Improving Close Air Support: An Army-Air Force Collaborative Approach
David S. Chadsey, Jason Feuring and Clement W. Rittenhouse
Close Air Support (CAS) is defined as “air action by manned and unmanned fixed or rotary wing aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces and that require detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces.” [i]
From the first bombs dropped by hand on World War I trenches to MQ-9 Reaper strikes directed by troops in contact in Afghanistan, air assets have a legacy of providing lifesaving and mission essential Close Air Support to ground forces. Airpower, particularly close air support, was essential to restoring mobility to the modern battlefield after World War I and has remained critical to retaining freedom of movement and action on land. Not only does Close Air Support provide physical advantages to friendly forces, it also provides them with the psychological advantage of knowing that, upon contact with elusive and capable adversaries, airpower will pose enemy forces with multiple dilemmas and force them to respond to multiple forms of contact. 2
CAS Is Still Important – It Requires Joint Focus and Integration
During recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, CAS has increasingly become an essential aspect of effective Unified Land Operations. From the perspective of ground forces in contact, U.S. and allied dominance of the air domain has given CAS a “Dial 911” like quality. However, in future conflicts against near-peer enemies, hybrid 4th and 5th generation surface, air, and non-kinetic threats will challenge allied air superiority and limit the ability for joint CAS aircraft to loiter over friendly ground forces and provide on-call fires. Nonetheless, in dynamic joint expeditionary operations conducted over strategic distances, ground components will rely heavily on CAS for fire support to maneuver. Without CAS, joint forces operating in these highly contested and lethal multi-domain environments will be at unacceptable risk of destruction and mission failure. This article describes the collaboration between the Army and the Air Force to assess current CAS capabilities. It outlines future CAS requirements in the context of emerging threats and the Operating Environment (OE), the developing Multi-Domain Battle (MDB) and Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) Concepts, and identifies actions the Army and Air Force can undertake now to address emerging joint force capability requirements.
Senior Leader Directives
Concerns about the proposed retirement of the A-10 aircraft and the introduction of enhanced multi-mission platforms, such as the F-35 aircraft, were a driving factor in the need to assess future joint CAS capability. In March 2015, the Air Force Chief of Staff hosted a CAS Symposium aimed at completing three critical actions: (1) Assess the current CAS state of affairs; (2) Identify gaps between future scenarios/requirements and capabilities; and (3) Determine the best way forward to maintain the “CAS Culture” as the Air Force transitions from legacy weapons to the modernized force.
Following the symposium, the Army Chief of Staff directed the Army, in coordination with the other joint Services, to (1) Develop a holistic plan to improve CAS capabilities; (2) Ensure that the Army is trained and equipped to integrate CAS into joint and combined arms operations; and (3) Advance air-ground operations to deliver effective, lethal combat power to commanders operating on future battlefields. Subsequently, the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command developed a comprehensive Future CAS Improvement Plan. This plan proposes a series of Army initiatives for improving CAS in the near, mid, and far terms across the areas of Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel and Leader developments, Personnel, and Facilities (DOTMLPF). At the same time, the Air Force began a series of initiatives aimed at improving close air support to joint maneuver operations in a contested environment. As both services focused on assessing the current state of CAS, and thinking about future CAS capabilities, the following challenges and imperatives become clear.
Established Threats in a Changing Operating Environment (OE)
The Department of Defense has designated Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and global terrorism as the “four plus one threats,” with Russia serving as the pacing threat. Employing an array of capabilities, such as long-range precision fires and integrated 4th and 5th generation air and missile defenses in the multiple domains of air, space, cyber, land and maritime, future enemies will not only seek to disrupt U.S air-ground operations, but will also degrade our ability to fight jointly. The Russians demonstrated these capabilities in Ukraine where they were able to establish air supremacy from the ground. The OE associated with conflict against these potential enemies will be contested in all domains and it will be increasingly lethal and complex.
In his Retrospect on Close Air Support, noted professor of military history I. B. Holley examined CAS and warned that the “….processes and procedures by which success was achieved, usually belatedly, in each war… were largely forgotten by the armed forces by the time they again became actively involved in fighting.” CAS has played a role in combat since World War I. But after a decade and a half of operating in permissive air defense conditions, the skills required to effectively execute CAS in a contested environment have atrophied. Compounding this challenge is the fact that the USAF Air Liaison Officer (ALO) role has atrophied as a result of the fighter pilot shortage and the introduction of less experienced non-rated 13L ALOs. In future conflicts against near-peer enemies, effective combined arms will require the convergence of joint expertise and effects, including CAS and Joint Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (JSEAD) from multiple domains, to enable operational and tactical freedom of fires and maneuver.
Though it appears that the A-10 will continue to serve as a formidable CAS platform in the coming years, the Air Force continues to examine other means and platforms to conduct CAS in the future. Specifically, the Air Force is examining light attack as an option to provide CAS in permissive environments, and also investigating requirements for new attack platforms to provide effective CAS in more contested environments. The Army remains agnostic on the platform issue, preferring to concentrate on timely and accurate effects on the ground in support of ground maneuver and troops in contact. However, the Army must identify CAS capability requirements early in the development of new and emerging CAS platforms to ensure unity of effort between CAS requirements and CAS capabilities. Additionally, the Army needs to upgrade the AH–64E helicopter fleet with an improved networking radio providing Link 16 with the Cognitive Decision-Aiding System (CDAS) in order to improve joint interoperability.
Although the topic of CAS capability frequently turns into a discussion about CAS platforms, the most important aspects of CAS capability revolve around training, education, doctrine and readiness. In this vein, there are several initiatives the Army and the Air Force should take to improve CAS, JSEAD, and general air-ground integration to prepare for contested joint maneuver operations. Specific recommendations follow:
Revitalize the Forward Air Controller (Airborne) FAC(A). Historically, FAC(A)s supported ground operations by providing airborne reconnaissance and coordinating air strikes to support the ground element. However, the counterinsurgency (COIN) environment significantly eroded understanding of the benefits of a FAC(A). FAC(A)s are now primarily associated solely with Terminal Attack Control (TAC) capability, and are often considered as mutually exclusive with the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC). In reality, the FAC(A) skillset harnesses three important capabilities:
Future combined arms operations in contested environments will need to leverage both JTACs and FAC(A)s together to effectively synchronize joint fires and maneuver. JTACs should be closely tied to the supported ground commander to battle-track dynamic friendly maneuver and obtain emerging targeting priorities, while airborne FAC(A)s correlate the commander’s targeting priorities with actual enemy forces on the battlefield and then integrate and mass joint fires and multi-domain capabilities at the appropriate time and place to overwhelm the enemy. FAC(A)s can assist ground maneuver by supporting CAS near the Forward Line of Own Troops (FLOT), by massing fires on the commander’s priority targets to shape the battlefield, or by integrating JSEAD to open maneuver lanes (windows of advantage) in contested environments to attack enemy forces in the deep maneuver area.
Revitalizing the FAC(A) to support joint combined arms operations requires evolution in joint doctrine, integration, and training. Air Force FAC(A) qualification and training should focus on developing “CAS Mission Commanders” capable of integrating effects across multiple domains in highly fluid tactical and operational conditions.
Conduct a Joint Weapons and Tactics Conference (WEPTAC). Emerging U.S. capabilities and those of our potential adversaries will require new and different approaches to air-to-ground integration. The Army and Air Force lack a tactical level forum/venue that focuses on innovative ways to solve air-ground challenges across the range of military operations (ROMO) now and into the future. The Air Force WEPTAC held annually at Nellis AFB works to provide possible solutions to problems identified by numbered air forces and combatant commanders. Tactical level experts at the captain and major level form working groups to solve the problems and then brief senior leaders to gain guidance and direction for follow-on action.
Expanding WEPTAC to include joint partners in a Joint WEPTAC would be an effective and logical next step to addressing issues surrounding CAS in the future multi-domain battlefield. Example Joint WEPTAC topics include:
Improve Joint Training and Education. It is not uncommon for Tactical Air Control Parties (TACP), both JTACs and ALOs, to meet the key members of the aligned brigade staff for the first time at a combat training center (CTC) or other exercise. During most qualification training, Army students receive “joint training” from other soldiers rather than airmen. Likewise, airmen frequently receive “joint training” from other airmen, rather than soldiers. Joint integrated training will inherently increase the effectiveness of joint exercises and combat operations. In the long term, a common joint qualification training venue for all players involved in air-ground integration at the brigade combat team (BCT) level would help alleviate this problem. In the meantime, several other joint integrated training opportunities are within reach.
