A Tale of Two (Close Air Support) Missions
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    Cool A Tale of Two (Close Air Support) Missions

    A Tale of Two (Close Air Support) Missions

    by Col Barry M. Ford

    ‘Before a war military science seems a real science, like astronomy; but after a war it seems more like astrology.’

    —Rebecca West,
    Journalist, Novelist, and Critic

    The reason old salts enjoy boring Devil Pups so much with their sea stories is that most of us have learned a few lessons over the years that either aren’t in the book or, as the quote above suggests, cast doubt on the book’s relevance to combat.

    After 25 years in the business, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that Marine Corps doctrine for attack helicopter close air support (CAS) falls more into the astrology category. I believe it is not responsive to the needs of the ground commander and should be revised. As evidence to support my position, I offer the following true sea stories for your consideration. Listen up, there’s a quiz at the end.

    Mission 1: General Support, Preplanned CAS, DESERT STORM, Ground Day (G-Day), 1991
    We were forward deployed to Lonesome Dove, the DESERT STORM staging area for Marine Light/Attack Helicopter Squadrons 367 (HML/A–367) and 369, when our division of four “Whiskey” Cobras received its mission late the night before G-day. The fragmentary order, passed down from group operations, was sparse on detail and consisted solely of a supported unit, radio frequency/call sign for the forward air controller (FAC), and a rendezvous place and time. Since the squadron had no means of contacting the supported unit for more details, we launched on the biggest mission of our lives knowing little more than that we would be supporting a dawn breaching attack against the Iraqi defensive berms. We briefed, preflighted, launched, and arrived at the rendezvous point before first light—a few minutes early. No one was home.

    As we circled looking for the grunts my stomach sank. I feared I was about to experience the ultimate Cobra pilot nightmare. After 15 years of simulated combat, what if they gave a real war, and we couldn’t find it? Eight Cobra pilots checked and rechecked our maps and long-range aid to navigation coordinates, all praying we were at the right place.

    A few worried minutes later when the sun came up we could see that we were at the rendezvous point because the sand below us had been torn up by the tracks of hundreds of vehicles, all headed north. The grunts had kicked off their attack early and were already through the breach. Fortunately, they hadn’t needed air support from us after all, because we never got word of the time change.

    Mission 2: Fort A.P. Hill, Direct Support for 2d Tanks, 1979
    A classmate of mine from The Basic School invited Marine Attack Helicopter Squadron 269 (HMA–269)1 to participate in his training deployment to Fort A.P. Hill. The skipper bought the idea and sent us up with a section of “T (TOW) birds” for the big exercise ending battle.

    This was the real deal. Not counting DESERT STORM, there were more Marine tanks and tracks here than I have ever seen in one place before or since. Forces included a full battalion of Marine M60s and supporting tracks and an Army National Guard red team using Soviet tactics and mocked up T–62, ZSU 23–4 (self-propelled antiaircraft gun), and other Soviet equipment. Since we were attached in direct support to the battalion, we launched before daybreak and landed beside the command track to get the commanding officer’s (CO’s) mission brief.

    It was the Fulda Gap scenario. We were badly outnumbered, as usual, in a delaying action. The CO laid out the plan in detail, including forward positions, avenues of withdrawal, alternate firing positions, frequencies, code words, contingency plans—the works. We charted it all on our maps and kneeboards, got his approval for our plan of action, and launched.

    Working off our maps, we picked out ideal firing points near maximum TOW range (3,750m) behind and with clear lines of fire to our own forward positions. Then we landed, shut down one engine to conserve fuel, monitored the radio, and waited. Some time later, when we heard the coded command to pull back to alternate positions, we cranked up number two, pulled into a hover, and watched through our telescopic sighting units2 as the enemy tanks began to edge out of the woods into 2d Tank Battalion’s recently vacated positions.

