Aerostats: Making an Impact in Afghanistan

There is a new look to an old piece of military hardware. After a series of updates and technical overhauls, the balloon is back on the battlefield and it is having a huge impact on operations. Many new pieces of hardware, while incredibly useful, have very narrow usage and provide little to no utility beyond a specific task. This is not true with the balloons flying above numerous US forward operating bases (FOBs) in Afghanistan. There are over sixty balloons flying throughout Afghanistan with more than half of those in Regional Command-South. The Combined Task Force Arrowhead operating environment (OE) claims over a dozen balloons with each enriching the battle-space owner’s understanding of his OE. There are many new gadgets in Afghanistan that units never experience or train on prior to their arrival and, as with anything, putting a new gizmo to use isn’t that cut and dry. Heuristics inevitably results. Our Soldiers and leaders over the course of the last year learned that the aerostat facilitates mission command, enhances the ability to attack the network, and provides a platform to transfer lead in operations to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).

History

As Ecclesiastes reminds us that, “there is nothing new under the sun,” so it goes also in warfare. Balloons are not new, but while the principle of their underlying function remains the same, some things have changed. Nomenclature, for starters, is one such change. In our acronym-laden world, “balloon” is far too prosaic. The companies providing these dirigibles label their products as Persistent Ground Surveillance Systems or Persistent Threat Detection System, which become PGSS (pronounced “PEE-GIS”) and PTDS (pronounced “PEE-TIDS”) in Army diction. Both the PGSS and PTDS fall within the Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR) family, and are specifically in the genus of aerostats.

Militaries have been employing aerostats since the early 1800s and effectively since the American Civil War. These usages dealt primarily with observing enemy formations as well as friendly formations, artillery spotting, and map making. Although these early forms and functions of the aerostat were rudimentary, they serve as a start point to chart the aerostat’s evolution to today.

More recently in the 1980s, different agencies and services within the Department of Defense began developing aerostats for a variety of purposes to include facilitating their radar systems and detecting drug trafficking along the border. This renewed effort led to a proliferation of aerostat species designed with the singular goal: to put a payload with some capability at an altitude to maximize its effectiveness. Due to the wide variety available and already being utilized, aerostats were able to be rapidly introduced into Iraq in 2004 and into Afghanistan in 2007. The initial focus of those early deployments was for force protection. However, the aerostat’s functionality is much broader.

Mission Command

The war in Afghanistan is reaching its terminus. Everyone-, to include the enemy-, knows this. As a result of this knowledge, mistakes and more importantly perceived mistakes have what many like to call “strategic impact.” Inadvertently killing civilians (CIVCAS = civilian casualties) is a particularly egregious and sensitive offence and provides opportunities for the enemy to play into the fog of war and further limit our capabilities. Modern American forces have the ability to see much of the battlefield through a myriad of platforms to include more well-known aerial systems such as the Predator and other drones. However, much of the ability to capitalize on this advantage is only realized through striking at targets. CIVCAS inevitably results in greater scrutiny and, implicitly, restrictions on the ability to strike those targets. Part of the problem stems from limitations with the platform viewing the targets. These platforms are moving and, at varying altitudes, make it difficult to verify positive identification of the target and pinpoint the activities and intent of potential targets. This paradigm changes with aerostat’s arrival on the battlefield. Now, there is a stable and persistent platform at, ostensibly, lower altitudes when compared to other platforms. The aerostats also represent a redundancy for confirming positive identification with the platform that is going to strike the target. In this way, the aerostats reinforce, if not return, mission command to the battlefield in Afghanistan. (Army Doctrine Reference Publication (ADRP) 3-0 defines mission command as “the exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders in the conduct of unified land operations.” ADRP 3-0 Unified Land Operations. (HQ, Department of the Army: Washington, DC, 2012), 2-10.) Units are enabled to build systems and processes for eliminating civilian casualties. Commanders at the task force battalion level have the ability to confirm and resolve in their minds the sanctity of their actions. Commanders above them have the ability to view the same feed, verify and support their subordinates. This development is as significant as the return of maneuver to the battlefield after the First World War.

