Air University Review, September-October 1967
Colonel John R. Stoner
They dropped the ordnance right in our laps—but that’s exactly where we
wanted it.” This statement is typical of those made by company, battalion, and
brigade commanders in November of 1965 when the 1st Cavalry Division
(Airmobile) thrust into the middle of Viet Cong strongholds in the Central
These are examples of the close air support provided to units of the 1st Cavalry Division during search and destroy operations in the Plei Me, Duc Co, Ia Drang Valley, and Bong Son tactical zones.
Conclusively, close air support in
ALO — Air Liaison Officer
CTOC— Corps Tactical
DASC — Direct
FAC — Forward Air Controller
TACC — Tactical
TACP — Tactical Air Control Party
TACS — Tactical Air Control System
TOC — Tactical
Without a revolution, tactical air forces have been given the opportunity to do what Tactical Air Command has long been affirming: that we in the tactical air business can provide close air support to engaged ground forces with minimum reaction time. The resultant evolution, which spanned a number of years, culminated in modifying the Tactical Air Control System (TACS) into the control agency used today in employing tactical air forces. The need to modify and update the system became apparent during the early 1960s.
Prior to 1963, communications equipment needed by the combat elements of a division for requesting tactical air support was furnished by the Army. When a ground combat element, a company or battalion, required close air support, the request was transmitted to the next level of command, usually to the brigade command post. There it was analyzed to determine if organic artillery fire support means were available and possessed the desired capability. If not, the air request was approved and transmitted to the division for action. Once again it was acted upon, using the rationale that organic fire must first be considered. The same coordination and approval cycle occurred for the third time with the corps tactical operations center (CTOC). All these related actions within the Army structure, from the battalion on the line to the operations personnel within the CTOC, had to be accomplished before Air Force personnel were made aware that a requirement for close air support existed.
Once the request was finally received within the Air Force agency collocated with the corps, action to launch the strike was immediate. Unfortunately, to the layman within the Army, the Air Force appeared to be totally unresponsive in honoring requirements for close air support. All the time used in staffing the request from the battalion, the originator, to brigade, division, and through the corps structure degraded reaction time to an unacceptable degree. For example, during Joint Exercise Swift Strike II in June 1962, requests for close air support stipulating an on-target deadline of not later than 0800 hours were not made known to the Air Force until 1300 hours. Battles cannot be won when tactical air arrives some five hours late.
As a result of such experiences during most of the joint exercises, the Commander in Chief, U.S. Strike Command, requested that the Commander, Tactical Air Command, and the Commanding General, U.S. Continental Army Command, jointly analyze the organization for fire support coordination and determine the optimum arrangement to support joint forces of varying magnitude. A searching analysis of the system, coupled with the experiences described, revealed the following major weaknesses in the means for requesting and providing air support:
· Inadequate responsiveness of the system to the immediate close air support and tactical air reconnaissance needs of front-line Army commanders. Processing of requests through Army command channels is time consuming, and the delay in informing the Air Force of the air-support requirement is excessive.
· Lack of reliable communications, especially for the air request system and the forward air control system.
· Lack of trained personnel, continuously available, who are intimately familiar with the coordination and planning techniques for providing air support.
As a result of the requested analysis, Tactical Air Command promoted the concept that the Air Force should provide and man all the communications necessary to operate an Air Force immediate air request net which would enable tactical air control parties (TACP’s) at each level of Army command to transmit requests for immediate tactical air support to the direct air support center (DASC). Tactical air control parties consisting of air liaison officers and forward air controllers were furnished jeep-mounted and portable-manpack radios to accomplish this task.
A DASC is collocated with each deployed corps or with a division conducting independent operations. The principal function of this facility is to provide a fast-reaction capability to satisfy requests for close air support, tactical air reconnaissance, and tactical airlift support. The tactical air control center (TACC) allocates sorties to the DASC to satisfy requests and passes scramble and control authority to the DASC.
The DASC is a highly mobile, air-transportable element of the Tactical Air Control System, designed to operate with the appropriate Army tactical operations center (TOC). It is subordinate to the tactical air control center, which is the air operations element wherein the Air Force component command plans, controls, and coordinates the employment of tactical air forces within an area of operations.
With Air Force-owned equipment employed, the significant change is in the procedure for requesting immediate tactical air support. The request can originate at any Army echelon. Below battalion level, the request goes to the battalion command post (CP) by the fastest means available. There it is evaluated by the battalion commander or his fire support coordinator, then passed to the forward air controller. He transmits it directly to the DASC over the USAF Air Request Net. Each TACP at intermediate echelons monitors the transmissions and coordinates all requests for close air support with his Army counterpart, the fire support coordinator. It should be noted that no Air Force representative in this network can disapprove a request; only the Army member can do so. If he does, the DASC is so notified by the TACP, and the request is canceled.
