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Chapter 10
Air Support


Fighter Aviation Regiments
Fighter-Bomber Aviation Regiments
Bomber Aviation Regiments
Aircraft Capabilities
Priority Theater Targets
Requirements for Success
Initial Strike
Subsequent Actions
Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses
Organization for Combat
Air Defense Tactics
Coordination with Ground-Based Air Defenses
Changing Aircraft Roles
Integrated Fire Support
Command and Control
Principles of Employment
Reconnaissance and Targeting
Mission Types
Sortie Allocation
Critical Periods
Readiness Categories
Protective Measures

The OPFOR has a variety of aviation assets, at strategic, army group, and army levels. It has organized these assets so specified levels of command have their own aviation forces to fulfill mission requirements. This eliminates the wait for aviation support from higher headquarters. It also supports the doctrine of a fast-moving offensive. The aviation organization centralizes control over most fixed-wing army group aviation aircraft. However, it decentralizes some control over attack helicopters.

Any or all of these assets may become involved in strategic operations in a theater, as described in Chapters 2 and 11 and in the first parts of this chapter. Sometimes naval aviation or aviation elements of the national air defense forces can also support strategic operations in a theater or army group operations.1 The last part of this chapter concentrates on the roles of army group and army aviation in direct support of ground forces operations.


There are strategic air armies subordinate to the Supreme High Command. Elements of a strategic air army, including long-range bombers, electronic combat (EC) platforms, transport aircraft, and tanker support, may well support an army group in strategic operations.

A strategic air army is organized into bomber (strike) aviation divisions. Some long-range bombers can also deliver long-range, air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) with high accuracy and a standoff range of 3,000 km or more. Tankers provide a capability for air-to-air refueling of bombers. A strategic air army has the missions of inflicting losses on vital targets in a theater and conducting air reconnaissance. The Strategic High Command can allocate an air army to support a specific theater and yet retain the flexibility to reallocate aircraft as necessary during wartime.


Army group aviation plays a key role in all types of combat, from participating in theater-level strategic operations to supporting low-level tactical units of the ground forces. In the former role, it complements strategic aviation, and in the latter, army aviation.

High-performance fighters, fighter-bombers, and some light bombers comprise the air army of the army group. Army group aviation also controls a substantial number of fixed- and rotary-wing EC aircraft as well as medium and heavy-lift helicopters. Army group aviation can use these assets to support high-priority army operations.

The size and composition of an air army can vary greatly according to the needs of the supported army group. However, most air armies have a--

  • Fighter aviation division.
  • Fighter-bomber aviation division.
  • Bomber aviation division.
  • Reconnaissance aviation regiment.
  • Mixed-aviation regiment (or squadron).
  • Heliborne jamming squadron.

In addition, some air armies may have one or more of the following:

  • A ground-attack aviation regiment.
  • A transport helicopter regiment.
  • An airborne jamming aviation regiment.
  • A separate helicopter squadron.
  • An air ambulance regiment.

See FM 100-60 for details on organization.

The OPFOR organizes its army group aviation assets on a functional, mission-related basis, in homogenous formations. For example, an aviation division is normally homogeneous.3 The exception is that a fighter or fighter-bomber aviation division might have one regiment equipped with the other type (fighter-bomber or fighter) aircraft. As a rule, aviation regiments are also homogeneous. The exception here would be the mixed aviation regiment (or squadron) comprising both fixed-wing transport aircraft and transport helicopters.

Fighter Aviation Regiments

A typical fighter-bomber aviation regiment might have an authorized strength of about 36 aircraft (including up to 6 two-seat trainers that can also serve as combat aircraft). Such a regiment can be part of a fighter aviation division or a fighter-bomber aviation division. Fighters escort bombers and fighter-bombers to their targets and provide air cover for ground forces.

Fighter-Bomber Aviation Regiments

Although organizations vary, a typical fighter-bomber aviation regiment might have an authorized strength of about 36 aircraft. This includes up to 6 two-seat trainers that can also serve as combat aircraft.

To neutralize an operational SAM site, the OPFOR might task four fighter-bombers; two would suffice to suppress an early-warning radar site. As few as 24 aircraft could close an airbase for 12 hours (excluding aircraft needed for air defense suppression). The sortie rate for fighter-bombers could be three in the first 24 hours, declining thereafter.

Bomber Aviation Regiments

The authorized strength of army group bomber aviation regiments is about 36 aircraft (including up to 6 training aircraft that can also serve as combat aircraft). Assuming 85-percent serviceability for the first strike, an initial strength of about 30 aircraft could be available. In theory, nine bombers could close an airbase for 12 hours (excluding aircraft need for air defense suppression). Bombers could probably mount two sorties in the first 24 hours, declining thereafter.


