The Blog

The New Art of War

Close air support revolutionized warfare in Afghanistan. Today, it's helping bring down Saddam's regime in Iraq.

12:45 PM, Apr 3, 2003 • By CHRISTIAN LOWE
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Marines from the 3rd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company
call in close air support from AH-1 Cobra helicopter
gunships during an exercise at the Mountain Warfare
Training Center in Bridgeport, Calif. (Photo by Christian Lowe)Marines from the 3rd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company
call in close air support from AH-1 Cobra helicopter
gunships during an exercise at the Mountain Warfare
Training Center in Bridgeport, Calif. (Photo by Christian Lowe)
THE WAR IN AFGHANISTAN proved a watershed in the application of strategic air power--one that saw small teams of highly-trained special operations troops directing air strikes with enough precision and power to topple a 100,000-man Taliban force in weeks.

The use of human "sensors" to direct air strikes on the battlefield has been expanded in Iraq and could prove one of the most decisive instruments of military power in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In the first Gulf War in 1991, the vast majority of air strikes were directed against strategic targets--bridges, power plants, intelligence headquarters and military compounds. Because the ground war was so short, few of the war's air strikes were directed against Iraqi troops in support of ground maneuvers. Most of the air targets in Operation Desert Storm were determined from satellite imagery and intelligence information. A "package" of aircraft would be put together to strike that pre-planned target and most often the "smart" bombs would be guided to the target by the aircraft in the strike package.

Today, however, ground forces are heavily engaged with Iraqi troops in pitched battles. Special forces troops are reportedly holed up in major Iraqi towns and cities--possibly even in Baghdad--to scope out tactical targets such as tanks, missile launchers and troop trenches. Actions in Afghanistan taught U.S. military planners that air power, wielding precision munitions which are guided to a target by human eyes on the ground, can be as effective as an assault by hundreds of troops.

Today more than ever, specially-trained airmen, Marines, soldiers, and sailors are accompanying U.S. and coalition ground forces to help direct air strikes using technologies that take much of the guess work out of targeting enemy forces and equipment. Laser designators the size of a pair of high-powered binoculars are being used to pin-point targets such as Iraqi tanks and mortar positions. These types of targets pop up in seconds, and aircraft orbiting high above with racks of bombs can take them out within minutes of a call from close air support specialists on the ground. Some of the more modern targeting systems for ground forces can even figure out the range and GPS coordinates of a specific target and transmit them directly to the orbiting aircraft's computer, which can then be entered into the weapon's "brain" by the pilot. Future systems may send data directly to the weapon's computer, bypassing the pilot all together.

But with all this fancy technology, directing air strikes close to troops on the ground without killing civilians or friendly forces takes well-trained specialists. Air Force Enlisted Tactical Air Controllers, Marine Forward Air Controllers, and Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company teams, Army and Navy special operations forces, and Air Force Combat Controller Teams are all highly trained in the art of close air support. These are the men who talk a pilot onto a target--giving him visual references he can use to pinpoint a single building within a crowded village, for example--and then give a pilot advice on what sort of ordnance to fire to better destroy a target and minimize collateral damage.

The recent special-operations raid to rescue Pfc. Jessica Lynch was conducted mainly by Navy SEALS and Army Rangers. But accompanying those commandos were Air Force Combat Controllers, men who are FAA certified air traffic controllers and who have worked for years with a variety of aircraft to direct precision strikes under heavy fire. These CCTs can position multiple aircraft orbiting overhead--called "stacking"--and decide which aircraft should strike when and with what sort of bomb.