Army Change, Air Force Change

March 1, 2006

The United States Army is in the throes of its greatest makeover since World War II, with what was once a heavy, plodding Cold War fighting force being changed into what service leaders hope will be a collection of compact, easily deployable, hard-hitting, and independent combat teams.

And this turbulence will, in turn, have a far-reaching impact on the Air Force. It will be expected to meet the Army’s rising demand for air mobility, battlefield information, air support, and resupply.

The Army has set ambitious—and possibly unrealistic—deployment goals. The Army wants its brigade-sized combat teams to be able to deploy in C-130 tactical transports and respond to a crisis anywhere in the world within 96 hours. This will force the Air Force to take new looks at airlift requirements.

Plans call for new brigade combat teams (BCTs) to be self-sufficient and able to operate autonomously in war zones. BCTs will bring with them relatively little “organic” firepower. They will, instead, rely heavily on what the Army calls “joint fires,” meaning, in most cases, USAF-supplied air support.

This means that Air Force intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance and fire support capabilities once reserved for large ground formations will be pushed down to the brigade level and perhaps lower. USAF is already looking to double its inventory of joint terminal attack controllers, airmen who travel with the ground troops and direct attacks from the air. Modularity also may increase the demand for tactical airlift to resupply the Army’s mobile units.

To be sure, the Air Force has in every era adjusted to the evolving requirements of ground combat. However, this time things are different, said USAF Brig. Gen. Andrew S. Dichter, deputy requirements director for joint integration. Dichter maintained that, because of its sheer magnitude, the Army’s modularity push is a “bigger deal” than more-evolutionary changes of the past. The speed of the change also has gotten Air Force attention.

Blowback of Task Force Hawk

At the heart of matters is the Army’s abandonment of a heavy, division-based structure designed to face down the Soviet Union in Central Europe. The Army’s heavy armored divisions, with about 12,000 combat soldiers and 70-ton M1A2 tanks, were ideal for countering an entrenched, armored enemy. Today, however, such formations are too large and inflexible to deploy swiftly and go into action on arrival.

Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, former Army Chief of Staff, set the changes in motion after the troubled 1999 deployment of Task Force Hawk, an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter unit that DOD tried to get into action in Operation Allied Force, the NATO war with Serbia. Twenty-four Apaches were supposed to help eliminate attacks by Serb units in Kosovo. Unfortunately, the Army was not configured for such limited deployments.

The Germany-based Apaches took 17 days just to travel to Albania, a few hours’ flight time away from its forward bases. The task force and their support materiel, totaling 7,745 troops, ate up 269 C-130 sorties and nearly 500 C-17 sorties. After this enormous logistical undertaking, Task Force Hawk lost two helicopters and two crew members in training accidents, but never flew a single combat mission. (See “Task Force Hawk,” February 2002, p. 78.)

The Army’s heavy forces were too heavy, and light forces lacked “staying power,” declared Shinseki. “Heavy forces must be more strategically deployable, … [and] achieving this paradigm will require innovative thinking.”

In 2000, Shinseki further wrote that “with each passing year, our condition as a force becomes a greater liability.”

The solution was the creation of medium-weight brigades based on an all-new vehicle—the Stryker. This eight-wheeled vehicle is larger than a standard Humvee and offers troops better protection. Also, at 20 tons, it is less than a third of the weight of the Army’s main battle tank.

Strykers fit—barely—into a C-130 transport. (The Abrams tank requires a larger C-17 or C-5 transport.) Relative lightness pays off: Stryker BCTs need only half the airlift needed by traditional heavy brigades. Stryker teams can deploy in a total of 212 C-17 sorties, compared to 430 sorties for tank brigades.

Stryker brigade combat teams of about 4,000 soldiers form the centerpieces of the Army’s modular force, though the service will retain its armored, light infantry, and airborne brigades.

BCTs are designed to be the Army’s new “units of action,” replacing in that role the full division, along with its gear, large headquarters staff, and support and combat service support echelons. BCTs will carry everything needed to operate for the first three days in a combat zone.

BCTs will be responsible for many of the tasks traditionally performed at the division and corps level. These include ISR collection and analysis, logistics support, and battlefield command and control.

30 Percent More Power

By 2007, the Army will have completed the modular reorganization of its active divisions, “resulting in at least a 30 percent increase in combat power,” Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey told Army magazine.

The service’s “tiered readiness” approach of recent years has vanished. Plans call for increasing from 48 to 77 the number of “usable” BCTs. This will be achieved, say Army officials, by breaking down larger combat units and creating a rotational deployment pool, an idea similar to the Air Force’s decade-old expeditionary air and space force concept.

“With 20 brigades committed in the field as the baseline planning factor,” wrote Harvey, “active component forces can expect to deploy for one year with two years at home station.”

