Fire Support Coordination

Readers must familiarize themselves with these subtopics to understand the concepts discussed in this chapter. These are linked within this chapter, but it may be easier to read them in advance.

Scout Helicopters - four per battalion

OV-6C Rangers - help from small props

Armies Need Hawkeyes - airborne command and control


     Fire Support Coordination (FSC) is neglected by modern armies. This may seem dull for armchair strategists and military novices. Professional soldiers know that FSC is a major challenge. In recent years, even the high-tech US military was unable to provide good FSC in critical situations. Friendly fire deaths remain common as the old concept of battalion, regimental, and divisional fire support boundaries became meaningless during rapid assaults where units intermingled.

     An American infantry platoon may be supported by 60mm, 81mm, and 120mm mortars, 105mm and 155mm howitzers, long-range MLRS rockets, naval gunfire, helicopter gunships, jet attack aircraft, and even heavy bombers. Selecting the best weaponry and properly employing it is an extremely complex task.  Handheld computers and GPS have made the task of a "spotter" or "controller" much easier. However, a vital step for every current and future army is to train true fire support experts for this task.

     Scout aircraft are essential for FSC. Small observation aircraft were used extensively during World War II and Korea for this purpose. OV-10 Broncos were effective in this role in the Vietnam era, but were phased out by US Air Force and US Marine jet fighter pilot Generals.  Tiny scout helicopters are ideal for this role today even without air superiority as modern jet fighters find them very difficult to locate and shoot down. Combat units may have FSC help from attack helicopters and larger reconnaissance helos. However, they haven't the endurance and range to provide continual support from their often distant helicopter bases, and lack the speed or altitude to evade low-level anti-aircraft threats. In contrast, tiny scout helos can travel with maneuver units atop trucks and are so small and nimble that they are difficult to shoot down. 

    The next level of aerial FSC is best performed by small, agile, propeller aircraft like an OV-6C Ranger. Ideally, at least one "Ranger" type aircraft will be overhead to support each maneuver battalion in combat. The next level of aerial support is best provided by airborne radar, as detailed in Armies Need Hawkeyes. While large, expensive AWACS can provide better coverage, they cannot operate from austere runways, roadways, or aircraft carriers. AWACS are best for observing and coordinating theater air traffic, while smaller, cheaper Hawkeyes (below) operate closer to the action serving as air support allocators. AWACS can perform theater overwatch by looking for enemy air activity and cruise missiles, and direct fighters to intercept these threats. Bomb laden attack aircraft dispatched to support ground units would be directed toward a Hawkeye aircraft closer to the action. Ideally, one Hawkeye above each advancing combat division and in continual contact with ground headquarters to allocate inbound attack aircraft and help coordinate helicopter support. 

     An Army Corps on the move faces difficult command and control problems. Most actions begin at the company level, which must contact the battalion HQ, which must contact the brigade HQ, which must contact the division HQ, which must contact the Corps HQ. When these headquarters are on the move and given the interference problems with ground based radio systems, it can take over an hour to properly request air and artillery support. Some of this is avoided by assigning units for direct support, but this limits flexibility.  

     An airborne Hawkeye can coordinate the assignment of the available aircraft. The Hawkeye along with several subordinate OV-6C Rangers eyeing the battlefield, monitoring friendly radio nets, and speaking directly with battalion scout helicopters, and platoon and company universal spotters, can provide excellent situational awareness. Thus, the Hawkeye will operate an alternative communications system when urgent decisions must be made. An airborne Hawkeye with a senior officer from G-3 is likely to take charge of all fire support assets during combat using the "airnet."  Information will flow from company or battalion headquarters and their helicopter scouts to a Ranger overhead, which can observe the situation and monitor combat radio nets. These Rangers feed information directly to the Hawkeye, which directs time critical assets like inbound attack aircraft, medivacs, combat search and rescue, and even the assignment artillery support.

     Despite advances in technology, ground combat units locate most enemy forces only when firefights begin. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the super high-tech US Army located most defending enemy units only after they were fired upon. It is usually difficult for ground forces to evaluate what they have encountered since the enemy is normally concealed and firing at them.  A common response is an urgent call for whatever fire support is available. Air strikes and artillery barrages may be unleashed at what maybe just a truck-mounted machine gun and a squad of infantrymen.

     Improper allocation of fire support assets wastes resources, delays the advance of supporting units, and increases the logistical strain as munitions must be replenished.  This was of little consequence during the invasion of Iraq as fresh American armored units encountered remnants of the Iraqi army that presented little organized resistance. However, future combat may not be so imbalanced and fire support assets must be used wisely.  For example, a division may have six urgent requests of air strikes yet only two inbound attack aircraft.

     Therefore, requests for air strikes or general artillery support may require target confirmation by airborne assets. Scout helos and Rangers monitoring their assigned battalion radio nets can respond to reports of enemy contact in seconds to evaluate the enemy force. If no one fires at them as they cautiously fly closer to the reported fighting, and they see nothing more than a few fleeing infantrymen, they are likely to deny the request after informing the unit that enemy forces are weak and fleeing. However, if they see a sizeable force or encounter serious anti-aircraft fire, they okay the target and may even direct fires themselves.