    It was a turkey shoot. Hovering in the trees over a mile from the frontlines, we would have been undetectable to buttoned up armored vehicles. Our simulated TOWs were fired and would have struck home before the red tanks and ZSUs could have even cleared the tree line to employ their weapons. With the TOW’s 95 percent accuracy rate,3 I’d bet any amount of beer that our 2 Snakes and 16 missiles alone would have destroyed enough of the bad guys to blunt the advance. Synchronized with the massed fires of our own tanks from their alternate firing positions, I don’t see how an enemy force of any size could have maintained cohesion to continue the attack.

    The Quiz
    According to Marine Corps aviation doctrine, which mission illustrates the most effective, efficient, and responsive use of Marine rotary-wing CAS assets for the supported ground commander?

    If you answered, “Mission 2” (as I would), you would be wrong. Mission 2 was direct support, which Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 3–2 (MCWP 3–2), Aviation Operations, defines as “a mission requiring a force to support another specific force and authorizing it to answer directly the supported force’s request for assistance.” According to doctrine, “. . . [t]his support relationship is rarely established by the MAGTF [Marine air-ground task force] commander for aviation units due to the scarcity of fixed-wing and rotary-wing assets.”4 (In my experience, “rarely” is an understatement.) Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 3 (MCDP 3), Expeditionary Operations, tells us that the MAGTF commander “almost always” establishes general support for the aviation combat element (ACE).5

    The Basis of Marine Corps Aviation Doctrine
    The Marine Corps’ reliance on general support stems from its philosophy of centralized command and decentralized control.6 It is based on the historically sound7 rationale, that:

    Since the availability of aviation assets for mission tasking rarely meets the demand, [general support] allows Marine aviation to fight or to provide support throughout the MAGTF area of operations and allows the most efficient and effective allocation of aircraft to the MAGTF.8

    The argument that a ground commander receives the best support from the ACE when it does not directly control ACE assets may sound contradictory, but in general, given the tremendously complex command and control (C2) requirement for aviation and the ground combat element’s (GCE’s) limited C2 assets, it might be the only way a ground commander could get aviation support at all. My issue with the philosophy of general support is not that it doesn’t work for aviation in general, just that it doesn’t work very well the specific mission of rotary-wing CAS.

    C2: Why General Support Doesn’t Work for Rotary-Wing CAS
    Just as “location, location, location” is the mantra for real estate, communications is the
    sine quo non for centralized command of aviation assets. Without adequate communications between the MAGTF, ACE, GCE, and supporting aircraft, general support is unworkable. This is especially true for critical CAS missions because of their complex tasking and control procedures.

    There are two types of CAS missions: preplanned and immediate. The tasking procedure for a preplanned mission is complex.9 It begins with a tactical air request from the requesting unit, requires good communications between all units concerned, and ends up with the CAS mission appearing on the daily air tasking order (ATO). The immediate mission tasking procedure is simpler and faster, but it is even more reliant on good communications than the preplanned mission. It ends with the direct air support center (DASC)—on the ground or airborne—communicating the mission directly to the tasked aircraft via radio.10

    Preplanned Missions
    The huge disconnect between the book and the real world is that Marine Corps aviation doctrine assumes that units and aircraft providing fixed- and rotary-wing CAS have the same communications capabilities and can respond to the same tasking procedures. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    In contrast to fixed-wing CAS units that normally operate from established air facilities complete with extensive radio nets and telephones that don’t have to be cranked to ring, attack helicopter squadrons work from the field. Lonesome Dove was a level stretch of sand 2 days before we arrived and soon returned to that condition after we left. Though the air group had limited communications connectivity with the Marine aircraft wing to receive mission taskings, our HML/A communications suite consisted of one FM (frequency modulation) radio, used only to check aircraft in and out with the operations duty officer, and a field phone. In the case of our preplanned breaching support mission (sea story one), the flight leader walked up to group operations—an HML/A rates no vehicles—and hand carried the details back on a yellow canary. I can’t speculate on whether later preplanned missions would have gone better than our first because this was the only preplanned mission our division received for the entire ground war.


  2. #2
    Immediate Missions
    The HML/A’s poor capability to coordinate CAS missions received via the ATO with supported units might be acceptable if the immediate tasking procedures worked as well for rotary-wing CAS as they do for fixed-wing. On a fluid battlefield like DESERT STORM conditions are so dynamic that the ATO serves mainly as a planning tool anyway, to help the DASC aggressively manage the day’s CAS missions.