Meanwhile, the DASC checks with the Army TOC, plans the mission, and then orders the mission flown if a disapproval has not been received. Should the ground commander determine that the strike is not required after the aircraft has been scrambled, it can be diverted to lower-priority interdiction targets. The Air Force would rather waste a mission than wait for a prolonged period to obtain a positive approval.
With this system, Air Force response has been dramatic, placing fighters on the target in less than 30 minutes from the time the originator at the lowest combat echelon of the Army determined and made known a need for tactical air support.
This has been the evolution of the elements of the Tactical Air Control
System primarily concerned with air-ground coordination functions. The result
is apparent: the USAF Air Request Net is used today in
To insure that trained personnel were continuously available to Army
commanders, a group of highly experienced and extremely competent tactical
fighter pilots was assigned from Tactical Air Command to each Army corps and
division stationed in the
Our people assigned as hard core became members of the corps or division staff, available continuously to teach Air Force capabilities and to integrate tactical air support into Army field training tests and major exercises. The three officers provided the nucleus and continuity necessary for daily operations and to insure that augmentation of additional forward air controllers was accomplished without difficulty during major exercises. Many of the hard-core teams prepared instruction pamphlets to guide augmentation personnel. The preface usually outlined the purpose of the pamphlet, which was intended not to replace Tactical Air Command manuals concerning ALO/FAC operations but to augment them with local unit procedures. In that context, they extremely valuable as a supplement and practical guide. The information contained based on the experiences of the hard-core members and tended to minimize the lost motion usually experienced by personnel when reporting to an Army unit to participate in a training exercise, particularly under field conditions. This action and the dedicated performance of the hard-core forward air controllers closed tile second gap. Trained personnel had been integrated into the Army staffs at every level of command.
These past actions and background provided the basis for the evolution of
close air support to the tremendous job being performed today in
The 1st Cavalry Division’s tactical air control party organization assembled
The team of four qualified officers assigned at division level provided
additional benefits once in combat operations. The 1st Cavalry Division
operated throughout the entire II Corps area of
An air liaison officer and an assistant ALO were attached to each of the three brigade staffs. Forward air controllers were positioned with the eight infantry battalions, and a ninth with the Air Cavalry squadron. All nineteen officers, which included the four attached to Division staff, were qualified forward air controllers.
Once assembled at
The functions of tactical air control parties are
—to provide and operate an air request net
—to control close air support air strikes
—to advise the ground commander on Air Force capabilities
—to assist in planning air-ground operations.
The first two functions are self-evident and are considered the classic
tasks of the forward air controller. The other two, to advise his ground
commander on Air Force capabilities and to assist in planning air-ground
operations, are the real key factors to providing the timely, accurate, and
discriminating close air support necessary to further the land battle. They
were certainly the major factors leading to the outstanding tactical air
support rendered to the 1st Cavalry Division in the highlands of
The air liaison officers and forward air controllers at battalion, brigade, and division not only assisted but actually accomplished much of the detailed planning necessary to integrate close air support operations into the fire and maneuver of ground combat elements. The rapport established by living and working together brought our Air Force people into the planning cycle as coequal partners.
Whenever a battalion was committed to combat on the ground, the attached forward air controller accompanied the commander, tramping through sniper- and malaria-infested jungle with full field gear and portable radios, continuously available to advise and to request air support when necessary.
It is in this role that a forward air controller devotes 98 percent of his
time and effort. Here he is the Air Force tactician and is welcomed as a
valuable and trusted member of the ground commander’s staff. The forward air
controller, in the air liaison officer role, frequently requested additional
tactical air support for certain phases of operations, anticipating
requirements before the ground commander saw the need. In some specific
instances this action made the difference between success and failure on the
battlefield for battalion-size units. For these reasons, within the 1st Cavalry
Division’s original Air Force contingent, no unit of battalion or brigade size
left the Division base camp at An Khe,
It has been stated that in
The airborne forward air controllers were not additional officers brought in on a mission basis but were those attached to units within the Division who were in reserve. With the concurrence of the particular unit commanders, their assigned forward air controllers and brigade liaison officers were deployed with the division forward tactical operations center. From this forward location, they would operate the O-1 aircraft. As a result, two forward air controllers supported all combat actions, one on the ground as the liaison officer, the tactician; and one in the air, the technician.
The airborne FAC would mark targets and accomplish the final control of the fighter strike. This tactic worked extremely well. Both forward air controllers remained in radio contact at all times. The one on the ground, working with his Army fire support coordinator, would make final adjustments of his mark prior to releasing the fighters to strike. This was vitally important because close air support required by U.S. Army units had to be extremely accurate. It was necessary to place ordnance on targets within 50 yards of our troops during much of the combat action. This could not have been possible in the jungle environment, with no visual front lines or perimeters separating friendly and enemy troops, without the closest possible coordination between the FAC’s. There was no room for error.
