Today’s super-advanced technologies have conferred on America’s four-star commanders the power to get down in the weeds and personally direct an air strike halfway around the world. It is not a theoretical capability, either.
In Operation Enduring Freedom, the commander of US Central Command, Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, remained at CENTCOM’s headquarters in Florida while his air boss–the Combined Force Air Component Commander, or CFACC–deployed forward. Though the CFACC was in south Asia, powerful communications allowed him to tap into data banks, intelligence, and imagery in the United States. This capability is known to all as “reachback.”
What was unexpected was the emergence of what some have taken to calling “reach-forward.” This term refers to a situation in which a commander thousands of miles from a theater uses the same communication system to manage a tactical event in real time. In Enduring Freedom, Franks or CENTCOM senior staff at MacDill AFB, Fla., often granted or withheld approval for tactical execution of a specific strike in Afghanistan.
This involvement of higher headquarters had a significant impact on the pace of the air campaign and raised big questions about command and control of larger campaigns in the future.
Basic air combat doctrine long has called for delegating execution authority down to the lowest level possible. This push for decentralized execution made certain that the shots were being called by those in closest contact with the enemy and with the freshest tactical information. The goal was to act fast before the moment was lost.
Once, geographically distant field commanders lacked the capability to share real-time information with headquarters types in the rear. Hours and days might pass before senior commanders learned the tactical details of engagements.
Before the June 4-6, 1942, Battle of Midway, Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, the Pacific Fleet commander, made a strategic decision to concentrate his aircraft carriers. On June 4, however, the show belonged to Rear Adm. Raymond A. Spruance, aboard USS Enterprise. It was Spruance, not Nimitz, who made the fateful decision to launch an all-out attack at 7 a.m. while still more than 175 miles from the Japanese force rather than wait two hours to close the distance. US pilots caught Japan’s carriers rearming their aircraft and attacked, opening the door to victory.
Through the ensuing decades, improved technologies allowed much closer monitoring of enemy and friendly forces, but for the most part, the faith in decentralized execution was unchanged
The Gulf War extended the principle of delegation of tactical and operational authority, with clear strategic guidance from Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the theater Commander in Chief. Control of strikes during the Gulf War rested with the airborne command element, working through three platforms: the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft for the air picture, E-8 Joint STARS aircraft for moving ground targets, and the EC-130 Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center aircraft to coordinate with forward air controllers to distribute the flow of air-to-ground strike sorties.
A pilot checking in with an ABCCC, for example, would be assigned a target based on the day’s Rules of Engagement as well as the immediate evaluation of threats in the area and how long a strike aircraft could remain in the vicinity. The ABCCC crew was airborne near the battlespace and was thus directly attuned to the rhythm of the battle and the tempo of operations.
Senior commanders could and did pass orders to divert aircraft to new targets. Multiple feeds coming into the Tactical Air Control Center at Royal Saudi Air Force headquarters in Riyadh generated battle pictures. These enabled the Joint Force Air Component Commander, Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, and his deputy, Brig. Gen. Buster C. Glosson, to monitor the progress of the night’s attack in real time. Glosson kept in reserve a handful of ready F-111s that could quickly exploit opportunities.
Horner and Glosson gave Schwarzkopf nightly briefings on targets struck and plans for new attacks, but Schwarzkopf did not monitor air strikes in real time or personally approve lists of targets once the war was under way. Interventions from Washington were limited to advance planning. The Air Staff’s Checkmate planning cell cherry-picked key targets from intelligence sources, analyzed them, and sent the locations and descriptions to officers in the theater, sometimes within minutes. There, the targets were handled by captains, majors, and lieutenant colonels staffing the TACC planning cells, while final approval for tactical execution remained firmly under the JFACC’s control.
Schwarzkopf and his airmen together made the most difficult decisions within the planning cycle and stuck to them.
Here, biological weapons storage sites provided a prime example. The cruciform bunkers were the most dangerous targets of the air war because campaign planners did not know whether bombing the bunkers would or would not release toxins. Horner, Schwarzkopf, and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney debated the issue in December 1990, before the war began. As recounted by Rick Atkinson’s book, Crusade, Horner briefed Cheney and Schwarzkopf on how F-117s would attack the bunkers at dawn. Low winds would limit dispersal, and sunlight would cause the agent to deteriorate. “If there’s collateral damage in Iraq, perhaps that’s not all bad,” said Horner, and Schwarzkopf firmly backed him up, saying, “CENTCOM’s position is that we attack these targets.”
Even the most famous incident of friction between Schwarzkopf and his air commanders stayed within bounds. When the theater commander discovered that B-52 bombers had not yet struck Iraq’s Republican Guards, he exploded at Horner and Glosson. The trio retreated to Horner’s office to work out the disagreement–but it was a disagreement played out over planning, not direct execution.
The strike on the Al Firdos bunker in Baghdad–an attack reportedly resulting in the deaths of more than 200 civilians–brought intense scrutiny of targets near Baghdad but still no direct interference with execution. Under pressure from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Colin Powell, Schwarzkopf told Glosson, “I need to go over every target in Baghdad each day so that I can explain exactly why we’re striking it and what we expect to gain.”
