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,”
“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
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
“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
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.”