In Part Two, we barely scratched the surface of some of the ways fighters and controllers coordinate to get bombs on target. Close Air Support is a very fluid and dynamic environment, especially in today’s areas of operations.
To end the series, I’ll discuss some of the alternatives and finish with how technology is changing the battlespace.
Show of Force / Show of Presence
Killing people and breaking their stuff isn’t always the answer, and a lot of times, it’s not even an option. In some cases, ground forces just need the locals to know that the good guys have backup in case things go sideways That’s where the Show of Force / Presence comes in.
“I Come in Peace. I Didn’t Bring Artillery. But I’m Pleading With You, With Tears in My Eyes: If You F— With Me, I’ll Kill You All.” – General James N. Mattis
OIF/OEF and counter-insurgency operations are asymmetrical by their very nature. It’s not red vs blue where the good guys and bad guys are clearly defined. Sometimes it’s blue vs orange vs teal vs fuschia and ground fighters have to convince those on the fence to abandon their wicked ways for the greater good. In those scenarios, we have non-kinetic options.
A Show of Presence is the least aggressive of the two. It just involves flying at a lower altitude than normal so that combatants (both good and bad) can see that friendly fighters are in the area. Sometimes, the mere realization that they’re just seconds from experiencing death from above is enough to make some cease and desist.
It’s also a morale booster for the guys on the ground. It lets them know that, “Hey, we’ve got your back.” It typically requires no coordination from anyone on the ground.
A Show of Force is the next step up. Like the law enforcement “Use of Force” model, it is an escalation. In a show of force, fighters have coordinated with the controller and the controller has determined that a more convincing display of American airpower is necessary to nudge the people they’re dealing with into doing the right thing.
A Show of Force is coordinated between the fighter and controller. Although a low, and fast pass by a fighter is usually a sight to see for fanboys at airshows, it can be terrifying for enemy insurgents. It’s akin to the old west fighters tossing a bullet at their adversary and saying, “the next one’s coming faster.” It’s the embodiment of General Mattis’s quote that, while we come in peace, we brought hell with us and if you continue on this path, bombs will start falling.
Of course, a Show of Force is not always appropriate. If there’s a high threat of MANPADs, for example, it may be far too risky. But if it’s called for and done correctly, a Show of Force can be an effective way to deescalate a situation and send insurgents fleeing.
The term Emergency Close Air Support tends to confuse many people. Some think it means unscheduled or urgent CAS, but the true definition is actually conducting Close Air Support without a qualified Joint Terminal Attack Controller.
Is that as scary as it sounds? Yes, for all parties involved.
JTACs, FACs, FAC(A)’s, et al get extensive training in mitigating the risk of fratricide and how to properly communicate intentions to fighters. It’s as much an art as it is a technical skill to talk a fighter onto the right target with the right weapon at the right time.
Emergency CAS means someone with none of those qualifications has picked up a radio and is trying to do the same thing. This could be because they didn’t have a JTAC embedded with them, or the JTAC they had with them has been incapacitated.
But that doesn’t mean the fighters just pack up and go home. Fighters become much more conservative, but they will still do everything they can to put bombs on target, because the guys on the ground need it. This usually devolves into “plain talk” and the fighter pulling bit by bit of information out of the guy holding the radio.
We posted the Prologue of my first book a couple of months ago. In it, I described a scenario in which Spectre found himself faced with an Emergency Close Air Support situation after the convoy he was supporting came under attack and the JTAC was taken out. It just becomes a pick-up game at that point.
Digital CAS is a fairly new (within the last ten years) buzzword describing Close Air Support using datalink and onboard sensors.
Traditionally, as I described in Part Two, 9-Lines and talk-ons have been done via voice and eyes-on the target. But with the invention of secure datalink and targeting pods with video downlink, a lot of that has changed.
Now JTACs have the option of sending all of the 9-Line information as a secure message (VMF) that will be displayed in most aircraft. JTACs can use PSS-SOF laptops to generate high quality coordinates and send those to the fighter without ever saying a word.
JTACs can also use video downlink software to see what the fighters are seeing through their targeting pods, and talk the fighters on by telling them to “slew” their pods in the appropriate direction.
Digital Close Air Support with Joint Direct Attack Munitions allows fighters to drop bombs even in bad weather where they can’t get beneath an overcast layer due to mountains or threats. But of course, it also brings with it inherent risk.
No system is perfect, and there have been instances where people have accidentally generated coordinates for their own position instead of the target, the results of which can be catastrophic if not caught early.
This series has been a broad-brush look at Close Air Support, and I focused heavily on current operations. CAS changes greatly in more traditional shooting wars where there is a clearly defined Forward Edge of Battle (FEBA) or Forward Line of Troops (FLOT). There are also hundreds of different scenarios even within the low-threat counter-insurgency model that I didn’t talk about.
But even with this general approach to CAS, hopefully you’ve gained a better understanding of what goes into it. As I said, any airframe that can shoot something or drop a bomb can do CAS, but the subject matter experts are the ones that do it all the time like the AC-130 and A-10 communities.
As it applies to the F-35, do I think the F-35 will be able to do Close Air Support? Yes. In a lot of cases, it will do just as well as any other aircraft.
Do I think it can replace the A-10? Hell no. The A-10 is less about the airplane (which is awesome) and more about the community. I’m a big fan of specialized communities with subject matter experts. These are the guys that develop the tactics and techniques that filter into the “jack of all trades, master of none” communities like the Hornet and Viper.