Modularity is also expected to increase available combat forces by 60 percent. To create this modular force, the Army will spend an additional $30 billion through 2011.

Already, Stryker BCTs have successfully deployed to Iraq. The Lexington Institute’s Daniel Goure and Kenneth A. Steadman noted that such a unit began operations in Iraq in 2003, successfully policing an area that, they said, “previously required an entire regular division.”

In the transformation process, the Army will eliminate some Army air defense, engineering, and armor elements. Perhaps most significant to the Air Force is the forthcoming decrease in field artillery units. The mere fact that the Army will turn to USAF for additional fire support represents a major change in thinking. This shows that the Army leadership has begun to trust in the Air Force’s (and Navy’s) claims that airpower will be there when needed.

As the federally funded think-tank Rand noted in a recent report, “Newfound Army confidence in the accuracy and responsiveness of air-delivered fires will result in increased Army requests for CAS and air interdiction.”

The Army has often treated close air support and air interdiction as a layer of insurance, not an integral part of ground combat planning. After the poor coordination that marked the unfolding of Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan in the spring of 2002, the Air Force leadership pledged to work harder to coordinate its efforts with the Army. (See “Aerospace World: Army Also Improving Air Coordination,” August 2004, p. 15.) Senior leaders from both services got together to iron out differences. Consequently, the Air Force gave high priority to the creation of battlefield airmen who operate in the field with soldiers, emphasized joint training, pushed to upgrade its A-10 close support fighters, and pursued a short takeoff version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Masters of the Mission

Fighter pilots, using advanced targeting pods and small-yield precision weapons, have mastered the mission of air support to dispersed ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. As long as air controllers are embedded with Army units, Dichter said, the Air Force will be there to provide precision airpower. Planning is key, he said, to ensure the right capabilities are available.

To that end, the Air Force seeks additional targeting pods as well as the 250-pound-class Small Diameter Bomb, which will offer Global Positioning System precision in a small package. Low-yield warheads are important in distributed and urban battles because they limit collateral damage and allow aircraft to carry larger numbers of weapons.

The new wave of air support to ground forces has already become apparent on the world’s battlefields. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Air Force positioned bomb-laden aircraft on patrol over “kill boxes.” Orbiting heavy bombers provided “on call” CAS with GPS-guided weapons.

Air support will be even better in the future as stealthy aircraft such as the F-22A and F-35 patrol war zones, add vital intelligence to the “network,” and provide even more on-call firepower.

“As adversaries adapt and move away from massed motorized forces operating in the open to dispersed, smaller forces exploiting difficult terrain, a well-practiced and -developed air-ground partnership will be increasingly necessary,” Rand noted.

The Air Force agrees.

Additional brigade combat teams create a huge demand for the airmen who accompany the brigades, such as battlefield weathermen and tactical air control parties. The near-doubling of deployable brigades means a career field of 720 battlefield weathermen could require an infusion of 500 additional airmen. A new approach of battlefield weatherman “force pooling,” in conjunction with reachback capabilities, may cut the demand for new battlefield weathermen to 150, officials said.

Fire observers, troops trained to identify and locate targets, show an even larger increase in demand.

The Army needs more than 4,000 fire controllers. The most highly trained of these are DOD’s joint terminal attack controllers. With a current inventory of about 550 JTACs, the Air Force is simply unable to provide enough JTACs, such as tactical air control parties, to meet the Army’s demand.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to. Most fire observer missions do not require a JTAC’s highly specialized skills of designating precise targets, coordinating aircraft, and clearing weapons release. The Army is therefore creating a pool of roughly 3,000 joint fires observers who will handle missions such as artillery and mortar targeting. The JFOs can also serve as “sensors” for the Air Force’s more highly trained JTACs, who will serve as the liaison between JFOs and combat aircraft.

Building JTACs

The Air Force JTAC inventory will still double to meet the new demands. This is not an easy field to build. There are shortages of joint training opportunities, and not enough strike aircraft sorties are available.

The Air Force’s Joint Air-Ground Operations Group at Nellis AFB, Nev., which trains most USAF JTACs, increased production from 90 to 120 air controllers per year. Plans call for JTAC production at Nellis to further increase to about 150 per year, to meet a goal of having 1,064 trained JTACs in the field by 2011.

US Air Forces in Europe opened a new joint fires center at Spangdahlem AB, Germany, in October, to make joint firepower training more convenient for forces stationed in Europe. There are currently no plans to open additional Air Force JTAC schools.

Lt. Col. Paul G. Schmidt, commander of the JAGOG’s 6th Combat Training Squadron, said a larger number of JTACs creates a “train and sustain” challenge because air controllers must practice 12 controls a year. The most challenging “sortie math” is for sustainment, he said.

The controllers have complex, perishable skills and need additional “real, joint training opportunities,” Schmidt said.

