Joint Universal Spotter


     A major weakness in the US military is coordinating fire support.  Each service has different training, equipment, procedures, and techniques.  In addition, no service has true fire support experts, just experts in specific fields like naval gunfire, close air support, artillery, and mortars.  This is a problem for military forces worldwide, and has been written about by many people:

Major E. E. Shoults' 1993 article:  Let's All Get On Board With CAS

A 2002 article in the Marine Corps Gazette: A Revolution in Company Fire Support

March 30, 2003 article in Aviation WeekNot So Fast; Battle Of Baghdad Delayed  

May 2003 GAO Report: Issues Hamper Air Support of Ground Forces (pdf)            

     The solution is a Joint Fire Support Command to establish doctrine, standard procedures, and standard equipment.  It will also run a school for all four armed services that trains a Joint Universal Spotter (JUS) to replace the multitude of forward observers and air controllers.  A six-month basic spotters course for E-2s will produce experts in map reading, GPS systems, radio systems, naval gunfire, artillery spotting, mortar spotting, and close air support.  The school will also offer a three-month advanced "Chiefs" course for career JUS servicemen at the grade of E-6.  This course will also teach the neglected aspect of munitions costs and inventory management.  For example, there is no need to waste a million-dollar Tomahawk missile on a bunker when a Navy 5-inch gun can destroy it.  And if you only have 200 MLRS loads in theater, you don't waste them on non-critical targets.

     In the Air Force, young JUS graduates will begin as terminal attack controllers, then move up to planning cells.  In the Army and Marines, they will begin as platoon spotters, relieving Lieutenants who are too busy to serve as an under-trained spotter whenever the correct forward observer or air controller is not in place.  The platoon JUS will also provide a second radio link and serve as the platoon guide (e.g. navigator).  This is an addition to current units, but one that has been overdue for years.  A JUS will advance in grade up to the company staff, battalion staff, and onward.  Much of this technical work is now done by officers with limited formal training.  In the Navy, a JUS career will begin with a SEAL team or on cruisers and destroyers coordinating naval gunfire, and move up to carriers where they plan air support, then upward to Fleet staffs.  

     Ideally, every new Air Force JUS will serve as an Army platoon spotter first, and every new Navy JUS as a Marine platoon spotter, to gain broad experience at the cutting edge.  A typical army company will have three platoon JUSs (E-3 thru E-5s); often one airmen and two soldiers.  An experienced (E-6) company-level JUS sergeant and his (E-5) assistant JUS will ensure the young platoon JUSs can do their critical job.  This "ground tour" for young airmen will eventually provide USAF squadrons and headquarters with people who understand what's happening on the battlefield.  Ground tours with marines will provide the Navy with knowledgeable JUS sailors.  At the battalion level, an E-8 JUS with two E-7 assistants can ensure expert fire support coordination 24-hours a day.  They will replace semi-trained officers with limited experience while freeing expensively trained pilots for flight duty.  Others have proposed centralizing JUS teams at the battalion level, which is an issue for the new Joint Fire Support Command to decide.

     It is important to award each JUS graduate a badge to wear on any uniform, like a bursting bomb.  This is good for esprit, and will provide instant respect at headquarters when officers argue that their "community" should be given a mission.  Seniors officers will spot senior enlisted men with their bursting bomb badge and ask them for input, knowing that man has the training and experience to know what weapons system is best suited. There is always friction in joint commands as officers advocate use of their resources since many do not understand the full range of weaponry available.  Senior enlisted JUSs can resolve disputes and work together to employ the best weaponry suited for each task.  These enlisted experts will also serve in joint training centers and career schools to ensure the proper joint doctrine is taught and understood.  The Navy and Marines can also use E-7 JUSs to ride in the backseat of F/A-18D/Fs to coordinate air support.  They can also play key roles aboard USAF AWACS, Navy Hawkeyes, and command helicopters.

     An officer JUS class can be established if any service wishes to establish a JUS career path, however, the need for a JUS career field for enlisted is undeniable. This may seem like a logical and simple task, yet disputes will immediately emerge as no service likes to be told to change or give up authority to establish its own procedures or procure its own communications equipment.  These may seem like petty issues, but it will require some high-level arm twisting to standardize fire support coordination.  It will be several years before JUS graduates advance in grade and appear in higher level headquarters.  When they arrive, there will be a sudden improvement in fire support coordination as officers realize that competent experts have finally arrived with the broad training and experience needed to fight modern wars.


