Thursday, October 23, 2008

Agility, flexibility, teamwork: Key components of airpower

by Col. Gus Schalkham
U.S. Air Forces Central Public Affairs

10/22/2008 - SOUTHWEST ASIA (AFNS) -- Examine most successful business or sports teams, and you may find their foundation is based on flexibility, agility and teamwork. The success of airpower in Iraq and Afghanistan incorporates these three traits on a daily basis, through the interaction with coalition forces and U.S. sister services.

Before an aircraft can be sent on a mission, a plan is developed to decide where and how the airpower is going to be used. These plans, which take months to develop, feature an overall plan with specific objectives, and they always take into account the long-term impact airpower has throughout the area of operations.

"For centuries, military strategists have observed that in any war, no strategy survives first contact with the enemy. In irregular warfare, this is even more true," said Lt. Col. Michael Kometer, the strategy division director at the Combined Air and Space Operations Center in Southwest Asia. "Insurgents are looking to catch their enemy in a situation that puts the insurgent at an advantage -- surprise allows them to have the initiative.

"Airpower's flexibility allows us to rapidly swarm to a scene with overwhelming firepower that transforms the situation from surprise and initiative on the insurgent side into a significant advantage for our forces," he said.

This success does not happen by chance. With strategic objectives in hand, a plan is developed to carry out those missions. The planning process builds an air plan, known as the master air attack plan, and is formed with the inputs and guidance from the joint and coalition forces operating throughout the theater and gets published in the form of a daily Air Tasking Order. When talking of the theater, the emphasis is in Afghanistan and Iraq, where upward of 400 combat sorties are flown a day, from both land and sea based locations, and include airlift, air refueling, airdrop, intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance and strike/close-air-support sorties.

"What we do is a coalition effort even in the planning process," said Lt. Col. Rick Bell, the CAOC Combat Plans deputy director. "There are liaison officers from coalition and sister services in this cast because they are the experts in their fields. Everything is focused to achieve maximum effectiveness with the maximum efficiency in a unity of effort environment."

In Afghanistan, Airmen from many nations are embedded in all five regional commands, and they provide a link in integrating and synchronizing airpower with ground maneuvers, said British Group Capt. Andrew Huggett, an International Security Assistance Force officer detached from Kapul to the CAOC. "We work extensively through planning and execution phases with liaisons on the land and air sides to gain cohesive integration in operations. This integration is developed over the course of time."

Navy, Marine Corps and special operations liaison officers also reside in the CAOC and the Army provides a Battlefield Coordination Detachment commanded by a colonel to combine ground activities into the planning and execution cycles.

"Each day's Air Tasking Order and the operational plan behind it maximizes available combat power and leaves very little on the table for a reason," said Lt. Col. Marc Cherry, a deputy director in the Combat Operations Division in the CAOC.

"We owe it to our men and women of all services and engaged nations who are fighting on the ground to give the most we can every day," he said. "To ensure flexibility, we add extra fuel into the plan and place additional strike and electronic warfare aircraft on alert. While these provide flexibility to handle emerging situations on the ground, they are also there to preserve the plan in the event of (inclement) weather or maintenance issues."

Officials from the Central Command CAOC publishes the Air Tasking Order 12 hours prior to the start of air operations and runs for an additional 24 hours. During that 36-hour period, the combat operations team is responsible for orchestrating changes to the plan based on the reality of the current situations in the theater. The Air Tasking Order is built for flexibility based on the needs of the moment and varying factors. In fact, during execution, the members of the operations division spend a good part of their day retasking airborne assets to new tasks due to events that drive changes during every Air Tasking Order cycle.

One such factor is weather. Visibility is very important when trying to identify drop zones for supplies or for aligning weapons to designed targets. The visibility, or line of sight, can be interrupted by high winds causing sand storms so strong that traveling on roads becomes impossible. Aircraft escorting convoys are at a disadvantage during such events, but adaptive planning can use unmanned aircraft systems, such as the MQ-1 Predators, which have visibility through sandstorms, as an additional set of eyes and as protection for convoys. If aircraft are diverted from their original plan of action, their mission tasks are realigned in real time within real time execution within the tactical air control system.

Several elements are at play, said 1st Lt. Nicole Zayas, a CAOC airspace manager deployed from Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. "Initially those planes are flying at a prescribed altitude, over a certain location, at a known time. However, if an aircraft needs to make a change, due to operational needs or situation, adjustments are made to the Airspace Control Order to help ensure the airspace is clear for flying within the theater. What we're doing is basically fine-tuning the existing plan throughout the Air Tasking Order execution period."

This allows her to track the changes and keep the aircraft deconflicted in an often saturating airspace. The ability of those in the planning process to restack priorities in real time is what breathes the flexibility of airpower into the day's air plan.

"In a perfect world, what we plan and what is executed would be the same, but the enemy gets a vote. Because of this, we make a plan so we can respond versus react," said Colonel Bell, deployed from Langley AFB, Va. "We are able to adapt our plan all the way throughout the actual execution process -- that is what is good about the air planning cycle."

One more feature of agile airpower is the importance of tankers. High-speed aircraft can respond quickly covering hundreds of miles in minutes. But this quick response would not be possible without the ability to deliver fuel to planes while they remain airborne. This prepositioning of tankers is the key to providing flexibility for combat aircraft to engage longer in one area or to divert to assist in different combat areas throughout Iraq or Afghanistan. U.S. Air Forces Central and coalition tanker aircrews deliver about 600,000 gallons of fuel through the air each day to an average of more than 300 receiving aircraft.

