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Thread: Close Air Support: The Essential Element of Modern Warfare

  1. #1
    Member Irfan Baloch's Avatar
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    Sep 2012
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    Post Close Air Support: The Essential Element of Modern Warfare


    I mentioned earlier that from time to time I will float some threads & posts to gauge the interests of the forum so I will like to share some military knowledge & experience related to the concept of Close Air support in the Modern Warfare that forms the bread and butter of any low intensity conflict to a full blown all out war.

    I co-produced this article with someone but the discussion never took off somewhere else and a lot of my research was lost so I will try to piece together whatever I can find and salvage.

    Close air support

    CAS is a kind of air strike conducted by fixed or rotary aircrafts against the hostile targets that are close to the friendly forces. The determining factor of CAS mission is the integration with the fire and movement of ground forces. If Successful, the firepower from the CAS aircraft can bring the decisive conclusion to the fight with the destruction of the enemy.

    Similarity with artillery support
    CAS in essence is an evolved form of artillery tactics where trained observers like the Artillery observers or forward air controllers will call-in air strikes to support the friendly forces engaging the enemy. The difference is that the CAS will be conducted by an aircraft instead of artillery. Just like a field artillery will provide close support to the friendly armour and/ or infantry through its fire on the enemy to inflict casualties and destroy its vehicles, equipment and positions.

    Where and when?
    CAS is called- in to hit the enemy when friendly ground forces with their organic weapons and their ability to manoeuvre don't bring a decisive success. Also if enemy has advantage of position (hilltops) or its numbers are overwhelming then close air support will nullify that advantage.

    In COIN and/ or against smaller opponent
    Once the enemy position is fixed a decision to call in CAS can be made if the enemy cant be neutralised through the ground. It also depends on the situation or mission objective itself, whether the enemy is actually ambushing a friendly convoy or is it cornered and its position needs to be destroyed.

    In case of the COIN when the enemy lacks air defence or air cover, the CAS can work far more effectively due to prolonged loitering of battlefield by CAS aircraft(s) and providing the decisive firepower to finish the job.

    The close air support can repel the ambush on the pinned down friendly convey and take out well dug in enemy that is almost impossible to approach via ground without suffering heavy causality. Specially if the enemy is in a typical gorilla warfare environment and using the surroundings to its advantage.

    Against a country with a regular army

    Just like in COIN operations In case of a conventional war against a regular army, CAS mission requires detailed integration with fire and movement of friendly forces. It has to be conducted with excellent coordination with ground forces to avoid blue on blue situation and the specialist observers for that task are commonly known as FAC (forward air controllers) or Joint Fires Observers who may call in artillery or air strike in support of the friendly ground forces engaging the target. CAS in any form remains truly a support mission in order to help the ground forces to achieve their objective.

    In the face of a massive ground assault by the enemy, the role of CAS becomes critical to hammer the spearheading enemy forces specially when the friendly forces not only lack the fire power but are heavily out numbered too.

    Evolution of CAS

    WWI and WWII saw the concept for the first time with the application of CAS which had more psychological impact on both friendly and enemy forces compared to its effectiveness. During WWI the successful attacks included the coordination between aerial and ground units. But the concept never took off and more emphasis was placed on strategic bombing and interdiction.

    By WWII, the importance of airpower integration into the combined arms warfare as close air support was universally established. The Germans Luftwaffe led the way with their “dive bombing” tactics. The RAF introduced the “cab rank” strategy in north Africa involving 3 aircrafts working in sequence where one will attack a ground target upon request from ground observers another will be in flight and proceed to the target if the first attack didn’t finish off the target and the third one will be arming and refuelling at base and will take off in the air once the first one comes back to land and refuel and rearm and so on.

    The Korean war was not a glowing example of CAS where the air force moved away to strategic bombing and interception although there was some battlefield support was provided but lack of coordination made it an ineffective and time consuming process.

    Vietnam saw the concept of helicopter evolve from the mere landing and extraction missions to dedicated attack gunships. The slow speed meant the prolonged presence over the battlefield and the element of surprise through use of terrain for cover made them a favourite choice for close air support missions. The famous ground attack aircrafts that have provided air support range from the WWII Luftwaffe Junkers JU87 to Russian SU 25 , Chinese A5 and American A-10s in the modern times.

    CAS in modern times
    Reconnaissance, intelligence and surveillance help in conducting the CAS missions by modern militaries that have access to information technology and GPS. The use of battle data transfer between the ground forces and the CAS aircrafts mean that ground forces can get additional intel about the battlefield that can supplement and improve the overall C2 (command & control). For a effective C2 a CAS mission goes beyond the suppression and destruction of enemy due to the use of modern technology it provides a better situational awareness of the theatre to the commanders to pre-empt enemy movement and plan future CAS missions as an integral part of fire and movement of friendly ground forces.

