Published Airpower Journal -
Approved for public release; distribution is unlimited.
DEFINITIONS in the close-air-support (CAS) arena are difficult at best, getting twisted around by doctrinal statements and the intricacies of interservice rivalry. But when long-range air assault operations are involved, the discrepancies and dichotomies get dangerous. During Operation Desert Storm, elements of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) penetrated 90, then 150 miles into Iraqi territory in brigade-sized assaults. As long as the lines on the maps remain connected, everyone understands (at least conceptually) where CAS, battlefield air interdiction (BAI), and air interdiction (AI) fit into the game plan. Problems arise when large troop formations appear well past the forward edge of the battle area (FEBA) and the call goes out for air support.
To grasp the subtleties of this problem and to see just how it could develop, we need an understanding of the current definitions and procedures of the tactical air control system (TACS)/Army air ground system (AAGS). The sidebar contains some fundamental definitions agreed to by those who produce the manuals.
These definitions are fairly close and in fact get closer the further they get from ground troops in contact with the enemy. At the tactical level, there is a problem with translating the definitions into clearly understood employment options. The Army likes to work with overlays on maps. Figure 1 shows how CAS, BAI, and AI appear to the Army relative to coordination lines.
In this figure, friendly troops are attacking from left to right. Army fire coordination measures also expand to include several permissive and restrictive measures, but for the purpose of this article, we will stick to the basics. These basics are reflected in actual Operation Desert Storm tactics as presented later. For our discussion to continue, we need another definition, this time for the fire support coordination line (FSCL):
A line beyond which all targets may be attacked by any weapon system (including aircraft and special weapons) without endangering troops or requiring additional coordination with the establishing headquarters. The effects of any weapon system may not fall short of this line. Purpose--To expedite the attack of targets beyond the FSCL.1
Now we begin to see the kernel of the problem for an air assault unit. One mission option of an air assault unit is a deep penetration--that is, an attack well behind enemy lines either as a raid or an attack in force.2 The term deep is sufficiently vague as to cause a definitional problem. If you pass the FSCL on a deep mission, can you still get CAS? Even though the tactical air employment mission definitions are vague enough to permit this possibility, the Army and Air Force employment tends to support the concept of a linear battle developing where "in depth" means an area still within the range of long-range artillery and the FSCL moves only as the FEBA and forward line of own troops (FLOT) move in a coordinated effort.
Before we can fully address the problem encountered during Desert Storm, we need to know something about the air request system itself. Figure 2 shows how it works. Figure 2 also presents the nightmare of everyone who has ever attended the Joint Firepower Control Course. What we see is the TACS. A tactical air control party (TACP) with an air liaison officer (ALO) is located with each Army unit down to the battalion level. Although the following definitions are from an Army field manual, they come close to reality:
Air Liaison Officer (ALO)--The senior Air Force officer at each tactical air control party (TACP). Advises the Army commander and staff on the capabilities, limitations, and employment of tactical air operations. He operates the Air Force request net. He coordinates close air support (CAS) missions with the fire support element (FSE), and assists in planning the simultaneous employment of air and surface fires. He supervises forward air controllers (FACs) and will assist the fire support team (FIST) in directing airstrikes in the absence of a FAC.
Tactical Air Control Party (TACP)--The TACPs are collocated at each appropriate command echelon of the supported ground force, normally battalion through corps.
They advise and assist the commander, request and coordinate tactical air support, and meet other requirements of the individual ground force echelon supported. A TACP consists of experienced air crews and technicians, ground and/or airborne vehicles, and the communications equipment required to obtain, coordinate, and control tactical air support of ground operations.3
The mechanics of the air request system break down into two parts: preplanned and immediate. Preplanned requests are just as the name implies, planned well in advance of the ground or air attack operation and submitted prior to a cutoff established by the tactical air control center (TACC). The TACC manages the air war for the joint force commander; theoretically, it even liaises with the Navy, but that is another Desert Storm story. (See the Tactical Analysis Bulletin for Desert Shield and Desert Storm.) The Air Support Operations Center (ASOC) manages the daily offensive war in support of the corps and handles the immediate requests. One TACC may have numerous ASOCs. The ASOC is normally collocated with the Army corps as shown in figure 2. Immediate requests for close air support are transmitted directly from the affected Army unit to the ASOC. Silence on the net by any higher TACP is considered approval at that level. If there is no objection by the TACP chain, the ASOC will fill the request with whatever air is available based on priority and guidance established by the corps commander through his fire support element (FSE). The priority should include real-time factors as well as the corps commander's concept of the operation.
Now that we have covered the pertinent background and alluded to some of the difficulties of integrating air and land forces, we turn to the specific problem that sparked this article.
