An OIF Retrospective
The devastating weapons effects delivered by close air support (CAS) assets have consistently proven to be essential war winning tools. Considered critical to contemporary joint combat operations, CAS doctrine and technology has continued to evolve at a rapid pace consistent with the multi-mission value delivered to the war fighter.
In our narrative retrospective, we will re-visit the employment and impact that CAS delivered to joint and coalition forces during critical phases of the Operation Iraqi Freedom campaign. We will limit our focus to only those stages of the conflict where CAS played a critical role – we will not attempt to portray the considerable aspects of the campaign outside of the defined scope of this writing.
CGS Sensor to Shooter Performance during Operation Iraqi Freedom
Common Ground Station (CGS), considered the joint service’s most advanced tactical ground station supplied the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps with real-time communications and intelligence gathered by the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft, Predator and Hunter unmanned aerial vehicles, and other intelligence gathering equipment.
US Third Infantry division, First Marine Expeditionary Forces and UK Royal Marines supported by an armored brigade of the UK First Armored division attacked from jump-off positions in northern Kuwait.
“We saw movement across the Alamo Bridge. We notified the CGS and he got it blown.” (Specialist, 1st Marine Division)
In the first few days of the war the Joint STARS aircraft had the mission of monitoring avenues of approach while simultaneously hunting SCUD launchers. CGS systems embedded with combat units and in EAC positions in Kuwait became operational with very few connectivity issues and received Joint STARS data via. Line-Of-Sight (LOS). CGS and JSWS systems outside Iraq and Kuwait received data via SATCOM. The Army CGS with the 1st Marine Division successfully conducted operations on the move via SATCOM (SCDL-E).
Map Reference 1. In addition to ISR grids established west of Ramadi and Baghdad, a third collection area was set up to support Airborne landings that opened up Northern Front Operations.
Map Reference 2. G2 from 2nd BDE, 3rd Infantry CGS alerted the division to the presence of 200 Iraqi vehicles moving in it’s direction. This intelligence enabled a 3rd Infantry unit to destroy the vehicles 10 minutes away from the bridge they were guarding.
As the war progressed the Joint STARS aircraft collection areas moved northwest ahead of coalition avenues of approach, LOS was lost to ground systems in Kuwait and Qatar. SATCOM was also lost to higher CENTCOM priority missions. Loss of LOS connectivity and SATCOM impacted coalition strategic planning, targeting, and air to ground support planning. TROJAN SPIRIT, TROJAN Lites, and SIPRNET were used to connect CGS systems that had LOS to systems beyond LOS. Having more than 4 systems connect into a CGS often caused a server overload condition. TROJAN was also impacted with up to a 15 minute time lag in information. In the beginning of April a third collection area opened up in the north supporting the 173rd Airborne Brigade. A CGS from XVIII Airborne (ABN) Corps and Operators from 10th Mountain (MTN) Division supported the 173rd.
The 3rd Squadron 7th Cavalry, 3rd Infantry Division was told by Army Intelligence that as many as 1000 vehicles were headed their way. Coalition military officials expected the Iraqi’s to try to retake a key bridge on the Euphrates River. Combat operations were hindered by a massive sandstorm that blew across the area of operations. During this sandstorm the only systems that could see this large enemy movement was the Joint STARS E-8 and the CGS. The Joint STARS ISR picture was being fed to the ground and Air Force targeting cells. Overnight, waves of B-52’s pounded the Iraqi convoy. This scenario proved an excellent illustration for how “sensor-to-shooter” links work in a digitized military network. On 27 March 2003, BG Vincent Brooks, CENTCOM Deputy Director of Operations (Dep J-3), briefed: “First, east of An Najaf, coalition forces of the U.S. Fifth Corps were attacked by vehicle-mounted irregulars, where there had been a report of a significant number of vehicles approaching. The reports were not accurate in terms of size of the force, and Fifth Corps units soundly defeated the attack, destroying most of the force.”
Map Reference 3. Troops from Iraq’s elite Republican Guard attempted to move in a huge column of around 1,000 military vehicles from Baghdad to Najaf.
Map Reference 4. B-52 bombers and ground-based artillery smashed the Iraqi convoy overnight before it could reach coalition forces northeast of Najaf, about 60 miles south of Baghdad.
Map Reference 5. On 9 April 2003 a Joint STARS E-8C was providing surveillance support to 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. The joint Army/Air Force aircrew detected five large groups of enemy vehicles, 80 movers arrayed over 80 Km. The aircrew took direct action coordinating directly with E-3 AWACS and E-2 Hawkeye.
Map Reference 6. 36 coalition aircraft were employed against the movers over a period of 5 hours, destroying over 50 tanks, APC’s and support vehicles.
Throughout the campaign CGS increasingly revealed itself as a major success story through high reliability performance. With very few FSR in theater or organic 33W’s, the CGS still managed to have a 99% Operational Availability rate.
There are numerous stories from the front about commands using CGS and Joint STARS information to monitor routes ahead of attack forces. Commanders intently monitored the operator screen watching their respective units maneuver, with operators watching unit flanks for force protection and CGS operators providing information on a given area so Brigade and Division 3’s could plan missions. The Joint STARS E-8 aircraft even provided information to CGS’s during sandstorms so long range artillery could be used to interdict moving targets and vehicle convoys.
Throughout combat operations, Joint STARS aircrews took on multiple missions ranging from SCUD hunting to monitoring avenues of approach to directing Navy fighters on to ground targets via FM voice and JTIDS. One crew on a 13 hour mission was asked to stay in the air to keep surveillance on a high value operational area. The determined crew, nicknamed the Sitting Ducks, remained on station for more than 20 hours to complete their mission. The E-8 not only supported the Army’s required targeting during sandstorms. After action reports indicated that Air Force F-15’s were supplied information provided directly from the E-8 to employ GPS guided bombs during sandstorms to provide support to coalition ground forces.
In addition to supporting primary maneuver units, ISR assets were employed with CGS’s to deliver a wide rage of support to Special Forces operators, though this activity is still SOCOM classified.
New Eyes for the JTAC’s
As the prosecution of war fighting operations continue throughout southwest Asia, military planners are introducing new CAS doctrine concepts. For example, the Marine Corps has recently proposed a concept to train infantry squad leaders to fill the role of forward air controllers (FAC’s), enabling them with the ability to supplement the JTAC with limited terminal attack controls. Considered a radical concept by most, it remains to be seen if CAS missions can be implemented effectively at this level of command.