Anderson’s words, recorded by military writer Rick Atkinson in the April 6, 2003, Washington Post, were eyewitness testimony to a stunning and successful integration of air and surface fires in Operation Iraqi Freedom—integration that is underwriting US success in the Global War on Terror.
That scene owed much to a special breed of airmen known as air liaison officers, or ALOs. They are pilots, navigators, and weapon systems officers who leave the cockpit behind for a tour with Army units. Their perspective puts them literally on the front line of changes in the air-ground relationship.
ALOs also know that relations between airmen and soldiers can draw close, then drift apart. As good as firepower from the air has been in Afghanistan and Iraq, the historical pattern signals caution. ALOs have their hands full anticipating new challenges in the air-ground domain.
Experienced airmen acknowledge that the air-ground relationship faded after Operation Desert Storm in 1991. To be sure, coalition airmen littered Kuwait with Iraqi tanks and artillery, but Desert Storm was mainly an air interdiction war. There were only four days of true, classical close air support (CAS) during the final 100-hour ground offensive.
The early 1990s found the Air Force wrestling with the question of the role of CAS in the age of precision. In 1994, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill A. McPeak famously offered to cede the mission to the Army, along with A-10s designed to do the job, if the Army thought it could do CAS better. For its part, the Army focused on building up its organic artillery, the Army Tactical Missile System, and helicopter “fires” for deep attack.
The trend unwittingly set up some of the problems that flared in a March 2002 Afghanistan operation called Anaconda.
Col. John V. Allison, an A-10 pilot and former ALO now at the Joint Air-Ground Operations (JAGO) Office at Air Combat Command, offered an additional explanation. “I think part of it was the 10-year hangover of Southern Watch,” he said. “For 10 years of Southern Watch, we knew what every target was; everything relied on precision and ISR and having total [situational awareness] on what it was you were going to go after.”
Doctrine, philosophy, and even terminology were limiting factors, too. Airmen flinched at the restrictive connotations of the Army term “fires,” for example. Brig. Gen. (sel.) Michael A. Longoria, an experienced ALO, recalled, “About 10 years ago, if you were on the Air Staff and you said, ‘The Air Force delivers fires,’ well, to the Billy Mitchell airpower group, that would have been a heinous term. Now everybody in the Air Force says fires this, fires that.?”
Fast forward to 2001 and the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Technological improvements in airpower were about to propel the air-ground relationship to new heights of effectiveness—and create crisis at the highest levels.
“[The success of airpower in] Afghanistan, in my mind, was almost a dream come true,” said Longoria, who in 2001 was commander of the 18th Air Support Operations Group, owned by 9th Air Force and providing air liaison for engaged US Central Command forces. He noted that 45 small special operations teams fanned out over Afghanistan, and each took air controllers to help bring to bear precision firepower. The result was “an airpower buffet, available 24 hours a day, with multiple aircraft with very precise weapons.” By the end of November, the fight with the Taliban for control of Afghanistan’s major cities and towns was over.
Airmen and ground troops alike were surprised by the rapid success in Afghanistan. “No one at any command level thought it could happen that quickly,” said Longoria.
He credited three factors:
First was mass precision, courtesy of Global Positioning System satellite navigation. GPS signals offered high accuracy in the form of the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM).
Second was the small, tactical PRC-117 satellite multiband radio, which gave ground forces anywhere in Afghanistan the power to reach back to the air operations center and call for fire.
Third was a decision to spread ground forward air controllers across the battlefield, embedding them with highly trained special operations forces (SOF).
Still, those involved saw problems emerging. Success outran doctrine and training and left airmen and soldiers scrambling to deal with it all.
“We didn’t draw traditional lines on the ground to separate the Army and Air Force battlespace,” said Longoria. Lack of lines was appropriate for the widely spaced fight, but no-fire areas formed like bubbles over the heads of SOF teams on the ground, according to Longoria.
Airspace control was also affected. “We mucked up the ground space enough that it became a problem,” said Longoria. Eventually there were so many no-fire areas that, on the airspace control order map, it looked “like Afghanistan developed the measles.”
Longoria noted that the land and air components “needed to have worked that airspace control order with a little greater fidelity.” The components, engaged in hot pursuit of al Qaeda, had little time to scrub the system.
Longoria said that, in retrospect, the components should have had “the discipline” to go back to the no-fire zones and take some of them off the order. Instead, said Longoria, “as we worked up to Anaconda in early 2002, the airspace control order was populated with over 350 no-fire areas.” The land force, Task Force Mountain, went into the targeted Shah-e-Kot Valley with too many controllers on the ground in too tight a space and little appreciation for onrushing problems.
