Thoughts on the Air Force and Close Air Support

We’ve often been frustrated by the Air Force’s grudging provision of Close Air Support (CAS) over the years.  And there’s an institutional perception throughout the Army that the Air Force doesn’t want to do CAS, and perhaps the Army should take over that role.

But it isn’t simply a case of the Air Force being a bunch of assholes, and leaving the Army hanging out to dry. There are real challenges to providing the type and quantity that Army would desire. Indeed, as a practical matter, they could never provide enough, as the Army would only demand more.

Since 1942, US ground commanders have been asking for more and better close air support. Early attempts at CAS in North Africa and Italy were dismal, partly because of technical reasons, partly because there was no established doctrine for how it should be done, and (in North Africa, especially) partly because the Luftwaffe had, if not air superiority, then at least air parity.

But as communications, techniques, and our own air superiority improved, so too did the Army Air Forces ability to provide CAS.  By the time of the invasion of Normandy, the 9th Air Force introduced the TACs, or Tactical Air Commands. Each TAC was designed to operate in direct support of  one of the field armies on the ground in France. And they did a great job. But what they didn’t do was provide a constant umbrella of CAS over each and every unit. In fact, a lot of what they did would later become known as BAI, or Battlefield Air Interdiction. What they DID do that is historically important, however, is to integrate their operations to support and synch up with those of the ground commander.

In Korea, and especially in Vietnam, when we think of CAS, we see it being used essentially as really heavy artillery, available on call when normal tube artillery wasn’t enough.  For the most part, in the permissive environment in South Vietnam, that’s how the Army wanted it to be used, and the Air Force, in spite of its own institutional reservations, provided a great deal of that.

But after Vietnam, just as the Army turned its eyes to Western Europe, so did the Air Force. Just as the Army was facing enormous numbers of tanks and motorized Soviet divisions, the Air Force faced a very similar challenge in terms of the sheer numbers of Soviet Frontal Aviation forces arrayed against them.  The Air Force faced up to the probability that if there was a war in Western Europe, they’d be lucky to maintain air-parity, and unlikely to immediately achieve air superiority. And given that fact, there would be no way they could provide CAS on anything like the scale the Army would want.

And for the most part, the Army understood that. The Air Force wasn’t ducking out on CAS because they didn’t like doing it. They were faced with the age old challenge of too many missions for the resources available. And something had to give. So the Air Force wanted to capitalize on the strengths of airpower, and use it to its maximum effectiveness for each sortie flown.

There came to be three basic types of missions in support of ground forces: Close Air Support, Interdiction, and a new term, Battlefield Air Interdiction, or BAI.

Close Air Support is, roughly, those air missions that are terminally controlled by a Forward Air Controller at the front lines, or in support of troops in contact.

Interdiction missions were deep strikes against ground targets in the enemy’s rear areas that were in general support of the ground forces, such as marshaling yards for railroads, oil refineries, ports and other shipping targets, command and control assets, and other infrastructure targets. 

Battlefield Air Interdiction, however, was a little different. These were strikes in the enemy’s rear that were designed to directly influence the enemy, attrit his forces, and support a ground commander’s specific scheme of maneuver, but were far enough behind the front lines that they were not controlled by a forward air controller on the ground. The air commander and the ground commander worked together to nominate and service targets in this BAI environment. And example might be tasking the Air Force to drop a specific bridge, at a specific time, to disrupt the movement of a Soviet Motor Rifle Division for a predictable period of time (and likely follow up that strike with a series of strikes on the MRD while it is waiting for an alternate bridge to cross).

Airpower’s inherent capability to mass quickly and strike targets of relatively fleeting opportunity made BAI a more lucrative mission that trying to pick off a tank here or there at the front lines.  Two F-16s might kill a couple tanks at the front lines, or they might stall an entire division for a day or more by dropping a bridge. The return on investment argued for the BAI mission, as far as the Air Force was concerned.

And the Air Force put a lot of effort and resources into the mission. Over the course of several decades, the Air Force spent billions and billions of dollars supporting this job. The E-8 JSTARS was designed to help find out where these columns of enemy divisions were. Entire families of bombs were designed to help the Air Force attack columns of Soviet tanks before they deployed into assault formation. Sensors and command and control networks were developed to give the Air Force the ability to find worthy targets, and assign appropriate strike packages to them quickly, all to support the scheme of maneuver on the ground.

