-7s as well as F-16s in the ISAF AO. Based on the high enemy presence in the Jalalabad-Asadabad and Khowst regions along the Pakistani border, A-10s were primarily employed along Routes Yankees and Cubs. With their high-fuel capacities and ability to provide extended time on station, B-1B platforms were employed mostly throughout the expansive south and west of the country. The GR-7s remained primarily in the southern regions of the country and provided significant support along Routes Padres, Dodgers and Marlins. With air assets continually supporting these varied regions, ground elements were never far from the nearest aircraft.
Election Success. The increase in air presence allowed CJTF-76 to simultaneously support multiple areas throughout the theater of war. Due to the considerable size of the country and the significant dispersion of friendly forces throughout, this was a necessity. The country is approximately the size of the state of Texas and contains more than 3,000 separate polling sites. Maneuver units were stretched remarkably thin as they patrolled their AOs and neutralized the anti-Coalition militia threat.
However, with CAS integrated into task force maneuver planning and the continuous presence of air operating throughout the AO, response to all enemy activity was swift and decisive.
The actions and effects of ground forces leading to and during election day on 9 October 2004 were nothing short of exemplary. Battling a decentralized, innovative and determined enemy, forward planning and preemptive striking stopped many enemy attacks. Coupled with the overwhelming effects of increased air support throughout the theater, the enemy threat was greatly neutralized.
Yet on the occasions when the enemy was able to engage, CAS was strategically positioned and tactically flexible to provide near-immediate support. In one instance, air was positioned in such an opportune location and was overhead eight minutes after the initial call for support. And while the longest recorded CAS response time to any reported enemy activity during the six-day "air surge" was 39 minutes from air request to on-station time, the average response time during the two-week period preceding election day was 28 minutes. That translates to a joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) or ground commander first picking up the radio and requesting air and having a fast mover over his head in less than half an hour.
With the relatively small amount of aircraft in theater and the significant amount of enemy engagements that took place, this was amazing.
While Soldiers, Sailors and Marines took the fight to the enemy on the ground, CAS was only a radio call away and ominously circled the skies over a desperate enemy. Backed by the most powerful Air Force in the world, a potential for catastrophic election-related violence turned into a great step forward for a new democratic nation.
By Captain Joseph A. Katz
Captain Joseph A. Katz is a Combined and Joint Task Force-76 (CJTF-76) Fire Support Officer in Bagram, Afghanistan, serving in Operation Enduring Freedom. In his previous assignment, he was as a member of the 25th Infantry Division (Light) Fire Support Element (FSE) in Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. He was a Platoon Leader and Executive Officer in C Battery, 1st Battalion, 37th Field Artillery (C/1-37 FA), part of the 2d Infantry Division Stryker Brigade at Fort Lewis, Washington. He is a 2003 graduate of the Infantry Captain's Career Course, Fort Benning, Georgia, and the Ranger School, also at Fort Benning.