Aerial reconnaissance includes visual observation, imagery, and signals reconnaissance. Imagery reconnaissance encompasses all types of optical cameras utilizing conventional fixed-frame and strip photography, infrared photography, and television systems; it also includes side-looking airborne radar (SLAR) and synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) capabilities. Airborne signals reconnaissance includes communications and noncommunications emitter intercept and direction finding.

The greatest potential weakness of aerial reconnaissance is the need for air superiority in order to accomplish the majority of missions. The farther aircraft must penetrate enemy airspace the greater the threat from enemy fighters and air defense weapons.

Aircraft Capabilities

The priority for organizational strength and equipment modernization depends on the importance of an army group within the overall strategic plan. Modernization, in particular, depends greatly on the economic capability of the State to acquire the latest-generation fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. As permitted by economic constraints, the OPFOR continues to introduce high-performance aircraft with--

  • Improved avionics.
  • Improved electronic countermeasures (ECM) and electronic counter-counter-measures (ECCM) equipment.
  • Increased payload.
  • Longer combat radius.

The deployment of a wide array of mobile and semimobile air defense systems has given ground formations greater freedom of maneuver. This deployment simultaneously frees aircraft from air defense missions for the ground support roles.

The OPFOR is working on the problems of providing more reliable air support by improving the accuracy of munitions delivery. Ongoing efforts to improve nighttime and poor-weather reconnaissance and combat capabilities may allow continuity of air support around the clock. New and improved platforms continue to appear in the inventory, improving payload-range characteristics.

Night and Weather Conditions

Aviation continues to improve nighttime and poor-weather air reconnaissance and ordnance delivery in support of ground maneuver formations. Despite heavy emphasis on night combat, the OPFOR recognizes limitations in its ability to maintain continuity of air support at night and in poor weather. Also, some of the mutual identification and target designation systems for complex weather conditions and for night flying are unsophisticated.

The OPFOR is making efforts to correct these shortcomings. The all-weather/night fighter-bomber is a capable asset to support ground forces. It has the range and payload to attack deep targets. Many modern fixed-wing aircraft and combat helicopters have electronic and infrared instruments, which enable pilots to conduct sorties at night and in poor weather at low altitudes. The pilots can search for, detect, and destroy targets. Despite its modern, sophisticated equipment, the OPFOR believes that, for air support of ground troops, pilots must know how to--

  • Navigate by land.
  • Search for targets visually.
  • Determine distances to targets without visual aids.

To improve target designation and mutual identification between air and ground units at night, the OPFOR might form special helicopter units for night combat.

Electronic Combat

The OPFOR continues to improve its capabilities to conduct EC, including sophisticated jamming equipment. It might deploy equipment on its aircraft to--

  • Jam multiple enemy radars using a single transmitter.
  • Jam only when the target radar reaches a certain intensity.
  • Select the correct jamming signal for the specific target radar.

The OPFOR can jam the enemy air defense network's major surveillance and acquisition radars. It also uses advanced deception jamming techniques. All these capabilities allow OPFOR aviation to provide increased support that combines accuracy in ordnance delivery, greater flexibility in employment, increased survivability, and increased responsiveness to combined arms commanders.


Attack helicopters, and some transport and airborne command post (CP) helicopters, are directly subordinate to an army, hence the term army aviation. An army normally has--

  • One or two combat helicopter regiments with a mix of attack helicopter and medium-lift transport helicopter squadrons (and possibly a reconnaissance helicopter squadron).
  • A separate helicopter squadron with a mix of light, medium-lift, heavy-lift, and reconnaissance helicopter flights (and possibly flights of heliborne jamming and airborne CP helicopters).4

On occasion, these assets may come directly under divisional command during the course of operations. This is especially likely for a division acting as an army's operational maneuver group (OMG). (See FM 100-60 for details on army aviation organization.)

Army aviation, reinforced as necessary with army group assets, also provides lift for heliborne landings and direct air support for ground forces. In the latter role, it is conceivable that the army group's ground-attack aircraft could supplement army aviation. The scale of assets allotted to an army depends on the importance of that army in the army group scheme of maneuver.5

Helicopters now provide most of the direct air support to ground forces. Attack helicopter tactics closely support ground maneuver unit tactics. Newer helicopters have antitank guided missiles (ATGMs) that have greater stand-off range and accuracy. Most of the helicopters with an antitank role are in the attack helicopter squadrons of army-level combat helicopter regiments. However, some medium-lift transport helicopters and general-purpose light helicopters at both army group and army levels can also mount ATGMs.

The OPFOR has also improved the survivability of its attack helicopters on the battlefield. All attack helicopters likely to operate near the forward combat areas have active and passive self-screening jammers, flare dispensers, and sometimes, engine-emission filters to reduce the danger from heat-seeking SAMs. Some helicopters have additional armor to protect the crew or vital helicopter components.

