Washington Watch: How to Command and Control a War

April 1, 1991

Midway through Operation Desert Storm, the crew of an Air Force F-15E fighter on a Scud-busting bomb run into Iraq did something highly unusual. They blew an Iraqi helicopter out of the sky, not with an air-to-air missile but with a laser-guided bomb.

The Ripleyesque incident was perhaps the Gulf War’s most offbeat example of the prowess of the F-15E and of precision guided munitions. It also demonstrated the importance of airborne surveillance, air traffic control, and air battle management to the rousing success of the allied air campaign and spotlighted the Airborne Warning and Control System’s vital role in all that.

An Air Force E-3 Sentry AWACS plane set the stage for the helicopter’s downing. The AWACS crew spotted the Iraqi French-made Gazelle on radar and vectored the F-15E to it. The encounter was evidence of airborne command, control, communications, and intelligence at its best. AWACS was a linchpin of the elaborate C3I set-up on which US Central Command and its air component, Central Air Forces (CENTAF), bet the farm.

The allied coalition won big. Its ground juggernaut, led by US Army and Marine Corps armored, mechanized, and airborne divisions, swept “through, over, and around” Iraqi defenders, in the words of the Army’s Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, CINC-CENTCOM. His troops overpowered, outflanked, and cut off the enemy in one of the swiftest, surest tactical tours de force in the history of warfare. Allied planes, mostly American, attacked Iraqi tanks and other rolling stock with abandon, running up shooting-gallery scores.

The number of enemy casualties and capitulators ran into the hundreds of thousands. Allied forces suffered relatively few killed and wounded. Control of the air made all else possible.

On fulfillment of the United Nations resolution demanding Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait, and amid indications that Saddam Hussein would soon surrender despite his delusions of derring-do, President Bush announced a cease-fire on February 28.

In the afterglow of a military victory that may have exorcised the demons of the Vietnam War and that raises hopes for new ways out of old Mideast miasmas, the talk was of human bravery and skill and of the marvelous technology of US-made weapons that had worked far better than all but their most ardent proponents could have expected. The contributions of command, control, communications, and intelligence were not exactly on everyone’s lips. Nonetheless, C3I had been the key to carrying the day.

Powell’s Prediction

Gen. Colin Powell, for one, always knew how crucial @I would be. Late last December, during the “line in the sand” Desert Shield defensive operation and the stirring up of Desert Storm, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff declared, “From where I sit, command and control is the key to our success to date and will be the key to our success if we go to war.”

Proof came fast. Shortly after the war began, Gen. Ronald W. Yates, commander of Air Force Systems Command, told a Washington audience that “events in the Middle East are proving that C3 is critical to the conduct of combat operations . . that are giving Saddam Hussein much more than he bargained for.”

General Yates noted that intelligence is taken for granted as an integral part of C3. He added, “We also hear the term ‘battle management’ a lot when we talk about C3. That implies a kind of calm, boardroom style of warfighting. What commanders in the Gulf are really dealing with are dispersed forces in an environment where the fog and friction of war exacerbate every problem. The job of C3 is to pierce the fog and minimize the friction.”

Lt. Gen. Gordon E. Fornell, commander of Systems Command’s Electronic Systems Division (ESD) at Hanscom AFB, Mass., made that very point in addressing an Air Force Association symposium in Orlando, Fla., two weeks into the Gulf War. “Never before has the spotlight shone so brightly on the element of warfare known as command and control,” he declared. “The demand for enhancing our command and control [in Desert Storm] has been ravenous,”

No wonder. The C3 challenge for CENTCOM, which ran the war, was massive. The allied coalition put together by the Bush Administration was the largest multinational assemblage of military forces since World War II. Communications among and within those large, diverse forces had to be absolutely clear so that there could be no mistaking anyone’s intentions and actions. Timeliness of communications was a major problem, given the diversity of equipment and languages among coalition forces.

