How Afghanistan Distorted Close Air Support and Why it Matters
Last year, at the height of the F-35/A-10 close air support (CAS) debate, Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Mark A. Welsh III stated that the Air Force averaged 20,000 CAS sorties a year in Afghanistan. But was it really CAS? Within the fighter/attack community, the narrative of seasoned aviators who’ve “been there, done that” tout that airpower did not really perform CAS at all. Instead, they argue it featured glimmers of CAS sprinkled on what was actually ground-directed dynamic targeting. Not only are they right, but the distinction is even more important, as it biases and bounds the air support dialogue of the A-10, its potential successors (A-X2 and/or OA-X), and even the F-35. Air support in Afghanistan worked, but it is a mistake to think it was all CAS.
This is Close Air Support
CAS is doctrinally defined as “air action by fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces and requires detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces” [emphasis original]. This definition has remained relatively untouched since 1948, when CAS was first described as “the attack by aircraft of hostile ground or naval targets which are so close to friendly forces as to require detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces.”
Today, it’s not about the airplane, the closeness of CAS, or even the mythical contested CAS that is the underlying issue. The forgotten element is detailed integration. This is the culmination of simultaneous de-confliction, coordination, and synchronization of airborne resources to support the ground scheme of maneuver. This isn’t something that just happens. It must be carefully planned and clearly understood.
The U.S. military has leveraged initiative, innovation, and ingenuity to adapt and overcome in Afghanistan for so long that it has lost sight of this foundation of the mission. For 15 years, the longest conflict in American history has encompassed a large portion of the careers of warfighters and decision-makers alike, no doubt injecting distorted prejudices into the CAS mission. This is easily seen in recent rhetoric for an A-10/F-35 showdown, which is generally filled with extreme platform bias and prejudice.
Adapting to Counterinsurgency
Prior to 2001, CAS evoked images of air support to conventional force-on-force ground campaigns and armored battles — linear operations that are proactive and offensive in nature. Fast-forward through 15 years of conflict in Afghanistan. The premise of non-linear operations used in counterinsurgency strategy dictates that all of the conventional coordination lines on the map be erased. During the 2010 surge, there were over 400 coalition operating bases and 100,000 U.S. troops spread across Afghanistan and among the enemy.
The shrinking U.S. Air Force likewise surged by increasing unit size, deployment length, and the number of flying squadrons deployed. By 2009, joint terminal air controller manning had almost doubled from 2001 levels (JTACs are controllers who link the ground commander to aircraft overhead). Unfortunately, the U.S. military needed twice that, and there were simply not enough JTACs to go around.*
During the war, low-density and high-demand JTACs became centrally located at operating bases and used fires observers to be their eyes and ears, removing them from the side of the ground commander. This wouldn’t have been possible without fielding technology such as satellite radio, full-motion video, and video downlink. Low-collateral damage weapons emerged, GPS-guided munitions became standard, and life in the colloquial wheel (an orbit overhead) for the Air Force became the norm — all under the guise that everyone was doing CAS.
Where Did the Detailed Integration Go?
While there is no doubt operations were close, the detailed integration piece that defines CAS was lacking wholesale. After years of fighting asymmetric low-intensity guerrilla warfare, the Army began to request air cover as a preventive measure with the expectation of enemy contact. With a flood of air support requests, there were simply not enough air assets to go around. From my experience in Afghanistan in 2009, 2010, and 2011, whereas the Army would spend a week or more planning an operation, fixed-wing aircraft were spread so thin they would often bounce around the country supporting three to four of these operations for an hour or two at a time in a single flight.
During the 2009-2010 surge in Afghanistan, it was common for aircrew to brief a set of missions, but execute none of them. Instead they would be re-tasked multiple times while in a briefing, while stepping to the aircraft, during takeoff, and even while enroute. In my experienced estimate, less than 20 percent of CAS sorties were briefed to the aircrew supporting them. Detailed integration was simply not possible because the nature of operations was reactive to contact on the ground, rather than proactively synchronizing resources for a ground-based objective.