    Aviators view
    They have never liked it from the beginning of time and see it as demeaning and subservience of the army. Before the birth of the Air force as an independent arm from the army aerial units formed the part of the ground forces structure. Aviators, who wanted institutional independence from the Army, pushed for a view of airpower centered around interdiction, which would relieve them of the necessity of integrating with ground forces and allow them to operate as an independent military arm. They saw close air support as both the most difficult and most inefficient use of aerial assets. Close air support was the most difficult mission, requiring identifying and distinguishing between friendly and hostile units. At the same time, targets engaged in combat are dispersed and concealed, reducing the effectiveness of air attacks. They also argued that the CAS mission merely duplicated the abilities of artillery, whereas interdiction provided a unique capability

    CAS perspective for Pakistan

    Pakistan army Aviation Corps
    It was split from the air force and became part of army in 1958. From its COIN operations in the 70s in quelling the Baloch insurgency to the current War on Terror. The Pakistan Army Aviation forms the essential part of army operations.
    Its combat wing consists mainly of the cobra gunships. That have provided close air support against the insurgents in the war against terror. Cobras have been called in on various occasions whenever army conveys came under attack from Taliban ambush and they formed the part of the ground assault on Sawat during Operation Rah e Nijat.

    The Pakistan Army aviation lacks the firepower of the dedicated air strike aircrafts in case of a battle with a conventional enemy. In case of a massive ground assault by India based on its new cold doctrine, the Pakistan army aviation can find itself overwhelmed with the task at hand to destroy large Indian armour columns.

    14 Dec-71
    F-86s from No 19 Squadron strike a battalion of Indian Army in the Thar desert. The napalm and strafing attacks were led by Flight Lieutenant

    Pakistan Air force
    The air strike capability of PAF’s dedicated and multimode aircrafts fills in the gap where the army Aviation’s gunships cant provide the necessary firepower in case of a large assault by a regular army.
    Or in case of a counter attack, provide necessary CAS to suppress the enemy through a coordinated fire and movement by the friendly forces.

    PAF has provided CAS on request to the Pakistan army in Punjab and deserts of Sind delivering a devastating blow to advancing Indian armour. During both the 65 and 71 war. But that support was not always available when its was forced to defend its own bases.

    A-5s were its dedicated air strike role aircrafts and now this role is filled by JF-17 and F-16s. But like any other air force, the ground support role is not seen with high esteem in the aviation circles. Also the supersonic speed of these aircrafts mean that they cant loiter the battle filed long enough for the benefit of the ground forces. The new weapons and avionics like laser guided bombs and targeting pods mean that their air strikes will be more effective and precise but their standby availability might be difficult if PAF needs them to conduct its own operations independent of the army requirements.

    This brings in the need for dedicated ground attack aircraft that is able to sustain the ground fire while flying low and below the enemy radar and is has firepower of a typical multimode fighter but due slow enough to be able to loiter the battlefield like a helicopter would.

    It means that Army aviation should seek to raise squadrons of dedicated ground attack aircrafts that can fill up the role beyond the means of the helicopter gunships. Point to note here is that the type of aircraft needed is one where speed of the aircraft is not important. but the ability to persist in the battlefield for both the psychological impact on the foe as a physical enemy and its devastating firepower and its survivability against the ground fire like an American A-10 or Russian SU-25 would . A5s were known to have the reinforced fuselage but its not known if the Black Spider squadron of JF-17s will have that added padding to protect their bellies or not.

    The combat UAV’s can be another possible alternative in the coming future as Pakistan on its own or in collaboration with China develops next generation of combat UAVs that would provide CAS. Or develop something on the lines of A-10 or SU-25. CAS is a must for survival and effective CAS is a must for victory in the modern conflict.

    During a major assault in the Shakargarh area on 14 December 1971, PAF fighters were called in for air support. The painting shows one of the supporting F-6s bearing down on enemy armour, while another one has just pulled off. The aircraft belonged to No 23 Squadron. Apart from being effective in the air defence role, the F-6s (introduced into the PAF in 1966) provided valuable air support to Pak Army in the 1971 War.

    Need to increase Pakistan Army Aviation wing
    There is a case in point for stepping up the air wing of Pakistan army. there is a need for a major overhaul of the army structure and its principles of fighting the enemy. just like the introduction of armour made the tench wars obsolete, it is time that the forces consisting mainly of large number of foot soldiers of regular army be replaced by smaller but smarter and highly trained and equipped tactical forces and they be backed up with more active and readily available in-house CAS from the army aviation wing. making a smaller number of men as deadly and effective than the larger count of foot soldiers with basic and regular infantry training.

    the other indirect benefit will be relieving Air force from assistance duty of the strike role for the ground forces. if PAA can look after the needs of its ground forces then PAF would be free to conduct its own air strikes against its target across the border such as strategic bombing, SEAD and interdiction. Couple that with its CAP mission and that will take care of any airborne threats which in reality will indirectly favour the CAS missions conducted by Army aviation aircrafts. because of the destruction of both the air and ground based threats that the CAS aircrafts might encounter.
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    Last edited by Irfan Baloch; 19th September 2012 at 12:00.