Most of those problems were magnified for CENTAF in its stewardship of the air campaign. USAF Lt. Gen. Charles A. Homer, CENTAF commander, had fewer forces to coordinate amid the multinational mixture. Even so, communications among, and control of, the various allied air arms–including those of the four heavily committed US military services–had to be all the more timely and precise, because things happened fast, furiously, and far and wide in the air campaign.

The “Number One Priority”

In war, C3 cuts both ways, so CENTCOM concentrated from the start on crushing Iraqi commanders’ capacity for spreading and getting the word. Said General Fornell, “As Desert Storm began, our commanders emphasized again and again that targeting Saddam Hussein’s command and control network is a number one priority.”

Indeed, the first order of business for allied attack aircraft, spearheaded by USAF’s stealthy F-117As, was to bomb communications facilities around Baghdad. They scored big.

That was the beginning of the end for Iraq. Allied attack planes kept after command and control targets for weeks on end while broadening their horizons. Their success had a great deal to do with the ultimate downfall of the Iraqi army, which was rendered incapable of coordinated action in the face of the fierce allied onslaught that tore it apart in late February.

From start to finish, the allied air campaign went like clockwork, despite its unprecedented complexity and intensity, and AWACS was a big reason why. The attributes of air surveillance, air traffic control, and air battle management that AWACS brought to that campaign–all under the rubric of C3I-contributed mightily to its victorious conclusion.

The Air Force’s fledgling Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System also did a standout job of surveillance and battle management as a last-minute starter in Desert Storm. Joint STARS planes quickly validated the Air Force’s long-standing claim that the system, designed to detect and doom targets on land, would do for ground war what AWACS does for air combat.

Two E-8A Joint STARS planes in the flight-test phase of the system’s development program were rushed to Saudi- Arabia and into operation just before the shooting began last January. On the lookout for tank columns and truck convoys on the move behind enemy lines, the Joint STARS planes quickly proved their worth and drew high praise from all hands.

“We will not ever again want to fight any kind of combat without a Joint STARS kind of system,” Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, Air Force Chief of Staff, declared at the AFA symposium in Orlando.

The Air Force had long since come to that conclusion about AWACS. Without it, Desert Storm’s intricate air campaign would have been inconceivable. CENTAF’s Air Tasking Order, or frag order, was the blueprint for that campaign. Air traffic control was crucial to making it all work, and that’s where AWACS came in.

The ATO, a 600-page computer printout that was revised every day, specified where each allied air unit should go, what it should do, and when–down to the minute. With more than 2,000 airplanes coming and going around the clock, coordination was king.

US Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal, CENTCOM’s deputy director of Operations, called CENTAF’s orchestration of the air campaign and its comings and goings “incredible.”

“It’s unbelievable what these young airmen–male and female–are doing on a twenty-four-hour basis at CENTAF,” General Neal continued. “A fantastic job. They’ve got aircraft at every altitude on multiple missions. They’ve got refueling going on, AWACS looking for enemy threats, all kinds of things, and they have to keep all those patterns separate [yet with] synergistic effect.”

Mind-Boggling Effort

“Watching them work at Central Command Air Force is mind-boggling. We talk about air traffic control problems in the states, and we have them, but they’re nothing like what’s going on over here, especially at night. It makes [problems of] LAX [Los Angeles], Dallas, and Atlanta [airports] combined pale in comparison.”

Communications made everything click.

“In the desert, we’ve assembled the largest tactical communications network ever built,” said AFSC’s General Yates during the war.

He noted that modern gear and techniques enabled unprecedented ease of communications among US Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps units in Desert Storm and that this “allows us to use a single Air Tasking Order for all services for the first time ever.”

Moreover, said General Yates, “new equipment enables the Air Force Tactical Air Control Center to disseminate the allied ATO to all coalition forces faster and to more locations than at any time in history. All of this is being accomplished with about 3,000 communications personnel in theater.”

General Yates cited AWACS and Joint STARS as standouts among “the systems that are redefining C3 in modern warfare” by virtue of their accomplishments in Desert Storm.

Despite early indications that the Iraqi Air Force had fled the fight for keeps, AWACS crews kept constant watch for the enemy on their radar consoles. They had eyes for targets of opportunity, such as the ill-fated Iraqi reconnaissance helicopter, possibly also an airborne command post.

