21st-Century Forward Air Control: The Roots to Rebuild
A downed pilot or dislocated friendly servicemember is sighted and being closed on by an overwhelming enemy force. Suddenly, coordinated airstrikes rain down to avert the enemy and protect the friendly position. This is the result of one of the most misunderstood and under-used military instruments of airpower — the airborne forward air controller. Distinguished from his ground-based brethren by an appended “(A)” for airborne, the FAC(A) is the airborne equivalent of a joint terminal air controller (JTAC). Both the JTAC and FAC(A) can nominate and mark targets, de-conflict airspace, relay critical ground schemes of maneuver, and authorize airstrikes — all for the purpose of synergizing the ground and air attack team. One does it from the ground, while the other performs it from the air.
The Air Force has the equipment, know-how, and no shortage of targets to use this skillset — yet this tool remains in its box gathering rust. With “far more mission than Air Force today” and a growing pilot shortage, some might conclude that this derivative mission should be retired. This is dead wrong.
The brewing idea by the Air Force to rapidly procure 250 to 300 two-seat OA-X aircraft to perform light attack missions could be a welcome springboard to rejuvenate the FAC(A) mission, but it also has the potential to wreak havoc on manning. Beyond the highly publicized pilot shortage crisis, there is an even worse shortage of fighter weapons system officers, those who fly in the backseats of the B-1, F-15E, and F-18D/F. It may be possible to kill three birds with one stone by simultaneously providing an increase in force structure tailored for irregular conflicts, alleviating the shortage of fighter aviators, and restoring FAC(A) capability to the combat air force.
State of Affairs
Today there are four main platforms that perform the FAC(A) mission: The AV-8B, A-10, F-16, and F-18. Since the A-10 focuses on ground missions, roughly half of the pilots in a typical Warthog squadron unsurprisingly maintain a FAC(A) qualification. However, multi-role F-16 and F-18 communities must delicately balance FAC(A) qualification, currency, and proficiency with other missions that compete for limited resources, such as counter-air, suppression of enemy air defenses, interdiction, close air support, and more. Because of these competing priorities and a longstanding aversion to use the skill-set, FAC(A) has fallen by the wayside.
That is not to say the role of the FAC(A) isn’t important. The FAC(A) bridges operations from those in close proximity to friendly troops (the definition of close air support) and those that strike targets on the battlefield beyond the range of fire support coordination — a mission known as strike coordination and reconnaissance (SCAR). The FAC(A) qualification enables agile employment of airpower capability that can seamlessly flow between these efforts, all without requiring the ground control of a JTAC.
Why It Matters
The utility of dynamic air support is the ability to seamlessly fuse the air and ground components together so they operate in vicious harmony on the battlefield. That requires the ability to expertly identify, nominate, call for, direct, and adjust air support for maneuver forces by employing Air Force, Navy, Marine, and coalition fixed-wing aircraft along with Army gunship helicopters, mortars, artillery, and rocket-fire — all in conjunction with ground maneuver. It sounds complicated because it is.
The reality of air support challenges the sterile assumption that a single JTAC at the side of a ground commander can achieve this alone. This was made evident in Korea, Vietnam, and all over Afghanistan. The distributed nature of ground conflict has pushed the Army to increasingly rely on its own qualified fires observers —one in every platoon — to augment and nominate targets to the JTAC, who then coordinates air support.
Then there are situations where combat breaks down into different platoon fights separated by significant distances, perhaps even in rugged terrain. This would seemingly be overcome by simply adding JTACs to these units, but that too is a fatal formula. This is exactly what happened in Operation Anaconda, where the 37 inserted JTACs amounted to one controller per square kilometer without a unity of effort to coordinate air support. Aircraft were double-tasked, targets were double-targeted, and aircraft nearly collided overhead on more than one occasion.
But that was then, and this is now. It has to be better, right?
The last time fixed-wing FAC(A)s were called into meaningful action was over a decade ago. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Marine Corp’s wildly successful use of FAC(A)s in the I MEF during the “shock and awe” campaign far outpaced Army/Navy/Air Force integration on the battlefield. Frustrated with the lethargic coordination in their own assigned working areas, Air Force pilots on occasion shifted to the radio frequencies that Marine F-18 FAC(A)s were operating on and to subsequently find and strike emerging targets.
With troops surging to 148,000 in Iraq and over 132,000 in Afghanistan — coinciding with a massive JTAC shortage — circumstances were conducive to leverage the FAC(A) qualification. Alas, Iraq and Afghanistan were risk-adverse wars. The saying at the time was “one bomb will never win the war, but it could sure lose it.” There was a perception in the Army that significant risk accompanied any action that wrestled control of air-delivered weapons from a person on the ground standing at the side of a ground commander who requested fire support. Thus, airborne fire support coordination was never considered part of the plan — only a contingency.