    Unfortunately, the immediate CAS tasking system in DESERT STORM was no more useful for rotary-wing CAS than the ATO. In the 22 hours of combat flight time my section of Cobras flew during the ground war, we did not receive a single CAS mission from the DASC. Worse, the DASC, operating from the airborne C2 center, didn’t even seem to want to claim Cobras as one of its CAS assets. On the one occasion when we were able to contact the DASC by relaying through an OV–10, the controller told us, literally, to stay off his net; he was too busy deconflicting fixed-wing CAS flights to talk to us.

    Rotary-Wing CAS in the
    Real World
    Since my Cobra section received only one preplanned CAS mission and no immediate missions in 22 combat flight hours, the enquiring mind must wonder how we kept ourselves busy during the war? Mostly, we “trolled” for work. Trolling is the polite name for the technique of blindly flying around the battlefield while trying to make contact with any unit that might need Cobra support. In DESERT STORM this worked fairly well, but only because many of the ground FACs were Cobra pilots who knew our squadron working frequencies, recognized our tail numbers as we flew by 10 feet over their heads and, in the best traditions of the Corps, improvised.

    Apparently, my section wasn’t the only one that trolled during the war. Maj Peyton DeHart describes the same technique in his May 1996 Gazette article, “Helo Hobos or Helo Heros?” In the article, Maj DeHart perfectly described the confusion that poor CAS tasking and communications caused his section and how he overcame the confusion by using the inherent flexibility of the Cobra. Maj DeHart found, as had been my experience with the Fort A.P. Hill mission, that the only way to truly understand the ground scheme of maneuver and provide efficient CAS to the supported unit was to land and have a face to face with its commander or FAC. Unfortunately, Maj DeHart’s fragmentary orders were so sketchy that his greatest challenge was finding the supported unit in the first place.

    The only difference between Maj DeHart’s conclusions and my own is that while he sees the glass as half full, I see it as half empty. He applauds the flexibility of the attack helicopter that allows it to provide effective CAS despite the lack of any real support from the Marine C2 system, while I question a flawed implementation of doctrine that sets rotary-wing CAS up for failure.

    Conclusion and Recommendation
    The good news is that Marine Corps doctrine is basically sound. It already acknowledges that when it comes to CAS, fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft require different planning and employment considerations and methods. It states that:

    . . . their capabilities are complementary, [and cites] the range, speed, and ordnance load of fixed-wing aircraft and the helicopter’s excellent responsiveness and ability to operate in diverse conditions as distinct advantages that are peculiar to each.11

    The bad news is that our aviation doctrine is inconsistent with its own guidance for CAS procedures, and in practice treats fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft exactly the same. While it cautions supported commanders that fixed- and rotary-wing CAS employment considerations and methods will be different, it prescribes general support for both. It contains an excellent discussion of direct support12 for sorties of aircraft but emphasizes that an aviation unit will “rarely” be used in direct support. It does not recognize that for an HML/A, because of its limited C2 assets and austere basing, direct support might be the only suitable method of employment.

    I am not advocating direct support in the traditional sense where the supported unit provides all maintenance and logistics support, but a new type of direct support that takes advantage of the attack helicopter’s inherent flexibility to operate from the field in support of the increased requirements of operational maneuver from the sea (OMFTS).

    The August 2000 Gazette contained three excellent articles outlining possible changes for the Marine air command and control system (MACCS). LtGens Frederick McCorkle and John E. Rhodes, in their article entitled “The Marine Air Command and Control System and Operational Maneuver From the Sea,” describe the path to the ultimate MACCS goal—a system that will provide near-realtime combat direction of aviation assets of sufficient quality to overcome all C2 challenges associated with OMFTS. Maj Francis W. Chesney, the senior air director in the DASC during DESERT STORM, in his article entitled “Air Support Control for the 21st Century,” cites MACCS doctrinal and communications problems that occurred during the war to call for a fresh look at the “very foundation of CAS.” And Capt Matthew M. Sieber, an air support/antiair warfare officer, in his article entitled “Marine Air Control Group—Be Gone!,” advocates a dramatic alteration of the MACCS that would eliminate the DASC as a stand-alone agency and fold its functions, Marines, and equipment into the supported unit’s fire support coordination centers (FSCCs).

