Printer Friendly

Asymmetric air support.

THE INITIAL PHASES of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom involved extensive close air support (CAS). Just as the battlefield has evolved into a more asymmetrical composition, so have ground-force requests for support. Most CAS requests no longer call for putting ordnance on target.

Air component requirements for providing tactical air support in Iraq and Afghanistan have evolved outside the traditional roles of CAS and reconnaissance, creating the need to revise air support that the air component doctrinally provides to ground forces. (1) This article describes asymmetric air support (AAS), a new area of support not mentioned in current doctrine, and proposes the development of new doctrine. It also addresses issues that must be resolved to give all parties involved a better understanding of the support requested of the air component, and questions those decades-old methods of operation that have not evolved with technology. It is designed to stimulate discussion about better utilizing the limited assets available without wearing out our current aircraft inventory, the article does so by examining current doctrine, identifying common terminology, introducing some nontraditional ideas, and addressing the issue of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

The land component conducts full-spectrum operations, and its joint tactical air strike requests (JTAR) reflect these operations. (2) Full-spectrum operations consist of four elements: offensive operations, defensive operations, stability operations, and civil support operations. (3) Based on the land component's wide range of operations, the air component receives CAS requests ranging from a movement-to-contact operation to armed overwatch for religious celebrations.

The Status Quo

The land component is acutely aware that under current doctrine, it is apportioned/allocated CAS assets based only on CAS requirements. (4) The word close in CAS does not imply a specific distance; rather, it is situational. The requirement for detailed integration due to proximity, fires, or movement is the determining factor, but this is becoming less and less relevant to what the ground component actually needs in order to serve as a stabilizing force. The need for CAS to deliver ordnance in close proximity to friendly forces is becoming a smaller factor in the current environments of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Over the last five years, fighter/bomber aircraft of the coalition air forces have evolved to become more than just strafing/bombing platforms. Granted, their targeting pods were designed to employ precision-guided munitions and reduce collateral damage, but the inherent capabilities of the pods have expanded their role into widely used and effective reconnaissance/surveillance. Unfortunately, the Air Force lacks the intelligence infrastructure to exploit the information garnered from the pods and other sources. The Air Force should have intelligence capability integral to the squadron, as did an RF-4 squadron, if it is going to fully exploit the intelligence gained from full-motion video (FMV) footage. (5)

In today's operations, the land component has a great need for reconnaissance platforms; some people have even called it a "limitless hunger." (6) This need far exceeds the assets available to cover requirements, some of which are for armed reconnaissance to enable immediate strikes against the enemy during time-critical operations (e.g., indirect-fire setups and emplacement of improvised explosive devices). These requests may not involve close proximity to friendly forces or require detailed integration since no operations may be occurring at the proposed reconnaissance location. Even so, none of the current fighters in the Air Force's inventory were designed as FMV reconnaissance platforms. The F -16C+ (Block 30), a reconnaissance-capable aircraft, replaced the RF-4 as the Air Force's primary armed-reconnaissance platform, but its capabilities lack the real-time feed desired by the land component, which wants the real-time, FMV feed that it gets from aircraft equipped with the Remote Operations Video Enhanced Receiver (ROVER). Because the land component can't fulfill reconnaissance-support requirements from organic assets or from surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, it now uses the JTAR process to request armed reconnaissance from traditional CAS assets. Although referred to as CAS to keep within doctrinal limitations, this is not CAS as the air component community would typically define it. Unfortunately, fighter units assigned to the two theaters of operations must provide CAS to the land component. This is where the friction starts.

Terms and Terminology

Terms integral to traditional CAS, such as forward line of troops and fire support coordination line, often do not exist when aircraft perform AAS since the land component has "control" of the entire area of operations. Today's CAS environment in Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom uses many new terms, such as armed overwatch/ top cover, opportune surveillance; air presence; air effects; nontraditional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (NTISR, also known as nonstandard ISR); aerial reconnaissance; counter-improvised explosive devices (C-IED); countermortar, counterrocket, counter-indirect fares (C-IDF); countersmuggling; counterinsurgency; positive identification; FMV, precision-guided munitions; low collateral damage estimate weapons; show of presence; show of force; and ROVER. Joint Publication (JP) 3-09.3, Joint Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Close Air Support (CAS), 3 September 2003, addresses none of these. Yet, all of these terms and abbreviations are found within the JTARs submitted for support in current coalition operations. The air component's tasks are anything but traditional CAS. Depending on who is talking, not only do these tasks have different meanings/requirements but also the ability to assess their results has variations. Until the services agree upon which mission types should be supported by strike assets, there will be a battle over requirements, and thus force posture, of strike assets. This is the first area that we need to resolve during the doctrine-revision process.

Break the Mold

Under current doctrine, no CAS fighter/ bomber asset has a mission set/role for NTISR. Capabilities of the new targeting pod linked with ROVER have not added a new role for which the fighter/bomber community trains in the ISR arena, but everyone knows that the capabilities exist. It is time to acknowledge the requirement to use them simply because the air component does not have enough UAVs in its inventory to meet demands. From a fighter aircrew's standpoint, this is not an appropriate use of its weapons platform, but from the land component's perspective, this is a great capability that it wants to use.

