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Document created: 1 September 06
Air & Space Power Journal - Fall 2006

Air & Space Power Journal


The Nature of Close Air Support in
Low Intensity Conflict

Lt Col Phil M. Haun, USAF

SINCE THE CESSATION of conventional hostilities in Afghanistan in the fall of 2002 and Iraq in the spring of 2003, the United States Air Force has provided close air support (CAS) in low intensity conflicts (LIC). In Iraq, US forces have faced the challenge of controlling sprawling urban areas, as witnessed in the battle for Fallujah. In Afghanistan, on the other hand, our forces have conducted operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in small villages spread throughout the rugged, mountainous terrain of central and eastern Afghanistan. Despite the significant differences in operations, however, the nature of LIC CAS remains consistent: air operations conducted in a low-threat environment against an elusive enemy. Aircrews trained in CAS with an emphasis on placing bombs on mechanized fielded forces have been frustrated in LICs by the lack of “valid” targets (i.e., a perception that they are simply “drilling holes” in the sky on the majority of missions). Joint doctrine has done little to educate Airmen in this regard. Joint Publication (JP) 3-09.3, Joint Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Close Air Support (CAS), focuses on the methods of coordinating and integrating fires with little mention of the other means by which airpower can support ground forces. The additional tasks of visual search, ground-convoy escort, and enhancement of command and control (C2) have all proven invaluable assets to ground commanders.

This article highlights the differences between conventional and LIC operations and underscores the role of LIC CAS as one beyond that of providing firepower. It then considers how current joint doctrine and training emphasize conventional operations without adequately addressing LIC CAS. Finally, it provides concrete suggestions for improving both doctrine and training to better prepare Airmen for the unique demands of this effort.

Conventional versus
Low Intensity
Conflict Operations

Conventional and LIC operations differ significantly according to the nature of the enemy, the specified military objectives, and the methods by which military operations are conducted. In conventional warfare, the enemy is a state actor protected by a mechanized military force. The enemy state has a populace and occupies territory. LIC, however, involves remnant fighters, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan or insurgents recruited from the local population or neighboring countries, as in Iraq.

In conventional war, strategic objectives focus on the coercion of the enemy state. Military operations primarily involve (but do not confine themselves to) targeting the enemy’s conventional forces. Target sets include C2 centers, enemy air defenses, and fielded forces, all susceptible to identification by air and space assets and engagement by airpower. In LIC, objectives shift to the security and stabilization of an already-occupied region. Military objectives focus more on peacekeeping operations and the reduction of insurgent influence on the populace. The targeting of insurgents hiding within the populace is a complex task since they often appear as small groups of nonuniformed guerilla fighters. Our forces need detailed human intelligence to locate and identify targets, as well as positive control of air strikes by tactical air control parties to prevent fratricide and collateral damage. Although in conventional war the number of targets successfully engaged serves as a rough measure of success, in LIC such attacks indicate a deterioration in security and stability.

As with the nature of the enemy and military objectives, the types of military operations conducted in conventional conflict versus LIC vary significantly. In conventional war, target sets include state C2, military headquarters, and fielded forces, all subject to identification, targeting, attack, and assessment. Our forces can employ combined air, land, and sea power against the enemy. Airpower may need to perform extensive air superiority, suppression of enemy air defenses, strategic attack, interdiction, and conventional CAS missions. By contrast, in LIC there are no enemy aircraft to engage, no enemy air defenses to attack, no state headquarters to surgically strike, and no fielded forces to interdict. Airpower still has a critical role to play, but it typically supports the occupying ground forces. These missions include tactical airlift; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; and LIC CAS.

Close Air Support in
Low Intensity Conflict

In LIC the security and stability of the population are of utmost importance. Air strikes, therefore, are significantly restricted in order to limit collateral damage, a factor which can alienate the populace and increase sympathies for the insurgents, as well as weaken domestic and international political support. In lieu of dropping bombs, CAS aircrews find themselves tasked with such missions as ground-convoy escort, visual reconnaissance, and airborne CAS alert. Sorties involving the employment of weapons can account for as few as 4 percent of the total number of missions flown.1 The rare requirement for kinetic effects, however, does not undermine the importance of the presence of armed aircraft. Firepower from the air proves most critical in an emergency situation with friendly troops under attack. Proper weapons employment not only protects friendly lives but also prevents fratricide and collateral damage, both of which can have negative consequences on the strategic level.

In LIC, having dependable CAS assets allows ground forces to operate with reduced indigenous firepower since they rely on airpower to supply fires previously provided by Army artillery. It also allows ground commanders to deploy a larger percentage of ground forces with a reduced reserve force.2 CAS assets overhead serve as a deterrent to enemy ground attack—that is, a ground convoy covered by visible air assets is much less likely to be attacked than one which is not.3 In Afghanistan this has led to a significant increase in demand for ground-convoy escort, with some commanders refusing to depart from safe houses until airpower arrives overhead.4

Even when ground forces do not require the presence of firepower, CAS assets can provide them with important support. Airmen can perform route reconnaissance for convoys, search named areas of interest for enemy activity, and conduct searches for missing friendly vehicles. Further, they can provide a line-of-sight relay between Army tactical operations centers and their deployed ground forces for critical updates.