Cuts and Bruises
The Anaconda experience has been well documented elsewhere; see, for example, “The Echoes of Anaconda,” in the April Air Force Magazine. Suffice it to say that highly questionable criticisms of Air Force operations by Army Maj. Gen. Franklin L. “Buster” Hagenbeck and others set teeth on edge. The bruising encounters after Anaconda threatened to plunge air-ground relations to a new low.
Nonetheless, airmen in theater quickly reviewed Anaconda’s lessons and raced to improve ties with the land component in time for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Air support was successful in Gulf War II and the ongoing stability operations in the CENTCOM theater. Working level contacts continued via close air support “integrated product teams.”
However, senior leaders recognized it was better not to leave cooperation to the last minute.
That led to the stand up in October 2004 of the JAGO Office. Longoria was tapped to head the office. “The official guidance was: Improve the air-ground domain,” said Longoria. “The unofficial guidance to me was: Create constant fervor in this domain.” Upset the applecart if necessary—“because we need to get broader,” as Longoria recalled the words of Gen. Hal M. Hornburg, then ACC commander.
JAGO was also chartered to provide inputs to a new Army-Air Force general officer forum chaired by the operations deputies—AF/XO and Army G-3—at the Pentagon. The forum will field issues presented by the major commands of both services. “We wanted to make sure there was a corporate structure,” said Longoria. “Our relationship with the Army has to be institutionalized.”
Building up the institutional relationship may help with one core issue: trust. Airmen consistently cite land component mistrust of airpower as a roadblock to improving air support.
Trust comes from experience. However, as seen by the ALOs, combined arms exercises did not always provide it. Capstone training events that included close air support were often run under artificial conditions because close engagement was the main training objective. “When the CAS aircraft would find the enemy prior to contact and employ against them quite effectively,” said Allison, “the exercise did not allow that effect to be played out” if that kept the Army “from having its ground battle.”
Allison went on, “They brought up a whole generation of Army leadership that really didn’t have the opportunity to learn what airpower can do for them. Exercises were run in a vacuum. The brigade combat team on the ground, in the box working, did not get to experience what air supremacy and what air dominance across the theater could do.”
Allison summed up, “When the Army’s paying a million dollars a day for a tank battle, they’re going to get a tank battle.”
Lt. Col. Greg Myers, an experienced ALO currently with the 15th Air Suport Operations Squadron, found trust to be a key point, too. Among senior Army leaders at past exercises, Myers found “the level of trust or faith in the Air Force is pretty much personality dependent—[based on] past experiences that they’ve had, or maybe just general personality.”
When soldiers were exposed to airpower, the results were better. “I’ve had some really good experiences with senior Army division leaders, corps leaders, who really understand what the Air Force can provide, understand its limitations as well, and listen to the advisors—the ALOs they have available to them—and trust them. That’s when you get the real synergistic effects of the joint fires,” Myers said.
Afghanistan and Iraq have ensured many ground commanders got firsthand experience. “The brigade commanders, with Iraq experience, with Afghanistan experience, are aware of airpower” and their reliance on it, observed Longoria. Myers added, “It’s an educational process. That’s why we live on Army posts and train with them.”
JTACs and JFOs
Beyond trust, Army transformation concepts are driving new requirements in the air-ground domain. “The Army is transforming and becoming leaner and lighter. Their organic fires capability has declined a little bit because it’s just too massive for them to move,” said Myers. “They are relying on the Air Force more now—and will in the future—for the fires that we can provide.”
“It’s driven by the desire to be strategically deployable” and once in theater to increase the “agility” of the unit of action, said Alan Vick, co-author of the March 2005 Rand report “Beyond Close Air Support.” The Army will rely more on joint fires, and “most of it is liable to come from naval or land-based air.”
That creates a dilemma for joint tactical air controller (JTAC) manning and the role of joint fires observer (JFO). The Army, notes Vick, wants “the smallest deployed force to have access to the full range of joint fires,” which leads the Army to insist that every ground maneuver company have its own JTAC.
“There’s a different approach that we have in the Air Force,” explained Longoria. Maneuver companies will be assigned JTACs when needed, but not as permanent manpower slots. The Air Force will give the Army a JTAC capability—not ownership. “They will have the capability but not the resident manpower attached at the company,” said Col. Ronald L. Watkins of the JAGO Office.
“In other words, in combat, when you absolutely need it, you’re going to get it,” Longoria said, “but every single day? No. We simply can’t do that. That would be tantamount to saying all of our airmen are going to be completely organic down to the company level.”
JTACs are not made overnight. Becoming familiar enough with air support to integrate it into a battle plan takes more than seeing a bomb hit a target. The job of the JTAC includes control, deconfliction, respecting availability times, clearing aircraft off to tankers, and so forth.
