Armed Overwatch

Dec. 1, 2008

The US and its coalition partners will fly nearly 35,000 close air support and armed reconnaissance missions over Iraq and Afghanistan this year. Since 2004, the cumulative total will top 130,000 sorties.

Oct. 11, 2008 was a typical day over Afghanistan. F-15Es, A-10s, and Navy F/A-18Cs dropped a variety of satellite guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions on enemy forces in Nangalam, Shkin, Qalat, and other cities. Warthogs and Hornets flew low-level show of force flights. All told, 70 sorties covered NATO and Afghan forces conducting patrols and reconstruction activities that day.

Close air support peaks when the air defense environment is relatively benign and when large numbers of ground forces are on the move and engaged with hostile forces. Iraq and Afghanistan have met the preconditions for several years.

“This is our continual task—to have airpower overhead,” Lt. Gen. Gary L. North, US Central Command’s combined force air component commander, has said.

MSgt. Chris Thompson, a joint terminal attack controller, operates a ROVER in Southwest Asia. (USAF photo by SSgt. Angelique Perez)

This is the new kind of CAS, in which most sorties do not drop bombs although pilots are ready to do so on a moment’s notice. Aircrews fly regular, dedicated sorties, but “armed overwatch” and shows of force are the new norm.

In this regard, CAS today bears little resemblance to the close air support of yesterday. For example, in Korea, August 1950, Far East Air Forces (FEAF) alone logged 7,397 close air support sorties—about 238 per day.

In Vietnam, CAS was so intense during the siege at Khe Sanh and on other occasions that B-52s became specialists at bomb drops just a few hundred yards from friendly troops.

In Desert Storm, CAS totaled just six percent of the sorties. It was considered an emergency procedure, tightly controlled and limited in numbers.

Precision weapons, rapid retargeting, and the use of sensors for battlespace awareness have revolutionized CAS. Virtually all fighter and bomber sorties flown in the CENTCOM area of responsibility are now categorized as close air support.

The change became obvious with the kickoff of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, where the lion’s share of armed fighter sorties were termed kill box interdiction/close air support, or KI/CAS—a term with a nice vernacular ring. KI/CAS was emphasized to ensure that land forces had plentiful interdiction and close air support on their two-pronged drive to Baghdad.

Air commanders sought to limit the amount of “traditional” close air support because of the high payoff from attacking enemy forces before they engaged troops. Most of the early OIF sorties interdicted targets tens and even hundreds of miles away from the forward edge of the battle. Kill box interdiction was efficient because fewer airspace control measures were needed when friendly troops were not in close proximity.

The concept won praise from its main customers—the land forces.

“We had CAS in abundance,” said then-Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, commander, V Corps, and the top Army commander on the ground in Iraq.

A total of 15,592 designated mean points of impact (DMPIs) were struck while labeled as KI/CAS missions during the month of major combat operations. By that reckoning, KI/CAS consumed 79 percent of the air attack effort.

Three Types

Much of this was “Type III” CAS, where controllers cleared aircraft to drop within a certain area for a specified period of time, with devastating effect.

In Type I close air support, the joint terminal attack controller is physically located at the objective and sees both the aircraft and the target. One controller described Type I CAS as “the reason I have no hearing in my left ear.”

In Type II CAS, the JTAC has real-time and accurate target data, but there is no requirement to see the aircraft and target. Because of this, the aircraft must be “cleared hot” by the controller for every strike, to ensure accuracy.

In Type III CAS, the JTAC gives an aircraft blanket clearance to attack a specified area in a given time period. The JTAC imposes limits through boundaries and terrain features, but aircraft do not have to check in for clearance before every weapons release. This type of kill box CAS was common in the major combat operations phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

A-10s, such as this one, perform daily close air support missions in the War on Terror. (USAF photo by TSgt. Cecilio M. Ricardo Jr.)

Controllers today find themselves relying heavily on Type I and Type II CAS. Blanket clearance for Type III CAS has become very rare, “especially in Iraq, where it’s so dense,” said MSgt. Thomas Gorski, a JTAC instructor. “You really want control” in an urban or populated environment.

Yet there were clearly areas for improvement even early on.