"Without the tankers, we could not support flying jets longer," said British Wing Commander Chris Peace, the chief of combat operations. "They are a real force multiplier."

The ability to respond quickly is a top priority when troops become suddenly engaged with the enemy.

When a "troops in contact event" event occurs, a request from a ground commander for air support will result in the tactical air control systems' response to immediately identify and direct the aircraft best suited and nearest to that engagement area to respond.

Not any aircraft can respond, as once again several factors come into play. Fuel reserves of planes are one issue and so is the type of firepower the aircraft has available. Time becomes a crucial factor in saving lives of American and coalition forces.

"I'm consistently amazed by our ability to adjust to such a wide variety of situations," Colonel Cherry said. "By shifting the mission of a pair of strike fighters and a quick repositioning of a tanker, there is nowhere in Iraq or Afghanistan that we can't bring the effects of airpower to bear within a few minutes. It's great to see in action."

Of course, there are times when a ground commander will call in to identify a special target. This target could be a harden compound home to a known terrorist or moving cars transporting several insurgents fresh from an attack on coalition forces.

In this case, it's a coordinated team effort between the planners in the CAOC working with the Battlefield Coordination Detachment planners plans in advance to meet the ground battlespace owner's intent to strike validated target sets. During the planning process, intelligence officers identify the target, weapon experts choose the proper munitions and legal officers ensure the target meets all established criteria to allow the mission to proceed to meet the military objective. The aims of this process are to ensure military targets are neutralized and to avoid risk to non-combatants.

As mentioned, intelligence officers are involved on a daily basis working within the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Division to assure airpower has all the necessary assets for a successful mission. This can take place in many formats, but one that is generating great public interest is unmanned aircraft systems. The Predator gathers surveillance imagery with on-board radar and video camera providing up-to-the-minute information to the combined teams from national leadership down to patrol sized units of action. This is most often delivered in the form of real time video displayed through satellite links to ground tactical units on a computer screen, and interpreted by a coalition or Air Force joint terminal attack controller, a specially trained air/land battlefield integration.

The JTACs' job in the field are to communicate the needs of the ground commander to the pilots who have the task of putting bombs on target. JTACs can see the total ground and air picture with their special data link equipment that is "pumped" to them in the field through the tactical air control system. JTACs work with the Air Support Operations Center staff, which prioritizes aircraft missions to provide airpower to integrate into the ground force scheme of maneuver. JTACS also work with the Air Support Operations Center staff to call in air support to come to the rescue in the event of the ground forces being engaged by the enemy. When events on the ground change when encountering the enemy, especially in the case of an emergency, JTACs coordinate with the ASOC through the tactical air control system for urgent air support. This is a further example of how agile the flight plan can be within a 24 hour period.

"The Air Support Operations Center and JTACs in the field operate in a decentralized fashion in real-time" Colonel Kometer said. "This makes our overall response very fast. The current ops floor at the CAOC can manage and flow other forces, like aligning tankers and future aircraft flows to support that decentralized execution within the Air Tasking Order cycle, which enhances our overall successes every day."

Global position satellites also assist in the ATO every day. When a Global Positioning System-guided weapon is going to be used, exact coordinates measured to within feet are derived and transmitted to the weapon. When released, GPS-guidance signals are used to guide the weapon directly to the specified target.

The modern technology and use of GPS also allows pilots to bring needed supplies to communities and individuals in many locations, including the very rough mountainous terrain located in Afghanistan. Many people think of food relief, but C-130 Hercules aircraft and C-17 Globemaster IIIs bring in many products that assist with the development of the infrastructure, such buildings and plumbing materials. In addition, coalition aircraft have also delivered a daily average of more than 40,000 pounds of troop resupply during 2008.

"Airlift missions are regularly rescheduled, but also routinely rescheduled in Air Tasking Order execution, in order to adapt to changing requirements by our troops on the ground," said Lt. Col. Johnny Roscoe, the Air Mobility Division director. "An aircrew may arrive at the squadron believing they will perform a routine air-land re-supply mission and be told they are now flying a sortie to airdrop food and water to ground forces who have exhausted their supply. They may also be re-tasked to fly a critical aero-medical evacuation mission moving injured troops to an Air Force theater hospital. Either way, our airlift and airdrop aircrews are very flexible and adaptive to meet the needs of the daily dynamic and changing environment."

There is not a day where the Air Tasking Order plans are not changed to adapt to on-going operations.

"What many people take for granted just how great a job Airmen from all nations every day in their daily mission sets." said Lt. Gen. Gary North, the U.S. Air Forces Central commander, who also serves as the U.S. Central Command's Combined Force Air Component Commander. "There are many days when as much as 45 percent of the air plan is changed, and that has gone as high as a 63 percent change. And the reason we are so successful is because of the ability of our servicemembers -- Air Forces Central, sister service, coalition and civilian personnel -- to work as a team to ensure the mission is accomplished every day. It truly is a intricate daily orchestration that our folks execute so very well."

Recently, Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz issued a joint statement on the new mission of the Air Force including a list of Air Force priorities. One of those is to "partner with the joint and coalition team to win today's fight."

This partnering is demonstrated every day by the flexibility, agility and teamwork of airpower delivered every day on the war on terrorism.

(Staff Sgt. Tammie Moore of the Air Forces Central news team contributed to this story.)


Note: I decided to post this news article because it is also related to ongoing A-10 combat deployments at Bagram AB, Afghanistan.

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