As Vick and his co-authors concluded, “The JTAC program was created to ensure that TAC standards are uniform across the services, not to produce a vast new pool of TACs.”
Battlespace density is also a key variable in determining how many JTACs to send in and how to use them effectively. When companies are shoulder to shoulder in an engagement, one JTAC may serve several. In the close-packed Anaconda battle, more than 30 air controllers worked in an 8-mile by 8-mile area with conflicting lines of sight. One al Qaeda mortar round, and “you might get seven or eight JTACs calling for fires,” said Longoria, adding, “More JTACs is not necessarily a good thing.”
Vick foresaw another problem. “Don’t be surprised if, in four or five years, the Army comes back and says we need [JTACs] with every platoon. You can imagine the limit, the extreme future force, where every soldier needs that capability.”
Enter the JFO
Everyone wants to guarantee that ground units can call for fires. That’s where the JFOs come in. “We want any Army element, down to a single individual in a convoy, platoon, or company, to be able to call for fire through a JFO,” said Watkins.
However, “calling in air isn’t just about target location and description,” said Vick. “It’s also about controlling the aircraft, and that’s where it differs from forward observer skills. Being a forward observer is challenging enough, but the person who’s working with the aircraft also has to deconflict the aircraft, deal with fuel states—lots of things that you don’t worry about with artillery,” Vick said.
Current plans aim to resolve those issues. The key point is to disaggregate the skill set.
Longoria said a JTAC will be teamed with an Army JFO, who is a trained universal observer. JFOs can control artillery and naval gunfire. According to Longoria, JFOs will also get “an airpower course that’s much like a JTAC course, but not as extensive,” and be expected to maintain currency requirements—again, not as extensive as those of the JTAC.
The JFOs will most likely be found at platoon and company level. They will be experts at the target. JFOs may also be tapped to provide rapid battle damage assessment. JTACs then do the airspace deconfliction and other tasks necessary to complete the strike.
Army plans call for expanding the number of brigades even though troop levels will stay constant. The new structure will by itself increase demand for controllers.
Currently there are more than 700 JTACs, with plans to go up to about 1,100. It won’t be easy to keep up the numbers.
“The Army wants to have a lot of their 13Fs—artillery guys—become JTACs,” explained Myers. “The problem with that is, there isn’t a separate school for them to go to, and they don’t have the structure in place to be able to do that. The system that the Air Force has is just barely keeping up with our requirements, and, of course, our requirements are growing.”
The Air-Ground Operations School at Nellis AFB, Nev., has worked hard to get more JTACs through the course, said Myers, but capacity is limited, and subsequent training can be spotty.
“It’s difficult to ramp up the number of quality, confident TACs rapidly,” said Vick. “If you put people out there who aren’t up to it, you end up either killing friendlies and civilians and/or not killing the enemy,” he said. “That’s too high a price to pay.”
However, technology will lend a hand. Vick said he expects upgrades to laser range finders and other new initiatives to make the fires observer’s job easier.
Training will also evolve. Myers praised the Indirect Fire-Foward Air Control Trainer simulator—known as I-FACT—which is entering widespread service for squadron-level training. “We’re hoping that this will lead us to more realistic training,” he said.
Joint fires is not the only challenge. The air and ground components are facing a potential battle over airspace control as unmanned vehicles proliferate in the battlespace. Low airspace is becoming a contested commodity, with land forces often asking to own it up to 3,000 feet. “Every attempt to raise the altitude will inhibit the precise application of airpower,” said Watkins.
Success in the air-ground domain depends on good command relationships and on harmonizing tactical and operational concepts. Serving in the air-ground domain is now more popular than ever. “There’s been a sea change in the last three years,” said Longoria. “I have people clamoring [to become ALOs]. When these young captains get an ALO assignment now, they’re excited about it. They know they’re going to war.”
Today’s ALOs are also a long-term investment in future leadership. In Longoria’s view, the young officers serving as ALOs come out of the experience with unique credentials.
“Some of those guys are going to be joint force commanders at the one-, two-, or three-star level and above,” he said. “They will look at their Army counterparts and say, ‘I’ve been in air combat, and I’ve been in ground combat.’ There will be nothing that an Army infantry officer has over them in terms of combat credentials.”
Rebecca Grant is a contributing editor of Air Force Magazine. She is president of IRIS Independent Research in Washington, D.C., and has worked for Rand, the Secretary of the Air Force, and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Grant is a fellow of the Eaker Institute for Aerospace Concepts, the public policy and research arm of the Air Force Association’s Aerospace Education Foundation. Her most recent article, “The Echoes of Anaconda,” appeared in the April issue.