Close Air Support—Doctrine

CAS is a critical element of ongoing LIC operations. However, CAS as written in joint doctrine addresses conventional operations while neglecting the significant challenges encountered in LIC. According to JP 3-09.3, “CAS provides firepower in offensive and defensive operations to destroy, disrupt, suppress, fix, harass, neutralize, or delay enemy forces.”5 To this end, JP 3-09.3 describes how to organize, plan, prepare, request, and execute CAS missions. The publication tacitly assumes the presence of hostile targets subject to engagement from the air. This, however, is not usually the case in LIC operations.

In light of the low percentage of missions employing weapons (as low as 4 percent in Operation Enduring Freedom), one must question how to best utilize the other 96 percent which do not engage targets. Having airborne CAS alert as their primary mission, these aircrews cover specific vulnerability times over high-risk areas and remain prepared to provide CAS should an emergency or a troops in contact (TIC) situation arise. Although alert CAS remains the highest priority, both airmen and soldiers realize that aircrews waiting overhead for a TIC situation can also use this time to support ground forces in other ways. For example, having aircraft overhead during convoy escort deters ambush and improves C2 by adding a radio relay between convoys and headquarters. Aircrews can also search for broken-down or lost vehicles, as well as reconnoiter roads for vehicle traffic and potential hazards. Taking advantage of the high ground, CAS aircrews can improve the efficiency and success rate of the ground mission by enhancing situational awareness and communications relay, all without ever having to place a bomb on target. Unfortunately, these missions, which take place close to ground forces, are provided by air, and they support ground operations not addressed in joint doctrine and scarcely mentioned in Air Force tactics, techniques, and procedures.

Close Air Support—Training

US Air Force aircrews preparing for LIC operations currently train with CAS tactics, techniques, and procedures developed for use against conventional ground forces. The majority of air-to-surface ranges located in the United States, Europe, and the Pacific are filled with such mechanized targets as tanks, armored personnel carriers, surface-to-air missiles, and so forth, with few urban or mountainous ranges available. Air Warrior, the premiere joint CAS exercise, remains a conventional force-on-force battle. Despite the existence of one LIC CAS exercise—Air Warrior II—most CAS training remains conventional. As a result, CAS aircrews find themselves inadequately prepared to conduct LIC operations.

Changing the Way We Think
about Close Air Support in
Low Intensity Conflict

The Air Force can improve its doctrine and training to include LIC operations by taking two steps. First, it can work with the other services to expand JP 3-09.3 by including a description of CAS during LIC operations. This section can expound upon the nature of the enemy, objectives, and operations, as well as the expanded role of CAS in providing support not limited to firepower. In addition, the Air Force Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (AFTTP) 3-1 series should include detailed discussions of such topics as ground-convoy escort and Army C2 networks. Second, the Air Force must give attention and investment priority to air-to-surface ranges and major exercises for training in LIC operations. Further, it should create more urban and mountainous ranges, along with opportunities for Airmen to practice ground-convoy escort prior to encountering the mission in combat.6


This article has focused on the differences between conventional and LIC operations and offered suggestions for improving doctrine and training to better prepare Airmen for the challenges of LIC CAS. Airpower can provide much more than firepower when it supports ground forces. For example, Airmen can support ground operations without having to place a bomb on target by conducting such missions as visual search, ground-convoy escort, and enhancement of C2. Improving the understanding and training of Airmen for LIC CAS increases the potential for airpower to affect the battlespace positively. Successful LIC operations require a truly joint effort in order to win the peace. The more Airmen understand and train for LIC operations, the quicker and more efficiently the United States can achieve victory.


1. From 4 April to 15 September 2004, the 355th Fighter Squadron, an A-10 unit in Bagram, Afghanistan, flew over 2,350 sorties, using weapons on just 100 of them for an employment rate of 4 percent.

2. Maj Gen Eric Olson, commander of Task Force 76 and the 25th Infantry Division (Light), commented at the CAS symposium at Bagram in August 2004 that CAS allowed him to violate the commandment of having reserve forces available: “CAS is my reserve force.”

3. Of the 2,350 missions flown by the 355th Fighter Squadron from 4 April to 15 September 2004, only two involved attacks by enemy forces while A-10s flew overhead.

4. From 1 April to 15 September 2004, the number of air support requests for ground-convoy escort greatly increased. In April, tasking for ground-convoy escort was limited to special operations forces. By September the majority of these requests supported regular Army ground convoys and comprised well over 25 percent of the daytime daily flying schedule of the 355th Fighter Squadron.

5. Joint Publication 3-09.3, Joint Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Close Air Support (CAS), 3 September 2003 (incorporating change 1, 2 September 2005), ix.

6. The following are two concrete examples for potential improvement in LIC CAS. First, at the National Training Center (Fort Irwin, CA, proper), the residences and infrastructure reside underneath airspace which could be used, with appropriate restrictions, for urban CAS training without live ordnance. In addition, on the non-force-on-force days at Fort Irwin, unique opportunities exist for conducting ground-convoy escort and training for LIC objectives. Second, similar opportunities present themselves for utilizing the infrastructure of Eielson AFB, AK, during the Cope Thunder exercise. Some coordination between the Stryker Brigade at Fort Wainwright, AK, and the 354th Fighter Wing has resulted in possibilities for urban-combat training with minimum impact to the base.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University

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