One could argue that the integration was sufficient for a low-intensity conflict, and that the results speak for themselves. But the enemy always has a vote. Coordination became a pick-up game, generally at the worst possible time. Once responding and arriving on station, aircrew would have to begin building awareness of the ground situation from zero to “hopefully good enough.” Below them, helicopters routinely flew across the battlefield with limited communication and coordination below something appropriately called the coordination altitude. Sometimes they were just transiting the area, while other times they were attack helicopters supporting the same ground unit, but being controlled on a different frequency. Artillery was often used, but it was only de-conflicted, not integrated, with air support. Then aircrew had to account for where the friendlies were, how many there were, where they were going, and the intent of the ground commander.
Unfortunately, a model like this is light on planning, and mistakes can and will always happen. Almost every airstrike civilian casualty and fratricide report from the war shares common themes: Air support was un-briefed prior to the mission, reactive in nature, and was not integrated in detail sufficient to prevent tragedy. This plan surely won’t work in a high-intensity conflict requiring air support that demands increased integration.
In 2014, it appeared the Air Force would finally have an opportunity to regroup and assess the war, but counter-Islamic State operations have since diverted attention away from comprehending how air support was used in Afghanistan. In Iraq and Syria, aircraft are executing familiar CAS procedures, but the JTAC and ground commander aren’t anywhere near the fires coordinated. In some cases, they are 100 miles away; in others, they aren’t even in the same hemisphere. With limited boots on the ground, rudimentary information from the JTAC is received piecemeal through third-party reporting, such as an embedded operator with Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Though operations are more linear and somewhat predicable, detailed integration is still not possible.
Bringing Back Detailed Integration
Make no mistake, the enemy is evolving. Tomorrow’s high-intensity conflict will require this level of integration to synergize combined arms on the battlefield in close proximity to friendly forces. The most valuable effect of achieving detailed integration is the capability to overwhelm the enemy by safely applying an enormous amount of firepower in a relatively short time period. This is the image CAS should invoke.
The Army and Air Force often see things differently when it comes to air support, particularly the issue of command and control. The Air Force advocates for centralized control through a single air component, whereas the Army attaches its aviation units to the brigade or division being supported. Several organizations exist to then allocate air support where it is needed during execution. While their herculean efforts should not be discounted, the reality is that air support in Afghanistan ended up being haphazard and reactive — barely sufficient for a low-intensity counterinsurgency, but not much else.
To improve this, the Army and Air Force embedded liaison officers into each other’s units. However, instead of a coordinator and integration officer, they were mainly relegated to translating service-specific lingo and acronyms off of air support taskings.
Despite the overwhelming demand for air support, the Air Force could have embedded air planners into the Army construct to foster integration. If this had happened in Afghanistan, this embedded airman would have corresponded to the Army command level that was coordinating maneuver on the battlefield. This role would have been best filled not by a traditional air liaison officer, but by an actively flying representative from the air wing or flying unit closest to the region supported.
While this may seem to contradict the Air Force’s stance on consolidation, geographic tasking bias was already informally happening to an extent thanks to the size of the battlefield. Squadrons stationed in Bagram mainly supported operations in the northeast, while operations in the southwest were generally supported by units in Kandahar and naval aviation.
The U.S. Air Force tenet of “centralized control, decentralized execution” should account for the comparable level of command at which detailed integration should be achieved. Ideally, this would embrace the concept of “centralized command, distributed control, and decentralized execution.” While no one has used fixed-wing aircraft like this for decades, dusting off something called a joint air attack team (JAAT) would solve the lack of detailed integration. In this construct, representatives from all elements of the combined arms team plan together — ground, rotary-wing, fixed-wing, artillery, naval fires, and intelligence. They then feed the data back to their respective units. Just because the controller on the other end of the radio is on the ground and using CAS procedures doesn’t mean the mission is CAS, but that is essentially what the Air Force has been saying and doing. This is vastly overselling the Air Force’s capability, capacity, and resources to truly embed with the ground element for anything beyond low-intensity conflict. That’s not saying it wasn’t adequate fire support to fielded ground forces in Afghanistan, but the generalization blurs the bounds of the mission in future conflict. Yet all is not lost.