An after action report from the Army’s 1st Battlefield Coordination Detachment examined what they called “the good and bad” of joint fires in late 2003. The BCD was located within the combined air operations center and served as the main liaison between air and land components. While praising the abundance of close air support sorties, the report turned a critical spotlight on command and control issues, and the lack of standardized, timely bomb damage assessment to pass back to the land component was a top complaint.

The Air Force did not see the problem in quite the same terms—as Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, then the CFACC, put it while the campaign was still under way: “There will be someone, somewhere along the way, that will want an accounting scheme of who killed what vehicle, … but right now that’s not important to us.”

Overall, KI/CAS was a winner in the all-out phase of OIF, but few anticipated that CAS would grow into the glue helping hold together dispersed land operations. The need to manage a lethal but evasive threat vaulted CAS into a set of new missions as the stabilization operations in Iraq and Afghanistan grew more complex and protracted.

In 2004, coalition air forces flew 14,292 CAS sorties in OIF and another 6,495 supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.

Then the missions widened. Stability operations and dispersed firefights are different: Collateral damage concerns and the dense mix of forces require controllers to deliver CAS with greater efficiency.

Aircraft on CAS missions have now dropped laser guided bombs and JDAMs on personnel sites, compounds, and weapons caches.

They linked with controllers on the ground via ROVER communications laptop sets streaming real-time video between cockpits and the ground controllers.

They delivered emergency close air support in close visual range to troops under fire.

Aircraft began getting calls to strafe insurgents on low-level passes at more than 400 miles per hour.

They fired flares at low altitudes to press insurgents into retreat.

The finely tailored support allowed ground forces to use strike aircraft for suppressive fire.

US Air Forces Central’s categorization of all of these missions as close air support sorties changed the terms of reference. While many supported troops in contact with enemy forces, most were flown in a role best described as overwatch.

Having aircraft airborne and on call permitted land forces and Special Forces to fan out without lugging along mortars and artillery every time they moved.

The terminology of record dropped references to interdiction.

AFCENT records later showed just 371 bombs dropped during the 20,787 sorties flown in 2004, but that didn’t matter. The troops are protected whether bombs are dropped, flares frighten off the enemy, a screaming low-level pass compels an enemy retreat, or the mere presence of coalition aircraft deters an attack.

An F-15E heads out on a mission over Afghanistan. (USAF photo by MSgt. Andy Dunaway)

Hide and Seek

The real ramp up began in 2007, when overall sorties rose to 30,668 across the CENTCOM AOR. Between 2004 and 2007, the number of close air support sorties flown increased 50 percent, according to Air Forces Central. CAS sorties flown in Afghanistan nearly doubled, while close air support for Iraq rose 25 percent.

Gone are the days of dropping strings of ordnance on dug-in positions for hours on end. The precision of today’s CAS weapons are matched by ever-more careful procedures for weapons employment.

“The enemy doesn’t operate in droves like in past conflicts,” said Lt. Col. Dave Trimble, who was the 190th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander in Afghanistan. “It’s not like we show up and see a mass of people advancing. It’s much more challenging trying to find them in the types of terrain they are dispersed in.”

Enter the joint terminal attack controller. The JTAC has the authority to call in close air support, and these days, land force operations in Iraq or Afghanistan don’t go far without them.

In 2008, the 6th Combat Training Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nev., produced 120 qualified JTACs. Senior airmen and staff sergeants first attend a course at Hurlburt Field, Fla., then go to Nellis for five weeks of intensive training—three weeks of academics followed by two weeks of live exercises on the range.

The live exercises are where the JTACs learn the “mental muscle memory” of close air support, the “cadence they follow when controlling aircraft,” explained Lt. Col. Red Walker, director of operations for the 6th CTS.

On the range, each JTAC gains proficiency by controlling eight to a dozen close air sorties before returning to home units for final mission qualification.

“We graduate guys who will conduct this job safely,” said Gorski, an instructor at the 6th CTS.

MSgt. Craig Hillsman (r) relays target information to an A-10 pilot during a training exercise. TSgt. Robert Mathis is operating a ground laser target designator. (USAF photo by MSgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald)

Production “does need to increase,” said Walker. The Army’s brigade combat teams are expanding, and “the need for JTACs will increase.” Recognizing this, the 6th CTS is ramping up to train 150 new JTACs in 2009, and perhaps even more in the future.

