Disappearing Act: Integrated Training with Air and Ground Forces


During the Korean War, the atrophy of close air support skills following World War II undermined the war effort. With post-World War military budgets constricting, airpower services made choices about where to allocate increasingly scarce resources, and deprioritized close air support. Instead, the service chiefs prioritized air superiority, strategic bombing, and sea control. Caught flat-footed and on the defensive, the United States and its allies were nearly pushed off the Korean peninsula in 1950. Close air support proved instrumental in breaking the assault and helped forces to reclaim territory from a determined enemy. However, lessons in the requirements for interoperable communications, unified command and control, and the need for integrated training identified from the Pacific campaigns of World War II were relearned. These challenges underscored the faults in prevailing assumptions regarding the nature of warfare, equipment, and the level of training required for air-ground integration.

After the end of the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the risk is that the United States military will make the same choices and critical skills learned in the last two decades will atrophy. Naval aviation has turned its focus to the Indo-Pacific theater and could undermine hard-earned competencies in ground force integration. Like the Air Force, the Navy is reprioritizing and focusing on missions other than close air support. While the Navy can claim they are training for the mission, a more accurate barometer for the health of the close air support competency is the opportunities for integrated training with ground forces. However, our observations indicate that integration between air and ground forces is in a state of decline. 

Navy leadership should be wary about deprioritizing close air support. The risk is that leadership will face an unexpected crisis that demands close integration between air and ground forces, and that the captured lessons of close air support will have atrophied. The Navy should provide resources for an integrated training venue for close air support within its Strike Fighter Advanced Readiness Program or the Carrier Air Wing Integrated Training Program Air Wing Fallon exercise.



To ensure that the U.S. military is prepared for any contingency, relevant close air support training should incorporate contemporary threats, enemy electronic surveillance counter-targeting capability, and effective command and control to practice allocating platforms and weapons. Training should also include anti-radiation missile and stand-off weapon employment and deconfliction, anti-jam waveforms, and digital close air support system utilization.

The Falling Barometer

The Navy has an incentive to adjust its training priorities. After years of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, de-emphasizing close air support is warranted to reallocate some of its finite resources to strengthen other competencies. However, a wholesale departure from integrated close air support training is concerning because the Navy is still directed to maintain a capability in close air support. Eliminating structured integrated training opportunities leaves the Navy unprepared for future contingencies and effective execution of the mission when called upon. 

Close air support is one of the few venues for inclusive air-ground integration training and the exercise of most of a fighter aircraft’s air-to-ground weapons systems. This includes alternative communication pathways, targeting systems, and time compression of air-to-surface ordnance employment. Previously, ground forces from around the world traveled to train with carrier air wings at Air Wing Fallon or the air-to-surface Strike Fighter and Readiness Program events. The training and interactions between air and ground forces allowed each to become familiar with each other’s capabilities, equipment, terminology, and expectations. The two sides debriefed in formal settings or informally over a beer at the officers’ club to improve tactics and communication. 

These interactions also helped build trust. Familiarity and trust are required in advanced ground integration concepts. Also, naval airpower may be called upon to execute close air support in contingency operations at a moment’s notice. Despite the focus on competition with China, the United States still faces contingencies involving irregular forces or an indirect proxy conflict where airpower is required. The U.S. military cannot assume that close air support will only occur after a sustained campaign against a peer adversary to win air superiority and sea control. For example, suppose allied forces are on the defensive and about to be overrun or pushed from key terrain. In that case, commanders may be forced to accept higher risk to aircraft to preserve strategic toeholds. And if high-intensity conflict did break out, would the level of training offered even be relevant to offer acceptable survivability to aircraft and reduce fratricide potential for ground forces?

