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All the Sisters and All the Brothers

Close Air Support Using Armed UAVs?


The U.S. Air Force MQ-1L Predator in the foreground, attached to the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, stands by to launch from Balad Air Base, Iraq on a night armed aerial reconnaissance mission.

Employing air-delivered GPS munitions in close support of troops has been practiced on the battlefield. During recent fighting in Fallujah, ordnance was dropped as close as 100 meters from Marine Corps units; normally, heavy bombs are employed no closer than 1,000 meters from friendly positions. The B-52, a strategic bomber, provided close air support with GPS munitions over Afghanistan and Iraq. On one occasion, friendlies on the ground were killed. Investigation showed that the weapon impacted exactly where it was programmed and that the tragedy was caused by human error; the friendly position was mistakenly transmitted as a target location. The incident underscored the accuracy and effectiveness of the new systems, but also the necessity of good training and tactics regardless of the sophistication of the weapons and the platforms that deliver them.

Seeking to take advantage of the capabilities of newer systems and technologies—and making an effort to adjust to new realities on the battlefield—three new variations of close air support are being employed in Afghanistan and Iraq. These have recently been formalized in Joint Publication 3-09.3, Joint Tactics Techniques and Procedures for Close Air Support (CAS).

  • Type I CAS is the traditional nine-line brief with close control required by the terminal controller. Pilots may not release a weapon until the controller gains visual contact with the aircraft and clears the drop. This is used in clear weather and none of the sophisticated technology discussed above is available, or is not—for whatever reason—being leveraged to its maximum extent.
  • Type II support is less restrictive and is most useful during poor weather conditions or at night. It assumes the terminal controller may or may not be able to see the target, but can pass accurate coordinates to pilots who have the ability to attack the target without seeing it. The controller coordinates with the attacking aircrew to ensure as best he can that the right target is being struck. He still passes clearance to engage, albeit without seeing the aircraft.
  • Type III is the least restrictive kind of support, and some would argue it is not really close air at all, but rather a form of battlefield air interdiction. Aircraft are given clearance to engage targets that are not in direct contact with friendly forces and that are beyond certain geographic boundaries, although other parameters or restrictions may apply depending on the situation. The aircrews are left to find the targets on their own while the terminal controller monitors their activity; clearance from the controller is not required for the attacking aircraft to engage.

As technologies and doctrines mature—particularly the reliability and accuracy of weapons and the willingness to capitalize on that reliability and accuracy—is it too much of a stretch to believe that close air support, so recently held hostage by the nine-line brief, might undergo a dramatic change? And that aircrews might routinely perform Type II CAS in all weather—night and day—without ever putting their eyes on the target, and without the terminal controller ever seeing them? Actually, this has already come to pass. Troops on the ground in Iraq are working with aircraft they cannot see to destroy enemy positions the pilots can not see.

If that is the case, is it possible that UAVs might be useful for close air support? If a terminal controller is prepared to perform Type II CAS—clearing an aircraft to attack a set of coordinates without being able to see that aircraft and knowing the pilot can't see the target—does he really care if the vehicle that drops the weapon is an F-35, an AV-8B, or an airborne, bomb-vending machine? For that matter, do the troops he is supporting care if the enemy position is destroyed by an aircraft, an artillery barrage, naval gunfire, or a big, pink fly swatter? The grunt will tell you it does not matter so long as the enemy dies.

Can an unmanned aerial vehicle do it? Yes. While not doctrinally executed or described as close air support, the RQ-1 Predator has already employed weapons in direct support of troops on the ground, and the U.S. Marine Corps has used its RQ-2B Pioneer to make artillery calls for fire and to coordinate air strikes on targets it has detected. There seems little doubt that future unmanned systems will have the capability for these operations and much more. Any number of systems operational today can fly to a given coordinate. It is not a huge technical challenge to hang a GPS weapon on an unmanned vehicle, provide target coordinates to the weapon while airborne, then fly it to the appropriate delivery envelope and release it. In fact, it is debatable that conducting laser operations with unmanned vehicles is more difficult; nevertheless, this capability has been in the field for years. Consider this statement by an F-16 pilot during Operation Enduring Freedom:

My wingman and I were taking fuel from a tanker on our way to the target area. AWACS provided target coordinates and asked us to contact a forward air controller on a particular frequency. The radio signal from the controller was strong and clear. The controller confirmed that we had a laser spot search capability and then passed me the laser code. Once in the target area, the controller called, "Laser on." I dialed in the laser code and my targeting pod locked in on a building. The controller asked me to tell him what I saw. I described the shape of the building and the automobiles around it. "That's your target," he said. I dropped two laser-guided bombs and guided them in with my targeting pod. Both were direct hits. We headed south and waited for further tasking. On the turn back north toward the target area, my radar picked up a slow-moving blip. I locked on it with my targeting pod and then realized that the blip was a small prop-driven aircraft—a Predator. I believe this was the first time in combat that an unmanned air vehicle laser-designated a target for another aircraft.