The 101st Airborne was assigned a series of air assault operations in support of the ground invasion of Iraq. These were brigade-sized operations--a brigade task force includes about 4,000 people--with the first going 90 miles into enemy territory. As the ALO for the 1st brigade, I completed a close-air-support plan that covered 36 hours starting two hours prior to the projected landing time for the first wave of the air assault. The air requests are shown in table 1. The plan was worked out in conjunction with the brigade fire support officer (FSO) and the attack aviation battalions. We figured it would be a good idea to have fixed-wing assets prep the landing zones (LZ), escort the mission into the area, and stick around for the subsequent assault waves. Since the resistance on the LZs was unknown, the plan covered the times we considered crucial to establishing the perimeter in Objective Cobra. (Objective Cobra was the initial operation for the 1st Brigade and required securing a major supply dump inside Iraq for continuing helicopter operations.) We decided that if we were still having trouble 33 hours after the initial landing, we would have a pretty high priority on CAS. The requests were submitted to the division TACP five days prior to the assault. Two days after division forwarded the requests on to corps, the corps ALO informed the division ALO that the requests had been passed on but would not be honored by the TACC. They had determined that since the target area was over 60 miles beyond the FSCL, the requests should have been for AI rather than CAS. The division ALO and his assistant, the fighter liaison officer (FLO), personally appealed the decision, but by now we were inside of two days prior to the operation and past the TACC established cutoff for submission of preplanned requests. I submitted immediate requests (table 2). These requests covered the time just prior to and through just after the final wave of the air assault.
After the immediate requests were submitted, we moved to our final positions for the assault and waited. Just after midnight on the night of 23-24 February, the division FSE passed the air tasking order (ATO), a listing of the missions to be flown for the next 24-hour period. The ATO listed missions reflecting the original preplanned requests (table 3). With just three hours to go until lift-off, I was a bit confused but felt that I would be happy if I got the air shown on the ATO. At 0400 and 0430 two two-ships of A-10s checked in. The weather was deteriorating due to rain and blowing dust, and the attack helicopters had been pulled back. Without the attack helicopters I had no way to mark targets obscured by the darkness and the weather. I sent both sets of aircraft up the invasion route on an armed reconnaissance and hoped for the best. No targets were found, and the A-10s moved off station. The helicopter assault was delayed two hours due to weather.
Finally, at 0700, the first assault wave of 66 UH-60 Blackhawk and 33 CH-47 Chinook helicopters headed across the border. Once airborne, I contacted the ASOC on secure high frequency for a radio check and to determine the status of the rest of the missions on the ATO. The ASOC informed me that the ATO was being redirected based on need. Since I was heading into Iraq with an unknown threat on the LZs, and the most critical period of an air assault is during the landing, I figured I needed some CAS on station to cover me. The ASOC disagreed and informed me that the corps FSE had established the priority for immediate CAS with the 6th French and 82d Airborne, which were advancing on our left flank on the ground. I reminded the ASOC that the French had armor; that my organic fire support was about 24 attack helicopters, six l05-mm howitzer tubes, and some tube-launched, optically tracked, wire command (TOW) missiles; and that priorities should shift to cover my landings. The ASOC informed me that when I had troops in contact I would get air. About that time my third battalion reported taking fire on the LZ. I relayed this information to the ASOC, which sent some air. Luckily, the 3d Battalion problem turned out to be snipers and was rectified before the CAS arrived. But when the CAS did arrive, two F-16s, it was just as the 1st Battalion ran into a bunker complex. The F-16s worked over the bunkers while the attack helicopters refueled and the artillery set up; the battalion took over 400 prisoners and captured a supply complex when the dust settled. The CAS was the key in the bunker assault and in the subsequent capture of a division supply dump.
Is there a problem here? I needed CAS, I got CAS. None of my people died, and we took the objective. Actually there are two major problems: the confusion concerning preplanned CAS beyond the FSCL and the inability of the corps FSE to coordinate air priorities across the XVIII Airborne Corps battle plan.
In the final analysis, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck and looks like a duck . . . it's CAS. Air power applied in direct support of an air assault is not interdiction, no matter if the objective is short of or beyond the FSCL. In fact, if the air support is to be used in direct support of troops, no matter where they are, it is CAS. This view is supported by the definitions we referenced earlier. Neither definition mentions any fire support coordination measures or geographic requirements--just that the air action is requested by the ground commander, is near friendly troops, and is integrated with the fire and movement of the ground forces.
I am still not sure what happened to my preplanned air requests. Based on the ATO, it would appear that the TACC honored the requests even though the corps ALO and the ASOC said the TACC would not. The fact that such confusion still existed within 72 hours of the invasion should give us some pause as we review the operation.
As for the difficulty of the ASOC in integrating the battle plan with air priorities, it would appear that there was a breakdown at the corps FSE. There were two XVIII Airborne Corps efforts that morning: the 6th French with the 82d Airborne and the 101st Airborne. The French had armor support and organic artillery traveling with their assault echelons. The 82d Airborne was traveling with the French. This would normally indicate a shift in CAS priorities to the 101st based on the 1st Brigade's organic fire support.