The “fundamental constraints remain the same,” said Rand. There is a “shortage of qualified candidates, a demanding job that takes years to master, a shortage of training facilities, … and heavy demands on strike aircraft that make it difficult for them to generate the necessary training sorties for more than the current [terminal attack controller] force.”

The Air Force’s planned cuts in tactical fighter inventories will make training even more difficult. A recent study of ground attack airframes determined that USAF can support a steady state of 1,064 JTACs and 200 airborne forward air controllers (FAC-As).

Aircraft retirements will change the equations. In 2010, about 950 JTACs and 300 FAC-As will be the sustainable level, said CMSgt. David Devine of the C2 battle management operations division at the Pentagon. (Even though the number of airframes is decreasing, there will be no shortage of training flights for airborne FACs.)

To offset a potential drop in skilled JTACs, the Air Force is investing heavily in advanced simulators, Devine said. Simulated missions can reduce the number of sorties needed and have already cut the demand for live flights at Nellis.

Modularity is pushing advances in Air Force communications and ISR capabilities as well. At the Air Force Association’s Los Angeles symposium in November, Maj. Gen. Roger W. Burg noted that the nation’s military space systems were designed for a different era.

“Today’s satellite communications architecture was designed for large stationary units,” said Burg, director of strategic security on the Air Staff. “Smaller, more mobile forces require instant access to a myriad of different sources.”

Internet in Space

Air Force officials want a space-based communications network, to bring the “Internet into space,” if you will. The Army supports the Air Force with a “firm requirement” for this capability, Burg said. A space-based network that users access directly will help address both the communications and ISR needs of dispersed units.

The Air Force is working to provide rapid access to data at the “last tactical mile”—the dispersed forces in the field—to push them information in seconds instead of minutes or hours.

A Global Hawk could, for instance, survey a 10-square-mile area and upload images onto a server. Tactical end-users could then download the imagery as needed, explained Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Kennedy, deputy ISR director on the Air Staff. “We don’t do that today, but we can,” he said. This would help provide data at the last tactical mile, “even when we have a bandwidth challenge.”

Spy satellites, meanwhile, “have predictable overflight times and are designed to provide a strategic look for the nation,” Burg said in November. “Tactical space ISR capabilities could and should be dedicated to the theater commander.”

Space Radar will play a key role in this shift. “Our desire is that [Space Radar] will support national decision-makers,” Burg said, while “simultaneously responding to the theater commanders as they execute their operations.”

Officials note that orbital ISR systems are already being used to support the Army’s needs on the ground. Satellites have been used to locate cave entrances in Afghanistan, to survey drop zones, to search for improvised explosive devices in Iraq, and to provide route reconnaissance.

“This is intelligence operations,” Kennedy said. The challenges are in persistence and speed. If it takes 10 minutes “to dig a ditch to put a bomb in, then I want to look at that road every five minutes,” he said. The intelligence then needs to be relayed to those who need it in time for the news to be useful.

It is unclear how Army modularity will affect airlift requirements. In a 2002 study, Rand determined that the Army’s goal to deploy a brigade in 96 hours is, in most cases, unrealistic. Rand estimates that the Army, with access to 60 C-17s, will take at least 12 days to deploy a Stryker BCT from a base in the United States to a typical combat location. In the most demanding scenario—a deployment to Kandahar in Afghanistan—the deployment would require 21 days.

“For each scenario, two operational factors play a critical role in determining the number of days required to deploy the SBCT,” the report read. These were the number of C-17s available and the “throughput” of the available airfields. Though SBCTs are designed to be C-130-transportable, Rand did not include Hercs in its assessment. C-130s are “not a good choice for long-range deployments, given their range, speed, and payload limitations.”

Mobility requirements must be looked at holistically—air, land, and sealift are all available, as are options such as pre-positioned forces and the Civil Reserve Air Fleet.

“Tell us what we need to move,” said Col. Steve Gensheimer, chief of the global mobility requirements division on the Air Staff, and the Air Force will put its assets into action.

What those assets will be is the wild card. Gensheimer noted that there are numerous mobility studies recently completed or still in the works. The Joint Staff’s Mobility Capabilities Study determined 180 C-17s is enough for projected needs. A Joint Staff Intra-Theater Lift Capability Study, to assess in-theater needs, is ongoing. (See “Rising Risk in Air Mobility,” p. 28.)

The Air Force and Army have both established a requirement for a next generation small cargo aircraft and are collectively looking for the best way to replace the Army’s fleet of C-23 Sherpa light airlifters.

Further, as details of the Army’s Future Combat System mature, the Air Force will need to re-evaluate its lift requirements once again.

Rand found that forward basing is the most effective way to ensure that Stryker BCTs can get to combat zones quickly. Army plans call for Stryker brigades in Germany, Alaska, and Hawaii, an airborne brigade in Italy, and other deployable units to be based in South Korea.