Most experts agree that the role of unmanned vehicles will continue to grow. An important question though, is what sorts of missions should they fly, and why? Is close air support an appropriate mission? To begin to answer this, it is necessary to justify why we should use unmanned vehicles at all when piloted aircraft—at least near- and mid-term—are more versatile platforms. One reason is endurance. Whereas a manned fighter will seldom be able to stay on station for longer than an hour or so, a persistent armed UAV (PA-UAV) could potentially stay on station for up to 20 hours, depending on the ratio of fuel to munitions it might carry. This combination of persistence and payload could provide tremendous flexibility to the commander.

An armed persistent UAV has the potential to increase responsiveness and efficiency as they relate to CAS.

Consider an unmanned platform with fighter-like performance characteristics that can provide 10 hours of endurance from a range of 1,000 nautical miles carrying a payload of 20 small-diameter bombs divided equally between GPS and laser-guided munitions. It would be equipped with an electro-optical/infrared sensor with a laser-designating capability and an infrared pointer. It would also have a fighter-sized synthetic aperture radar with various air-to-ground modes.

While not designed for the close air support task, the MQ-1B Hellfire-armed version of the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle has been used in direct support of ground troops.

Its long-range capability means that it will not take up precious space at closer airfields that is needed by shorter-ranged manned fighters. Second, its sensors will allow it to detect and catalogue targets for attack by other platforms during all-weather conditions. It will preserve its own munitions for those instances when a fleeting target must be hit immediately and there are no other assets available to do so. Third, its persistence over the battlefield, combined with its speed and flexibility, will provide the commander a level of situational awareness never before experienced. Fourth, most of the emerging advanced unmanned systems can operate autonomously from takeoff to landing, if desired, while allowing the operator to change the mission profile at any time. This provides tremendous flexibility and removes the operator from the "stick and throttle" aspects of controlling the aircraft, traditionally a major cause of unmanned vehicle accidents. Finally, the system's ability to accelerate to fighter-like speeds will provide rapid responsiveness. Assuming a 100 nautical mile (nm) by 100 nm patrol area, the unmanned vehicle should be able to put bombs on target in an average time of less than nine minutes, a superb level of responsiveness. Three of the previously described unmanned vehicles could handle this task for any given 24-hour period.

Using manned aircraft to patrol the same area, however, would require 48 fighter sorties per 24-hour period (two aircraft on station for one hour at a time); few aviation components of any of the services could meet this demand consistently. This does not mean that the persistent armed unmanned vehicle will replace manned fighters, but rather that it will augment or free them for other missions. When it is not conducting close air missions, for example, it can detect targets for attack by manned aircraft; after all, the unmanned craft can hardly carry the munitions that dozens of manned fighters can provide. As a gap-filler, the unmanned vehicle will also remain airborne and ready to provide service when the manned fighters are on the ground refitting, rearming, or refueling.

Air-delivered heavy ordnance, whatever the source, demands precise placement. Precision-guided weapons are the obvious answer.

If we assume that it may eventually be acceptable to execute Type II CAS with an unmanned vehicle—and that the UAV's weapons delivery accuracy will be an absolute—then the need for a nine-line brief may go away. Or, the brief might be truncated to include only those items needed to get a weapon on target. These would likely include the target location, three-dimensional coordinates, time on target, and type and quantity of weapons.

The final command would be an "execute" with an "abort" option available until weapons release. Ultimately, with the proper doctrine and connectivity in place, the most powerful killing tool on the battlefield may turn out to be the terminal controller's laptop computer.

It seems evident that with the technology to develop and produce such platforms already in existence, the only task remaining for the services is to define how they want to incorporate persistent, armed unmanned aircraft to meet future requirements. At this early point in the development and fielding of UAVs, the armed forces have time to influence and exploit their future designs and capabilities. Doing so with an eye toward improving support for the troops on the ground will advance our warfighting prowess with capabilities never before considered.

Lieutenant Colonel Stout, a senior analyst for Northrop Grumman Unmanned Systems, flew F/A-18s while on active duty and is the author of several aviation books. His latest work, Hammer from Above: Marine Air Combat over Iraq , will be published by Random House later this year.

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