Close air support will never be the same again. For decades, it lagged behind the force modernization tides in both the Army and the Air Force because of money shortages and roles and missions disagreements. In recent years, though, priorities as well as attitudes have changed. The Air Force is much better prepared to support Army troops in contact with the enemy, and the two services are working together to conduct the air-ground battle in a truly coordinated fashion. There is high-level consensus on several urgent needs, including follow-on aircraft for close air support and forward air control. There is agreement about changes in the way close air support will be conducted and about who will direct it over the battlefield. Duplication of capabilities between the two services is being reduced to a minimum.
Part of the impetus for change comes from joint studies by Tactical Air Command at Langley AFB, Va., and Army Training and Doctrine Command at nearby Fort Monroe. These efforts were given a strong push in May 1984, when Gen. Charles A. Gabriel, USAF Chief of Staff, and Gen. John A. Wickham, Jr., Army Chief of Staff, signed a historic agreement on the Joint Development Process. The agreement included thirty-one initiatives, several of which involved close air support. In the view of the two Chiefs, the agreement set up "a long-term, dynamic process whose objective will continue to be the fielding of the most affordable and effective air-land forces."
The new cooperation reflects the realization that future wars will not be fought like any the United States has fought before and that the old ways are no longer sufficient.
Origins of Close Air Support
Close air support had its modern beginnings in the Korean War. Nearly all close air support was provided on a "preplanned basis"—with a day's advance notice required—because neither service had more than a rudimentary capability to plug into the other's communications net. A request for an "immediate" air strike might take hours. Generally, the call for air support would go up the Army chain of command from the unit in contact with the enemy, eventually reaching division or corps headquarters, which would relay the request to the Air Force. Aircraft on alert were then scrambled, or if the need was urgent, some of those already in the air were diverted from their preplanned missions. The Army got close air support, but it took time. Once over the target area, the aircraft had little direct communication with the unit being supported.
One method of communication attempted by the Marines was to lay big, colored cloth panels on the ground to point aircraft toward targets. USAF forward air controllers—the famous "Mosquito pilots"—flew propeller-driven T-6 trainers or lightplanes. They could mark targets by firing smoke rockets, or they would talk the bombing aircraft onto the targets by radio, referring to hilltops, bends in the river, or road junctions as landmarks. This procedure usually worked, but it was rudimentary.
By the end of the Korean conflict, some radio links were available, enabling ground forces to talk to supporting aircraft. Typically, a fighter pilot from one of the in-country squadrons would be assigned to a ground unit on short-term, temporary duty to direct strikes. Tactics and techniques developed in Korea became the basis for close air support in Vietnam.
In 1962, the Army and the Air Force signed the first agreement on "fire support coordination," and for the first time, USAF pilots and supporting enlisted people were assigned for full tours with specific Army units to manage close air support. Initially, the Army provided such support equipment as vehicles and radios. Another agreement was signed in 1965, and the Air Force began providing the equipment.
By the time Vietnam had developed into a full-blown war, the system was working well. Through both ground and airborne forward air controllers (FACs), ground units could communicate by radio with supporting aircraft. Immediate responses to requests for air strikes became routine. Airborne FACs did what they had done in Korea—they cruised over the battle areas, directing strikes in support of ground units. They also located enemy supply areas, troop concentrations, and other targets of opportunity.
In the south, below the Demilitarized Zone that divided the two Vietnams, the FACs flew the ubiquitous 0-1 "Birddog"—a follow-on to the Korean-vintage aircraft—and later the 0-2, another unarmored propeller aircraft. They survived because the FAC tried to stay out of the lethal range of enemy ground weapons, except when diving to mark the target with a smoke rocket. Ground fire was mostly small arms, with an occasional antiaircraft machine gun.
But in the north, above the DMZ, where FACs were also employed to locate enemy targets and direct strikes on them, the environment was far more lethal. The North Vietnamese had heavy antiaircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles. The Air Force used high-speed FACs, flying F-100s and F-4s, up north. These aircraft, like those flying in the south, were hit by ground fire many times, but they were far more survivable than propeller aircraft because of their speed and maneuverability. There was no real threat to FACs from enemy fighters in either the north or the south.
Today's Combat Environment
The battlefields of the future would be far more lethal than those in Vietnam. "The ground threat to aircraft is formidable," says Col. Lanny Lancaster, Director of Tactical Systems Planning for Air Force Systems Command. "For one thing, there will be few areas of low lethality. Wherever the enemy is, he will have a full range of modern, capable, air defense weapons—everything from shoulder-fired weapons right on up to the latest mobile SAMs."
