I wrote this piece shortly after my first deployment in 2010, mainly to organize my thoughts and keep a record of my personal reflections. I captured what I considered to be the pertinent points of the experience and put the article away until I recently reopened the file for the first time in three years. There are a few parts that reflect the natural naiveté and pride of a first deployment JO, but I believe there is value in sharing the words as we continue to look back at lessons learned from various phases of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. Particularly, I hope others use the occasion to capture their own personal CAS/COIN lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan as we all return to more traditional, pre-9/11 mission sets such as counter-maritime, counter-air, etc. I haven’t made any edits to the original piece.

Carrier-based tactical close air support platforms have proven to be valuable resources for ground commanders and war planners conducting counterinsurgency campaigns

In a remote village near Herat, Western Afghanistan, a mounted convoy of Marines travels en route to conduct a Key Leader Engagement with the village elder and local leaders. The opportunity to discuss economic issues, insurgent activity, and security concerns serves as a keystone in the effort to maintain a mutually beneficial relationship with the community. As the convoy navigates the small, winding roads, the lead vehicle strikes an IED and insurgent gunmen open fire from behind the walls of a compound 300 meters north of the friendly position. What might have been the obvious response in prior years, an immediate strike on the enemy position executed by aircraft overhead, now requires much more consideration. Following the tenants of Counterinsurgency (COIN) Strategy, as detailed in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, the collateral effects of the bombing, to include potential effects on civilians and major damage to infrastructure, would likely negate the hard-earned good will critical to a successful COIN strategy. Additionally, the unintended effects could harm ISAF efforts in the long term by fostering resentment and reducing the credibility of friendly forces, ultimately driving local support to insurgent fighters.

In June 2009, General Stanley McChrystal, then Commander of the International Security Assistance Force, refocused the campaign on Counterinsurgency Strategy in Afghanistan, vowing to “change the operational culture of ISAF to focus on protecting the Afghan people, understanding their environment, and building relationships with them.”

In implementing COIN in modern combat, ground commanders have found a perfectly matched tool in Close Air Support (CAS), due to the wide array of effects available, varied sensor capabilities, and aviator training and participation in the decision matrix to execute attacks. Navy and Marine Corps jets operating from aircraft carriers are particularly well suited to support COIN strategy as aircrew are not only expert in providing the appropriate effects for the ground commander but do not add to the footprint of forces stationed in country. Having sea-based airpower eases the heavy burden of logistical requirements on land and reduces the local perception of an occupying force.

The Joint Doctrine definition of CAS details the use of air assets “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.” Further, CAS supporting COIN requires eliminating any adverse effects on the local population, infrastructure and environment. This means that Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC) and aircrew must precisely and creatively match the effects of attacks to the situation by weighing tactical gains against potential negative impacts to the long-term strategy in the theater.

July 2010, onboard the U.S.S. DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: Then ISAF Commander, General McChrystal, explains to aviators how their implementation of the new CAS paradigm has affected OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM.

July 2010, onboard the U.S.S. DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: Then ISAF Commander, General McChrystal, explains to aviators how their implementation of the new CAS paradigm has affected OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM.

Carrier-based Aircraft Adapt to COIN

In February 2010, the offensive in Marjah and later in Kandahar marked what would be the “showpiece of COIN,” as Marines on the ground moved to fight insurgents in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. Navy CAS was provided by aircraft from Carrier Air Wing Seven aboard the U.S.S. DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER, recently returned to theater on a surge deployment after only five months at home port. In preparation for returning to support OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM, the same theater but a very different war than they fought just a few months prior, the aircrew of CVW-7 dedicated their days to studying, memorizing and war-gaming the newly issued tactical directive for operations in the theater passed down by the new ISAF Commander, General McChrystal. The strategic implementation of the new directive changed the nature of how the war would be fought and won in Afghanistan and created an entirely new paradigm for the use of airpower in COIN. The message was clear that eliminating civilian casualties and damage to civilian property was essential to the validity of ISAF efforts to improve life for Afghanis, as well to prevent the creation of new insurgents.

The mission continued to support and protect Marines and soldiers on the ground, but now aviators would have to achieve those same results through non-kinetic tactics as much as possible.

While an air-to-ground weapon can instantly eliminate the insurgent threat, the lasting damage to the compound that he used for cover, which likely belongs to an innocent, and the potential for collateral civilian casualties pose a large risk to the credibility of the mission. Instead, a “Show of Force,” a high-speed, low-altitude flyover designed to strike fear into enemy fighters and ensure their awareness of airpower overhead, would likely provide the opportunity for friendly troops to mobilize and evade the threat of enemy gunfire. Another aircraft can then track the enemy fighter and prompt an attack by ground troops with direct gunfire at a later time.

