Magazine article National Defense

Air Wars Demand More Inter-Service Coordination

Magazine article National Defense

Air Wars Demand More Inter-Service Coordination

Article excerpt

Incidents of friendly fire would be easier to prevent if the military services followed common guidelines for planning air campaigns and fire-support operations, experts said.

Each service abides by meticulous procedures and precise rules designed to prevent friendly forces from entering each other's air space and being misidentified as enemies. But these time-tested procedures are likely to lose relevance, as U.S. forces increasingly will fight in multi-service formations, in a non-linear battlefield where demarcations are fuzzy at best.

Defense Department officials and military commanders have praised the U.S. services operating in Iraq for combining their forces effectively, despite having disparate communications, and command and control systems.

"When we grew up, we worried about de-conflicting service forces. We threw the map on the deck. We drew the lines and everyone had to stay within their boundaries," said Marine Maj. Gen. Gordon C. Nash, commander of the Joint Warfighting Center and director of joint training. Now, "we are doing better. We are actually coordinating and integrating," Nash said at an industry conference.

But some experts caution that the old-fashioned approach to de-conflicting the battle zone is likely to hamper the services' efforts to fight more jointly and lead to future repeats of what U.S. forces experienced last year during Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan.

According to unofficial after-action reports from Anaconda, the Army and the Air Force had trouble coordinating fire-support operations, mostly because of disagreements over control of the air space.

Anaconda became a "wakeup call" for the need to establish common guidelines to air-space de-confliction, said Mickey Gussow, an industry consultant who led a Navy-sponsored study on joint fires de-confliction.

The Navy's surface warfare division (N76) commissioned the study four years ago to the National Defense Industrial Association's Strike, Land Attack and Air Defense Committee.

"We are always trying to de-conflict. It's a very, very difficult problem," said Rear Adm. Mark J. Edwards, Navy deputy director for surface warfare.

Proof of that were the "blue-on-blue engagements" seen in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Edwards told National Defense.

Joint combat-identification exercises in recent years offered further evidence that the services have problems de-conflicting the air space, he said. "We know, through real world empirical data, that this is an area where we still have a lot of work to do."

In a joint air campaign, all the services simultaneously are "trying to track things through the air," he explained. De-confliction means being absolutely sure that everyone's targeting algorithms are measured by the same standards.

"If I have a plus or minus 1,000 feet, and you have a plus or minus 100 feet, I am not going to trust you to say 'go ahead and shoot,'" Edwards said. "I want you and I to have the same engineering algorithm behind the doctrine."

The study concluded that the current approach to air space de-confliction would make it difficult for the Navy to conduct "time-sensitive" strikes beyond the line of sight, without risking fires on friendly ground forces or having Navy missiles shot down by Army or Air Force air defenses. Time-sensitive strikes are planned within minutes, unlike strategic missions that take weeks to map out and coordinate.

The de-confliction problem is "more acute today, because longer range weapons are available and the exercise of joint operations missions calls into play concurrent types of operations characterized by the use of different weapons and platforms, which may occupy the same space at the same time," the study said. "No matter how well the military services plan and execute combat operations, many unanticipated things occur leading to chaos or what is called 'fog of war. …

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