Lack of direct communications between pilots in the cockpit and troops on the ground in Iraq impede close-air support operations, says a Navy air wing commander.
During a 10-month deployment last year as commander of Carrier Air Wing 9, aboard the USS Carl Vinson, Capt. James Spence, says pilots consistently were frustrated by the imprecise information about the location of targets.
“Combat doesn’t work like training,” he tells a conference of the Precision Strike Association.
Out of a dozen engagements, he says, “We never had a qualified joint tactical air controller on the ground; we never had JDAM-quality coordinates from the ground.” The joint direct attack munition is a satellite-guided bomb that requires precise geo-coordinates to make it fly to the correct target. Oftentimes, Spence says, “The air controller pushed the aircraft to a radio frequency where there was some scared young kid getting shot at and needing help.” Throughout the deployment, he adds, pilots had to contend with “non-standard communications and non-standard coordinates.”
For many pilots, this was the first time they encountered these less-than-desirable scenarios. “We train to expect pristine coordinates. We expect qualified tactical air controllers, communications and procedures we practice … In the real world, that’s not what’s going to happen.”
Maj. Gen. David C. Ralston, commander of the Army Field Artillery Center, says a new course is being offered at Fort Sill, Okla., for joint tactical air controllers. These controllers could come from any service. Ideally, Ralston says, the Army would like to have a “joint fires officer” in each maneuver platoon. “That’s a big goal,” says Ralston. Most likely, the Army will barely manage to field one JFO with each maneuver company.
The most specialized tactical air controllers come from the Air Force special operations forces, but they are in short supply and cannot possibly support every engagement in Iraq.
Ralston touts the recent introduction of a new technology, known as precision strike suite for special operations forces, which provides ground troops with grid coordinates. A process that typically takes from 15 minutes to an hour can be compressed to five minutes, says Ralston. The system remains in development and could be fielded soon, he adds.
The difficulties in air-ground coordination seen in Iraq only reinforce how hard of a problem this is, says Owen R. Cote Jr., associate director of the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The value that airplanes provide is “timely, persistent source of fire for the ground forces when they need it,” he says in an interview. “When ground forces do need fire support, it’s of great value.”
But the shift from fixed to mobile targets means a mission cannot be preplanned, and more improvisation is needed. “Close-air support looks inefficient, but it provides leverage.” Communications with ground forces are “hard to engineer,” he says. “It’s not a fundamental technical constraint. But it requires a persistent effort and collaboration from the ground force. The Army sometimes can be as big a part of the problem … The services were not designed for this mode of operation.”