  2. #2
    Member Irfan Baloch's Avatar
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    some more information and further reading
    this extensive article moves from conventional artillery to close air support and goes into the intricate details of its working and difference between preplanned and immediate close air support

    the American special forces use the laser targeting or painting of the target from ground from safe and concealed location and call in the air strike or a cruise missile that homes into the target using the laser as its guidance.

    Availability or use of such system by our Naval or army special forces is not well known but this is also something that will become essential in the coming years if its not incorporated already.

    Article on CAS
    FM 6-20-40 Appendix A
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    Last edited by Irfan Baloch; 18th September 2012 at 23:21.

  3. #3
    Member Munir's Avatar
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    Close air support is the reason why air forces need air superiority. You do have to use it to soften up enemy targets and if needed fade them away to keep the momentum. I personally think that PAF has been a great CAS force but we have lost it. F7P or Fantan were not the best options at the moment but we do not had alternatives. I desperately hope that JF17 will be improved for a very good CAS plane. It will mean a dual gun and a lot more standoff weaponry for ground targets. And surely a good FLIR and ECM pod. I would prefer still a airforce matter and not army matter. But in case of Navy you cannot do without dedicated naval squadrons. It is a whole new usage and you do not have kind of A2A. It is long range intercept, high speeds, long range weapons and bigger platforms. That is not what JF17 offers if you ask me. Not even J20. I would see J11 a the only alternative. Look at nations with large sea as border... They all go for Su27...

  4. #4
    Member Irfan Baloch's Avatar
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    Close air support is not the reason for air superiority but it actually consequence of air superiority. A country that enjoys air superiority can conduct CAS with much ease without the airborne threats.

    close air support as the name suggests, is a support role not a primary role. This support is for the ground forces. It can be immediate when the situation arises and was not anticipated before or is already preplanned to soften targets.
    the air forces normally dont hold such roles with high esteem and the pilots over the world hate it. its a professional military rivalry with the ground forces which a civilian cant understand or comprehend.

    it is seen something as a subservient work for a lesser equipped menial ground force. The aviators might be made to make a cosmetic and patriotic public statement but privately they don’t even hold their fellow aviators favorably. A-10 thunderbolt has seen a lot of opposition and hostility by the airforce circles right from its concept and induction. This might be a surprise for many people but if you search the web and read articles from the military personal and watch videos you will find something you didn’t know.

    On the other hand, CAS loved by the ground troops when it rains hell on the stubborn enemy they cant take out themselves. When time is of the essence and every moment counts then removing the channels of communication and layers of command / force structure can mean a difference between success and failure, hence the stress for improvement and increase in our PAA force & its inventory. if you look up the history of the successful generals of the past and modern history then one element that stood them apart was their willingness to think out of the box, adapt, impressive maneuverability and communications and change themselves according to the needs of the time. I can cite actual examples of 1971 war when army requested air support and was turned down by PAF saying that they themselves were under attack or had their priorities. PAA has its combat wing that consists of helicopter gunships, the next logical step is to arm it with a robust and specialized fixed wing platform with the essential qualities to fulfill that role.

    A5 is a good example, it had reinforced fuselage, had a pair of 23mm cannons, was slow and carried good payload mix of bombs and rockets to perform that role. Whether JF-17 will be adapted to perform that role is anybody’s guess. It will need to have robust fuselage that can take small arms fire. The Su 25frogfoot and the A-10 thunderbolt can take on up to 20mm fire. The speed and agility has to take a backseat and emphasis has to be on a sturdy design with titanium reinforcement increasing its survivability and reduced speed for more loitering time over the battlefield. I am not sure if any such plan will be on paper for the JF-17, any such modification will bring it very close to a dedicated CAS plane.

    I have deliberately kept the Naval/ sea based role out of the discussion because takes the discussion away from the main topic with is mainly for the ground forces support. PAF doctrine already dismisses the need of a heavier 2 engine aircraft. and our navy is pretty much a coastal navy with comparabilities very small sea front. not sure how far the idea of having a Naval version of J-11 will get. I am not dismissing it just dont see the likelihood and also that is out of the scope of this discussion. interception and speed are irrelevant and not applicable for the kind of role I have discussed in the topic. A true CAS aircraft max speed should be below 1 mac, should be sturdy and have robust landing gear, shorter take off to be able to service and operate from temporary runways and ability to take the beating from ground fire just like A-10 and SU25 have. having something in the league of A-10 survivability is a fantasy but the least we can ask for is immunity to bird strikes and heavy machine gun and cannon fire of up to 20mm.

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