“Dogfighting makes movies. Close Air Support wins wars.”
With the perpetual drama surrounding which aircraft is better suited for supporting troops in contact, Close Air Support (CAS) has become a hotly debated topic in military aviation. Both the A-10C Thunderbolt II and the Lockheed-Martin F-35, Joint Strike Fighter have pros and cons. But what exactly is CAS? What aircraft can do CAS? What does it look like from the aviator’s perspective? How about from the ground force’s perspective?
This is a mission that was relatively unknown to the general public prior to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But CAS has been around for over a hundred years.
A JointTerminal Attack Controller uses a radio to communicate with pilots of A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft during a close air support training mission at the Nevada Test and Training Range. USAF photo by Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth, U.S. Air Force. (Released)In order to enhance everyone’s understanding of what this mission set really is, we need to answer those questions and dispel some of the myths surrounding the support of the troops on the ground. We’ll start with the basic mission planning factors and definitions, then talk about execution, and finish up with some of the contingencies and alternative scenarios.
Close air support (CAS) is air action by fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces and requires detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces.
Department of Defense Joint Publication 3-09.3
The simple definition is that CAS is the direct support of troops on the ground by air assets. Any aircraft that can employ ordnance can do CAS. From hot air balloons in World War I to B-52s today, if it has the capability to expend some type of ordnance, it can do CAS.
This is important to point out because people seem to think that only A-10s can do CAS. This is patently false. While the A-10 may be damned good at CAS, it’s not the only aircraft capable of doing so. In fact, it accounts for only a small number of CAS sorties in theater today.
CAS is one of the few missions that is common across all services. There is one governing instruction called JP 3-09.3. It is the CAS bible. As someone who has flown CAS in both the Air Force and the Navy, I appreciate the commonality. As supremely frustrating as it is that the Air Force and Navy are often 180 degrees out in tactics and language, it’s nice that when it comes to supporting the door-kickers, we’re all speaking the same language for a common goal.
It should be noted that the Army doesn’t consider its helicopters as CAS players. Instead, they are treated as another maneuver element just like infantry or armor. As a result, one does not need to be a qualified controller for them to attack a target.
There are three key players when talking about a CAS Scenario:
- Ground Commander – This is the on-scene commander that is supported inside the boundaries of the tactical area. He is responsible for the movement of the troops and the achievement of ground objectives. It is the ground commander’s intent that is considered when executing CAS operations.
- Controller– This is the Ground Commander’s direct representative who communicates the Ground Commander’s orders to the airborne assets. He communicates directly with the pilots to direct airstrikes in the tactical area.
A person qualified to control airstrikes from the ground is called a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) or Forward Air Controller (FAC). These JTACs (Army/AF/Navy) or FACs (Marines) are embedded with ground units to provide support and translate grunt speak to fighter and back.
FAC(A)’s direct airstrikes from the air. It’s a qualification in every fighter community. The FAC(A) aircraft sets the “fighter stack” (when multiple platforms are present, fighters will “stack” above the operating area at deconflicted altitudes) while controlling attacks, marking targets, and communicating with the Ground Commander.
- Air Assets – Either fixed-wing or helicopter, these are the aircraft that put bombs or forward-firing ordnance (bullets, rockets, or Mavericks) on target.
CAS is one of the easier missions to plan for. Unlike a strike mission where you have to weaponeer for specific targets and figure out ingress and egress routes while integrating with other fighters, CAS is dynamic.
Planning starts with knowing what type of mission you’re on and what the theater Rules of Engagement are for your area of operations.
There are two basic types of CAS missions: On-Demand and Preplanned.
In a preplanned mission, you are fragged to support a specific operation. It could be SEALs trying to take down a high-value target or a convoy of Strykers traveling a dangerous highway.
With preplanned missions, you typically get more specific mission products. You’ll see the ground unit’s planned routing, objective, potential threats, and have imagery that can be referenced once airborne.
It is not a guarantee that you will “go kinetic” (drop bombs or shoot the gun) on these missions. You’re just there to help kill bad guys and break their stuff in the event things go sideways.
On-demand missions are the pick-up games. These could be as airborne on-demand missions, where you are in a holding stack in case a unit takes fire and needs help, you’re retasked from another mission, or sitting alert on an airfield somewhere ready to go in case a unit takes fire. This is the airborne equivalent of a Quick Reaction Force.
Mission planning for an on-demand mission is minimal. We have mission materials common to the Area of Operations, but we typically don’t have anything specific to the unit we’re supporting unless we had intel prior that there would be a good chance that they might need us.
In addition to knowing what kind of mission you’re fragged for, it’s also important to have the right loadout. We’ll talk more about “Digital CAS” in part three, but weapons of today have made it much easier for almost any tactical aircraft to do CAS.
There are many different combinations of load-outs possible for a CAS mission, but in general, these include Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs or GPS-guided bombs), Laser Guided Bombs (LGBs), General Purpose Bombs (GP or Dumb Bombs), Maverick missiles, and the Gun.
Weapons selection depends on the proximity of the enemy to friendlies and desired weapons effects. This is typically determined on station between the JTAC and the fighter employing ordnance.
LOW-THREAT VS HIGH-THREAT
I mentioned this in my article about the F-35 being ideally suited for the Syrian scenario, but we’ve grown used to the idea of “Low-Threat” CAS. That is, Close Air Support in an area of operations where the air and ground threats are minimal. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are examples of “Low-Threat” CAS. Air assets have been able to operate unimpeded by complex Surface to Air Missile systems, Anti-Aircraft Artillery, and the threat of opposing fighters. The biggest threat being small-arms and Man-Portable Surface to Air Missiles (MANPADS)
This, however, is not always the case. In some scenarios, troops are located within or near a SAM Missile Engagement Zone (MEZ). This means that a fighter must integrate with the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) assets and change tactics to avoid getting shot down. This could mean taking down the SAM site directly (if possible – this usually applies to mobile SAMs. It’s less likely with a double-digit SAM), holding outside the MEZ and attacking only when necessary to minimize exposure, or retrograding (leaving the target area) if the risk of losing the fighter is not considered worth it to achieve the ground objective.
High-threat CAS is risky business. In a shooting war with some of today’s threat nations (North Korea, China, Russia, et al), the enemy air defenses would definitely complicate the CAS problem. At the end of the day, though, the experts would inevitably adapt and overcome. No one wants to leave the grunts on the ground hanging, especially the A-10 bubbas who eat, sleep, and breathe this mission.
STEPPING OUT THE DOOR
Hawg, Spectre, Viper, Hornet, Mudhen, Bone – you name it. I can’t think of a single community that doesn’t take this mission seriously. This is God’s work. Where the rubber meets the road, if you will.
Hitting the merge for a knife-fight in the proverbial phone booth with another fighter might be fun, but CAS is the most rewarding mission you can be a part of. It is an absolute honor and privilege to be able to directly affect the outcome of a battle on the ground.
As soon as your boot hits the ladder, it’s time to go to work. In the next article, we’ll talk about doing just that, and the coordination that happens between the fighter and the JTAC.