That incident took place almost four weeks into the war. By then, coalition air forces, led by the US Air Force, could just about do as they pleased. They had clinched air supremacy in all sectors and were averaging 2,500 sorties a day-half combat, half support. In preparation for the ground war to come, they had begun concentrating less on strategic targets, more on tactical targets in Iraqi-occupied Kuwait and in southern Iraq.

The Hard Work Begins

General Horner said at that juncture that “the ‘gee whiz’ phase is over” in the air campaign and that “the hard work has begun.” The ability of allied air forces to respond with alacrity in support of allied armies would soon be tested, once those armies went on the offensive as a multifaceted maneuver force.

The allied ground assault began on February 24 and quickly shaped up as a blitzkrieg. Coalition armies made short work of dug-in Iraqi troops. Those troops had taken a beating from the air, and they surrendered by the tens of thousands without putting up much of a fight.

By the end of February, the war was over. Airpower, applied relentlessly but selectively from start to finish, made victory possible. That much was indisputable.

General Homer, boss of the coalition air campaign, was asked at one point which weapons deserved special praise for pivotal performances. ‘He named the Air Force F-117A Stealth fighter and the Navy Tomahawk missile, both of which spearheaded the first waves of air strikes against strategic targets around Baghdad, and the Army Patriot missile, which saved the day against Iraqi Scuds. The questioner asked why he had omitted AWACS.

General Horner replied that he valued AWACS highly and had no intention of slighting it, but that it had been around for a while. “The reason I tend to overlook AWACS is because we’ve been using it over the past ten years, and I’ve grown accustomed to it,” the CENTAF commander said.

The Air Force began operating AWACS in 1977 and went to Saudi Arabia with the system a few years later at the height of the threat from Iran across the Persian Gulf. Saudi crews have been flying Saudi-owned E-3s for several years.

Often called the “flying nerve centers” of Desert Storm, AWACS planes, orbiting at about 29,000 feet, can keep track of as many as 250 planes at one time over a 58,000-square-mile area and can relay such data as their positions, headings, and speeds to friendly air, sea, and ground commanders and, via communications satellites, to the Pentagon.

The Air Force had been improving AWACS planes right along at a more or less measured pace. Then it got an urgent work order for certain refinements to selected planes.

“Desert Shield precipitated an immediate upgrade to AWACS aircraft on alert in Saudi Arabia,” General Fornell told his AFA audience. “The day after Saddam invaded Kuwait, we were asked to develop a new sensor to improve the AWACS’ combat capability.”

That same day, ESD awarded a contract for the sensor, its characteristics secret, and went on to install it in seven front-line AWACS planes within two months.

Rave Reviews

“The new sensor received rave reviews from the operational crews,” said General Fornell. “It is saving lives, and eight more are on the way.”

He noted that ESD “also did a quick fix to enable the Saudi fleet of E-3s to communicate with the US fleet in a jammed environment. We built radio racks and cable harnesses so that Have Quick radios could be installed in the Saudi aircraft as fast as they became available.”

Have Quick ultra high-frequency radio sets, each embodying seventeen black boxes and sophisticated software, are powerful and very difficult to jam. They were installed in USAF’s thirty-four AWACS planes as part of a modernization program that ESD undertook about ten years ago. In it, five TV displays for radar were added to each Sentry aircraft, making fifteen such consoles all told. Each set displays images in five colors, a major improvement over the monochromatic displays formerly in place.

Many more AWACS modernizations, aimed at improving radars, electronic support measures, and communications and navigation gear, are in the works. The standout performance of AWACS planes in Desert Storm should sweeten the pot for those upgrade programs.

Ditto for Joint STARS, a success story on every count. The Air Force and the Army, its partnership patrons, had not expected the system to be ready for operational service until 1997, assuming that it would survive defense budget cuts and some misgivings here and there about cost. The big break for Joint STARS–and, as it turned out, for allied ground forces in Desert Storm–came when General Schwarzkopf saw the results of the system’s flight tests in Europe.