    For a near-term improvement in rotary-wing CAS, while we develop and field the hardware and concepts necessary to build LtGens McCorkle and Rhode’s vision, and while avoiding Maj Chesney’s MACCS doctrine battle like the plague, I support a poor man’s version of Capt Sieber’s proposal.

    Without changing existing doctrine, attack helicopters from a specified HML/A would be assigned to the supported unit’s FSCC in direct support. On a rotating basis, the HML/A’s tasked aircraft would fly in from their maintenance support base and land near the FSCC so the pilots could receive a thorough mission brief. If required, a small detachment of forward area arming, refueling, and maintenance personnel could also fly in to support. Once briefed, the aircrews would go on standby until needed.

    On its face, this seems little more than a reporting chain change from the DASC to the FSCC. The difference is that the same HML/A would support the same FSCC whenever possible, thus building a working relationship between the supporting and supported unit that would provide Cobra aircrews with complete knowledge of the unit’s standing operating procedures, air control capabilities, and detailed scheme of maneuver. They would arrive onscene a CAS mission with the FSCC’s latest knowledge of the friendly and enemy dispositions as well as the commander’s intent. Armed with this precise situational awareness, the effectiveness of rotary-wing CAS on a chaotic battlefield would increase exponentially.

    Operating upfront with the FSCC will create some difficulties. Security requirements will increase, maintenance crews will be spread thin, the ACE commander will lose some control over his assets, and a few Cobras may sit on the ground awaiting a mission from their FSCC when they could be needed elsewhere.

    But, I believe that the risks are minimal compared to the potential gain. In the age of the ballistic missile and unconventional warfare, operating from a fixed, rear area airbase may be more hazardous than operating from a mobile FSCC. Arming and field maintenance shouldn’t be a major challenge since HML/A squadrons are designed to operate in small detachments, and regarding the loss of centralized control, DESERT STORM seemed to show that the ACE has almost no control over its rotary-wing CAS assets anyway, so assigning them to an organization that can control them effectively should be a no-brainer.

    As for the scarcity of assets—the strongest justification for maintaining the status quo—I maintain that improved tasking efficiency will far outweigh the asset cost of attaching Cobras in direct support. Besides, the ACE will still have its fixed-wing CAS assets in general support to respond to unforeseen events or emergency support requirements. The tactical jet can not only provide more theater-wide support than the attack helicopter but, with its speed and altitude advantage, is inherently more survivable when it arrives. As a side benefit, since Cobra pilots are trained FACs, the increased situational awareness they develop through direct support to a ground commander will translate to improved fixed-wing CAS control and effectiveness and reduce the requirement for scarce ground FACs.

    Some may argue that this proposal is nothing new, that helicopters have collocated with supported units for years. This is true, but the process has always been ad hoc. Why not formalize the technique, work the bugs out at Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1 and during Combined Arms Exercises, and demonstrate to our air and ground commanders the true potential of rotary-wing CAS on the OMFTS battlefield. Given our current C2 limitations, and until the vision of realtime aviation C2 is realized, providing dedicated rotary-wing CAS to the supported FSCC will guarantee the ground commander the most responsive air support possible.


  3. #3

    1. Note the absence of the “L” in the HMA. In the old Corps, we not only had money to ship tanks around the country, but even better, the Hueys had their own squadrons!

    2. Basically a 13-power stabilized telescope.

    3. Given full-up TOW missile systems and a successful launch. Bore site errors, missile failures, and other system problems have resulted in misfire rates of up to 40 percent for the TOW system.