    A final advantage of the Hawkeye/Ranger team is counter-UAV and counter-tiny helicopter operations. These threats are too small and slow to be tracked by distant AWACS, and difficult for expensive jet fighters to target and shoot down. However, nearby Hawkeyes may detect them and send a nearby Ranger in pursuit for a turkey shoot. In other cases, ground troops will spot an enemy UAV and ask their Ranger overhead to shoot it up.

     Another needed element for the airnet team are signal intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft.  Modern armies attempt SIGINT from ground-based vehicles, but those assets are of little value during mobile operations as they cannot function on the move and are located far behind combat forces. In addition, enemy signals are obstructed by terrain and the curvature of the Earth. 

     The US Army has airborne RC-12 SIGINT aircraft (right), but just two dozen that are theater level assets. Moreover, whatever they collect is sent to a rear headquarters and processed for several days to produce reports that are outdated when frontline combat units receive them. The USAF has a few newer, similar MC-12W ISR aircraft designed for a more active role with live video stream. These systems should be incorporated into a Hawkeye variant to standardize training and logistics. 

     Combat division need SIGINT aircraft for immediate support. Even though communications may be encrypted, SIGINT can identify and target command centers. A propeller-driven aircraft capable of operating from aircraft carriers, austere runways, or roadways is ideal.  If an Army operates airborne radar aircraft like Hawkeye, it will be easy for them to operate SIGINT variants using the same mechanics, pilots, and logistical support train, which I will dub the S-2 "Hawkear." S-2s can roam the forward edge of the battlefield listening for enemy radio traffic and radar emissions. Crew members may be skilled to listen in on unsecure enemy traffic or may choose to jam those signals. More likely, they will just use standard radio direction finding techniques to pinpoint the source of the transmissions. That information will be radioed to a nearby Ranger aircraft to take a closer look, which may call for air or artillery strikes.

     SIGINT strategy is complex. If they locate an unsecure enemy radio net providing valuable intel, they may choose to leave it alone and listen. They may attempt to confuse the enemy by making false reports in their language. If a surprise offensive is planned, it is best not to destroy enemy command centers until the attack begins to maximize confusion.

Proposed Army Corps Aerial Command Brigade

   = Command Battalion - 6 E-2D Hawkeyes; 6 S-2 Hawkears

   = Support Battalion - 16 KC-2 cargo/tankers

   = Observation Battalion - 24 OV-6C Rangers

     S-2 aircraft could detect datalinks used by UAVs and jam them, while targeting its base station for attack. Enemy units may attempt jamming themselves, which may affect critical systems like GPS signals. These emitters can be targeted for attack. S-2 aircraft can also identify the source of radar transmissions, which may be air defense or counterbattery radar. Ranger aircraft may be sent to investigate or strikes called in. Another option is to equip S-2s with long-range radar-seeking missiles like Sidearm to fire at radar emitting targets. Likewise, homing missiles that attack radio emitting or GPS jamming sources can be carried by S-2s.

    A final addition would be KC-2 cargo variant of the Hawkeye that can also carry fuel, similar to KC-130 aircraft and nearly identical to the C-2 Greyhound.  These can be used to aerial refuel Hawkeyes and Hawkears. Rangers are not equipped for aerial refueling and it is not practical to modify them. However, KC-2s could shuttle fuel to austere forward bases if refueling trucks are not present so Rangers and helicopters can land and refuel directly from a KC-2. These aircraft could also be used for varied cargo missions around the theater.

     A major advantage of using Navy aircraft is that they can operate from Navy aircraft carriers if required. This may be vital in some expeditionary environments where KC-2s can move causalities to aircraft carriers and return with supplies.  This also eliminates the logistical burden of fuel, spare parts, and airbase operations and security problems. Even if airbases are available near the coast, it is far more efficient to land and refuel off an aircraft carrier, especially for a KC-2s. One final advantage of using Navy aircraft is that crew training is much cheaper if Navy schools are used, spare parts are more plentiful, and aircraft program management costs are already covered.

Armies Need Fixed-Wing Propeller Aircraft

     All these additions may seem expensive and complex; they are not. OV-6C Rangers are inexpensive to procure as they are in production and in widespread use as trainers. E-2D Hawkeyes are in production and cost half as much as the latest jet fighter. S-2 Hawkears and KC-2s would be less expensive variants without the radar dome, similar to the C-2 Greyhound in service with the US Navy. 

     Jet fighters and attack helicopters often lack real-time target intel.  These pilots are often tired and anxious after flying for hours to reach frontline units. Without situational guidance from airborne Hawkeyes and Rangers, they are often unable to provide accurate support, which often results in friendly fire incidents. The 5-16-05 issue of Aviation Week reports on how huge four-engine E-8 JSTARS were employed in Iraq to fill the role described for here for the E-2D Hawkeye, while big F-15C fighters tried to fill the role described here for the OV-6C Rangers.

     The idea of lumbering propeller-driven aircraft does not fit the image of a future military.  However, these airframes are proven and powered by modern, fuel-efficient engines that use 40% less fuel per hour than jets, allowing them to remain on station much longer. The E-2D Hawkeye just entered service with the US Navy with the latest radar and electronic systems, while the S-2 Hawkear can be equipped with the most advanced SIGINT gear. The additional logistical burden these aircraft create would be offset by more efficient allocation of resources. This airnet team could catapult the US Army and Marine Corps ahead as they provide immediate FSC and intelligence support directly to combat units below.