This was the Air Force organization and concept of operations for combat within the 1st Cavalry Division. Now, let’s take a look at how well it performed under fire.
The Special Forces camp at Plei Me was attacked by a sizable North Vietnamese regular force during October 1965. The siege of the camp was crushed by tactical air forces. Some 500 fighter strikes were employed, directed by airborne forward air controllers assigned to the tactical air support squadron stationed in the South Vietnamese II Corps area. This air action kept the camp from being overrun. As a result of the attack on Plei Me, the 1st Cavalry Division was committed to what remains one of the greatest victories fought by American forces, the Pleiku campaign.
To insure that a South Vietnamese armored column could travel with some
security to Plei Me to relieve the beleaguered
garrison, the Commanding General, 1st Cavalry, was requested to provide
artillery support. One infantry brigade was subsequently committed in the area
of the camp. Once
At this time, the Division Commander was told that the North Vietnamese could have withdrawn to the north, west, east, or south. With this intelligence, his task of searching out and destroying a sizable enemy force seemed an impossible one. Nevertheless, it was the type of mission for which the air-mobile division had been designed. With an organic Army aviation group possessing 400 helicopters, the infantry and artillery battalions could be employed over vast areas at will. Once an area of suspected enemy activity had been searched without establishing contact, the troops could be moved many miles by helicopter to search out the next likely area of enemy activity. The mobility inherent within the division enabled it to operate throughout a land mass normally considered a corps area. Additionally, the fighting force could be positioned to occupy land which normally would be inaccessible to units relying on ground vehicular transportation. At one time during the Pleiku campaign, battalions were displaced by as much as 30 miles.
The problem of furnishing immediate and responsive tactical air support was
compounded by the increased mobility of the Division. Preplanned air strikes to
support the initial action each day were routine. For example, prestrikes of helicopter landing zones could he coordinated
with the fire and scheme of maneuver of the infantry force the evening prior to
an attack. With the preponderance of tactical air available in
This tactic worked extremely well; but as the day progressed, operations became fluid and moved with an increased tempo. When one of the committed battalions displaced tactically to another area and encountered the enemy waiting, ready and willing to fight, close air support was needed with reaction time equivalent to that of the infantryman’s rifle. For this reason, to insure that tactical air was available when the need was most critical, our TACP’s employed the combat air patrol/air cover concept. Two fighters were kept on station over the ground force in the combat area from first light until last light every day throughout the 34-day Pleiku-Cambodian-border campaign.
The air-alert fighters, coupled with the airborne and ground forward air controllers, provided a team that could employ aerial firepower in the close air support role with an absolute minimum reaction time. Propeller-driven A-1E aircraft were used for the air alert because they could be loitered for hours and still carry two tons of ordnance. Additionally, the A-1E possessed radio equipment with which the pilot could monitor Army command and fire support frequencies. The pilot could hear the progress of the battle and became a part of it prior to the request to attack. In several instances the pilots pleaded to strike prior to receiving approval from the ground commander. This capability indeed reduced the time necessary to deliver ordnance with extreme accuracy.
It was obvious that the air-alert fighters would not be used for close air
support in every case because the ground elements were not in continuous
contact with the enemy but were on search and destroy operations. They did,
however, represent a tremendous firepower capability, and the Division did not
want to have them return to their home bases once their
loiter time had been expended if they could be used profitably. For this
reason, the Assistant Division Commander for Operations, the Operations
Officer, Intelligence Officer, and Air Liaison Officer planned and implemented
a division-level interdiction program to support and complement the overall
ground action and future scheme of maneuver. For example, after the siege of
the Special Forces camp at Plei Me, the next
operation was to the west and north searching for the North Vietnamese regulars
who had attacked the camp. The enemy, however, could have withdrawn to the
east. For this reason the interdiction plan ordered attacks on the hill mass to
the east of Plei Me for the next 5-day period. Prior
to landing troops in the Ia Drang
As Colonel Moore’s battalion was landed at the base of
Follow-on tactical air sorties were requested by the ground forward air controller. During the first 24-hour period, 100 fighters had been used in support of this action. The ground forward air controller directed strikes throughout the night, placing firepower within 30 yards of friendly foxholes.
During the five days of this bloody battle, 330 fighter strikes provided close air support. Colonel Moore and his heroic battalion counted 1224 enemy dead and estimated an additional 1300 killed by tactical air power and artillery.
