UPDATE: Air Wars

Fire Support Line Needs a Fix, Think Tank Says

Related to my earlier post on the rivalry between Army and Air Force UAV controllers is this story on a Rand study of air support:

The Rand think tank’s study, “Beyond Close Air Support,” which was commissioned by the Air Force, found two problems with how coordination lines are used.

The Army can extend the line far beyond its troop positions, slowing Air Force interdiction efforts, the report said.

For example, at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the line was about 90 miles ahead of the advancing Army V Corps. If the Air Force had targets within that 90-mile zone, the service needed permission from V Corps headquarters to strike the targets.

The problem was that the V Corps headquarters staff of soldiers and airmen didn’t have enough people or communication gear to coordinate both the ground and air attacks over such a wide area, Rand found.

Rand also questioned the effectiveness of control lines on battlefields where there are no clear boundaries between friendly and enemy forces.

Rand advocated replacing the coordination line with a grid system. The Rand proposal would open and close grid system boxes depending on where friendly forces were. Aircrews would see the boxes on their display screens change colors as the status changed.

Rand advocated that when a coordination line is used, it should be just beyond the areas where close-air support was needed, not tens of miles in front of friendly forces.

Say what you will about military “transformation”, it is studies like this and the implementation of the solutions suggested that will have the greatest impact on the way our military fights. New rifles and vehicles are great (sometimes), but lessons learned from experience with existing systems will be felt more quickly and more strongly.

That’s not to say that this Rand study has the answers. But it demonstrates that the military is actually doing more than spending loads of cash on fancy new gadgets. Maybe not as much more as they should be, of course, but they aren’t totally ignoring today’s battles. And improved close air support today will make a far bigger difference in the practical world than FCS vehicles or stealth destroyers will in ten years.


  1. I don’t blame the Army for keeping the line 90 miles out. The last thing ground troops want during a battle is for the Air Force to show up uninvited. They have a very bad record of bombing the wrong people. During the first Gulf War, the Air Force killed too many our own Soldiers and Marines. It got real ugly around Um Hujul where an A-10 destroyed an LAV and killed 7 Marines with a Maverick missile. I was monitoring the air radios and heard ground commanders threatening to shoot down the next A-10 they see – I don’t think they were bluffing. At An Nasiriyah in 2003 an uninvited (no ground control) A-10 killed at least 10 Marines. After the incident at Um Hujul, Central Command drew a line on the map which assigned Marine and Navy Air only to support I MEF in the east and the Air Force to support the Army in the west. I believe there were no further Marine friendly fire incidents from the air afterwards. The Army and the Air Force do a very poor job of training together and coordinating their operations. I read a provocative column by Ralph Peters a few months ago that advocated abolishing the Air Force and letting the Army do their own CAS – he might be right.

  2. I’ll have to 2nd Brams point on the 90 mile figure. 90 miles is a tad conservative, but only a just a tad. Units move, you have opportunity fires, scouts, running about and you really do not need the air force jumping into the fray. This issue of the failure of the various branches of the military to be able to work together, boggles the mind. Only because the US is such a rich country, and the troops are of such a high quality, can the stupidity of this kind of military be tollerated. We have multiple redundant branches, who do not communicate with each other and actively attempt to undermine each other in order to ‘win’ budget games. Close air support is a prime example. The army wants to increase the number of forward observers to call in air strikes, thus wants to train soliders on how to do it . The air force insists that only pilots can call in air strikes and is worried that if you have soldiers calling in the strikes, the air force will lose compliment + have a lot of pilots without a job. So, what does the air force do?? They get the a study done to show that the army is unreasonable in restricting air force actions. This is all budget wars. The air force is feeling threatened by army UCAV’s so now they are tring to take over all the UCAV…. What is really needed, is to abolish all the armed services and create something called the US Military. Maybe it could have a unified command structure, with a unified procurement, and have a unified doctrine of operations.

  3. As for the 90 mile line, that’s probably prudent. But if more definition than just a line can be used, such as the grid system this study talked about, maybe that can be sliced down significantly. If it can be without endangering our own troops, it’s a great thing. With today’s mobility, especially in the desert, you really can’t be too careful and I don’t really debate the 90 mile line too much. Hopefully, with today’s technology, we can communicate movement much more quickly and reliably, allowing our planes to engage the targets they should and keep away from the friendlies. As much as the ground troops hate being shot at by their own planes, they also hate it when their own planes won’t give them close support when they need it badly, especially if the planes are up there but can’t engage because of someone’s line. And that is what needs to be addressed. Troops under fire won’t be happy with a 90 mile line. Troops under fire from their own planes won’t be happy with a 900 mile line. So we need to get that distance down without endangering the guys on the ground. I don’t know that this grid system is the answer, or that even if it is that it will work reliably, but it’s good to see them at least looking at options.

  4. A couple of issues. Interdiction air targets, tend to be fixed targets. Bridges, factories, fuel depots and the like that have little to do with close air support, but has everything to do with the overall plan of attack. This issue is more of a control issue. Who gets to determine the order of battle. I have some concerns with the proposed grid system. Basically this system would have to transmit current unit location and planned unit locations and fires for the next 1 to 2 hours. If the encryption is ever cracked, this system would give an opponent all the information necessary to defeat the military.