Responsive Air Support

Feb. 1, 1993

Responsive air support has always been a key Air Force goal and a subject of debate within USAF. Current discussions on responsibilities for air interdiction targeting, use and meaning of the fire support coordination line, and composition of the joint targeting boards and the Joint Force Air Component Commander’s staff stem from efforts to increase responsiveness.

This article seeks to establish for the record the steps by which Lt. Gen. Charles Horner, commander of US Central Command Air Forces (CENTAF), sought to effect such responsiveness during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, given the threat, forces available, and command arrangements within the command and the coalition.

During Desert Storm and Desert Shield, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander in chief of US Central Command, assigned very broad responsibilities to General Horner. The CENTAF commander served as Joint Force Air Component Commander (JFACC), Area Air Defense Commander, Airspace Control Authority, and Interdiction Coordinating Authority.

Assigning these responsibilities to a single commander with an inherent command-and-control structure significantly helped US forces rapidly achieve unity of effort in the initial phase of Desert Shield and established a single US point of contact for allied coordination in these mission areas. As the coalition forces were blended into an integrated force, General Horner was their single point of contact for planning and executing the air effort. This allowed the use of a single Air Tasking Order (ATO) and significantly reduced the potential for fratricide.

The term “Air Tasking Order,” however, is somewhat misleading. US and coalition forces performed their missions after a process of dialogue and give-and-take, not the simple issuing of orders. Integration was achieved by asking each coalition force, through liaison cells in the Tactical Air Control Center (TACC), what they could contribute, given the taskings and targets to be struck, and what targets they could best attack. This dialogue ensured that no coalition forces were sent against targets they did not feel well suited to handle.

The command viewed responsiveness as a key goal-perhaps the key goal-for its command-and-control concepts, procedures, and structure. TACC’s Directorate of Combat Plans (DCP) provided for responsiveness and flexibility in planning for the air campaign and for support of the land campaign. The DCP integrated the needs and desires of General Schwarzkopf (who was very active in the planning of the air campaign) and three equal land components comprising five corps or corps equivalents.

Using liaison cells from all the forces, the DCP staff developed guidance, recommendations, target lists, concepts of operations for air defense, airspace control, and air support of land forces. It also structured the command-and-control system for theater use. Realizing that no plan survives initial contact with the enemy, Col. Al Doman, director of Combat Operations (DCO), made the air effort responsive to the dynamics of the battle.

Colonel Doman used the Theater Air Control System, its personnel, and component and allied air forces liaison cells in combat operations to adjust the ATO in near-real time to meet the changing priorities of the battle.

Desert Shield: The Early Days

Throughout Desert Shield and Desert Storm, command and control changed as the availability of coalition forces and the threat changed. In the early days of Desert Shield, US and coalition forces found themselves in a tenuous situation. The command was faced with the possibility of an imminent enemy armored offensive down the east coast of Saudi Arabia. While this would have presented a target-rich array of armor and mechanized forces in narrow corridors of advance, the attack would have had to travel only 150 nautical miles to reach King Fahd Airfield and key ports and airfields in Dhahran.

Opposing this force was a thin line of mostly Arab coalition forces, forward deployed with extremely limited munitions, while US forces formed up in blocking positions north of the Saudi Arabian oil fields.

Further aggravating the situation was the inchoate command structure for the Arab and other Islamic forces in early August 1990. Although US airpower in the region was increasing, the ability to use it to support these land forces was limited by their unfamiliarity with the concepts of close air support (CAS), fire support coordination lines (FSCLs), and air request nets. There were no request nets for CAS, nor were there any air liaison officers (or their equivalents) to provide terminal control for CAS.

The plan developed to deal with all of this, had war broken out at that time, was simple. Because of limited depth for defense and the ground force’s lack of CAS command-and-control personnel and equipment, the command’s primary objective would have been to interdict the southbound armor forces threatening coalition ground forces and bases at Dhahran and King Fahd Airfield. It would have been a fight to survive.

Given these limitations, the theater was divided into thirty-square-mile kill zones. The kill zones were based on the Saudi air-to-air grid and were further subdivided by reference to compass quadrants. The kill zones were intended as an airspace and targeting deconfliction and control measure beyond the FSCL and to reduce the need for terminal control for CAS inside that line.

Close Support and Interdiction

To take advantage of rapidly growing airpower and high sortie-generation capability, we prepared to use a “push flow” of air support. Fighters would launch at maximum sustainable sortie rates and receive targeting from the Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center (ABCCC) aircraft.

Should coalition forces need CAS, they were to forward the requests directly to the ABCCC, which would divert interdiction assets from the flow on a priority basis. Fielding tactical air request nets, air control nets, air liaison officers, and air/naval gunfire liaison companies remained a top priority of the command. Though we concentrated on interdiction, the directive was that no unit on the ground would go without CAS-if it could get the request to an ABCCC.