The new guidance was onerous but easy enough to carry out; RSAF headquarters was but a short drive from Schwarzkopf’s office in Riyadh. And after months of planning and weeks of war, Schwarzkopf and his airmen shared theater situational awareness and the same campaign priorities. The strong working relationship of CINC and JFACC accommodated the pressures.
Most important, Schwarzkopf was back-briefing Washington, not seeking prior approval for time-sensitive strikes. The concept of reach-forward–having a direct impact on tactical execution–was not yet a reality.
Operation Allied Force in 1999 put the spotlight on three factors that would ultimately come together to make reach-forward an issue.
The first factor was NATO’s political target approval process. The NATO campaign required formal approval on multiple levels for all fixed targets. Allies could, and did at times, hold back approval of a target because of political sensitivities. Two infamous examples: the Serb early warning radars positioned in Montenegro and a Serb television transmitter located in a dense urban area. Collateral damage was a top concern, and most targets submitted for approval had rough collateral damage estimates appended. The process of target approval wound its way from the theater commander, Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, to the White House and back via the allies before targets entered the Combined Air Operations Center database of approved aim points.
The approval process had a clear operational impact on the campaign. For example, Allied Force kicked off in March 1999 with a total of just 51 approved targets. When NATO sought to expand the campaign, Clark scrambled to push more targets through the approval system.
On several occasions, a late veto caused ripples in the execution process, according to Gen. John P. Jumper, Air Force Chief of Staff, who in 1999 was commander of US Air Forces Europe. “It had some effects at the tactical level,” Jumper said after the war. “We turned airplanes around because of last-minute disapproval [of certain targets] by nations. We pulled four-ships out of strike packages that were already en route to the target and turned them around, causing great confusion. … We deleted specific targets from bombers that were en route.”
In short, political “reach” was beginning to interrupt the battle rhythm of the air war.
The second factor was very different. Tracking time-sensitive targets–usually mobile military vehicles or surface-to-air missile batteries–became a major element of the campaign. On several occasions, planners relayed new targets to B-2 bombers en route to the combat zone. Notification of the new targets went from the CAOC to the B-2 command post at Whiteman AFB, Mo., and then to the B-2 cockpit via satellite link. The process took time, but it demonstrated the ability of the CAOC to retarget airborne assets and was largely free of political constraint. At that time, at least, the act of reaching forward into the cockpit was a help, not a hindrance.
The third factor stemmed from intermingling of civilians and Serb military and police forces in Kosovo. This compelled the NATO forces to adopt Rules of Engagement that frequently required pilots working the Kosovo engagement zone to get CAOC permission to strike targets they had just spotted. Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicles gave commanders a look at targets that were difficult to identify. One memorable tape showed a civilian farm tractor near a Serb Armored Personnel Carrier–a close-up look that prevented the CAOC from clearing an aircraft to strike.
Predator feeds helped sort out whether a target could be attacked under the ROE of the day–a tactical execution task. The one-star CAOC shift directors monitored the Predator feed as did the NATO air boss, Lt. Gen. Michael C. Short, on occasion.
Even so, the availability of Predator imagery was limited, and the live video did not go to Clark or out of the theater. The only significant reach-forward incident came on the night the Serbs shot down an F-117 stealth fighter. Short recalled that he received several telephone calls; the callers were “people sitting back at the Pentagon trying to micromanage the rescue.”
Even though execution authority stayed with the CAOC, the suite of communications and sensors that let the CAOC keep close control of the strikes frustrated those flying them.
Rhythm and Blues
Strike and command-and-control aircraft operated with one battle rhythm–aware, for example, that if approval for a target did not come through soon, an aircraft would have to break off to refuel or return to base. Even though execution authority stayed with the CAOC, it still frustrated aircrews. A-10 pilots tasked with hunting down Serb tanks, APCs, artillery, and other military vehicles complained of the constraints imposed and opportunities missed due to the need to call back to the CAOC for permission to engage. Pilots naturally wondered if the commanders at the CAOC understood their urgency. Just one step removed, the battle rhythm seemed different.
While Allied Force expanded the number of ways to reach forward into the process, control over tactical execution still rested with the CFACC.
All this led to a strong desire to improve the fusion of intelligence. Moreover, the Kosovo crisis raised the hope that it might be possible to keep many planners and analysts well back in rear areas. CAOC manning had grown from 300 to 1,300 over the course of Allied Force. Future expeditionary operations might not be able to accommodate that much manpower on site. Why not improve communications to the point where a rear-area AOC could handle many tasks and pump the information forward, where final planning and execution could be handled by a smaller staff
The Expeditionary Force Experiment exercises and Air Combat Command’s Aerospace Command-and-Control, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Center attempted to hone those procedures. The idea was to reach back for intelligence. Yet, in Enduring Freedom, the technology and politics turned the tables.
The crisp, detailed, and immediate picture of the Afghan battlespace gave senior commanders more latitude than ever before to reach forward into the execution process. It was a persistent, multisensor ISR picture, and it was tempting to act on it. Predator sent streaming video. Availability of the GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition gave commanders the ability to call down precision strikes 24 hours a day. The visibility and potential lethality were unprecedented. This crystalline picture of combat aircraft locations and other intelligence information gleaned from satellites and aircraft was piped directly into Franks’s headquarters in Florida.