Those results were stunning, and the CINCCENTCOM sent for the prototype E-8As. The planes were made ready for war and arrived in Saudi Arabia just in time for its outbreak. Their deployment marked the first time that the Air Force had ever put a major weapon system into operational service–into combat operations, at that–halfway through its development.

Like AWACS planes, the E-8 Joint STARS aircraft are Boeing 707s converted to carry radar, signal processors, and all the attendant electronics. Grumman Aerospace, the prime contractor, builds the plane’s electronic innards. Norden Systems builds the radar that is the aircraft’s reason for being. E-8s fly courses behind friendly lines while their radar operators reconnoiter troop and vehicle movements beyond and on battlefronts.

General Fornell told how the Joint STARS prototypes were transformed from test planes into warplanes in almost no time. “General Schwarzkopf issued the deployment order on December 18, the day before the contractor was to shut down for the traditional Christmas break. What happened next is a testament to true teamwork.”

Three Short Weeks

“Everyone–Tactical Air Command, Grumman, Norden Systems, and the [ESDI program office–worked around the clock over three short weeks to create the [Joint STARS] concept of operations, train a multicommand crew, and complete and install an extraordinary number of upgrades on both aircraft, bringing them to the same combat capability,” said General Fornell.

Each plane’s synthetic aperture radar and voice communications were “significantly improved,” and “key data links to and from ground station modules were added, along with a JTIDS [Joint Tactical Information Distribution System] capability, a limited ECCM [electronic counter-counter-measures capability], and a self-defense system,” General Fornell explained.

Preparation of planes and crews for combat flying was intense. “Flight checkouts and crew training were an around-the-clock operation,” the General said. “We logged nearly the same number of hours–nearly 100–in those three weeks as had been flown during the whole [European] theater demonstration.”

Joint STARS enabled allied air and ground commanders to see the big picture on the ground throughout occupied Kuwait and as much as 200 kilometers behind the forward most Iraqi units all along the front. This did wonders for CENTCOM’s confidence as the ground war loomed.

Allied commanders anticipated that Desert Storm’s final phase on the ground would make exceedingly difficult demands on C3. Coordinating the coalition’s armies and their support from the air could make or break the whole campaign.

CENTCOM was better prepared for that difficult job than it had been just two months earlier.

Last December, about the same time that General Schwarzkopf called for Joint STARS, the Air Force delivered to CENTAF two spanking new ABCCCs–airborne battlefield command and control centers–for deployment, in capsule form, aboard EC-130E aircraft. Each capsule housed fifteen computer consoles for operation by CENTAF’s airborne battle staff.

That staff’s job was to see to it that allied air units carried out CENTAF’s ATO for close air support and to revise that ATO, if necessary, on the fly. Revisions included adding targets for attack aircraft with leftover ordnance and calling for additional strikes on targets that had survived the first time around.

General Fornell explained the major difference between the latest ABCCC and prior models: The ABCCC “now has the ATO on an optical disk” instead of in a paper document “the size of a phone book.” This means that the ATO “can be searched and sorted any number of ways,” thus giving the staff a far better understanding of the entire situation in the air and the ability to adjust airpower much more quickly in keeping with that big picture.

Of all the means of enhancing command and control that the Air Force came up with for Desert Storm, one put into place just before it started was at least as important as all others.

Last December, CENTAF issued “an urgent and compelling requirement” for new equipment that would show the big picture of all air actions everywhere in the theater at any given time, said General Fornell. He continued, “To do this, we [ESDI took a new system we had just developed for TAC and produced a stand-alone version capable of tracking 1,200 aircraft from data obtained from AWACS and from ground radar systems.”

The system was installed in CENTAF’s Tactical Air Control Center, source of the all-important allied Air Tasking Order, and was operational within a month of CENTAF’s request.

Talk about the nick of time. Ten days later, General Horner watched as nearly 700 Air Force planes took off and headed into combat. The ATO had come alive. Desert Storm had begun.