This reluctance continues today, even after over two years of renewed operations in Iraq and Syria — an air-centric mission that should have casted FAC(A) as a star. Through the end of 2016, 65,731 weapons had been employed by aircraft in Iraq and Syria. Despite only having a handful of boots on the ground, virtually none of those utilized a FAC(A) in their employment. They instead predominately relied on a network of distributed JTACs (some local, some half-way around the world) viewing video feeds from MQ-1/9s. This is a wildly inefficient model that prioritizes centralized control, uses an exorbitant amount of resources, and has proven less agile than the enemy.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then adversity is the father of evolution — both of which can only be ignored for so long.
The Roots for Revelation
While the roots of FAC(A) go back to World War II, the mission of the present-day FAC(A) was revived out of necessity in the Korean War. The harsh Korean Peninsula worked against the Air Force tactical air control parties on the ground. Rough terrain made it difficult to see the enemy, friendly troops, and aircraft supporting from above. It also made getting pilot’s eyes on target problematic. In 1950, a lowly Air Force lieutenant colonel concluded that a different approach was needed — an aircraft to control other aircraft. Specifically, this aircraft would need to operate at low altitude and slow speed to provide good visibility for the pilot, and it would need to possess long endurance and a robust communications package. Ironically, at the dawn of the jet age, this excluded all jet aircraft as FAC platforms. But the idea was solid, and so the U.S. Air Force and Navy subsequently modified a total of 97 two-seat T-6 Texan trainers and designated them as LT-6Gs.
Pilots were drawn from fighter squadrons already in-country, but there was still a shortage of people to fill the two-seat cockpits. To supplement these pilots, the Army began providing observers to ride in the rear seat of the T-6. This unlikely matrimony of airframe, aviator, and soldier became known as Mosquitos because of their small size, prop-fed buzz, and nasty sting — and sting they did. For the first 18 months of the war, FAC(A)s controlled an astonishing 93 percent of all close air support missions in Korea.
By the end of the war, each U.S. division had billets for six Army officers to serve with the Mosquito FAC(A)s. Despite the success, the Air Force made the surprising postwar move to disband the FAC(A) organizations, aircraft, and training pipeline due to a myopic focus on the “air atomic.” In what was reminiscent of the Air Force’s view on close air support after World War II, the echo chamber of Air Force leadership concluded that “the idea of FACs, even though battle tested and proven, was seen as a temporary fix for a problem that would never happen again.” Just like senior leadership’s view on close air support, it was completely wrong.
In Vietnam, “Fast-FACs” garnered admiration for flying some of the most dangerous missions of the war. Flying the two-seat F-100F (and later the F-4) over the most heavily defended areas in North Vietnam, these aircraft performed the critical mission of marking enemy targets for airstrikes. To evade ground fire, surface-to-air missiles, and enemy MiGs, these jet aircraft flew using a “rule of fives”: 500 knots, 5,000 feet, and 5-Gs. This would permit the fighters to avoid targeting by air defense artillery and missiles, keeping them just above the range of small-arms fire while maintaining the speed to negate enemy fighters.
This employment appears contradictory to the Korean War formula, but in reality this was a mutation of the FAC(A) mission and namesake. This fast-mover formula was a response to an increasingly contested environment flying Route Pack 1 (bordering the DMZ) and Route Pack 6 (encompassing Hanoi). Besides being terribly inefficient, the Fast-FACs generally had no friendly troops to account for and no ground scheme of maneuver for which to integrate fires. Today, this Fast-FAC mission is more appropriately categorized as that of a SCAR coordinator, not a FAC(A). In the rare occasion when there were troops-in-contact in these hostile environments, Fast-FACs called in the slower FAC(A)s to provide air support. These traditional FAC(A)s normally flew slow, propeller-driven aircraft — just as in Korea.
Going as far back as 1961, the Air Force’s Jungle Jim Air Commandos flew as FAC(A)s for the Vietnamese Air Force under the code name Farm Gate. They flew modified T-28s that drew several parallels to the adaptation of the T-6 for the Korean War. They quickly surpassed the effectiveness of the more technologically advanced F-100 and F-4s along the Ho Chi Minh highway, especially during night operations. Concurrently, another Air Force FAC(A) team called the Red Markers was embedded with Vietnam’s army airborne troops. The CIA had similar efforts with the Tango program, Water Pump, and Raven FACs. The Marine Corps joined the effort in 1962 with a detachment of two O-1 Birddogs, and the Army followed suit by activating a new unit and deploying 30 O-1 Birddogs of its own. By 1963, the U.S. Air Force had overtly stood up the first of four Tactical Air Support Squadrons in Southeast Asia. The FACs were back.
However, with a sensation of Korean War déjà vu, the military quickly realized that it needed more FACs than it could take from other cockpits.
Back before they had Ravens, the CIA used Butterflies. The Butterflies were sanitized undercover FAC(A)s recruited to fly in the passenger seat of light propeller aircraft to locate and direct airstrikes. Only these weren’t all pilots — the CIA used enlisted Air Force combat controllers!
The first two, Charlie Jones and Jim Stanford, brought along a wealth of expertise. Jones had been trained as a ground controller (now known as a JTAC) in the 1950s. An original member of Jungle Jim, he was the first controller assigned specifically to support U.S. Army Special Forces and went on to write the field manual on forward air control for special operations (he later transferred to the Army and retired as a warrant officer). Stanford instituted forward air control techniques for directing airstrikes and was known to toss grenades out of the window to mark targets during his 218 combat sorties. The Butterflies were wildly successful, but it would not last. In April 1966 the Seventh Air Force commander, Gen. William “Spike” Momyer, discovered that enlisted men were controlling aircraft and directing airstrikes, and he immediately ordered that they be replaced with rated fighter pilots.
As the Vietnam War continued to escalate, the need to adapt and overcome grew, and the stigmas of rank, service, and rating were left at the door. The FAC(A) corps melded the expertise of air tactics, ordnance, and weapons delivery techniques together with air control, ground element coordination, and knowledge of land maneuver tactics. Air Force FAC(A) pilots routinely flew with enlisted and officer Vietnamese interpreters and observers. The Marine Corps saw great successes putting Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company observers in the backseat of Air Force OV-10 Broncos. The Army routinely flew with enlisted observers in its aircraft to aid in artillery spotting and even flew Marines as observers in Army O-1 Birddogs.
In a departure from typical Air Force command and control of air assets, these units were assigned specific regions due to their slower speeds — similar to how the Army apportioned AH-64 Air Weapons Teams to regional task forces in Afghanistan. Patrolling the same area regularly, the crews became experts on terrain, pattern of life, and the tactical peculiarities of fighting a guerrilla force.
Today’s Opportunities Masquerading as Challenges
Today the Air Force finds itself deep inside an efficiency paradox, well past the point of doing more with less. Rapid acquisition of a fleet of light attack aircraft could help the Air Force climb out of this situation, while laying the foundation of flexible low-cost air support that will no doubt be in demand for decades.
Yet the two-seat OA-X will need people to fill the cockpits, and pulling from the predominantly single-seat combat Air Force that itself suffers a pilot shortage is simply not viable (reference the lessons from Korea and Vietnam). But this challenge is rife with opportunity.
Procedurally, a FAC(A) can serve as an additional controller for the ground force commander, support a maneuver element without a qualified JTAC, or supplement the capability of a ground-based controller. But what if the FAC(A) was the JTAC? A crew comprised of a qualified JTAC (enlisted or officer) flying in the back seat of a rated officer’s plane performing forward air control is not far-fetched — it’s evolution.
In Desert Storm, the Marines flew OV-10s with enlisted and warrant officers in the backseat, the fleet of Air Force MQ-1/9 RPAs has used enlisted sensor operators for a nearly a decade, and virtually every helicopter gunner in the military is enlisted. There are also larger aircraft that use a mix of enlisted/officer specialties to employ weapons — the P-8A Poseidon, KC-130 Harvest Hawk, and venerable AC-130 gunship come to mind.
The idea is all about the marrying of diverse skills that simply cannot be fielded by any single person. To this point, in 2001 fighter aircrew were placed on JSTARS in Afghanistan’s Operation Anaconda to serve as an airborne battlefield command and control center. More recently, in 2011 during Operation Odyssey Dawn, Canadian CP-140 Auroras — a maritime patrol aircraft — began flying experienced JTACs onboard to leverage the aircraft’s sensor capabilities to detect, confirm, and nominate targets in Libya for formations of F-16s and F-18s to attack.
The Way Forward
History reveals a pattern of trying to ignore evolution of forward air control and then applauding it as adaptability when there is no other way to avoid it. We must learn the lessons of past wars — the real lessons — about how we actually achieved the highest level of ground force integration. The FAC(A) provides a flexible on-call resource that can provide lateral, vertical, and horizontal coordination and control of air support.
The JTAC-crewed OA-X is an unconventional way to provide unprecedented agility to air support and the chance to begin rebuilding capability, capacity, and readiness in the U.S. Air Force.
Maj. Mike “Pako” Benitez is an F-15E Strike Eagle Weapons Systems Officer with over 250 combat missions spanning multiple deployments in the Air Force and Marine Corps. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School and a former Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) fellow. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.
Image: U.S. Air Force