Attacking the Network

Attacking the Network (ATN) is a popular sobriquet in counter-insurgency and in the counter-IED business. The next few paragraphs will discuss two forms of attacking the network and how the aerostat facilitates units to this end. The first form is outright killing the enemy. In the day and age of technology and precision strikes, attrition still impacts the enemy’s formation and the ability to keep it filled. The Horn of Panjwa’I, located in the Kandahar Province, is arguably one of the most lethal places in Afghanistan. It is the financial center of the insurgency in the south with lush green fields fed by the Arghandab River growing the lion’s share of poppies each year. (Kandahar Province accounts for 7% of all poppy cultivation in RC(S).) This fact translates to a considerable boon to an insurgency in competition for external resources. Naturally, insurgents expend great effort to protect this valuable crop. Their method of choice is using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in varying and continuously changing forms; they know their limitations and stick to their strengths. Road networks do not support many military vehicles and often make it necessary for troops to dismount in order to get near compounds of interest. In response, insurgents plant IEDs along the avenues of approach as well as on the natural lines of drift. Heavy vegetation affords insurgents cover and concealment from direct observation and can even frustrate aerial assets. The situation makes Panjwa’i a particularly lethal place. Placing an aerostat at COP MUSHAN at the western end of the Horn helped ensure that the lethality was being experienced primarily by the insurgents. The aerostats have also allowed the BSO to watch their own tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) while dismounted, implementing C-IED assets, or verifying locations for ANSF units.

Apache Company from 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry, Tomahawks, fights from COP MUSHAN. After placing a PTDS in the sky, the Apaches killed nearly two dozen insurgents in as many aerial strikes from a range of platforms. These strikes not only caught IED emplacers, but also insurgents attempting to maneuver and engage Coalition troops with PKMs and RPGs. This is in stark contrast from the previous three months, when the Apaches had only a handful of strikes, all instigated by troops being in contact. The PTDS-enabled strikes were not against individuals acting alone, but were against a network. Throughout the Horn and over the course of a few months, the Tomahawks have killed upwards of 150 insurgents by primarily utilizing their aerostats for initial identification. This large number of insurgents is not easy for a network to replace. Having to constantly replace foot-soldiers, along with the occasional leader caught in the blast, degrades not only capability, but the ability to continue to recruit.

The second form of ATN involves trying to understand your enemy. Where does he live? Where does he get his materiel?  Anyone with at least one trip to Iraq, Afghanistan, or a Combined Training Center knows the basics. While aerostats, aloft over their FOBs, are incredible leverage in attacking the network simply focusing on attacking the device and killing the insurgent emplacing it is a very narrow way to utilize aerostats and can easily become the default practice. A PGSS operator, or any ISR for that matter, sees an IED emplacer on a known IED-plagued route. Do you strike him with a Hellfire rocket from a Predator? Do you call close combat attack (CCA) helicopters on-station to do a strafing run? Maybe, instead you watch him. Unlike the Predators or other flying ISR assets, the aerostat is persistent and instantly reactive to the battle captain in the TOC. Insurgents are predictable for all the same reasons we, the counter-insurgents, are predictable. We have infrastructure and bases we need to protect, and supplies that we need to get in order to do our missions. Furthermore, we may not necessarily have complete freedom of movement throughout our OE and so we use the same roads and trails consistently. These factors also affect the insurgent. The aerostat provides the opportunity to watch and learn, and ultimately figure out an insurgent’s pattern of life.  The same Company mentioned above with the phenomenal kill rate in just one month after putting an aerostat over their FOB also had remarkable success patterning the enemy. Through careful observation and over the course of some weeks they mapped insurgents’ patterns and then conducted a mission through known IED belts. This mission resulted in more than two dozen IEDs found and cleared within a 2 km stretch – a staggering number. Such a feat is important because heretofore many of our operations required lift assets to get behind IED belts and into compounds of interest. Demonstrating the ability to attack forward through the teeth of their defense for the first time in six months and without a casualty has a significant psychological impact on the enemy, an effect we captured through intelligence collected during and after the operation.

The Way Ahead

We have been fighting in Afghanistan for eleven years. During this time, we have killed thousands if not tens of thousands of insurgents in that time and with a variety of means. Pursuing a strategy of attrition obviously has not achieved our goals. Killing is only temporarily disruptive and buys space for achieving other goals. The key to long term success in Afghanistan and the ultimate goal for Coalition Forces is putting the Afghans in the lead. The aerostats will be critical in extending mission command as the Afghans take the lead and as the Security Force Assistance Teams (SFATs) continue to enable their leadership.

Commanders must be able to see themselves, the enemy and the terrain. It’s a fundamental truth for war-fighters regardless of whether they are American or Afghan. The aerostat is not a tool the Afghans can sustain without assistance. The Afghans may not necessarily evolve to attacking the network like we do, but they can utilize the aerostats for force protection and general situational awareness. The pure mission command aspect really falls under the responsibility of the SFAT and their mission to train and enable the Afghan commanders and their staffs. The SFATs also represent the capability of maintaining the aerostats in the fight, which is crucial to continue to deliver enablers (kinetic strike platforms) on the insurgents. The sky might not remain as littered as it is today with aerostats, but well chosen tactical infrastructure would absolutely facilitate the ANSF’s fight. The Horn of Panjwa’i is one of those spots. Like all things in war, the terrain plays a significant part in the aerostat’s effectiveness. A deliberate intelligence preparation of the battlefield balanced against the cost-benefit analysis of maintaining these systems in theater will be necessary.

