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Hey AF! Where's the Air Support?

An unexpected debate about air power and close air support in Afghanistan popped up at the Air Force Association conference this week. Maj. Gen. David Edgington, chief of staff for Joint Forces Command, presented a draft version of the Capstone Concept for Joint Operations, which is n the process of being written by the folks down at Norfolk, Va.

Edgington was discussing the small unit operating concept JFCOM is advocating: decentralizing operations and empowering lower level units, battalion and below, with all of the technological enablers and fire support available to higher echelon. JFCOM is trying to develop future operating concepts that build on lessons emerging from the current fights.

Air Force Gen. Roger Brady, commander of Air Forces Europe, was sitting in the audience and asserted that’s exactly what the Air Force is doing right now in Afghanistan -- providing needed air support to small units spread throughout the country: "How would we do something different than what we're doing right now?"

Edgington, wearing his “purple” joint hat, argued the ground force's perspective. He said the “perception” at senior military levels, is that the Air Force is not currently providing the air support ground commanders in Afghanistan need, specifically, more close air support (CAS) and more full motion video from aerial drones. "The perception at least at the senior levels, the feedback they get from the battalion and company level, is they want greater access to air when they need it."

Brady countered that the perception is wrong. When he visited Afghanistan, he was told that everything is great and troops are getting the air support they need. The response time for close air support when troops are in contact is 10 to 15 minutes. "I’m not sure what the problem is," he said. Furthermore, because of the concern over civilian casualties and collateral damage, ground troops are now being discouraged from calling in air support.

This issue of metrics is an important one, as is the matter of perceptions. "If the joint force had the solution right now it would be easy to ask for it," Edgington said. There is a “conflict of opinion” as to what commanders on the ground want, available force levels in Afghanistan and the global demands on the force. Army flag officers have told him that they want two F-16s for every battalion out there. The Air Force cannot produce that, he said. There are just not enough people.

He acknowledged that the demand for air coverage will only increase as more troops arrive in Afghanistan and spread out in smaller units to villages and mountain valleys. “If the demand from Afghanistan is for more air power because they need more CAS… What is the reaction time? Give me your metric? What do you need out there?” The agreed-upon metric for troops in contact is 10 to 15 minutes, he said. Once McChrystal presents his expected request for more troops, once Afghan troop levels and where they will be deployed is known, then the Air Force can provide the aircraft needed to meet that request time, he argued.

Edgington contrasted the war in Afghanistan today with that of Iraq, where fighting was centralized in the major cities, making planning for air support relatively easy: two F-16s over Baghdad could handle all requests for air support.

Six months ago, lower troop numbers in Afghanistan meant there was plenty of air to do what was needed. Now, he said, there are more units, spread across a larger area and with new restrictions as far as calling for fires from new Afghan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

We’ll continue to examine the issue of available air coverage in Afghanistan as I expect it will become a more contentious one as the fighting there intensifies and U.S. casualties increase. Our sister site, Defense Tech, has been covering the recent ambush in Ganjgal where three Marines, a Navy Corpsman and nine Afghan soldiers were killed; a reporter embedded with the unit said air support was delayed for more than an hour.

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