If the Air Force acknowledges its fighter/ bomber NTISR capability and is willing to support the land component with these assets in this role, half of the controversy would end. In doing so, however, some long-term problems would emerge, affecting the fleet's ability to meet requirements of its airframe life span. Another hurdle would involve getting the fighter and bomber communities to acknowledge this as a viable role. Tactical air assets are expensive reconnaissance platforms. The Air Force and the Army must consider the intended, ultimate use of Air Force assets and determine if the effects outweigh the lack of efficiency. Additionally, Air Force leaders must make some hard decisions about the roles that our CAS assets will support. This may mean restricting CAS assets to CAS roles and removing their ISR roles. Importantly, we must remember that the land component is the supported component (the customer) and that the air component is the supporting component (the provider). Whose requirements have the higher priority--the Army's need for ISR or the Air Force's need to maintain the life expectancy of the tactical air support fleet?

Although the air component currently cannot fulfill all of the land component's requests, most feedback from that component has been positive. Aircrews, on the other hand, do not seem pleased with the support they are asked to provide. The fighter and bomber communities feel that they are wasting much airborne time by searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack.

The land component requests armed reconnaissance to provide one of two effects: find the enemy or deter/deny him. When it tasks the air component for C-IDF or C-IED, it hopes that the supporting airframe will find the enemy in the act and be able to neutralize the threat or prevent him from employing IDFs or IEDs. If the supporting aircraft meets either of these objectives, the mission is successful. Unfortunately, the prevention role is not well recognized by manned supporting aircraft. C-IDF or C-IED mission reports usually indicate that nothing was accomplished and that the aircraft wasted time performing the requested task. The measure of merit should be results from the customer's standpoint. If the air component produced the desired effect from the land component's standpoint, then the mission was a success.

Some individuals have suggested that the air component become the supported command during certain operations that the land component cannot fully cover--countersmuggling/ border-operation roles, for example. (7) Both Iraq and Afghanistan have long, unguarded borders with no natural barriers for channeling smugglers to a point where ground forces can interdict them. It is impossible for the land component to fully control these vast expanses of border. We can control some of these areas only by designating airpower as the lead and supported command. (8) Yet joint task force/ land-component leaders seem to dislike anything that would put them in a supporting role. Thus, they fail to take full advantage of the capabilities of platforms such as the joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System and UAVs, and we therefore under-perform in the countersmuggling/border-operation roles. Consequently, both air and land leadership misunderstands the supported/ supporting relationship. For a stabilization mission, equal partnership is a prerequisite for success in certain missions. Assignment to either a supporting or supported role for a stabilization mission does not deny equal partnership. The reluctance of land leaders to recognize that fact dooms them to underachieve in the full spectrum of AAS.

From the land component's standpoint, the air component can't control the border since it is not a ground-operation force. Air forces can produce effects on the ground, but, short of a nuclear strike, those effects are generally temporary. This is a manpower issue; the land component just doesn't have enough troops. A great force multiplier, airpower should nevertheless be applied in a surgical manner when it integrates with ground forces. Air Force intelligence, operations, and command and control systems are not suited to taking the lead in ground operations. The supported service is usually the one that accepts more risk. Equal partnership should equate to equal contribution or risk. Currently in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is not the case. The question becomes, is the air component willing or able to provide support for full-spectrum operations? Once again, from the land component's standpoint, this is what the air component signed up for in the supporting role. Therefore, it should be willing to provide full-spectrum air support.

We must also consider the Air Force's traditional use of the fighter element. Within the bounds of the fighter aircraft's current mode of operation, a two-ship formation is the smallest maneuver element. The main concept behind this formation--mutual support--is based on threat reaction. When the aircraft functions as a CAS platform, this should continue as the minimum maneuver element, but when a fighter/bomber is tasked to an ISR role, it may not be required. In light of the absence of threats from the air and only minimal ones from the ground (small-arms fire and possibly rocket-propelled grenades), fighters should be able to operate in a single-ship mode. Navy, Marine, and some coalition fighters already conduct single-ship operations within 60 miles of their wingmen. It is time for the Air Force to consider this mode of operation when it is tasked for the ISR role. Here again, the Air Force needs to acknowledge its ISR capability, which would enable more efficient use of its assets and increased ability to support the land component. (9)

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Their Roles and Capabilities

Reconnaissance plays a critical role in an air-support mission for national stabilization. The MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper UAVs both provide valuable FMV to the ground commander and ISR community. Unfortunately, requests for support far exceed the assets available to cover those requests. The land component is fully aware of the capabilities offered by the air component's FMV assets; when it can't get FMV support from organic assets or through ISR division requests from the coalition's air and space operations center, the land component uses the JTAR request process. This is the primary reason that traditional reconnaissance/surveillance requests are being passed to piloted, fixed-wing CAS assets, which possess these inherent ISR capabilities.