The Army and the Air Force, through a series of high level staff conferences, came to a rough agreement on the role of airpower in the Army’s AirLand Battle Doctrine. As a practical matter, the Army understood that anything that was within range of the artillery of a unit on the ground was an Army target, to be attacked with artillery (or attack helicopters), and those targets further out were for the Air Force to attack. Those targets within a tactical corps Area of Interest (that is, enemy units that could reach the front in 48-72 hours, or roughly 100 miles behind the front lines) were generally treated as BAI targets, and the Air Force would work within the ground commander to attack those specific targets the ground commander nominated.  Anything further back from the front lines was generally considered an interdiction target, and the Air Force would attack those based on its own desires, and the priorities of the theater commander.

Nor did the Air Force totally ignore the need for Close Air Support. It did, after all, in the austere budget environment of the 1970s, develop and buy several hundred A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft, designed specifically for Close Air Support. And every it provided Forward Air Controllers and Air Liaison Officers to every brigade in the Army. So the Air Force would provide some level of CAS to the Army, but the Army would have to prioritize which units on the ground would benefit from the limited available supply of CAS sorties.

The demonstration of this concept was, like so much else of AirLand Battle, the First Gulf War. While the Navy was firing Tomahawk missiles at Baghdad, and the Air Force’s F-117s were going downtown as well, the Air Force focused first on dismantling the Iraqi air defense network, bombing airfields and control nodes throughout the land. But they also quickly began both isolating the battlefield in general, by dropping bridges and cutting communications, and they began supporting the Army’s scheme of maneuver. They atrited Iraqi formations in general, and they attacked to fix, atrit or destroy specific units that the Army nominated for attention. If these attacks weren’t nearly as successful as the Air Force hoped (or claimed) that was more a matter of technical limitations than of a faulty doctrinal basis, or lack of good faith effort on the part of the Air Force. If each tank brigade in Desert Storm didn’t have a flight of A-10s overhead at all times, the Air Force might be forgiven for pointing out that the brigade did have access to at least one, and often three battalions of 155mm artillery, possibly a battalion of 8” artillery, a battalion of MLRS rocket artillery, and a battalion (or more) of AH-64 Apache gunships.  The Army wasn’t exactly hurting for fire support in the close fight…

But now we come to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The low intensity conflict there against terrorist groups means that there really aren’t any BAI target or interdiction targets for the Air Force to attack. The enemy rarely masses and identifies itself until it is actually in contact with our ground forces. Further, the near universal adoption of precision guided munitions such as laser guided bombs, and GPS guided JDAMs means airpower can be used more precisely than conventional unguided artillery fires, with lower collateral damages.  And the ability of strike aircraft to share video of their targeting imagery with forces on the ground via systems like ROVER (which transmits video from their targeting pods to laptops in the hands of troops on the ground) provides an excellent ability to “see over the next hill” or “around the corner” that his highly valued.

So CAS has quickly become the “big gun” of choice for troop units on the ground. After all, few things put an end to a fight like dropping a 2000lb bomb on the other guys head.

But while the Air Force has provided CAS for the Army for almost 10 years now in Afghanistan and Iraq, they still have other missions facing them. They still need to train to fight and win air superiority against a more conventional foe. And they only have a limited amount of money to spend. I strongly suspect the Air Force would be delighted to operated a Light Attack turbo prop plane in support of the Army… except they are convinced that the money would have to do so would inevitably come from the hide of some other program that the Air Force, as an institution, sees as a higher priority in the long term. One suspects also that the Air Force didn’t quite anticipate that it would be called upon to provide an aerial umbrella for a decade or more.

With the adoption of precision ground fires such as the Guided MLRS, the guided Excalibur 155mm projectile, and the newest GPS guided 120mm mortar round, perhaps some of the demand signal for Close Air Support will diminish. But likely not. Even with those tools in his pocket, any commander that thinks he can get air assets overhead is certainly going to ask for them. No commander ever went into a fight thinking he had too many resources.

10 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Air Force and Close Air Support”

  1. Alas, the AF really doesn’t want to do CAS, and their attitude towards the A-10 demonstrates it clearly. It’s a dead end for A-10 drivers, and the light attack AC would be even more so.

    Things like Marshalling yards, oil refineries, factories, and such, are strategic targets. Dropping bridges, killing trucks moving along highways, and trains along railways is battlefield isolation. Battlefield Isolation is a tactical effort, and CAS will not be needed an awful lot if you do , indeed, isolate the battlefield. Well targeted arty will do nicely most of the time.

    Those not “most of the time” missions are the missions where the AF gave the Army grief and why the Army needs it’s own TacAir.