Soviet and surrogate-nation motorized rifle and tank regiments are equipped, at a minimum, with the ZSU-23 self-propelled antiaircraft gun, which is also radar-controlled. These are accompanied by the deadly SA-6 SAM missile system, which replaces the 57-mm gun in some units. Each motorized rifle company is equipped with the SA-7 missile, a shoulder-fired heatseeker similar to the US Redeye. A newer, longer-range SAM is the SA-8, which is deadly out to eight miles or more from its launcher. The SA-9 is a vehicle-mounted heatseeker, larger and more deadly than the SA-7. Backing up these highly mobile systems are large numbers of acquisition and early-warning radars, most of them redundant, which makes the system very hard to counter. These are tied in closely with enemy theater air defense and command and control systems. There will be enemy fighters, too, and the Soviets have an impressive capability to jam conventional radio communications.
The battlefield itself has also changed, Colonel Lancaster notes. With improved communications and more mobile forces on both sides, there may not be much in the way of "front lines." In any battle area, there will still be a Forward Edge of the Battle Area (FEBA), a Forward Line of Own Troops (FLOT), and rear areas.
But the US Army would employ "offensive defensive" tactics, perhaps falling back in front of the enemy advance and counterattacking in a different place. The end result is a checkerboard battlefield, with "good" and "bad" squares interspersed. The enemy may be in some of our rear areas—at least in the first few days of the conflict—while we will be in some of his rear areas. The Air Force must be able to provide close air support to the Army units, no matter how unfriendly the skies are. And fighters will share airspace with Army helicopters.
To provide this support today, the close air support network and organization, oddly enough, has not been changed. Working on the premise that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," a Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) will continue to be collocated with each battalion, brigade, and division headquarters. At Army corps level, there is an Air Support Operations Center (ASOC). These organizations provide air expertise, advice, and assistance to Army commanders at each level. Any request for pre-planned air support goes from the requesting Army unit through Army communications to corps. A commander below corps level may be able to supply the needed firepower with artillery or some other asset. If so, he says so as the request comes through. If close air support is needed from USAF, though, corps passes the request to the Tactical Air Control Center (TACC). This is the primary operations center of the Air Component Commander. He cooperates with the Army Component Commander under the control of the Theater Commander. The TACC directs the appropriate Air Force unit to provide the strike aircraft for the requested day and time.
Immediate air requests, on the other hand, go up the Air Force communications net through the TACPs to the ASOC. The ASOC can communicate directly with the tactical fighter wing providing the strike, and the ASOC scrambles the fighters, keeping the TACC informed. As in the preplanned requests, the tasking may be peeled off by an Army commander at any level who has the firepower to do the job.
Tools of the FAC
There is substantial change, however, in the equipment being used by the forward air controllers, the tactical air control parties, and the units that fly close air support missions. And the number of forward air controllers required has climbed steeply.
"The Tactical Air Forces have 235 forward air control aircraft," says Lt. Col. Thomas A. Lanum, Chief of the Ground Attack Division in Fighter Requirements at TAC Headquarters. "We are working hard to get more and better ones." The aircraft are the Vietnam-era 0-2, the OA-37 Dragonfly jet, and the OV-I0 Bronco turboprop. The 0-2 is too old, Colonel Lanum says. And the OA-37 is too popular. This speedy little jet is a modified T-37 and has lots of zip and capability. As a result, OA-37s from TAC's inventory are steadily being sold under the Foreign Military Sales Program to several overseas nations. Since it is out of production, its numbers are dwindling. Provided it is replaced, TAC is content to let it go, he says, because it can loiter only a short time near the battlefield.
The OV-10 will be around for a while. Average flying time on each airframe is less than 10,000 hours, and it has been certified safe for at least 20,000 hours. The Bronco is fast, even though it is prop-driven, and it can defend itself. Besides carrying marking rockets, it packs four machine guns in two sponsons along the fuselage. But it is not readily deployable.
TAC plans to replace the 0-2s first and then replace the remaining OA-37s. The OV-10A will be phased out by the year 2000. Long before then, though, TAC plans to have a follow-on FAC aircraft.