Arming of the Predator and Reaper has made them viable, multirole assets that can be tasked for either ISR or CAS missions. They do, however, lack the ability to strafe, which limits their options for escalation of force. If we had an endless supply of armed Predators and Reapers and if the frequency spectrum could handle the data links, then we would have a good chance of significantly reducing the number of piloted, fixed-wing CAS assets in-theater. One Predator mission can provide up to 12 hours of continuous coverage unrefueled, while it would take four two-ship piloted aircraft formations flying three-hour windows and using over 250,000 pounds of fuel to cover that same time frame. At a minimum, we could greatly decrease the number of hours flown by piloted, fixed-wing assets, thus significantly reducing the amount of air refueling.


Traditionally, CAS has been defined as putting ordnance on target in close proximity to friendly forces, but this is not how we use the vast majority of the air component's tactical air assets in today's stabilization missions. That doesn't mean that ground forces do not require our support, especially when most of our weapons platforms have multiple capabilities, but armed ISR assets can provide CAS, and ISR does not require two-ship formations. Now is the time to revise our official doctrine for integrating with ground forces. The Air Force needs to address how it can best support requirements to prevail in a counterinsurgency environment. Air Force and Department of Defense leaders need to answer the following questions:

1. Where is the dividing line between supporting the land component with air assets that have multiple capabilities and maintaining the combat fleet in its designed roles?

2. At what cost is the Air Force willing to fly its CAS platforms to support ISR taskings?

3. How long can the fleet continue flying at its current rate, and what are the long-term implications?

4. What are the training implications and requirements of using CAS assets in the ISR role and armed ISR platforms in the CAS role?

5. Does the stabilization/AAS mission create a need for a new airframe that can do it all (provide FMV, bomb, strafe, and loiter a long time without requiring tanker support)?

As a starting point for answering these questions, I recommend that we immediately stop using fighter aircraft (CAS platforms) for the C-IED and C-IDF roles and limit their use in the armed reconnaissance/NTISR role. I would return all Predators to the control of the combined force air component commander and equally distribute them between ISR and CAS. In the CAS role, we would use these Predators primarily in C-IDF and C-IED missions. I would limit the fixed-wing fighter assets to direct land-component operations outside air bases or forward operating bases (traditional CAS) and place 15-minute ground-alert fighters (a two-ship package) at strategically located bases within the two areas of responsibility in Iraq and Afghanistan. Based on our current operations in both locations, I would immediately look into modifying a current ISR platform to have an alternate role in the CAS mission or developing a new multirole platform that can operate in a permissive air superiority environment (either manned or unmanned).

The Air Force needs to allocate and use its resources wisely. Time is of the essence in making this happen if we wish to preserve the longevity of our fleet.


(1.) The term air component encompasses piloted, fixed-wing fighters and bombers from the US Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy, as well as coalition aircraft tactically controlled by the combined force air component commander.

(2.) The term land component refers to US, Iraqi, Afghan, and coalition ground forces.

(3.) The Army defines its operational concept of full-spectrum operations as follows: "Army forces combine offensive, defensive, and stability or civil support operations simultaneously as part of an interdependent joint force to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative, accepting prudent risk to create opportunities to achieve decisive results." US Army Field Manual 3-0, Operations, February 2008, 3-1,

(4.) Joint Publication 3-09.3, joint Tactics, Techniquas, and Procedures far Close Air Support (CAS), 3 September 2003 [incorporating change 1, 2 September 2005], ix,

(5.) Col Jay B. Silveria, Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers, Europe, European Command, Belgium, to the author, personal communication, 4 March 2008.

(6.) Maj Bruce Munger, director of operations, 20th Air Support Operations Squadron, and joint tactical air controller instructor, Operation Iraqi Freedom, October 2007-April 2008, to the author, personal communication, 5 February 2008.

(7.) Col Seth P. Bretscher, chief of combat operations, International Security Assistance Force Air Component Element, Kabul, Afghanistan, to the author, personal communication, 17 February 2008.

(8.) Ibid.

(9.) Silveria to the author, personal communication.


Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar

* The author is chief of the master air attack planning cell, combined air and space operations center, Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. He thanks the following subject-matter experts in both the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters who reviewed and commented upon this article: Col Jay B. Silveria; Col Seth P. Bretscher; Lt Col Aaron Lehman; Lt Col Jose Sanchez; Lt Col Michael Brockey; Lt Col John Giles; Lt Col Richard Flake; Lt Col Randy King; Maj Bruce Munger; MAJ Lawrence J. Baker Jr., USA; CPT Kevin A. Campbell, USMC; CW4 Robert R. Whigham, USA; and SSgt John D. Nguyen.
COPYRIGHT 2008 U.S. Air Force
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:close air support in Iraq and Afghanistan
Author:Burg, Gary L.
Publication:Air & Space Power Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2008
Previous Article:Asking the right questions.
Next Article:Human performance enhancement: uberhumans or ethical morass?

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |