Close air support is U.S. priority in Iraq, Afghanistan

 - December 7, 2006, 10:34 AM

The Dubai airshow is a benign environment. As you cruise the air-conditioned halls, or sip your drink while watching airplanes cavort in the sunny skies, it’s easy to forget that war is going on. In the air. Just 800 miles from here. That is roughly the distance from Dubai to Baghdad in one direction, and to Kandahar in another. Every single day, more than 250 sorties are being flown in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan (OIF and OEF). This massive, ongoing effort is controlled from Al Udeid airbase in Qatar, the home of U.S. Central Command’s Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC).

Maj. Gen. Allen Peck runs the CAOC. He met with Aviation International News during a recent visit to London, where he spoke at IQPC’s Close Air Support Conference. This former F-15 pilot was a key planner for Operation Allied Force over Serbia in Kosovo in 1998-1999.

What is the role of airpower now, in two conflicts where we hear much about troops versus insurgents on the ground, but relatively little about the air action? “We’ve narrowed our focus to support for the ground commanders,” Peck explained. “They request our support every day, and they must approve all our strikes. I have one section airborne continuously over Afghanistan, and two or three over Iraq.”

Multinational Fleet

An air section comprises a half-dozen or more combat jets. Over Iraq, these can be USAF A-10s, F-15s or F-16s, U.S. Navy F-14s or F-18s, or British Tornado GR-4s. Over Afghanistan, there are typically USAF A-10s and B-52s, British Harrier GR-7s, Dutch or Belgian F-16s, and French Mirage 2000s. To keep them airborne, about 30 air refueling sorties are needed each day, from a mix of U.S., British and French tanker aircraft. At least another 150 sorties are flown each day by airlifters, mostly U.S. C-17s and C-130s but with contributions from British, Canadian, Japanese and Korean C-130s.

Peck explained that close-air support (CAS) is now the priority, and many of the targets are in urban areas. “We’ve adapted pretty well, especially since CAS was not previously a primary mission for our B-52s and F-16s. The recent experience in OEF and OIF has revitalized CAS. It has also enhanced the role of our joint tactical air controllers (JTACs) on the ground–they are true heroes, and many have been highly decorated,” he told AIN.

JTACs play a vital role in approving strikes on enemy targets that, nowadays, are often in close proximity to friendly forces and noncombatants. The media is quick to report the consequences when things go wrong–innocent bystanders killed or injured, and homes destroyed. Less well-reported are the rigorous procedures which have been devised to ensure that the right target is hit with the right weapon from the right aircraft.

Peck described to the IQPC conference how today’s sophisticated gridded reference graphics can really contribute to accurate urban CAS, provided that they are well-prepared, with updated inputs from both air and ground commanders. By adding a terrain elevation database, the fidelity of these graphics is good enough to provide coordinates for a GPS-guided weapon; display the line-of-sight to a potential target for both pilots and ground controllers; help determine which weapon should be employed; and the best axis of attack.

“The bottom line: the final control authority must have an accurate picture of a complex and dynamic environment,” Peck told the conference. Here is where the JTACs come in. Ideally with “their eyes on the target,” they are that final authority. JTACs are now using a new laptop system called ROVER which provides them with real-time video feed from the targeting pod of a strike jet patrolling overhead (or, alternatively, from the video camera of a Predator UAV). Therefore, any ambiguity between what the JTAC sees and what the pilot sees can be resolved.

Collateral Damage

The potential for collateral damage is always a primary consideration. Peck said that heavier, 2,000-pound-class weapons are seldom employed in urban CAS, because their blast and fragmentation effect is too scattered. “A single 500 pound [munition] or less is currently the weapon of choice, and the 100-pound warhead of a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator is often enough to do the job,” the major general said. By using a fuse delay, a weapon can penetrate the target before exploding, further mitigating the chance of collateral damage.  

The GPS-guided JDAM can be programmed for various angles of impact–another means of controlling blast effects. It is the weapon of choice when accurate coordinates are available, Peck explained. But for mobile targets, laser-guided weapons such as the Hellfire, the Maverick and the GBU-12 bomb are preferred. The urban CAS armory also includes guns–20 to 30-mm caliber from combat jets and 40- and 105-mm from the AC-130 gunship.

Looking to the future, Peck told AIN that he would like to see the 250-pound small diameter bomb in the inventory as soon as possible.

What else could make the difficult mission of urban CAS easier? “The ability to select the appropriate fusing and yield for air-dropped weapons in real-time, from the cockpit. You might even want to command a weapon to drop inertly,” said Peck. He also looks forward to more digital connectivity, so that the JTACs can transmit the nine-line message that identifies a new target to pilots. Today, the “nine-line” is usually communicated by voice over a secure radio link, which is a potential source of error. Going further, Peck sees the day when a ground-based laser marks a target and transmits the coordinates automatically, thus eliminating the need for any human to enter them by hand.

This senior airman is clearly doing his best to support two difficult, dangerous and controversial conflicts in a professional manner. Despite the best efforts of air power, however, U.S. and allied troops are being killed or wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan on an almost daily basis. It seems a long way from the poolside of a luxury hotel in Dubai–but it isn’t.