Ebbs and Flows Throughout History

U.S. ground forces periodically grumble about the air services’ commitment to the close air support mission. These reservations have waxed and waned throughout history. The concerns about the commitment to close air support historically are most acute when budgets are tight during interwar periods. For example, close air support was an afterthought in the years leading up to World War II. The Army Air Corps focused on strategic bombardment and air superiority missions, and the Navy focused on sea control. For the Navy, this resulted in training emphasis on fleet defense for its aviators, which prioritized air-to-air interception.

The focus on fleet defense led to the Marine Corps creating its own air arm and naval airpower dominated by fighters optimized for aerial combat. During World War II’s Guadalcanal and Tarawa Pacific campaigns, the Navy struggled to provide effective close air support. An important lesson learned was that a “trained close air support force had to be created if landing forces were to receive the full benefit of support.” Chief among the observations were ineffective ground attacks by fighter aircraft and instances of fratricide. By the time of the invasion of Okinawa, the Navy and Marine Corps had worked out their close air support command and control network and emphasized ground attack training to their aircrews. Overall, the effectiveness of close air support vastly improved. 

Unfortunately, lessons from the Pacific were lost to the U.S. military after World War II. These deficiencies revealed themselves during the Korean War. The Air Force mostly ignored integrated ground-attack training during the preceding inter-war period. The lack of ground-attack training proved detrimental to Air Force effectiveness, just like the Navy’s close air support efforts from Guadalcanal and Tarawa. Army commanders came to prefer Navy and Marine Corps aircrew, most of whom were veterans of World War II and had maintained ground-attack training. Despite the initial shortcomings, close air support proved instrumental in the land campaign. The commander of U.S. 8th Army Korea later stated, “if it had not been for the air support we received … we could not [sic] have been able to stay in Korea.”

After the Korean War, the U.S. military downsized again when budgets declined. While budgets and equipment did not decline as much as after World War II, the Department of Defense was forced to make hard choices about training. Modernization and divestiture of legacy platforms was prioritized. The policy of containment eventually led to the military intervention in Vietnam, and close air support featured prominently. As in Korea, close air support proved a decisive advantage for U.S. forces. However, as was the case during the Korean War, the U.S. military needed to increase training in ground support, supply tailored capabilities to the mission, and modify existing doctrine to improve integration and overall effectiveness. 

After Vietnam, priorities shifted again, but close air support training remained a staple feature for naval aircrews throughout the rest of the Cold War. For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, A-6 Intruder aircrews practiced radar beacon bombing with ground controllers and performed close air support in Desert Storm. The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act did much to improve joint doctrine and increase integration. In 1995, the first edition of Joint Publication 3-09.3, the modern-day bible for close air support procedures, was published. And the Global War on Terror reaffirmed the lessons from Vietnam and the Cold War, exemplifying the effectiveness of what an adequately trained and equipped integrated air-ground team could deliver on the battlefield. 

The Disappearing Act of Integrated Training with Ground Forces

The decreasing emphasis on close air support creates unease in the ground force and resurrects old grievances and accusations that the Air Force and now the Navy are attempting to leave the ground support mission behind. Today, the relative importance of close air support is waning with airpower leaders as it has historically during other interwar periods, with acute, pacing threats gathering the most attention. The military is beset with resource constraints and forecasted flat or declining budgets. To compensate, the services are divesting legacy platforms, including reducing servicemember specialties like attack controllers. Air Force Special Operations Command, characterized by direct support to special operations forces, is retooling to support the broader Air Force mission.

Within the last few years, the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center stopped dedicated training for close air support during Air Wing Fallon. In 2023, the Strike Fighter and Readiness Program will also cease training for the mission. Before the syllabus revision, carrier air wing integrated training held three events called offensive air support. During these events, command-and-control aircraft vectored Navy fighters to support concurrent close air support with special operations forces and dynamic targeting along a fictional frontline. In many respects, it offered plausible scenarios for a potential regional conflict. In the Strike Fighter Weapons and Tactics course, close air support has been reduced to a single training event in the wingman and flight-lead syllabi. Previously, each training continuum included three close air support flights, focusing on urban close air support, medium-threat close air support, and high-threat close air support. Bucking the trend, the Navy Fighter Weapons School still holds dedicated close air support training events and is experimenting with advanced concepts, inviting special operators to participate in these events.

Impacted by aviator shortfalls and a time management problem, the Navy is plodding along on a familiar path and is turning inwards to solve glaring deficiencies now manifest in its ability to obtain air superiority and sea control. Unlike the Navy, the Marine Corps, tasked with ensuring amphibious access as a core mission, continues to maintain close air support as integral to its training continuum.

Previously, close air support schools, like the Navy’s Joint Terminal Attack Controller Course, counted on dedicated and reliable air support from the services to support terminal attack controller training. Over the last five years, this support has evaporated, and schoolhouses within the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force are now heavily reliant on contracted air support. Part of the Navy’s reason is an emphasis on procuring advanced red air training aircraft, consisting of F-16s, which are not cleared to support air-to-ground missions. While contracted air support provides excellent training aids and talented pilots and crews, these are not the aircrew that ground forces will communicate and integrate with during potential conflict. This is simply a lost opportunity for air and ground force integration. Ground controllers now have the potential to never talk with or control actual military aircrew and aircraft until they are deployed.

Exercising Air-to-Ground Skillsets

It is not just about atrophy in close air support skillsets, but also in familiarity with systems not normally utilized unless integrating with ground forces. Advanced units that provide data for broader targeting networks are reemerging as missions for ground teams. Traditional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets may be destroyed, degraded, or denied access in high-intensity combat with a peer adversary. This makes ground forces a convenient hedge against high-technology neutralization. 

The variable message format is a military standard that provides for data and messaging protocols. In the F/A-18, this format allows target coordinates to be passed directly into the aircraft’s weapon systems or informational text messages in a digital data burst of less than one second in duration. The variable message format system suffered from neglect because ground teams did not use it in theater. Recently, the message format garnered renewed interest from ground forces due to the protocol’s low probability of detection and intercept aspects. Concerned with enemy counter-surveillance capabilities, ground forces are the most invested in signature management since the Cold War. Another system gaining favor with ground teams is NATO’s SATURN radio, an anti-jam waveform. Unfortunately, familiarity with these systems within carrier air wings is lacking, and the primary demand for use is being pushed from ground forces.

Absent integrated training, the impetus to use these essential systems is unrealized and delays wider and necessary adoption. The simple truth is that close air support training did more to exercise and hone the breadth of aircrew air-to-ground skills than any other single mission set. Close air support training provides opportunities for dynamic weapon employment, time-compressed attacks, radio and electronic systems utilization, and aggregation of all available information for proper target correlation. It is a difficult mission to execute correctly and reliably without practice. 

The ability to exercise multiple air-to-ground competencies in close air support training makes it a great core competency to maintain. For example, the Navy Fighter Weapons School still places heavy emphasis on basic fighter maneuvers or dogfighting at close range. While close-range, swirling dogfights are unlikely today, the reason for this emphasis is based upon exercising a pilot’s handling or “feel” of their aircraft across multiple flight regimes. This builds confidence and muscle memory, pervading into the rest of their training as a fundamental building block.

Should Ground Forces Be Worried About Naval Commitment?

Do these events portend ill consequences and an unready force in the future? Close air support procedures are simple. For experienced crews, regaining currency requires little time. Established joint doctrine mostly eliminated command-and-control friction points and standardized procedures for air-ground interoperability. But while close air support is procedurally simple, communicating effectively with a ground force that possesses a different perspective than an aircrew is not. The stressors of combat, unfamiliar terrain, increasing reliance on digital close air support systems and procedures, and frames of reference compound the challenges the aircrew faces. Whether the current deprioritized status of close air support and corresponding decreases in integrated training opportunities are leading to a decline in readiness to perform the mission is more convoluted. As time marches on and veteran aircrews retire, the ability to rapidly regain proficiency without integrated training fades.