As an example, merge the current Defense Airspace Management/Brigade Aviation Element (ADAM/BAE) course with the BCT Fires Course to create a comprehensive BCT air-ground Integration curriculum at the U.S. Army Fires Center of Excellence. Air Force TACP officers would also attend the course following graduation from the Senior ALO Skills Course. Upon completion of this BCT Air-Ground Integration Course, key players from the ADAM/BAE Cell, Fires Cell, and Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) will be better prepared to build integrated fires and airspace plans to support BCT operations.
Maintain the CAS Culture. To maintain the culture of CAS and expertise between the Army and Air Force, we must refine unit-level procedures, train together with sufficient frequency to sustain relationships, and understand the equipment and technical capabilities of the other service. We must update doctrine and related publications on the Army’s Joint Fires Observer (JFO) program, reflecting ongoing efforts to partner with the operational force to improve and integrate Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC), FAC(A) and JFO training. The Army-Air Force Liaisons Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), dated March 2011, establishes the Air Force elements of the Theater Air Control System (TACS) that operate with Army counterparts in the Army Air-Ground System (AAGS). The MOA stipulates that Air Force personnel will be included in Army training events and that their training objectives will be integrated into the Army’s training planning process. This type of integration training is apparent when it’s directed, such as the training requirements to sustain qualification of Army JFOs. However, integration of Air Force TACP and Air Support Operations Center (ASOC) personnel in Army training events is less deliberate, which is often realized in the early stages of the maneuver CTCs and Mission Command Training Program (MCTP) exercises. Years of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have improved personal relationships, but the Army and Air Force still need to emphasize joint tactical and operational training. Joint training opportunities should be tailored for specific priority joint air-ground operations tasks focused on known combat readiness weaknesses.
The CIG. One of the Air Force’s most significant efforts to improve future CAS capability was the establishment of the CAS Integration Group (CIG) at Nellis Air Force Base. The CIG was created to institutionalize and advance CAS culture through a mission-focused organization. The CIG provides an exceptional CAS integration and training venue for USAF JTACs, FAC(A)s, and other members of the joint combined arms team. Moreover, it will educate ground commanders about effective air-ground integration, train tactical-level CAS integration experts to dominate joint combined arms operations, institutionalize the USAF CAS culture, and advance the joint CAS enterprise. If resourced appropriately, the CIG will consolidate CAS expertise through experienced joint fires cadre and establish unity of effort across Air Force and joint CAS training programs. Accordingly, the Air Force and Army must provide people with the right experience and foresight to shape joint CAS integration training and doctrine.
CAS in a Multi-Domain Context
Much work remains in improving CAS and all other aspects of air-ground integration as the Army and the Air Force work to gain a common understanding of the emerging OE and the capabilities of peer adversaries. In the coming months, the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command and the Air Force’s Air Combat Command will embark on an effort to understand better the Army’s Multi-Domain Battle Concept and the Air Force’s Multi-Domain Operations Concept. Through a series of table-top wargames, Army and Air Force participants will have the opportunity to focus on command issues inherent in MDB and MDO and to develop a common appreciation of the operation problems that MDB and MDO seek to resolve. A desired outcome of this effort will be a compilation of required technical capabilities, like CAS and JSEAD, needed for the execution of MDB and MDO. The main outcome will consist of a series of new Army-Air Force initiatives to underpin and enable MDB and MDO, much in the same way the original 31 Plus 4 Initiatives of the 1980s were used to operationalize AirLand Battle.
Continuous improvement in Close Air Support is fundamental to effective joint maneuver operations. Threats to the United States are becoming increasingly capable and elusive. To seize, retain, and exploit the initiative over future enemies, the Army and Air Force must cooperatively work to improve contested CAS capability by developing proactive fires integration strategies, advancing joint training and education, improving integrated air-ground operations planning, developing common mission command and network communications, and establishing habitual relationships.
The opinions and conclusions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the positions of the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, or any other governmental agency.
2 The ARCIC White Paper on Close Air Support