Requirements for this bird, Colonel Lanum says, include wing hardpoints for fuel tanks and marking rockets, secure antijam UHF/VHF/FM/HF radios, a digital communications terminal, radar warning receiver, chaff and flare defense capability, easy deployability, an endurance time of three to five hours, and low development, acquisition, and support costs. A total of about 280 aircraft will be required, and they could well be a version of an existing aircraft. Prime candidates are modified T-37s (which would be procured from Air Training Command), a variant of the new Fairchild T-46 trainer, the OV-IOD—a new OV-10 being proposed by Rockwell—or a variant of the Navy's brand-new McDonnell T-45 Goshawk trainer. The Air Force will conduct a competitive source selection, Colonel Lanum says, with production starting in the early 1990s.
New Close Air Support Aircraft?
TAC has also established the need for a follow-on close air support aircraft. "Evolving Army doctrine has expanded the battlefield for close air support," Colonel Lanum explains. "Besides the traditional area in the Forward Line of Own Troops [FLOT], we now must provide support in our own friendly rear area and in the deep maneuver area, which could be 150 kilometers into enemy territory." Required support in these areas will be considerable, because great numbers of targets will be located by new intelligence-gathering systems like JSTARS, which can pinpoint moving enemy vehicles, and PLSS, which precisely locates enemy fixed and mobile radar sites. Because these targets of opportunity are a threat on the expanded battlefield, close air support aircraft must be able to attack them immediately, just as air-to-air targets located by AWACS can be attacked without undue delays.
Existing close air support aircraft are extremely good. The A-1O's only job is close air support. The F-16 is a swing-role fighter, providing both a ground attack and air-to-air capability. The F-4E will be primarily aground attack bird from here on. The new F-15E dual-role fighter—when operating in its air-to-ground function—will be used for deep interdiction, along with the F- Ill. The F-4G "Wild Weasel" may see some battlefield ground-support action, but is intended to go against radar sites deeper in enemy territory, primarily beyond the FEBA.
The Army thinks highly of USAF's A-10, which puts down an impressive field of fire. The A-10 is being made more survivable by a number of improvements. These include installation of an inertial navigation system, addition of AIM-9L all-aspect heat-seeking missiles for self-defense, several kinds of antijam communications, and the Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation system. The A-10 will continue to be the primary close air support aircraft through the 1990s and beyond, TAC staffers say, but it will be called upon by the Army almost exclusively for traditional work at the FLOT. Another aircraft is needed to help in this role as well as to fill Battlefield Air Interdiction requirements beyond the FLOT and to perform close air support in the deep maneuver area.
A request for preliminary information for such an aircraft was released in April. McDonnell Douglas, General Dynamics, Northrop, and LTV responded with proposed modifications to existing aircraft that would meet TAC requirements. A formal Request for Proposal will be issued soon.
While other companies are also likely to respond to the RFP, TAC staffers expect the follow-on close air support/battlefield air interdiction platform to be a modified existing aircraft—most likely an F-16, A-7, AV-8 Harrier, or F-20. The chosen aircraft must be able to handle both the close air support and the battlefield air interdiction missions at night and under the weather. The F-16 could perform this latter mission with the new LANTIRN navigation and attack system. LANTIRN is very expensive, though, and intended for aircraft carrying out deep interdiction missions against high-value targets.
Munitions for Ground Support
Armaments are changing, too. TAC fighter units still train with the traditional "iron" free-fall bomb, but the lethality of defenses around potential targets is forcing newer weapons that do not require the launching aircraft to overfly the target directly. A-10 pilots train primarily to employ the GAU-8 30-mm gun and the AGM-65 Maverick television-guided missile. With either weapon, the pilot can fire and turn away without overflying the target.
With the Maverick, the pilot uses a television display in the cockpit to find the target and designate it for the missile. The missile homes on the designated spot. A newer version is the Imaging Infrared (IIR) Maverick, which provides the television view in the cockpit, but guides on IR emissions from the target. This provides a capability to keep fighting at night, under the weather, and in conditions of limited visibility. When using IR Maverick with Rapid Fire II—a system that assigns individual targets to specific missiles—a pilot will be able to launch at more than one target on a single pass. Both versions of Maverick are lethal to tanks and other hardened point targets. Maverick can also be employed from the F-4, the F-16, and the F-I 11.
The GBU-15 glide bomb uses a television guidance system fitted to a 2,000-pound Mk 84 bomb. It can be launched from low altitude by "lofting" it toward the target or at medium altitudes from standoff ranges up to five miles. It is extremely accurate. The pilot can lock it onto the target and leave the battlefield, or he can choose to guide it manually to impact. An infrared version of this weapon will soon be in the field.