The key to the issue was time-sensitive targeting. Guidance required the Defense Secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, to personally approve any strikes on pop-up on targets such as vehicles thought to include senior Taliban and al Qaeda leaders. Rumsfeld did not speak directly to the issue of target approval, but he made no secret that he was in close contact with Franks.
The first indications of a new level of tactical control came early in the war. Various members of the press reported details of an attempted strike on a compound thought to be housing Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban spiritual leader. By the time the strike was approved, however, the vehicles surrounding the compound had dispersed and Omar was gone.
Later reports on the way the air component supported Northern Alliance ground forces uncovered more evidence of reach-forward. Describing the situation near Kandahar in late November, Franks said, “Every day, we have assets that watch these [roads], and the first thing that’s required is, when one sees vehicles moving, is to determine whether these vehicles belong to friends or foes. As you know, we move an awful lot of humanitarian assistance up and down the routes inside Afghanistan, and I think you’ll also agree that we’ve exercised every caution to be sure that we didn’t bomb those.”
In discussing an attempted Taliban counterattack near Kandahar, Franks admitted, “It may well be true that we watched a convoy for three-and-a-half hours before it was struck.” The fragmentary evidence of reach-forward added up to a disturbing picture. While all commanders take care to obey the laws of war, the level of caution and of direct tactical control in Enduring Freedom surpassed other recent operations.
The most obvious drawback was that strike aircraft lost opportunities to engage targets. Another issue was the difference in outlook between the in-theater CAOC and the Florida-based CENTCOM command center. While the picture was good enough to let Franks’s staff engage in tactical and operational decisions–including weaponeering–the raw data alone did not truly capture the battle rhythm or conditions in-theater. Factors such as weather, runway availability, and host nation concerns made a big difference in outlook. The generals and admirals at the CAOC had enough difficulty generating their own clear picture of these conditions. It was all the more difficult for those sitting in Tampa.
Allied Force had shown that execution tempo depended on a full picture of every piece of the ongoing campaign, from weather conditions to asset availability and a sense of how changes today would affect tomorrow’s sorties. Brig. Gen. Randall C. Gelwix, one of the CAOC shift directors in Allied Force, described how the battle rhythm affected his decisions and changes in plans.
“We found out that you can’t say, ‘Let’s slip this package an hour-and-a-half because we think the weather is going to be good,'” said Gelwix. “You can’t do that because those tankers are already rolled into tomorrow and they’re coming from Mildenhall [in the UK], and it takes them four-and-a-half hours to get into the [Area of Responsibility].” Good tactical execution depended on having a campaign-level perspective and awareness of the impact on each layer of the ongoing campaign.
Reach-Forward in the Future
Reach-forward boils down to who controls tempo. Joint doctrine leaves the door open for the four-star theater commander to control whatever he wishes by specifying the broad powers behind COCOM–combatant, or theater, command. It confers OPCON–operational control–on military components. But then it favors delegating TACON–tactical control–which “allows commanders below combatant command level to apply force and direct the tactical use of logistics assets.” TACON is the tool for the JFACC (or land or maritime component commanders) to run the tempo of the war. “I don’t care if I have OPCON as long as I have TACON,” said Short after Allied Force. With reach-forward, however, the theater commander in effect takes over TACON and direct application of force.
In the case of Enduring Freedom, reach-forward was not a deal breaker. The lack of sophisticated enemy air defenses made it possible to carry on with Enduring Freedom despite the problems caused by reach-forward. The unusual politics and the relatively small number of forces in Enduring Freedom meant that reach-forward was possible and perhaps inevitable. Can this method of execution be applied on a larger scale? At some point, holding too much tactical execution authority at a high level is sure to stall a campaign. Desert Storm often saw more than 1,000 aim points hit each day. In a larger campaign with more targets and sorties, reach-forward could take its toll.
The negative effects of reach-forward were easily measured in terms of missed opportunities for air strikes, but the problem affects more than just the joint air component. Ground operations could be similarly hampered. Live Predator video feeds may be mesmerizing, but they cover a tiny portion of the battlespace, like looking through a soda straw. Is an Army platoon supposed to delay an attack so that the theater commander can move the soda straw over and scrutinize their objective
To airmen, reach-forward just rubs the wrong way. Political constraints aside, the frustration at not being able to strike targets rapidly transgressed the airmen’s ideal–rapid and even simultaneous effects. Just as tactical execution at Midway depended on the forward commander and the initiative of bomber squadron leaders, the airmen entrusted tactical execution to the flight-lead level if at all possible.
Though his remark preceded the reach-forward issue by decades, Gen. Douglas MacArthur offered a comment of sorts on the problem by reference to his Pacific air component commander, Lt. Gen. George C. Kenney. Asked by a reporter one day to state where the bombs were falling, MacArthur had a ready answer. “They are falling in the right place,” he said. “Go ask George Kenney where it is.”
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 Airpower of Anaconda,” appeared in the September 2002 issue.