    Frankly, reading Chuck Horner’s book “Every Man A Tiger” turned me completely against the AF in the matter. He made it pretty clear that he did not hit tactical targets unless specifically ordered. I’m also familiar with the way the AF treats the Warthog drivers. Jerry Pournelle, a Korean war vet and Arty Officer in that fight witnessed the AF taking off on missions to “MiG Alley” while neglecting their responsibilities to their mother service. He holds an even stronger opinion than I. He’s of the opinion the AF has forfeit its right to exist as a separate service. I think we should let them live as a strategic service and let them be what they want to be. A Marine Aviator understands what he is doing because he is supporting his own service and has been trained that way. The AF does not, and really doesn’t understand what the Army does. An Army Aviator would be the same to the Army as the Marine Aviator is to the Marines. Having an organic Air Corps similar in structure to the WW2 TACs makes sense, and the AF, by their very acts, has shown it as well.

    This does not mean that I consider the AF some kind of conspiracy. I do know, however, they are human beings and have their own outlook on the that at times is not compatible with the Army’s or their responsibilities to the Army. The AF has, however, been very hard headed in the matter and they are the very reason the Army had to develop its own Aviation capability. Frankly, the AF has been stupid and shortsighted in the matter.

  2. Quartermaster, we both agree that have the right to your opinion. You talk about Desert Storm I. You also speak of Jerry Pournelle, PhD and Chuck Horner, are you just reading some of their writings? For the record, I’m aware that Pournelle served during Korea. I served in the Air Force, yes, there are things that are not right. But every branch of the US Military is the same way, including the Army. This is the reason, that I do not come to a view of any branch, based on the writings of an individual or a group of individuals. As strange as it may seem, I believe the Army should have its own branch of air power, but do not fold the Air Force back into the Army.

    I won’t lie to you and tell you I was there, because the facts of history would prove me a liar.

    About Chuck Horner, some things to remember, maybe you can tell me, how long, before, during and after Desert Storm I, was the Air Force still flying sorties over Iraq? This was before, during and after we had “boots on the ground”.

    As strange as it might sound, this world is extremely complex and we need to bring everything to the table when it comes to warfare. This world, as you well know, has changed greatly, since the times these men have served. Quartermaster, we both know you’re no fool and that is agreed.

    Last, but not least, I want to thank you for engaging in the debate and for your service to this *Great Nation*.

  3. Grumpy, I’m a regular reader over at Pournelle’s site and he has not been the least bit reticent about his opinion of the Air Force.

    For teh record, my father was career Air Force, retiring in 1971. An Uncle wa also an AF retiree. I wanted to make a career as an AF pilot, so I’m certainly not an enemy of the AF.

    Horner’s opinions on the AF and the air campaign in desert storm are of record in his book. No one can come away from his book without knowing where he was coming from on the matter. I’m of the opinion based on history and teh bahavior of teh AF that it has too much on its plate to be able to serve the Army properly. I think the strategic responsibilities of the AF are not properly in the purview of the Army. So , unlike Pournelle, I think the AF should continue to exist, just as a strategic service with the TacAir responsibilty being left to the Army where it belongs.

    If you are of the opinion that TacAir is not properly the purview of the Army, then you have to justify Marine TacAir, as well as the Navy’s, and if the AF position carries the day with the Army, then it would also have to do so with the Naval Service as well. In reality, the opposite obtains as the AF has not been able to properly serve the Army.

    As i said, this is not a conspiracy issue. People like LeMay, Spaatz, and others who held out for independence were humans, and some of teh Army leadership prior to WW2 did short the AAF. You had similar problems with SAC basically taking over the AF which mitigated strongly against proper support of the Army as well. The term “SACumcized,” I’m sure, is a term you are familiar with Grumpy. I can tell you, my father went to great lengths to stay away from SAC after he got away from Hunter AFB in 1954 (just happens to be where I was born as well).

    Granted, the AFwas flying missions before boots on the ground entered Iraq. The point of not hitting tactical targets unless ordered to was Horner’s not mine. That timing, however, isn’t relevant to the discussion. The problem I see is the AF has too much on its plate to properly serve the Army, and because the strategic stuff is more glamorous, they overemphasize it to the detriment of the Army’s needs. I want the AF to continue, and to serve the strategic needs of teh country. I also want the AF to turn over the TacAir problem to the Army where it belongs and go do teh things it does well and can be done by no oher.

