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Close Air Support Tactics Sharpened in Iraq 


by Sandra I. Erwin 

Close air support missions in the war over Iraq saw unprecedented levels of coordination between ground forces and aviators, officials said. But improvements are needed in training and in communications technology, in order to lower the risk of fratricide and of accidental civilian bombings.

“While dissimilar communications sometimes served as a limiting factor, [we were] able to achieve interoperability in Operation Iraqi Freedom,” said Air Force Maj. Greg Defore, chief of kill-box interdiction and close air support at the Combined Air Operations Center, in Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia. The Prince Sultan center—scheduled to close down in August—handled air sorties for Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Kill-box is pilot vernacular used to describe the section of the battle zone assigned to CAS aircraft. Kill boxes typically are allocated by the air-war commander, based on the number of aircraft available and the knowledge that no friendly ground troops are operating in those areas.

Close air support operations are run from a centralized contact point, (also known as a CAS stack), for a geographic area, Defore explained in an e-mail interview from Prince Sultan.

Defore is an F-15E pilot from the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, which flew CAS missions in support of U.S. Army and Marine Corps units on the ground, as they advanced toward Baghdad in early April.

The stacks of aircraft serving as fire-support weapons for soldiers and Marines in Iraq were controlled by two organizations: the air support operations center (ASOC), in the Army area of operations; and the direct air support center (DASC), in the Marine area of operations. The two had to “de-conflict” the aircraft in the stacks, before they could be assigned targets by the so-called Joint Terminal Air Controllers (JTAC).

When Navy and Air Force strike warplanes are in the same “kill box,” Defore said, “we work on a common kill-box frequency and de-conflict either by geography, altitude or timing, so as to not be in the same piece of sky at the same time.

“We also make sure no one’s bombs are falling through friendly formations,” he said. Reconnaissance aircraft or A-10 FACs (forward air controller) normally are responsible for investigating “emerging targets” and for performing “collateral damage estimates ... while reaffirming nearest friendly locations to the target.”

“If we determine that it’s a valid target, then we decide which weapon and platform is best suited,” Defore said.

The F-15E has more endurance than other fighters, “so often we’ll put someone else’s weapons into an emerging target because they simply don’t have the on-station time we provide the ground force.”

Despite long-standing perceptions that the Air Force dominates the allocation of weaponry in CAS operations, Defore stressed that the JTAC does not play favorites.

“The branch of service of aircraft in a CAS stack does not matter to the JTAC,” he said. “All he is concerned about is the effects that platform brings to the fight.

“When a new target ‘pops up,’ that is what generates a need for close air support,” Defore said. In many cases, the JTAC would call the Army ASOC and request help. “The JTAC will tell the ASOC what the target is and an aircraft with suitable ordnance to deal with the threat will be sent to the JTAC location.”

Skillful aviators and controllers often can work around equipment interoperability problems, but Defore said joint CAS operations in the future should benefit from better communications technology and more cross-service training.

“As communications equipment evolves, our ability to operate in a joint and combined environment will improve,” he said.

“From a training standpoint, more joint training exercises will allow us to operate together, despite dissimilar communications equipment.”

In the Iraq war, he added, pilots did not have trouble talking to the JTAC. Rather, “it was a matter of control agencies not being similarly configured.”

Even minor communications glitches in stressful combat conditions could result in deadly consequences, such as firings on friendly forces or accidental bombings of innocent civilians. Close coordination with ground units can help prevent that, Defore said.

“CAS by definition is in close proximity to friendly troops and requires detailed coordination with the ground scheme of maneuver. ... Strikes that take place deep in enemy territory do not require this level of coordination.”

Strike missions come with various degrees of complexity. In Iraq, the fast-moving ground war made it more difficult for air war planners to keep up with the location of friendly troops. “In addition to the normal challenges that all strikes have, close air support missions have the additional requirement of knowing what the ground forces are doing in the target area in order to avoid fratricide,” Defore said.

“We have to visually identify the target and we have to determine whether it’s a hostile [military] target. We determine that it’s not friendly by using visual recognition features and through coordination with the ground elements of the nearest friendly positions.”

Just knowing that a target is not friendly is only a part of the equation, he added. “You may be 100 percent sure that a vehicle is not friendly and still not engage it. It could, for instance, be a humanitarian food truck or a farm vehicle.”

In those instances when target identification gets fuzzy, pilots must receive clearance from commanders before they can drop weapons.

Even powerful sensors such as the Joint STARS surveillance radar do not necessarily assist in identification, Defore said. Systems such as JSTARS “bird-dog us onto lucrative targets by pointing us toward areas of heavy MTI (moving target indications), which implies convoys. The identification piece then rests with the aircrew.”

Pilots, for example, easily can differentiate a tank from a missile launcher. “I have never seen a tank confused for a mobile SAM (surface-to-air missile)—maybe an armored personnel carrier, but a tank has a significant visual/infrared signature unlike a mobile SAM.”

In operations over urban areas, with a high concentration of civilians, CAS pilots also must make decisions about what type of munitions to use. The obvious answer is “low-collateral damage weapons,” said Defore. Typically that means an inert (concrete) laser-guided bomb or an LGB with delayed fusing. “If it doesn’t hit the tank, it’ll create a crater but very little fragmentation damage to surrounding infrastructure,” he said. Either weapon “must be delivered to achieve a very steep impact angle so as to avoid ricochet. Although a concrete LGB obviously has no blast, fragmentation, or penetration effects, a 500-pound piece of concrete skipping through the city could cause big problems.”

Another option is the 20 mm cannon. “It’s very precise, but you have to get in close to the threat to employ it.”

Surprisingly, most aircrews do not have any electronic data links with friendly ground combat vehicles. Only a limited number of National Guard A-10 Warthogs have the so-called EPLRS-SADL, a situational awareness data link that connects the aircraft with the Army tactical internet, made up of tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles.

“We are not on the same data-link network as the ground units, but that capability is fast approaching,” said Defore.

As far as training goes, the extensive use of the F-15 as a CAS platform in Iraq could lead to changes in exercises, which traditionally have focused on air-to-air missions.

F-15E pilots in Iraq were amazed at the “sheer amount of killer interdiction and CAS performed by the F-15Es,” Defore said. In combat, it consumed “virtually 100 percent of our missions.”

In the future, he said, “regardless of what aircraft we fly, our peacetime training needs to mirror the most realistic combat utilization of our aircraft. We need to train to the most recurring need for airpower (killer interdiction/CAS) instead of the most effective use of airpower (air-to-air sweep). Because of our air dominance, we are engaging targets on the ground far more than we are in the air.”

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