The Technological Solutions

Recent technological innovations have tremendously improved the Air Force’s ability to support mobile ground forces. Take the case of SMSgt. Robert Hicks, a joint terminal attack controller who spent four months in Afghanistan with an Army unit defending a checkpoint in the mountainous border region near Pakistan.

Hicks also served as an air controller during Desert Storm and told Air Force Magazine that, while the job had stayed the same, equipment has improved “by leaps and bounds.”

In his four months of deployment, Hicks’ unit came under rocket attack 14 times, found several improvised explosive devices on the roads, and was once ambushed by 15 to 20 enemy fighters.

Calling in air support is much easier these days. Hicks had one radio, compared to three during Desert Storm, and when reporting a “troops in contact” situation in Afghanistan, he would get a call back within minutes detailing what aircraft was on its way. On various occasions, air support came from AC-130 gunships, B-1 bombers, and A-10 attack aircraft.

Hicks, who deployed in 2004, didn’t even have access to full-motion video through the ROVER system, which has since become a favorite of ground forces.

ROVER, the Remote Operations Video Enhanced Receiver, allows troops with special laptop computers to receive video imagery from Predator aircraft, C-130s equipped with the Scathe View imaging system, or fighters carrying Sniper targeting pods.

Rapid access to full-motion video “allows ground commanders to see and react to targets on the battlefield with a level of speed and accuracy unheard of five years ago,” USAF officials wrote in an information paper. “A ground commander may find a mortar crew actively engaging blue forces. He can now watch their movement real time, positively ID them, and bring weapons to bear or direct ground forces to engage.”

The MQ-1 Predator’s ability to serve as both a “sensor” and “shooter” has made it the most requested asset in Southwest Asia, officials note. But the demand for these capabilities—full-motion video (FMV) in particular—has become boundless. In many cases, argues Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Kennedy, FMV may be overkill.

With limited bandwidth available, Kennedy said officials need to ask: Do you even need 30 frames per second? A convenience store surveillance system has nowhere near that level of quality, yet still has the desired effect. One frame-per-minute video would be good enough for some applications, Kennedy said. Other “sensors” such as signals intelligence and thermal imaging also are available.

Less reliance on “gold-plated” FMV would reduce the bandwidth burden the Air Force currently feels supporting ground forces. This is important as ROVER continues to proliferate and USAF’s fleet of Predators more than doubles in size over the next six years.

Progress? Yes. Success? Not Quite Yet.

For the Air Force and Army to work together as an effective fighting force, they must streamline and coordinate their doctrine, training, and combat operations. The two services have made great progress, but they have a long way to go. The list of missed opportunities is extensive.

  • On Feb. 27, 1991, an Army corps commander misplaced the fire support coordination line (FSCL), which determines the area in which a ground commander must approve all “fires”—including air strikes—to prevent accidental attacks on friendly troops. As ground forces moved out of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the FSCL was placed too far north, well beyond the reach of friendly land forces. (See “The Great Escape,” March 2003, p. 38.) For hours, both the Air Force and Army were unable to attack fleeing Iraqi units.
  • In February 2002, Air Force planners were kept in the dark about a major Army offensive being planned in the mountains of Afghanistan—Operation Anaconda. The battle revealed a lack of coordination between the services, even for an operation that would eventually rely on air strikes to offset a lack of “organic” Army firepower. (See “The Clash About CAS,” January 2003, p. 54.)
  • In March 2003, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, a handful of close air support “doctrinal issues” emerged. The fire support coordination line was a problem again but, for a reason that was the opposite of the one that cropped up in Desert Storm. The Army’s 3rd Infantry Division almost overran a FSCL that was not moved forward quickly enough. “Twice during the operation, the lead brigade combat team (BCT) was on the verge of crossing the FSCL,” stated an Army after-action report. The FSCL should “leave enough room for shaping operations supporting the ground scheme of maneuver.”

The “hard work” in training, said Lt. Col. Paul Schmidt, commander of the 6th Combat Training Squadron for terminal attack controllers, at Nellis AFB, Nev., revolves around joint doctrinal issues. These include setting battle priorities, obtaining fire clearance, and protecting blue forces. Despite the progress in recent years, there is still a lack of Army understanding of airpower’s rules of engagement and restrictions, said Schmidt.

A new joint fires center was recently established at Spangdahlem AB, Germany, where officials note that “much of the instruction focuses on doctrine—the official word on when, where, why, and how close air support is conducted,” according to an Air Force news release.

Both services are pushing to increase joint training opportunities. As part of the Base Realignment and Closure process, the Air Force is even moving A-10s to Moody AFB, Ga., so the Warthog crews can be closer to the Army units with which they need to train.