Nellis’ student pipeline is limited by the output of the JTAC technical training course—but even more by the limited air sorties available to JTACs in training.

The school has no aircraft assigned to it: All the aircraft flying in support of the JTAC course come from Green Flag-West exercises. “We are one of multiple priorities,” said Walker.

Once on assignment in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is often not firepower, but surveillance that ground forces want. Using targeting pods and other on-board systems, fighters scan for targets, enemy forces, and improvised explosive devices. They can also provide full-motion video via video link to ground forces.

Fighters and bombers now have precision sensors. F-16s and F/A-18s with targeting pods use infrared sensors not just to refine fixed targets but to look for new ones—or verify their absence.

What is loosely termed nontraditional ISR, or NTISR, started out with air support requests from ground forces. By 2006, it was being refined into a subset of three missions: armed recce, armed overwatch, and NTISR.

“Armed recce and armed overwatch are requested through normal ASR channels, and NTISR is requested through intelligence channels,” explained Lt. Col. Wayne Shaw III, writing in 2007. Emphasis, he said, was “being rightly placed on armed recce or armed overwatch in support of troops on the ground.”

Reports from the field indicate that pilots are acclimated to orbiting for overwatch and employing a variety of ordnance, from flares to GPS-guided bombs to 20 mm shells from their guns.

An al Qaeda compound in Iraq goes up in smoke after being hit by a B-1B. Note the JDAM about to hit the target.(USAF photo by MSgt. Andy Dunaway)

Not Enough To Go Around

“If our presence alone makes the enemy stop shooting, that in itself is rewarding,” Trimble said.

Producing enough JTACs—and keeping them current—is likely to remain difficult. Army and Marine Corps doctrine call for nonlinear operations where maneuver units operate deeper, more independently, and with less organic and mutually supporting firepower. Close air support will give them the overwatch needed to maneuver fast and the indirect firepower to achieve objectives.

Dispersing maneuver units further could scale up the demand for CAS even more. “They have multiple objectives, and they want us there,” said SSgt. John Dowd, a 6th CTS instructor. “There’re not enough of us to go around.”

By the controllers’ estimates, there are less than 500 JTACs.

One major question will be where best to position controllers in the future. The traditional controller embedded with land forces may not be the best way to execute the mission. In fact, ground commanders often want a JTAC in the tactical operations center (TOC) with them.

“Conventional brigades have so much going on, … we can’t be everywhere at once,” noted Gorski. However, “with SOF or Rangers, you can be at every objective,” he added, due to the smaller number of individual units.

A JTAC located in the TOC can be available to assist in two or more places at once by controlling support through digital networks. The situational awareness of the JTAC in the field can be much more limited. Placing them in combat also creates the risk that they could be injured or killed, quickly making a bad combat situation even worse for troops under fire.

Despite the benefit of enhanced situational awareness and constant connectivity in the TOC, it’s not always a popular spot. “A lot of guys really hate staying back and not being out on the objective with the Army,” said Gorski.

A B-1B begins a new mission over Afghanistan. Virtually all heavy bomber sorties are classified as CAS missions. (USAF photo by MSgt. Andy Dunaway)

To help deal with the shortage of trained controllers, the Army is creating joint fires observers. These JFOs do not control fixed-wing aircraft. They are trained to call in ground-based fires and some helicopters. Fixed-wing CAS procedures are spelled out in an agreement between US Joint Forces Command, the services, and several allies. It specifies that only certified JTACs may control fixed-wing close air support.

The JFOs are, however, part of the loop in passing targeting data back to the tactical operations center. Walker explained that for Type II or Type III close air support, “accurate data from the JFO may allow for an air strike.” However, the final decision rests firmly with the JTAC.

Close air support by nature varies with the ground operations concept. But it will always be one of the airman’s most rewarding jobs. CAS is airpower at its highest level of support, and a small cadre of specialized airmen controls it.

Rebecca Grant is a senior fellow of the Lexington Institute and president of IRIS Independent Research. She has written extensively on airpower and serves as director for AFA’s Mitchell Institute. Her most recent article for Air Force Magazine was “Airpower Genesis,” which appeared in the November issue.