An ordinary bomb is also the basis for the Paveway laser-guided bomb. These bombs are fitted with the Paveway guidance system, which homes on laser energy reflected from a target by a target designator. Results are excellent against such point targets as antiaircraft gun emplacements, tanks, trucks, and bridges. A newer version, the low-level laser-guided bomb (LLLGB), was developed for use from very low altitudes, long standoff distances, and under poor weather conditions. Both of these weapons are still relatively new in the inventory, but may be upgraded with an autonomous seeker.
Key to the employment of these weapons on the modern battlefield is minimum exposure time for the aircraft employing them. In the Vietnam era, ground support aircraft operated in flights of four, staying over the target area for periods of several minutes to deliver ordnance. This would be suicide today because of the deadly ground-to-air defenses. Therefore, USAF units train intensively in low-level flying and weapons employment. Tactical fighter pilots at Nellis AFB, Nev., where the Red Flag exercises take place, do most of their air-to-ground flying at very low altitudes. They spend more time practicing the ground support mission than they do on air superiority, Colonel Lancaster says. At other bases, pilots work in teams, one aircraft designating the target from a standoff position while the other goes in low, pops up briefly to deliver a weapon, and then returns to the deck to leave the area or to reposition for another attack. Exposure time is held down to ten seconds.
Weapons coming into the inventory in the future will enable pilots to reduce exposure time even more, perhaps to as little as five seconds. One of these, the Hypervelocity Missile (HVM), shows promise. It does not have a warhead. It is a kinetic kill round that streaks into the target at a speed of Mach 5. The impact velocity is more than 5,000 feet per second. It destroys tanks by shattering their armor. It will be smaller and lighter than missiles with warheads, so an aircraft can carry more of them. Used in conjunction with new guidance systems that allow the pilot to launch and leave, more than one missile can be released on each attack, opening the possibility of multiple kills per pass.
The GPU-SA 30-mm gun pod will give aircraft carrying it the same heavy knockout punch carried internally by the A- 10. It will be available very soon. Still down the pike a bit is Rapid Fire II. Now a contractor proposal from Hughes, this system processes imagery from IIR Maverick and selects several potential targets on each pass. The pilot "consents" to fire his missiles, and the computer system releases them at precise times for multiple kills.
Practice for Tomorrow's Battlefield
The most realistic training for the air-land battle is being done at Fort Irwin, Calif., site of the Army's National Training Center. There, troops in mock combat have weapons equipped with laser designators that can register kills by hitting sensors mounted on troops and equipment. Unlike old-fashioned war games that required umpires to determine if a troop or tank has been taken out, the laser systems register the hit right away. A-10s flying at Fort Irwin have already tested laser designators for their guns. So far, no method has been found for lasers to simulate bombs, nor can an A- 10 pilot tell when he has been "shot down" by enemy ground fire. Nevertheless, the training is more realistic than anywhere else.
Battles fought at Fort Irwin are the modern kind. That is, close air support must be provided to friendly troops anywhere on the battlefield against hostile troops and all of their defenses. Close air support missions are carried out in conjunction with artillery and helicopters. As an A-10 pilot is attacking a target, he may be flying over friendly helicopters engaged in their own operations. He does not want to penetrate an area into which friendly artillery is firing because the results are just as deadly to him as they are to the enemy. To provide safe separation between helicopters and aircraft, the choppers are assigned the airspace from the ground to the treetops, and the A-10s can descend no lower than 100 feet.
Often, artillery, helicopters, and aircraft are attacking the same target or targets close together. There has to be a traffic director, and in a big change to command and control arrangements, TAC has agreed that the traffic director during Joint Air Attack Team (JAAT) operations will be the Army pilot in the scout helicopter. He is called the Air Battle Captain. The Air Force FAC controls the fighters, but whenever there are fighters and choppers involved together, the Air Battle Captain has the lead. He cannot dictate fighter tactics, but he can direct fighters or choppers to attack different targets or to sequence attacks. In a theoretical scenario, the Air Battle Captain might preside over a battlefield where an Army OH-58 helicopter would laser-designate a target for a missile attack by A-10s, followed by attack helicopters mopping up, after which troop-carrying choppers would deliver forces to secure the area. He would run the operation. USAF fighter pilots who have flown under this system have no problem with it.
Communications Without Being Jammed
One thing emphatically proven in Army-Air Force exercises at Fort Irwin, at Nellis, and overseas is that an antijamming capability for US radios is essential. The Soviets have an extremely effective radio jamming system that, unless countered, could thwart communications and play havoc with battle management. Electronic warfare exercises held at Nellis show that jam-resistant communications will be the key to success in the next war. Aircraft being jammed had extreme difficulty carrying out the mission; those using an antijam system were not impeded and weren't even aware that jamming had been attempted.