Another factor to be considered at this point is the amount of resistance each attack was encountering. As part of a linear battle, the French would be able to report enemy resistance as they proceeded toward their objective. Theater competition for CAS assets did exist since the Marines and coalition forces were involved with the invasion of Kuwait. But that was also a linear battle. Of course, the 101st could not know about enemy resistance until actually on the LZs. With this in mind, it seems reasonable to expect that the ASOC would shift any available assets--and according to the airborne battlefield command and control center (ABCCC), there were assets available at the time of the 1st Brigade attack--to cover the helicopter landings. Once a determination was made concerning resistance on the LZs, the CAS could either be released or increased. None of this is out of the ordinary vis-È-vis the training TACS/AAGS personnel receive at the Joint Firepower Control Course of the Air Ground Operations School or the procedures we had discussed with the ASOC during the preceding six months. During a telephone interview after the war ended, the fighter duty officer (FIDO), who was on duty during the 1st Brigade attack, acknowledged that the argument we just developed was certainly logical but that the priority of fires had been established by the corps FSE and could not be altered unless I had troops in contact with the enemy.
Do we have a doctrinal hole here? Actually, I don't think so. What we do have is a series of flexible definitions that have been interpreted for armor or mechanized forces on a linear battlefield. The key to using that flexibility without the constraining influences is for all elements of the TACS/AAGS to be conversant with the ground commander's concept of the operation and battle plan at each level, as well as each unit's capabilities. That should have happened in the Persian Gulf but obviously did not.
So where do we go from here? Step one is a complete revision of a term so old that it carries a lot of conceptual baggage with it: CAS. What we really have is either air power applied in close proximity to troops or air power applied not in close promixity to troops. Definitions and lines on maps that do not allow for the flexibility required by nonlinear battle plans should be scrapped. Close proximity to troops can include missions under the direct, terminal control of a ground or airborne FAC or bombing missions beyond visual range of the controlling agency but clearly deconflicted with friendly forces. This is obviously going to get tricky when an operation like the one described above results in a linkup between air assault or airborne forces well beyond the FEBA and heavy forces moving in a linear battle. Battle handoff and combat identification will become crucial, and air support not under direct control of the FACs may not be permitted. At the risk of being named as an accomplice in creating new acronyms, I suggest getting rid of the term CAS and coming up with a name that is descriptive of the requirements of the joint arena.
Should we also junk the TACS/AGGS system? No. But we do need to exercise every aspect of the system until the basics are automatic. Every Army, Marine, or Navy exercise has to include some role for at least the TACC. For Army exercises here in the states, this isn't as difficult or expensive as it may sound. The air request net already has the long-range communications equipment to operate from each unit's home station. Involvement has to include having the TACC and ASOC task active-duty, Air Guard, and Reserve fighter squadrons to provide sorties in support of Army exercises, with little warning, for preplanned and immediate requests.
When I was in the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Kunsan, South Korea, the squadron was regularly tasked to provide support for CAS operations by an ATO. There was no whining or debate; the squadron simply planned and flew the missions. ALOs will submit preplanned requests through Army channels to the assigned peacetime TACC in accordance with TACC-established requirements and cutoffs. I am talking about responsive cutoffs with as little lead time as a week. Immediate requests will be handled by the ASOC and come from a pool of available sorties managed by the TACC and the numbered air forces to include tankers if needed. Flight crews will have to actually plan nonstandard missions with time constraints and little warning. No deployment or exercise costs are incurred because everyone trains from home station. Everybody is a player, A-10s to F-15Es. Obviously, some are going to be tasked more than others. This cannot be done because of training requirements and maintenance restrictions? Unacceptable; this is realistic training for combat operations.
What about the Guard and Reserve? Everybody plays. Establish what kind of lead time the reserve forces need and give it to them, but hold them to it and pay them with man-days for their participation.
There will be growing problems with this kind of system, but better to sweat in peace than to bleed in war. If this requires an overhaul of current training guidance, so be it.
In Iraq we recovered from a series of misunderstandings and got the job done. We have the capability to do the job better next time. The Army field manual (FM) on air assault operations covers low-, mid-, and high-intensity conflict. Support of those operations in areas far from Army direct-fire support must be provided either by fixed- or rotary-wing assets or a combination of both. Do not construe this article as strictly Army/Air Force. Flexibility is essential in the employment of air power in all joint force operations, and all future operations will be joint with all services participating in planning if not in execution. I have been told not to take these problems so personally. At 0700 on 24 February 1991, the members of my TACPs and I took it real personally.
Train like you want to fight.
1. FM 7-20, The Infantry Battalion (Infantry, Airborne, and Air Assault), December 1984, 8-11.
2. FM 90-4, Air Assault Operations, March 1987, 1-2, 3.
3. FM 101-5-1, Operational Terms and Symbols, October 1985, 1-3, 1-69.
Maj John M. Fawcett, Jr. (USAFA; MBA, Cornell University), is chief, TACOPS, European/CONUS Plans Branch, Headquarters Tactical Air Command, Langley AFB, Virginia. He has more than 1,000 flying hours as an F-4 weapon systems officer instructor. He has served as commander of Headquarters Squadron at USAFA, as air Liaison officer during Operation Desert Shield/Storm with the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, and as action officer with TAC headquarters. Major Fawcett is a graduate of Squadron Officer School and Air Command and Staff College.
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.
[ Back Issues | Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor ]