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October 27, 2005Flying over a massive area stretching from Kenya to Pakistan, the assets under US Central Air Forces are in the heart of combat operations in the war on terror. Since August 2003, Lt. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan III has been overseeing CENTAF airpower—providing close air support and securing airspace for intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance activities for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2004, air elements under his control were instrumental in the assault on Fallujah, Iraq—the site of some of the most intense urban combat of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Buchanan said that coalition air forces developed an “airspace model … commonly referred to at that time as the keyhole concept.” Basically the concept enabled Buchanan, as the Combined Forces Air Component Commander, to operate high performance aircraft within a five mile radius—directly over Fallujah—and have others waiting in “four different kind of cardinal areas” to be fed into the fight.

“It truly was a joint operation,” Buchanan told defense reporters at a Washington roundtable. During the assault phase, the Marine Corps provided most of the airpower, mainly because they wanted their ground forces to have “organic air,” he explained. Since intelligence indicated that the insurgency would try to make noise elsewhere in Iraq—such as Mosul and Al Qaim—Buchanan said he redirected Air Force and Navy assets to overfly those areas “waiting to see if the insurgents erupted.”

The air assets also proved valuable in the tight urban environment. Buchanan said the strike aircraft were able to use their targeting pods to help coordinate ground forces movements. “That’s important to know … [for] friendly fire deconfliction,” he asserted.

The Fallujah operation provided several key lessons learned, said Buchanan. One was that the CFACC needs to “put more airplanes layered over the top,” so the next one in line already has its “eyes on the target” and can “drop right away,” he said.
Using targeting pods on fighter aircraft, and battlefield Joint Terminal Attack Controllers on the tops of buildings, a new dimension emerged for the traditional bomb-on-target concept of airpower.

Buchanan praised the unmanned aerial vehicles used for Fallujah, but he said, “It was very tight getting the UAVs in over Fallujah as well.” For Fallujah, he said he “leveraged off” the CENTCOM “grid box” system to help deconflict the airspace. Since then, Buchanan added, airspace planners have practiced with the grid box—which provides a “common base system … that everybody understands—over Fallujah and Mosul. “It works very well,” he said. (Read more in Air Force Magazine's "The Fallujah Model.")

Still, the business of deconflicting more than 750 UAVs, said Buchanan, especially the low-flying tactical UAVs are “a problem.”   

He admitted that he’s worried about a nightmare scenario. “My fear is the day will come when we have a C-130 full of troops and there will be a Scan Eagle, a Pioneer, whatever, is going to come through the cockpit and take out a C-130 because we did not deconflict,” said Buchanan.

He added: “It’s not as much a problem for me in the higher altitudes, although it’s real and it’s getting worse. It’s very clearly a problem for helos down below.”