"Basically," explains Capt. Richard R. Barth, Systems Officer for Advanced Communications Systems at AFSC, "the Army uses High Frequency [HF] and Very High Frequency [VHF] radios, and the Air Force uses Ultrahigh Frequency [UHF] and higher frequency bands. That's because the Army's bands operate better on the deck and the Air Force's bands operate better at altitude." This poses a problem, he says. To interoperate, each service must have the other's radios, so there is a need for more equipment. "But the bright side of that," he points out, "is that the Soviets have a harder time jamming us because they have more frequency bands to cover."
This means that the services each have their own antijamming systems, too. Have Quick is the basic Air Force antijamming system. Its follow-on is Have Quick II. Together, they provide an antijamming capability across 7,000 UHF channels. The system works by frequency hopping. Every tenth of a second, a transmission is "hopped" to a new frequency. All transmitters and receivers hop at the same time to the same new frequencies. All users program the system each day for frequency hopping and get an exact time hack from the Transit satellite system. Soon the time hack will come from the Navstar Global Positioning Satellite system. On top of the frequency hopping, normal operational transmissions are encrypted just in case the enemy, on a particular day, has figured out the hopping sequence and wants to listen in rather than to jam the transmissions.
The Army system is the Single Channel Ground/Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS), which works the same way as Have Quick, but in the VHF band. It transmits digitally, in computer talk, rather than in voice, so it has the capability for medium-speed hopping. It changes frequency about every five-hundredth of a second. It also is encrypted. The basic Army radio for SINCGARS is the PRC-1 19, the standard backpack radio. The Air Force is buying both a ground and air version of SINCGARS so that FACs, strike flight leaders, and the Army can talk to one another. All USAF tactical fighters are equipped with Have Quick; SINCGARS is being introduced.
Locating the Targets
At the heart of joint Army-Air Force battle management will be the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS). The deep-looking JSTARS radar will be carried aboard a modified Boeing 707 designated C-18. JSTARS will provide commanders real-time information on the location and direction of movement of enemy tanks, trucks, and other tracked and wheeled vehicles.
Another system, already in existence, is the Precision Location Strike System (PLSS), which is mounted on the TR-l. These TR-Is, operating in three-aircraft teams, precisely triangulate the positions of enemy radar emitters and transmit the information to the ground. The ground commander's air support element transmits strike instructions back through the TR-1 to F-16s already in the air. The Air Force is currently devising a way to have JSTARS and PLSS use the same command control and communications systems.
USAF is also developing ways to use the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS)—now used, for example, by the AWACS to control large numbers of air superiority fighters—in the ground war. A new variant, Enhanced JTIDS (EJS), permits some Air Force aircraft to have a voice transmittal capability on JTIDS, which is basically a data system.
On the ground, the Air Force is also providing new equipment for TACPs. The Jeep, rapidly being phased out of the Army inventory, is the basic TACP vehicle and must be replaced with something like the Army's new "Hummer" vehicle or an armored personnel carrier (APC). Another new system, the Ground Attack Control Center (GACC), will be used primarily to control Battlefield Air Interdiction (BAI) in areas beyond the FLOT. New electrical power generators with lower IR signatures than existing ones are being provided.
Ultimately, the ground FAC will travel with the Army, and he will carry his communication equipment with him. It will probably be something like the new "kneeboard" digital communications terminal made by Litton, the AN/PSC-2. This can be plugged into any radio to transmit preformatted high-speed "burst" information. A similar small terminal on the other end decodes the burst information.
But new equipment is not all that is needed for close air support. More people are required, too. The Army's new light infantry divisions are heavily dependent on close air support because they have relatively little heavy organic firepower. Army divisions are getting aviation brigades, and each will have a TACP. Consequently, TAC will provide about 200 new people—officers and enlisted—to the Army for close air support liaison. Over the next five years, TAC expects to spend an additional $54 million on this kind of support, and its level of commitment to close air support will be at an all-time high.
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Daily Report: Read the top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
An F-35A Lightning II assigned to Hill AFB, Utah,
conducts a training flight with F-16 Fighting Falcons assigned to Kunsan
AB, Republic of Korea, over the city of Gunsan, on Dec. 1, 2017,
in preparation for Vigilant Ace 18.
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