Conclusion

The philosopher Georg Hegel said, “The only thing I’ve learned from the study of history is that no one has learned anything from the study of history.” As an Army we do a great job proving Hegel wrong. We usually accomplish this at our Combined Training Centers. Undoubtedly, there is no end to the things we can learn from putting our Soldiers and equipment to the test. Learning though doesn’t end with the rotation at NTC. Learning only continues. Our Stryker Brigade Combat Team did just that. We learned that the aerostat, a device we never touched prior to hitting the ground in Afghanistan, facilitates mission command, enhances the ability to attack the network, and provides a platform to transfer lead in operations to the Afghan National Security Forces. Much of this learning was through heuristics. The Army, and more specifically TRADOC, ought to consider how to incorporate the lessons aerostats are teaching us in Afghanistan into future iterations of doctrine and at the training centers.  Integrating these lessons about the aerostat can further reduce anyone recalling Hegel’s words. 

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Comments

On an early September patrol out of Combat Outpost Mushan, Rogne located 29 IEDs through the course of a painstaking, eight-hour movement across less than a kilometer of road, an accomplishment relayed through the chain of command to Pentagon generals.

One of your links goes to an article with this quote about one Soldier's heroic efforts to find IEDs. I would argue there is something wrong if we ask troops to "mow the grass" daily to find IEDs that we otherwise could deter with an elevated view of areas troops will habitually patrol near their outposts. Why should the choice come down to using honesty traces to never cover the same ground twice (and thus miss key areas or have events occur after the patrol)...or repeatedly patrol the same areas and invite repeated attempts to kill our troops with IEDs/ambushes.

If we believe IEDs and mines will not disappear in future wars, more assets like aerostats, towers, and UAS are essential for stability operations. The rapid equipping force is experimenting with a system that is part aerostat and part kite that can carry up to 5 times the payload for its size by exploiting winds aloft as a semi-kite. It also can be contained in a trailer pulled by a HMMWV so could much more easily be deployed at smaller platoon and company COPs.

However, your article mentions 30 such aerostats in Regional Command-South. You can imagine the airspace hazard this poses and would pose if the number of small aerostats increased substantially. Flying at night in particular would make seeing the smaller aerostat and tether line very difficult for helicopter pilots. In addition, the area covered by each aerostat remains relatively small and of course it does not help much in offensive operations and may reveal the location of outposts in the defense for indirect fire. UAS allow wider area coverage and can team with manned aircraft to cover the same areas or separate NAI not covered by manned aircraft or practical for an aerostat. Of course UAS and ground unmanned systems also carry larger sensors and potentially carry weapons. Not all networks are within range of an aerostat.

So we still need unmanned air and ground systems, engineers, and route clearance packages for offense to include line charges both large and smaller for dismounts as the rapid equipping force and other systems cover. We should consider integrating more sensor towers into combat vehicles such as the GCV, MRAPs/M-ATVs, and future JLTV. Towers could be kits added onto particular vehicles to raise sensors on telescoping poles to say 30'. Alternately, smaller electrically-tethered quad-rotors could fly off the back of a vehicle-installed kit to fly to 100' and stay on station much longer than fuel or battery-powered vertical take-off and landing UAS.

I also would advocate purchase of something like CROWS-in-a-box that builds on the original idea of NLOS-Launch System and support Decisive Action offense, defense, stability and military support for civil activities.

http://blogs.defensenews.com/ausa/2012/10/24/crows-in-a-box/

Remote systems like this do not need to be fielded to every unit in the Army and Marines. A select number in National Guard units could be dual-use systems for stability operations and peacetime fire-fighting; hurricane, tornado, and earthquake response; and border patrol functions. Substitute fire hoses for machine guns, and include missiles that launch to disperse fire retardants in identified areas (using lethal missiles in combat). Laser designation or range-finding capabilities are also an option for such boxes for the missiles and/or indirect or aerial delivered fires.

Such boxes also could be nodes for other smaller wired sensors to eliminate the problem of battery replacement and cover deadspace such as wadis and culverts with motion sensors. In some cases these sensors could be on box-powered portable light poles near the culvert to further deter IEDs and provide peacetime lighting after emergencies. The hybrid-electric generators powering these boxes also would be used to provide portable power for neighborhoods and gas stations following major weather events such as Sandy where lack of power led to long gas lines at the few open stations.

Again, ideas like Design are great for conceptual planning, but troops still must conduct detailed planning to ascertain how to exploit line-of-sight metrics from elevated platforms to allow more safe human interaction and population security that only the Army and Marines can accomplish on the ground with JIIM-enabler and SOF assistance. Until we can better secure areas for government and NGO civilians, the sole alternative is armed counterinsurgents to provide wide area security.