First lieutenant Charles W. Hastings, the ground forward air controller, employed tactical air in the same target area simultaneously with artillery without compromising safety. This fine officer was decorated for valor by both the Vietnamese and the U.S. Army during the Ia Drang battle at landing zone X-Ray. During the second day of the battle, I said to Colonel Moore, “How is my forward air controller doing?” He answered, “John, he is doing a magnificent job, but remember he is my forward air controller.”
In addition to tactical air support rendered, the Ia
Drang Valley was the occasion of the first B-52
strikes truly integrated into the scheme of maneuver and responsive to
the needs of a U.S. Army division commander. Once the ground elements became
disengaged, it was suspected that the enemy had withdrawn into
Many have queried the effectiveness of heavy bomber operations. Within the
1st Cavalry Division we could only assume that they were an unqualified success
because there were no further attacks from the strategic position afforded by
To summarize close air support of the
A treatment of tactical air support would be incomplete without an analysis of the logistical phase of operations. Air forces’ participation in combat usually is equated to bombs on target, and bombs cannot be dropped unless the logistic pipeline flows properly.
During the siege of Plei Me, Highway 19 leading from An Khe to Pleiku had not been secured, so it was necessary to airlift all the fuel, ammunition, and rations into the combat zone. Initially it was determined that Army CV-2 transports and helicopters organic to the 1st Cavalry Division could sustain the necessary air line of communications. Once the Division was committed, however, it became obvious that the logistics support mission assigned to the helicopter force was degrading the Division’s capability to operate tactically. On the morning of the third day, helicopter fuel reserves had been reduced to one-tenth of that required to sustain daily operations.
Air Force tactical airlift was pressed into this vital mission on an
emergency priority, primarily to carry fuel into the tactical zone. The
requirement was to deliver 140 500-gallon fuel bladders daily. The morning
after the Air Force had assumed this responsibility, the Division Materiel
Officer and I counted 134 bladders positioned at
Our C-130 crews were unsung heroes of this phase of the campaign. I congratulated one pilot, a first lieutenant, for delivering 14 bladders in one trip. He replied, “Colonel, if I can hide an extra one from the loading crews, I will have 15 on my next trip.” He more than likely accomplished this feat and carried a fuel cargo in excess of 55,000 pounds.
Air Force C-130 aircraft were used throughout the 34-day campaign to position fuel for the helicopters. Deliveries were made to Special Forces camps near the Cambodian border and to the forward command post location of the brigade commander charged with land operations. They were operated into the same landing strips used by Army CV-2 transports and C-123 aircraft. The impact of the C-130 capability was dramatic when compared with the other transports accomplishing the same mission. The CV-2 could lift two bladders, the C-123 four, compared to the C-130’s 10 to 14.
There has been an evolution in procedures and organizational structure to insure the closest possible coordination for providing tactical air support to our land combat forces. We must continually improve TACP communications equipment and provide the necessary mobility to the forward air controller to insure an even quicker response time to immediate requests, primarily in the close air support area. Close air support weapon systems should have the inherent capability to deliver the ordnance accurately, the closer the better.
All these factors are being worked on continuously within Tactical Air Command; however, they are only tools to be used by people. The key is to plan air-ground operations jointly with the Army, working together as coequal partners at all levels. In this regard, air liaison officers and the forward air controllers are basic to the USAF Air Request Net and the Tactical Air Control System in immediate support of land forces in the battle area. The FAC moves with his assigned ground unit to be in a position to respond to tactical air requirements requested by the ground commander. Here is the necessity for a close personal relationship between USAF supporting personnel and their Army counterparts. The ALO and FAC know the Army problem and develop the mutual understanding necessary to relate the task to Air Force capabilities.
The ALO’s and FAC’s attached to the 1st Cavalry Division learned to understand, under fire, that tactical operations in some cases meant clearing a few hundred yards of territory. Additionally, they realized that a seemingly insignificant encounter could become total war for them and their infantry counterparts when they were pinned down by sniper fire. Thus, these USAF people came to understand land commanders, platoon leaders, and the infantry rifleman’s problem. They knew his fears and learned to anticipate his needs. They knew and understood because they were there.
When the original Air Force team was replaced, the Assistant Division Commander stated that his Air Force tactical air control parties understood and appreciated the Army airmobile concept as few others do. He stated, “Our TACP’s are considered to be full members of the 1st Cavalry Division and much credit should go to them for a breakthrough in the Army’s understanding of how to obtain and fully utilize Air Force support.”
This evolution is dynamic and continuing.
Hq Tactical Air Command
Colonel John R. Stoner is assigned to Tactical Air Command’s Deputy
for Plans. He enlisted as an aviation cadet and was commissioned in 1944. He
served during World War II as a B-26 pilot in the Ninth Air Force, European
Theater, 1944-45. He graduated from
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this
document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression,
academic environment of
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