Applying today’s capabilities in tomorrow’s conflict increases the spectrum of potential combined air operations on the battlefield that have yet to be realized by the Air Force. Fifteen years of adaption and innovation has dramatically increased the range and precision the Army can observe, nominate, and prosecute targets from fielded forces. The Army turned traditional ground-based fires into ground-based GPS-guided munition hurlers, permitting precision fires at ranges that were not possible a decade ago (100+ miles). This isn’t going away; even more of these capabilities are in development now.
From 2002 to 2010, the U.S. military experienced a 40-fold increase in remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), largely thanks to the Army. The Army inventory of 7,000 fielded RPAs dwarfs the Air Force’s 300, increasing battlefield awareness at ranges that were not possible a decade ago. In a future conflict, the Army may have more situational awareness on larger and larger swaths of the battlefield — more than the Air Force. Logically, this will be leveraged to move the preponderance of combined arms (and air support) further from the frontline troops.
Afghanistan has shown that there is much more to air support than CAS. In the next conflict, when the Army leverages this capability to direct air support at ranges well beyond close proximity to ground troops, what is it called? This describes air interdiction that is directed by and directly supports the ground element, but with no requirement for detailed integration.
Current air doctrine to support counter-land operations is binary: air interdiction or CAS. Whereas CAS directly supports land maneuver forces, air interdiction does not. Air interdiction seeks to indirectly contribute to the ground element by attacking the enemy’s military surface capabilities before they can be brought to bear effectively against friendly forces.
This void is best described by an old Army fire support field manual: battlefield air interdiction (BAI). BAI is a mission between air-interdiction and CAS, enabled by technology.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq provides the most recent traditional application of the benefits of BAI as a mission. On the battlefield, a line called the fire support coordination line (FSCL) determines the range from troops that the ground element controls fires (air, land, and sea weapon systems), and it is typically drawn at the range when artillery ends and preponderance of effects are provided by the air component.
During the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, the rapid movement on the battlefield well outpaced the lethargic time to move this coordination line. To counter this, the line was extended well long of the troops on the ground, assuming they would eventually close the distance. At these ranges, the ground element had no capability to observe and nominate targets for air support, but artillery was well out-ranged. Aircraft could see targets inside this exaggerated FSCL, but could not strike them — the rigid fires coordination construct provided a haven for enemy forces in the middle of the battlefield!
Had today’s capabilities existed in 2003, BAI would’ve worked as a buffer zone across this coordination line between air interdiction and CAS, and it could’ve been controlled by JTACs using the same CAS procedures that are familiar today. This would’ve removed the organizational speedbump from operations, making air support agile and responsive and ultimately giving no sanctuary for the enemy on the battlefield. In future conflict, this is where multi-role platforms like the F-35 will shine — not in CAS.
Admittedly, not much will change in execution. Operators will continue to adapt and overcome like they always have, regardless of the name bestowed on the mission they execute. However, definitions and context are important because they guide strategy and policy dictated by influential people who often lack first-hand experience of today’s force application. It also defines organization and training construct so the force can train “like they fight, fight like they train.”
The Air Force missed the mark with its future CAS working group efforts last year because it brought all of the aforementioned biases to the table. Instead, the Air Force should host a working group to evolve what I would coin fifth-ring warfare (named after the outer ring of Colonel John A. Warden’s five rings of effects based operations).
Next-generation CAS-specific platforms (A-X2 and OA-X) should seek next-generation ways to plan and integrate on the battlefield by reviving the JAAT construct. This would “bake in” integration as a foundation to CAS, not as an afterthought increasingly dependent on widgets. Similarly, next-generation interdiction platforms (F-35, B-21, etc.) should embrace BAI as a mission to synergize the capabilities of the joint force on the battlefield. The Air Force is long overdue for an assessment and evolution of thought on how it is actually supporting the ground element. Today, that extends beyond CAS.
Maj. Mike “Pako” Benitez is an F-15E Strike Eagle Weapons Systems Officer with over 250 combat missions in the Air Force and Marine Corps. He’s deployed to various locations, including Afghanistan (2001, 2002, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2014), is a graduate of the US Air Force Weapons School and a former Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) fellow. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.
* Source: Air Combat Command TACP/ASOC Integration Branch (ACC/A3JC)
Image: U.S. Air Force