Toward Battlefield Air Operations

Oct. 1, 2003

Gen. Charles F. Wald is a true 33rd-degree fighter pilot, and he recently noted a key aspect of today’s Air Force. “When I started flying [F-15] fighters,” he said, “I was an air-to-air guy, and that is all we did. …We were specialists.”

That changed, however.

“In 1983,” Wald continued, “at Langley Air Force Base, … we were dropping bombs off the F-15C”—which had always been a pure air-to-air fighter. “Not very many people know that. We actually went out and started doing air-to-ground.” Wald later flew F-16s. “I did very little air-to-air,” he noted. “Mostly air-to-ground. A lot of close air support.”

Wald’s point: USAF has a deep and long-standing interest in air-ground operations.

Wald, now deputy commander of US European Command, concedes one can still hear “old rhetoric” about a supposedly “weak” Air Force commitment to ground forces. The charge was always shaky. Now, it’s risible.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, Air Force A-10 attack aircraft flew 7,000 close air support sorties. Other fighters and heavy bombers also helped obliterate Iraqi land forces—including Iraq’s Republican Guard—easing the task of coalition ground forces. In western Iraq, airpower allowed a small number of US forces to control a huge swath of territory.

Air Combat Command notes that 78 percent of all of the aim points attacked in Gulf War II were struck in support of ground forces.

It is true that USAF has not always done a stellar job in “JAGO”—joint air-ground operations. And despite recent improvements, Air Force officers say USAF can do more.

At Air Combat Command, moreover, officers now are poised to take another step. Some key concepts were unveiled in a recent Field Artillery article by Maj. Gen. David A. Deptula, ACC director of plans and programs, and Col. (sel.) Sigfred J. Dahl. Deptula’s imprimatur was important, given that he was a principal planner of the 1991 Gulf War air campaign and ran the combined air operations center during the 2001 Afghanistan war.

The authors begin with the premise that tomorrow’s foes will often be shadowy and elusive. The US frequently will confront “ubiquitous networks of hostile opponents,” fighting on a “discontinuous” battlefield devoid of fronts.

In this situation, they say, air and ground forces, to be effective, must be integrated, agile, lethal, and armed with the most precise information.

As Deptula and Dahl tell it, one key Air Force requirement will be to reshape terminal air control units to mesh with transformed Army brigades now coming into view.

Army plans call for creating six fast-moving brigades of lightly armored wheeled Stryker vehicles, with higher-tech Future Combat Systems coming later. These swift ground units will create a need for more Tactical Air Control Party specialists—airmen who control air attacks.

For its TACPs, Air Combat Command seeks advanced targeting and communications equipment. The airmen who travel with the troops will also need Stryker vehicles, according to Deptula and Dahl.

The Army wants its own Fire Support Team members to control air strikes, too. USAF does not oppose this on principle, but insists they be trained to a high standard.

A second critical requirement, according to Deptula and Dahl, is to give the Joint Force a true “common operating picture,” one that integrates data on friendly and hostile air and ground forces, as well as maritime forces. The services, they say, must ditch the vertical, “stovepiped” systems from Cold War days.

Gen. John P. Jumper, USAF Chief of Staff, has described the current process in this way: “You collect [data]. You analyze it to death. You circle the things on the pictures. Then you send it out to people who are going 500 miles an hour trying to find the target and kill it.”

In the ACC view, a three-dimensional picture must move up, down, and outward to provide “real-time, actionable information.”

Finally, the authors call for the definition of an entirely new mission—“Battlefield Air Operations”—which would fall between Close Air Support (attacks close to friendly forces, under ground control) and Air Interdiction (attacks on forces not in contact, under air component control.)

“BAO” events would feature asymmetrical air attacks on enemy ground forces in places where there are few if any “friendlies.” In Afghanistan and Iraq, the US employed airpower in conjunction with a small number of SOF or controllers as human sensors. In these operations, say the ACC authors, airpower functioned as a “distinct maneuver element”—a role always reserved for ground forces (or, at sea, naval forces).

Existing doctrine does not adequately cover these kinds of air operations, say the two officers. They raise issues about lines of control and employment doctrine.

Deptula and Dahl argue that Battlefield Air Operations could “significantly enhance, if not revolutionize,” the way the US fights wars.

There are implications for forces and hardware. Jumper, for example, has noted that a stealthy, long-legged fighter such as the F/A-22 can penetrate even dense air defense, go deep, and precisely attack small, rapidly moving enemy forces. That is a textbook definition of war on a discontinuous battlefield.

Gulf War II took air-ground integration to new heights. New concepts have been made possible by advanced technologies such as stealth, precision, miniaturization, and data networks.

The new joint air-ground combat ideas make sense. They can be achieved, and they show every sign of bringing a major payoff on the battlefield.