By the time EISENHOWER was relieved on station by the U.S.S. HARRY S. TRUMAN and CVW-3, the new paradigm had translated to relevant metrics. Aviators from the IKE supported the Marines on the ground without fail for six months, flying twice the number of missions, delivering only 20% of the ordnance compared to their previous deployment; all with zero civilian casualties.

Critical Mission Support with Minimal Logistical Impact

Navy carrier-based strike fighter aircraft bring the same lethal capability for CAS as aircraft stationed in country without the logistical support required in country. These aircraft have no need for airfield space, food, lodging or security on the ground. Considering the thousands of maintenance, support and operational personnel that are required to sustain mission capable aircraft that support the troops, the logistical requirements for land-based squadrons are significant.

In a remote country with treacherous terrain, from extremely cold mountainous areas to heat-laden desert, the cost and potential danger in transporting and constructing suitable operational airfields with requisite facilities prove to be very formidable obstacles. Additionally, for every bit of construction done in Afghanistan, the signal to the local population becomes clearer that foreign military forces intend to remain for a considerable period of time.

Credibility with the locals has proven to be one of the key principles that have underpinned the success of counterinsurgency strategy. If commanders intend to avoid being perceived as an occupying force, limiting the presence of permanent installations should be of paramount concern. To that end, Naval Aviation provides a unique tool to have airpower readily available overhead without the additional necessity for any ground-based facilities and personnel in Afghanistan.

In the first half of 2010, aircraft from CVW-7 provided 25% of the CAS support to OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM with minimal cost to the Combatant Commander. The air wing provided thousands of combat hours and supported hundreds of CAS missions with virtually no logistical impact to the country of Afghanistan.

Like most service members, I have lost many close friends over the past decade in OPERATIONS ENDURING FREEDOM and IRAQI FREEDOM. To hear the stories of their bravery, and to think of the situations constantly confronting the soldiers and Marines on the ground still today reaffirms that true heroism exists. As a junior officer still newly returned from my first deployment, I have been proud to tell of the part we had in supporting the ground forces. However, in speaking with friends in Marine, SEAL and Army units, I find that the knowledge of the capabilities of air support are generally limited to only one air liaison officer rather than in the platoon or squad leaders and NCOs. From my perspective, the capabilities and tactics utilized by carrier-based aircraft are not only perfectly suited to meet the requirements of supporting a counterinsurgency campaign, but more importantly can save the lives of troops on the ground in even the toughest engagements.

Posted by LT Jeff McLean in Marine Corps, Navy
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  • (I wonder if A-10 pilots measure CAS success by the decrease-of-dropped-ordnance, or number-of-shows-of-force overflights.)

    • Ken

      I wonder if any Marine AIr squadron would be “proud” of those statistics?

  • Tom

    Beyond the metrics of ordnance dropped or civilian casualties averted, there is a very relevant point here, which is the lack of logistical support required for CVW based CAS. While forward basing offers a number of advantages that include colocation with supported units and a reduced response time to service real time requests for support, it also generates a huge logistical demand. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the supply requirements generated by in-country units were and are supportable, but generated and continue to generate significant risks (the convoys that provide the food, supply items and fuel required by those aircrew and supply personnel are vulnerable to coordinated attacks and IEDs, logistics hub countries may arbitrarily close supply lines or withdraw support, ect).
    Unfortunately, there is nothing in the CVW inventory that approaches the persistence, survivability, or lethality offered by the A-10 (a capability that will not be adequately replaced by any aircraft currently fielded or in development). Nor can that capability be replaced by any of the USAF’s long range strike assets. While many operational aviation commands throughout the USN and USAF have done an excellent job in shifting their primary mission focus to supporting ground forces, our failure to aggressively drive our aircraft acquisition priorities toward supporting the war we are currently in, vice the war we may someday fight, will likely have deadly consequences for the men and women on the ground. However, if the country pursues a total draw-down in Afghanistan, CVW CAS aircraft will offer a critical capability to ground forces.

    • RightCowLeftCoast

      Another potential solution is with the purchasing of the C-130J, is restarting the cancelled AC-XX program, or purchasing roll on/roll off CAS kits. Although not as fast as the F/A-18s used by CVWs int he CAS role, C-130s offer long legs so that they need not necessarily be based in-country, can receive in-air refueling, and can be on station for long periods of time. This perhaps is a lesson that we have forgotten from the Vietnam Conflict where the AC-47 served effectively.
      One thing that I have to wonder though is why has the Navy dropped the requirement of having aircraft that can operate persistently such as what the S-3 was capable of doing, it reduces the ASW capability of the CVW, and would having a persistent platform would be useful in the CAS role as well.

  • ELP

    Unfortunate the S-3 went away. For permissive air environments like this, it offered good, loitering ISR. Not unlike how P-3s (including Canadians) helped with ground ISR in Libya.