  4. A couple of thoughts: In my experience, part of the reason the army doesn’t “believe” in BAI is because we never see it replicated. We espouse joint-service doctrine, but then at a Combat Training Center, the enemy crosses into our battlespace at 100%. Why don’t we replicate the effects of BAI and attrit him somewhat before he arrives? (For that matter, we don’t replicate the Division’s shaping efforts either, which is just as egregious.) Secondly, just as a reminder, we used to have our own air defense capabilities because we were worried about the Soviets’ efforts over our own heads. Recall the MIG 27 or the SU25, anyone? Now we are reliant on the USAF maintaining air superiority for us. (Luckily I have only seen this in simulation, but it is scary because it was a failure…) Third thought: the use of CAS is, as the reading suggested, often primarily as a Non-Traditional ISR platform in which, while we are not actually dropping bombs, we are indeed using its ROVER or LIGHTNING pod feed to our OSRVT. This is often better than our own UAS because you can observe from a high altitude and/or stand-off, unlike with our Shadow, which tips your hand because it is distinctive and detectable. Lastly, CAS is much more responsive than ground systems. There is a pilot right there, observing and reacting to the enemy. Not to mention timely: I have waited in excess of 8 minutes for GMLR to be laid, plus up to two minutes time of flight. Hope the target didn’t move at all, or that is end-of-mission for sure. Excaliber is a bit better, but still slow. And, when they get rounds on target, neither brings enough punch, in my opinion. I have personally witnessed (via Shadow feed) a terrorist so close to the blast of a GMLR that he momentarily disappeared in its blast get knocked over and then jump right back up and run over 500m to a house that he disappeared into, at which time we lost PID. I have even seen multiple AQI come out of a house that was just leveled by a 500 lb JDAM. I don’t have personal experience with the 120mm PGM yet,but I doubt it brings much punch either. So, CAS is much-preferred to FA fires.

  5. Quartermaster, for the record, I believe in a completely separate Army TACAir, I would have absolutely no problem with that move. For the record, I would like to know the name of the person who told the pilots not to bomb tactical targets, unless specifically ordered. There is something about that whole idea, that just sucks. I want a specific name! Then, I want to know exactly where that person fits in the overall “Chain of Command” of Desert Storm.

    The Air Force is not perfect, but depending on what you know from your own experiences, you know there is no perfect branch of the US Military.

    If you were going to be SACumsized, you just hope that they didn’t slip.

    1. You misunderstood. Horner said that. In print, no less. The pilots simply get a Frag order to fly a mission. They didn’t choose targets unless the original target was already taken out and they saw a target of opportunity. This assumes they had no secondary targets in the mission package.

      If you accept TacAir for the Army, then we see eye to eye. I think that’s where it belongs, then the AF can do the jobs they are meant to do without being distracted by Esli and his friends.

      The AF isn’t perfect? You heretic! It’s McMurdo for you for sure. Make that two tours. Maybe you’ll learn your lesson. Seriously, there is no perfect anything on this earth that is touched by mankind. It’s part and parcel of the fallen nature of man. In fact, there would be no military if it weren’t for the fallen nature of man.

      I agree with you Esli. Close Air Support is the most responsive and why it is so desirable. FA is needed, and can take care of much of the fire support you need, but the delay of targeting and flight can be lethal as well. FA and CAS can be complimentary id done right, but I don’t think it will be done right until the Army controls their own TacAir fully.

  6. Quartermaster, during “Desert Storm”, the President of United States was George H W Bush, the Secretary of Defense was Richard Cheney, The Allied Commander of all Forces during Desert Storm was H Norman Schwarzkopf and the Allied Commander of all Air Forces was Charles A Horner. Now the command suggested by Horner would be given by one of those men. Who? The suggested command would have come across Horner’s radar, at some point in time. What did he do or not do and why?

    I understand that you are reading a book, with no disrespect intended, I don’t expect you to have been the answer.

    Now, if all of the maritime services have their own TacAir Support, why shouldn’t the Army?

    I don’t see this as a debate, but a friendly discussion. If you can explain that to a dumb old Vet, like me, I would appreciate it.

  7. Quartermaster,
    *Correction* to 2nd paragraph, let me rephrase-

    “I understand that you are reading a book, with no disrespect intended, I don’t expect you were there.”

    Grumpy, smell the coffee.

  8. Schwarzkopf was the one that dictated tactical targets that Horner included in the mission packages. Those targets were dictated by Schwarzkopf at the request of the Army commanders because Horner ignored the requests. Horner was upfront about this. It is to Horner’s credit that he made to no effort to hide it. Horner made no effort to kick against it either. Another plus for Horner. While Horner did not complain about it, during or after the war, it is clear that the Army was a distraction from the air campaign he needed to wage.

  9. the Congress should have given the Army the A-10 back in the 90’s. Even the official Air Force magazine ran quotes from soldiers who said they’d make Beechcraft and Cessna “rich overnight” if they could build a CAS aircraft. That article has an artist’s concept of a turboprop aircraft attacking Soviet tanks (yes this was a 1989 article and that makes me old 😛 ).

    Let the air force fight in the air. Give the A-10 to the Army. We’d take good care of it.

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