Army Times
September 30, 2002 Pg. 10
Officers: Air Force Policy Left Ground Troops High And Dry
General, senior officer say units need more personnel to call in munitions
By Sean D. Naylor, Times staff writer

The Army general who ran Operation Anaconda and one of his senior fire-support officers are taking issue with Air Force practices they say allowed enemy targets to escape destruction and deprived soldiers under fire of badly needed close air support.  In particular, they say, the Air Force's reliance on precision-guided bombs created several problems for troops on the ground in Anaconda, the March battle in Afghanistan's Shah-e-Kot Valley. The comments come at a time when Army leaders are fighting a rear-guard action in Washington against what they see as the Defense Department's trend toward over-reliance on precision-guided munitions in shaping the future U.S. military.

Their arguments are laid out in two articles in the September-October issue of Field Artillery magazine, the official journal of the Field Artillery Center and School at Fort Sill, Okla. The first article is an interview with Maj. Gen. Franklin "Buster" Hagenbeck, the 10th Mountain Division commander who was in charge during Anaconda. The second article, "Afghanistan: Joint and Coalition Fire Support in Operation Anaconda," was written by Lt. Col. Christopher Bentley, Hagenbeck's fire support coordinator during the operation.

It sometimes took "hours" for the Air Force to deliver close air support to soldiers on the ground, Hagenbeck told Field Artillery. Once a request for close air support had been passed to a jet by an Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, it took the Air Force 26 minutes to calculate the desired mean point of impact, which is required to ensure the bomb hits the target, Hagenbeck said.

After that, the aircraft had to get into a busy airspace management scheme before it could attack the target and deliver the bomb. "Aircraft were stacked up to the ceiling" and could only be flown in a few at a time, he told Field Artillery. "It took anywhere from 26 minutes to hours [on occasion] for the precision munitions to hit the targets.

"That's okay if you're not being shot at or the targets aren't fleeting," Hagenbeck told Field Artillery. But often U.S. troops were under fire, and the targets were "fleeting."  When al-Qaida forces on resupply missions stopped their sport- utility vehicles in one place long enough, "the fixed-wing aircraft would slam them," Hagenbeck told the magazine. But, he said, that didn't happen often enough.

"We really worked to find ways to kill fleeting targets the first three or so days," he told Field Artillery. "Honestly, we weren't that successful." But getting the jets on station quickly enough was only part of the problem.  All too often, according to Hagenbeck and Bentley, even when a jet was available, Air Force rules prevented it from coming to the aid of soldiers who needed its support.

"We have a huge procedural and training issue we've got to work through with our Air Force friends," Hagenbeck told Field Artillery.  The problem, as he explained it, is that the Air Force refuses to drop precision-guided munitions unless the strike has been called in by an Air Force ground forward air controller or an Air Force enlisted terminal attack controller. But there are not enough of these personnel for one to be placed in every Army unit that might require close air support. This particularly was the case in Anaconda, Hagenbeck told Field Artillery. "This war became platoon fights separated by distances in very rugged terrain with too few ETACs to go around," he said.

Even infantry units with an airman to call in strikes, he said, can easily lose that critical capability during combat.  "What happens if the ETAC is injured and has to be medevaced [medically evacuated] or is killed?" "We needed as many ETACs and GFACs as we could [get] on the ground, and the Air Force doesn't have them now, and they probably won't have them in the foreseeable future," he told Army Times.

The solution, according to Hagenbeck and Bentley, is to train and certify the Army's forward observers - who call in artillery and mortar fire - as "universal observers," able to call in any Army or Air Force munitions.  "Our FOs must be certified as ground forward air controllers," Bentley said in the article. "This may be a sore spot with the Air Force, but I believe it to be nonnegotiable."

For his part, Hagenbeck said while it may be a "sore spot" among Bentley's counterparts in the Air Force, it was not a point of discord between Army and Air Force generals. "Conceptually, we're all in agreement that it needs to happen," Hagenbeck told Army Times.  In the meantime, the Army must do a better job of integrating Air Force tactical air control party personnel - the EFACs and GFACs - into ground maneuver units' training and operations, according to Bentley.  "We cannot continue to operate with an add-on conglomerate of Air Force personnel, especially during combat operations," he writes. "We must train and fight as a team."

The Air Force did not provide an official to discuss the issues raised by Hagenbeck and Bentley before Army Times' deadline. Hagenbeck and Bentley also touched on other procedural problems that surfaced with the Air Force during Anaconda. Bentley criticized the need to coordinate what strike aircraft would be needed over the battlefield 36 hours ahead of time, as part of the air tasking order process.