    4. MCWP 3–2, p. 4–4.

    5. MCDP 3, p. 24–4.

    6. Ibid.

    7. It may surprise Marines to learn that this philosophy was adopted from the U.S. Air Force. It evolved from the Army Air Corps’ World War II experience in North Africa where local Army commanders maintained direct control over air assets operating in their amphibious operations areas. Since many of these ground commanders used their air assets piecemeal, without coordinating with adjacent units, the Air Corps was unable to defend Allied forces against German air attacks. As Air Force legend has it, once all air assets were placed under the centralized command of the senior Air Corps officer, he was able to mass his forces against German airfields and aviation supply depots and quickly gain theater-wide air superiority. This episode was dramatically depicted in the movie Patton in the scene where the general runs into the street to fire his pearl handled revolvers at attacking German planes.

    8. MCDP 3, p. 24–4.

    9. MCWP 3–23.1, Close Air Support, p. 3–45. Units requesting preplanned CAS submit joint tactical air requests through their fire support coordination agencies (force fires coordination centers, FSCCs, or rear area operation centers). Commanders, air officers (AOs), and fire support coordinators (FSCs) at each echelon evaluate and consolidate requests and coordinate requirements (such as airspace, fires, and intelligence). If the request is approved, a priority and precedence is assigned. The FSC then forwards approved requests to the next higher echelon. If a request is disapproved at some level, the request is returned to the originator with an explanation or a substituted fire support asset. The senior fire support coordination agency in the force approves and prioritizes requests. The prioritized requests are then sent to the MAGTF commander for approval. After approval these consolidated requests become the commander’s request for CAS. The senior fire support coordination agency sends the requests to the Marine tactical air command center (TACC) for planning and execution. The Marine TACC publishes the daily ATO that includes approved CAS missions. The Marine TACC distributes the ATO to other MACCS agencies and the MAGTF.

    10. MCWP 3–23.1, p. 3–48. Requests are broadcast directly from the tactical air control party to the DASC using the tactical air request (TAR) net. The AOs in each FSCC monitor the TAR net. The DASC processes requests for immediate missions and coordinates with the senior FSCC. Each FSCC will either approve or deny the request based on the commander’s intent and after considering whether organic assets are available, appropriate, or sufficient to fulfill the request. The DASC assigns aircraft according to the type of mission and the terminal control agency’s capabilities. For ground alert aircraft, the TACC may retain launch authority or delegate it to the DASC. If the DASC has launch authority, it launches the aircraft and directs aircrews until they contact the terminal control agency. If the DASC does not have launch authority, it contacts the TACC to launch the aircraft.

    11. MCWP 3–23.1, p. 1–6.

    12. MCWP 3–2, p. 4–4. Direct support in general support of the MAGTF. With the designation of an aviation unit to the direct support role comes the requirement to establish direct liaison, direct communications to receive critical information, coordination of local security, and logistics support from the supported unit. The MAGTF commander will rarely establish a direct support relationship between the ACE, GCE, or combat service support element. If a direct support relationship exists, it is not a command support relationship that is designated between higher, lower, and adjacent echelon commanders within the MAGTF. These types of support relationships usually exist only within the context of mission tasking where individual sorties are allocated for a specific MAGTF unit conducting a particular mission (usually of short duration). Since these sorties do not represent the ACE’s subordinate units, the ACE’s general support command relationship does not change. When ACE units are assigned these types of command support relationships, they will, in most cases, be aviation ground units. An ACE unit assigned a direct support role is immediately responsive to the needs of the supported unit. It furnishes continuous support to that unit and coordinates its operations to complement the concept of operations of the supported unit. The direct support role creates a one-to-one relationship between supporting and supported units. The higher headquarters of the supporting and supported units becomes involved only on a “by exception” basis. However, each unit must keep its higher headquarters informed of its operations and plans. Examples include an attack squadron in direct support of one subordinate unit of the GCE, a helicopter section in direct support of a maneuver battalion, or a low altitude air defense battery in direct support of an infantry battalion.

    >Col Ford is an attack helicopter pilot with over 3,000 hours in AH–1J, AH–1T, AH–1T(TOW), and AH–1W Cobras. He received the Air Medal with Combat “V” while serving as the aviation maintenance officer of HML/A–367 during Operation DESERT STORM. He is currently serving as the Chief of Staff, Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory.




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