By January 1991, the stage was set for the start of the air campaign, an integral part of General Schwarzkopf’s overall plan. Planning for the air campaign began at CENTAF well before the deployment to Desert Shield, when the command began targeting for theater war plans and for the exercise Internal Look, which ended one week before the initial deployment of forces to Desert Shield.

Specific targeting for an offensive air campaign to liberate Kuwait began in mid-August. This offensive campaign targeting was undertaken in parallel with targeting and continued planning for defensive operations and an extensive coalition training program.

To ensure unity of effort and responsiveness, General Horner met daily with General Schwarzkopf to receive guidance and review the campaign plans. To ensure a good flow of information, JFACC headquarters maximized use of coalition air force liaison cells in planning and executing the ATO. Nearly every nation and service in the coalition had liaison cells within the TACC directorates of Combat Plans and Combat Operations, providing information on their needs and capabilities. As a final measure, the entire command-and-control structure was exercised extensively prior to the commencement of hostilities.

Planning and targeting for the air campaign were undertaken with input from all components. Information was coordinated, assigned a priority, and blended into a single target list by the JFACC, based on guidance from General Schwarzkopf. The list was then briefed to and approved by him.

The air campaign began on January 17, 1991. On the first day, the Iraqi command-and-control structure was neutralized and its air defense system’s centralized control was destroyed. By day two, control of the air had been won. By day four, the Iraqi Air Force had been rendered ineffective, and the air was open for the systematic elimination by airpower of Iraq’s warfighting capabilities.

Air Support of the Land Campaign

By the time the ground campaign began, significant changes had occurred on land. During the air campaign, US Army units in Central Command had moved to the western flank of the coalition in the “Hail Mary” maneuver and a theater air-control system for CAS was in place and had been tested.

Each corps and corps equivalent was served by an air support operations center (ASOC) or direct air support center (DASC). XVII Airborne Corps and VII Corps each had an Air Force ASOC, Marine units had a Marine Corps DASC, Northern Area Command had a mini-ASOC, and Eastern Area Command’s air request net was served by the Marine DASC. Terminal controllers were also in the field with all major Arab coalition maneuver units.

Preparation of the battlefield for the land campaign began immediately, as a result of General Schwarzkopf’s guidance and close coordination among component commanders. The JFACC had been overseeing the coordination and integration of all target nominations into a single target list with the help of component liaison officers. As the land campaign approached, however, changes were made in the target nomination process for interdiction. Integration and priority ranking of the component target nominations were overseen by the Deputy Commander in Chief, the Army’s Lt. Gen. Calvin Waller, and then approved by General Schwarzkopf.

The target board members remained the same, but this change in the process was intended to assuage the US corps’ concern that their target nominations were not being given sufficient weight in the deliberations.

Command and Control of Interdiction

The E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) fleet and its airborne command element oversaw control of deep interdiction sorties. The ABCCC aircraft and the Marine Corps DASC were used for near-real-time retargeting for interdiction immediately beyond the FSCL and to ensure that rapid FSCL movements associated with an armor advance could be accommodated.

The ABCCC’s mission was to provide target and FSCL updates to aircraft flying air interdiction (AI) sorties. Each plane had a land component liaison officer on board, communicating with his respective headquarters to provide land component target changes.

The Marine Corps was given the responsibility for AI deconfliction and target updates for the JFACC in kill zones over southern Kuwait. The communications plan and training allowed the ABCCC and DASC to shift interdiction sorties fluidly across the entire front as required by the target array.

The E-8 Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) was used primarily as a sensor platform working at night with ABCCCs and AWACS to provide target location updates to inbound fighters and a downlinked ground radar picture to the corps and TACC.

This division of labor and near-real-time retargeting was made possible by the Iraqi threat and the use of area threat suppression rather than individual flight force packaging (which was often used on deeper interdiction sorties). The DCO, in execution of the ATO, shifted control of the kill zones between AWACS and ABCCC aircraft as required to accommodate FSCL movement in the ground war.

To further reduce the potential for fratricide in the expected rapid armor advance and aid in targeting enemy forces beyond the FSCL, F-16 “pointer scouts” worked with ABCCC planes to locate, validate, and mark targets prior to attack.

Close Air Support and Flexible Airpower

A push flow of close air support was used. The CAS sorties were planned for fuel against interdiction kill zones (or specific targets) located beyond FSCL of the corps to which they were assigned. The kill zones (or interdiction targets) assigned as backup targets were taken from the land component interdiction target nomination list when possible. Though their missions were identified in the ATO as CAS sorties, these fighters would contact their assigned ASOC for CAS tasking. If none was forthcoming, they would get target and FSCL updates from ABCCC and be employed as interdiction assets. Their preassigned AI targets could be changed to meet the needs of the battle or changing priorities of the land component provided by the land liaison officer on ABCCC.

