Joint Fire Drill

July 1, 1998

When a joint force engages the enemy, the battlefield will be divided by the Fire Support Coordination Line, located somewhere in front of our own ground troops. For good reasons–among them, the danger of hitting friendly forces–the delivery of ordnance, including air-to-ground munitions, inside that line must be cleared with the land force commander.

In the closing days of the Gulf War in 1991, the FSCL was drawn too far forward, letting Republican Guard forces fleeing from Kuwait escape. Army artillery fire couldn’t reach them, and the Air Force wasn’t allowed to.

Until recently, that was the best known example of the “joint fires” problem. Largely unnoticed by outsiders, it has been simmering in the Pentagon for almost 10 years. It reached the boiling point this spring when the Air Force formally objected to new joint doctrine that would have given the ground commander control of all “fires”–including Air Force counterair, strategic attack, interdiction, and electronic warfare–in an “area of operations” reaching well beyond the FSCL.

But that gets ahead of the story.

The sticking point was Joint Publication 3-09, “Doctrine for Joint Fire Support,” on which work began in 1988. The Army was designated “lead agent” for this project and used the opportunity to strengthen its position at the expense of the Air Force.

The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 gave theater commanders sweeping authority in “areas of responsibility” in which operations or conflict might occur. A change added later and without fanfare authorized the theater commander to assign “areas of operation” within the AOR to the land and sea component commanders. No provision was made for an air component AO.

Meanwhile, the draft of Joint Pub 3-09 was altering concepts and definitions. A new term, “joint fires,” replaced the older one, “joint fire support,” which had been understood to mean fires directly aiding the land forces. “Fires” were redefined to include all “lethal or nonlethal weapons effects.”

The Army, supported by the Navy and the Marine Corps, held that the land or naval component commander had “primacy” over operations and control of fires within the area of operation. The Air Force argued alone that the AO is not an AOR and that the joint force commander’s authority should not be supplanted. The Army wanted the ground force commander to control all operations, whether they supported the ground operation or not. That would take in virtually all Air Force combat capability except for airlift, reconnaissance, and surveillance.

The size of an AO is not prescribed, but it extends beyond the Fire Support Coordination Line to a “forward boundary.” Earlier assumptions set the FSCL about 20 miles in front of our ground forces. Recently, however, the Army has claimed the FSCL should be hundreds of kilometers ahead, with the forward boundary even more distant.

The joint fires issue was settled, supposedly, at a “tank” meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff May 12. Joint Pub 3-09 was adopted with some modifications. Among them was a stipulation sought by the Air Force that any commander so designated by the joint force commander has the “latitude” to plan and execute missions of theater-wide importance within land and naval AOs.

Within days, there was disagreement about the understanding reached. Joint Pub 3-09 had been haggled over and coordinated so much that various interpretations were possible. The next step in determining what it means will be how it is put into practice and how battlespace control is allocated in joint operations and exercises.

Part of this is a power struggle, pure and simple. It makes no sense for the ground component commander to decide the targets, timing, and priorities for airpower in engagements unrelated to the ground battle.

This is not to disparage the value of ground forces. Nor is it to fault the land component commander for believing in his force. However, his concentration is on shaping the close battle. His perspective is essentially local and two-dimensional.

His priorities are inherently different from those of the joint force commander, who must think about objectives and targets of strategic importance. They are also different from those of the air component commander, whose perspective will be higher and deeper, and who will focus more on theater problems and possibilities than on linear movements of front-line maneuver elements.

Ground force partisans believe, as they did in the 1940s, that everything else–especially airpower–is subordinate to the land battle, and that airpower’s role is to support them.

There was great consternation among those who thought that way in 1991 when Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the allied coalition, began Operation Desert Storm with a strategic air campaign rather than with a ground offensive supported by airpower. There was even greater consternation when it worked.

Another surprise was the losses: 148 US battle deaths and 467 wounded. The forecast for a traditional campaign had been 20,000 casualties, including 7,000 killed in action. The ground forces were expected to absorb most of that.

The net effect of Joint Pub 3-09 is to undercut the flexibility of airpower–the component more likely than any of the others to amplify our advantage in theater battle.

That is to no one’s benefit. It is just bad doctrine and it sets up strategy that is even worse.