Terminal attack controllers providing unit-level readiness training to Navy squadrons observed increased doctrinal and procedural errors with weapon systems during close air support. The current readiness requirements for proficiency in close air support were ossified by two decades of conflict characterized by counter-insurgency operations. Already, ground forces are retooling for high-intensity conflict, reverting to historical Cold War mission sets characterized by intelligence gathering through deep reconnaissance, establishing networks, and conducting sabotage. Yet close air support training scenarios for aircrew are not doing the same.

Despite the removal of most integrated training opportunities with ground teams for Navy exercises, the Air Force still hosts Green Flag, a dedicated air-ground integration exercise. The Navy also hosts an exercise called Resolute Hunter, which integrates with ground units. However, the exercise is geared towards command-and-control and reconnaissance aircraft, not tactical fighter-attack aircraft. Unit-level training opportunities exist but are coordinated on an ad hoc basis and require fleeting personal connections between individual units within the Navy. In our experience, short-fused requests often prevent U.S. or allied ground units from supporting close air support training. This leads Navy squadrons to rely on their airborne forward air controller aircrews to simulate ground forces. The result is a lack of the integrated air and ground force experience that is so critical for developing camaraderie and testing the ability to communicate in simulated battlefield conditions. While Air Wing Fallon does include events for ground team integration supporting targeting networks, most ground forces are still required to maintain close air support readiness. We have observed that many units decline to participate or commit to long-term support without the ability to perform close air support currency events with aircraft. The lack of commitment results in Navy attack controllers assigned to Air Wing Fallon staff fulfilling the role of ground forces. Unfortunately, these attack controllers are not the forward units that aircrews will likely integrate with on their deployment.

Discussions regarding airpower’s commitment to close air support based on their investment in purpose-built bespoke platforms are misplaced. Aircraft designed to be survivable in high-threat environments will be survivable in all threat environments. Instead, airpower’s commitment to the mission is measured by the training opportunities afforded to integrate with ground forces. While the focus on high-end capabilities is warranted, as such preparations do much to deter conflict, the Navy should be wary of cutting too much air-ground integrated training. One common thread between Korea, Vietnam, and the Global War on Terror is that all are wars that the U.S. military entered optimized for a different kind of warfare. In each case, the services prepared for one type of war but got another. It would be naive to think that the future will be unlike the past. 

The Return of High Threat

In 2016, Mike Pietrucha published an article describing high-threat close air support as impractical. He rightly pointed out that the environments where this could occur would only be against Russia or China. U.S. forces are now deployed in Taiwan and islands rimming mainland China. Russia has invaded its neighbor and the United States is subsidizing the Ukrainian military. Airpower may now be called upon to provide immediate fire support as part of a combined defensive effort where risk to aircraft is deemed subordinate to the risk to ground forces. Stand-off and suppression weapons are likely to be used in this scenario in what is known as weapon-centric close air support. If this were to play out, it needs to be rehearsed in an integrated training environment to have any reasonable chance of success. 

A need to reprioritize for high-end conflict does not supplant the need to maintain the connective tissue between air and ground forces to remain truly joint or combined. The close air support barometer is falling fast, accelerated by aviation leaders’ convictions of the next war’s character. It would be naïve to think that the future will be unlike the past. Every single conflict since the invention of the airplane involving U.S. ground forces required some type of air support. Beware of the gathering storm. 



Trevor “Mrs.” Phillips-Levine is a U.S. naval aviator and a special operations joint terminal attack controller instructor. He currently serves as the Joint Close Air Support branch officer at the Naval Aviation Warfare Development Center, which has purview over the Navy’s joint terminal attack controller and airborne forward air controller programs.

Andrew “Kramer” Tenbusch is an F/A-18F Forward Air Controller (Airborne) and Halsey Alfa research fellow at the U.S. Naval War College. He is a graduate of the Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) and previously served as a carrier air wing integration instructor at the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center.

Image: U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jason Kriess