The ASOCs and the DASC were responsible for airpower employment inside the FSCL; the ABCCC aircraft was responsible for target and FSCL updates for AI aircraft in designated kill zones immediately beyond the FSCL. The AWACS was responsible for interdiction in kill zones that were both beyond the FSCL and not specifically assigned to ABCCC. The division of targeting and deconfliction responsibilities for CAS and AI did not stifle the fluid use of airpower. Only one command-and-control agency was responsible for any section of the battlefield at any time.

Changes could be made in this structure at any time by the DCO. If an armor formation was located immediately beyond the FSCL in front of VII Corps, the corps could ask for a strike through its ASOC and through its hotline to the land component’s Battlefield Control Element (BCE). The DCO could shift responsibility for this particular kill zone segment from ABCCC to the ASOC for ASOC-controlled CAS sorties. He could direct the ABCCC to retarget AI sorties, or he could use ASOC-provided CAS sorties.

Likewise, as the FSCL shifted north, the DCO would reassign responsibilities for kill zones, dividing them between the ABCCC and AWACS aircraft.

Deconfliction of unplanned surface-to-surface fire and fixed-wing aircraft was of particular concern, given the large numbers of sorties, artillery exchanges, and firings of Multiple Launch Rocket Systems. To reduce the need for coordination and promote responsiveness, the JFACC delegated deconfliction of surface-to-surface fire and CAS assets to the ASOCs and DASC and their respective air liaison officers.

In the case of surface-to-surface fire and AI aircraft, procedural deconfliction was used. Discussions with commanders of the land components revealed that approximately ninety percent of surface-to-surface fire had a maximum ordnance altitude of less than 20,000 feet. This limit was established to deconflict fixed wing and surface-to-surface fire. All interdiction aircraft would climb above 20,000 feet before reaching the front and descend below 20,000 after crossing the FSCL and entering assigned interdiction kill zones.

If the land force needed to fire beyond the FSCL or above 20,000 feet, the DCO would work out deconfliction. Notification was carried out using a corps-to-TACC combat operations BCE hotline (backed up by an ASOC-to-DCO hotline call). From the time the DCO was notified, deconfliction would take about thirty to forty-five minutes.

This deconfliction was only expected in situations in which the land commander had sufficient time to wait for coordination without unduly jeopardizing the safety of friendly forces. This was always plainly stipulated.

Execution Responsiveness

The system was built to be responsive. How responsive was it

Data collection suggests that, as an average, AI aircraft under the control of the ABCCC or the DASC could be on target in as little as five minutes and no more than fifteen minutes after target detection. Such was the case during the battle of Khafji, when the second-echelon reinforcements for the initial Iraqi attack force were detected while they were marshaling and struck by Joint STARS/ABCCC-controlled fighters.

The same responsiveness was seen with respect to deep interdiction at Al Taqaddum airfield, where six enemy bombers were spotted on the ground while being uploaded. Within two hours, the airfield was attacked and the threat was neutralized.

With respect to CAS, a constant flow of two- or four-ship flights was scheduled into the battle area. With the command-and-control capability to shift assets fluidly between CAS and AI, up to 120 sorties per hour were available for CAS. CAS could be supplied either from the push flow of CAS or diverted from the interdiction flow by ABCCC/DASC five to ten minutes after a decision to send aircraft.

Many figures have been bandied about in postwar efforts to determine the effectiveness of the command-and-control structure used in planning and conducting the air campaign. Bomb-damage assessment is an imprecise art: Numbers change dramatically from one analyst to the next.

More than 5,100 Maverick missiles and 1,000 high-speed antiradiation missiles were fired, and countless cluster bomb units were dropped. On the Iraqi side, more than 3,800 tanks, 2,900 artillery pieces, and 1,400 armored vehicles were destroyed. This represented ninety percent of the tanks, ninety-four percent of the artillery, and fifty-two percent of the armored vehicles in the Kuwait theater of operations.

Most relevant in judging the JFACC’s ability to be responsive and accomplish the missions assigned by the CINC and support the needs of the land components was the fact that, although the land forces were outnumbered three to one prior to the air campaign, these land forces defeated more than forty-three enemy divisions in just 100 hours, with fewer than a dozen friendly vehicles destroyed by enemy fire.

Lt. Col. Robert E. Duncan is assigned to the 9th Air Operations Group, Combat Plans Squadron, Shaw AFB, S. C., as the command and control flight commander. He served in the Persian Gulf War in the Tactical Air Control Center’s Directorate of Combat Plans. He wrote CENTAF’s Desert Shield and Desert Storm concept of operations for command and control of tactical air forces in support of land forces. This article is based on an unclassified CENTAF briefing document.