The ATO is "the best mechanism available to coordinate the hundreds of human and mechanical pieces involved in getting air on station, but it is conversely inflexible and not well-suited to support a nonlinear, asymmetrical battlefield," he wrote. "The ATO must be flexible enough to change aircraft and munitions packages as the intelligence picture changes by the minute. Increasing the flexibility of the ATO cycle is imperative to responsiveness in today's" operational environment.

In his article, Bentley suggests that perhaps the Air Force was reluctant to take steps that would lead to better close air support.  "In some cases, the inabilities of aircraft to break self-imposed [Air Force] altitude restrictions, slow their strike speed down or strafe the battlefield (the latter in the case of bombers) restricted these aircrafts' abilities to deliver timely munitions in close support of troops on the ground," he wrote.

Hagenbeck also warned against being too impressed by the numbers that get thrown around whenever air campaigns are discussed.  "A ground force commander does not care about the number of sorties being flown or the number and types of bombs being dropped and their tonnage," he told Field Artillery. "Those statistics mean nothing to ground forces in combat. All that matters is whether or not the munitions are time-on-target and provide the right effects."

Hagenbeck told Army Times that he was not "pointing a finger at the Air Force" with these comments.   "It's easy to understand numbers, and I think we all often fall into those kinds of traps," he said.   Nevertheless, the general said, "To tell me that we flew this many sorties and dropped this many bombs, in and of itself, doesn't tell me that it's been effective in the war fight. It doesn't tell me where the bombs landed."

Hagenbeck and Bentley were not completely dismissive of precision-guided bombs, the best known of which is the Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM.  "The JDAMs were terribly effective against fixed targets," Hagenbeck told Army Times. "If we were receiving fire from a cave, if we knew there was going to be a delay [before the close air support arrived], we could continue suppressive fires with our mortars and machine guns, and then they could put a bomb inside the cave. What was more difficult for us is if there were fleeting targets on the ridgeline. ... Then the JDAMs were not effective."

In those instances, it was better for the jets to strafe the target area with cannons. The best close air support aircraft for these missions were the Army's AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and the Air Force's A-10 "Warthog" ground attack aircraft during the day, and the Air Force Special Operations AC-130 Spectre gunship at night, according to Hagenbeck and Bentley.

"The most effective close air support asset we had was the Apache, hands down," Hagenbeck told Field Artillery. "The detainees later said the Apaches were the most feared weapons on the battlefield - the helicopters were on top of them before they knew what was happening. The Apaches came as close to 'one shot, one kill' as you can get." Both officers also had high praise for the Spectre gunship. "Its effectiveness was amazing," Bentley writes. "The enemy began referring to it as the 'Spitting Witch.'" He advocated giving each of the Army's four light infantry divisions a squadron of AC-130s, or at least making the aircraft available for "all light infantry training and military operations around the world."

Hagenbeck also made the following points in Field Artillery:

**He didn't consider bringing in 105 mm howitzers "because I knew we could accomplish the mission without them." The 10th Mountain and 101st Airborne (Air Assault) divisions, each of which contributed troops to Anaconda, are armed with 105 mm towed howitzers, but none was deployed to Afghanistan.  Hagenbeck told Army Times he did not know who made the decision not to deploy them, but he acknowledged in Field Artillery that even if he'd had them available in Afghanistan, he wouldn't have taken them into the battle on the first day, because he had too few CH-47 Chinook helicopters to carry them and his infantry force.  However, he also told the magazine that an organic ground-based indirect fire capability is "indispensable" for the close fight. 

 **The U.S. troops might not have had artillery, but al-Qaida certainly did.  U.S. forces destroyed five Soviet-made D-30 122 mm towed howitzers that the enemy used to fire on a joint attack by Special Forces troops with Afghan allies in the early hours of the battle's first day, and also on the infantry force's helicopter landing zones, Hagenbeck told Field Artillery.  U.S. forces found several others in caves, Hagenbeck said. He told Army Times he did not know whether the enemy guns inflicted any casualties.

**American surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft found it very difficult to identify al-Qaida troops and their cave complexes around the valley. "It took 'boots on the ground' to find the caves," Hagenbeck told Field Artillery. "The shadows alone precluded our discovering a cave until our soldiers were almost on top of it."  The enemy moved in small groups of three to five fighters, making them hard to spot. "During the daylight, we watched them on the Predator," Hagenbeck told Field Artillery. "At night, when these groups heard a Predator or AC-130 coming, they pulled a blanket over themselves to disappear from the night-vision screen. They used low-tech to beat high-tech."