The OPFOR generally uses helicopters for reconnaissance only within the protection of the ground forces' air defense umbrella. Helicopters perform such tasks as route or NBC reconnaissance. However, more aggressive use of helicopters is likely when the situation becomes more fluid, especially in the case of OMGs.


The OPFOR approach to the initial stage of a strategic offensive includes a massive long-range fire strike. (See also Chapter 2.) It employs initial, massive air strikes throughout the theater. This operation differs from a general offensive; strikes do not directly support a concurrent advance by ground maneuver formations.

The goal of the long-range fire strike is to win air superiority in the initial stage of hostilities. It may succeed, wholly or partially, only to find that enemy reinforcement renews the air challenge. Thus the struggle for air superiority continues throughout the strategic operation and across the entire theater and is waged with particular vigor on the main axis. A substantial proportion of theater and army group aviation must devote continuous efforts to suppressing enemy air defenses, airfields, and helicopter forward operating sites.

Without some measure of success in the air, army group, airborne, and amphibious operations in the theater cannot be successful. In the initial period of war, air power is likely to be the main enemy operational reserve of firepower. Given the range of modern enemy aircraft and the ease and speed with which they can redeploy, the long-range fire strike has to be theater-wide and -deep. Due to this scale and the nature of the forces involved, planning must be at the theater headquarters or Supreme High Command level.6

In the long-range fire strike, military strategists have a viable, offensive option to gain the strategic and operational initiative. Using this option can create the conditions of victory in the period directly after the outbreak of hostilities.


The concept of the long-range fire strike includes fixed-wing aircraft from army group aviation and long-range aircraft from strategic aviation and naval aviation. These aircraft could conduct a series of massive strikes against priority theater targets over a period of several days or even weeks. A small proportion of air resources might be available to neutralize enemy air defenses and to create approach corridors. The majority of the aircraft attack enemy NBC and precision weapons, command and control (C2) centers, airfields, and long-range artillery.

The main weight of firepower delivered in the long-range fire strike is air-delivered. However, fire planning to support strategic operations in a theater also includes surface-to-surface missile (SSM), air defense, army group, airborne, amphibious, and naval assets. This concentrated fire destruction of the enemy during all four offensive fire support phases requires dependable and integrated fire support from all of the armed forces.

The OPFOR tries to achieve centralized fire planning and to execute an integrated fire destruction of the enemy. The following paragraphs discuss the air portion of the OPFOR's strategic offensive.

Priority Theater Targets

Fixed-wing aircraft attack priority theater targets during the initial hours of the long-range fire strike. Such attacks can create favorable conditions for army group operations. This commitment of aircraft precludes their use for direct air support of ground force operations. (Ground force commanders must rely on attack helicopters to fill this initial fire support role.)

Integrated fires of artillery, attack helicopters, and operational and tactical SSMs, along with EC operations, help create corridors through the enemy's forward air defenses. The OPFOR plans missile strikes and attacks by air assault, special-purpose, and partisan forces against airfields, precision weapons, NBC delivery means, and C2 facilities. It may also target for destruction some industrial complexes that support enemy nuclear and air forces.

Enemy Nuclear Missiles and Precision Weapons

A high priority for the OPFOR is to eliminate the enemy's nuclear missile capability. Thus, the long-range fire strike must destroy enemy operational and operational-tactical SSM forces and their associated C2, storage facilities, and logistics. The spread of conventional precision weapons that have the destructiveness of small nuclear systems serves to increase the numbers of top-priority targets.

Enemy Air Power

The OPFOR's first priority is to destroy sophisticated enemy aviation systems, including airborne early warning, EC, fighter, and interdiction aircraft. The second priority for the long-range fire strike is enemy direct-air-support forces.

Although air-to-air combat is one method of winning air superiority, the OPFOR sees the principal means of accomplishing this mission as destroying aircraft on the ground, closing air bases, and disrupting enemy C2, air navigation, and logistics systems. Enemy naval aviation must also be dealt with, whether at sea or in bases.


The OPFOR expects a long-range fire strike to last several days.7 The strike might involve two or three massed strikes on the first day and one or two on subsequent days. The first strike would be the most massive, intended to cause decisive losses to the enemy's air force and to lower his strength and ability to conduct effective retaliatory strikes. In the first 24 to 48 hours, the OPFOR's intent would be to destroy the bulk of the enemy's aviation.

This is not to say that offensive counterair actions and actions against surviving nuclear missiles or precision weapons would cease after the completion of the long-range fire strike. They would continue against the remaining enemy air forces, their reinforcements from other theaters, and naval aviation on carriers. Given air superiority in the long-range fire strike, however, the OPFOR can switch substantial forces to the support of other operations.

Requirements for Success

The long-range fire strike strives to establish air superiority. It is a principal component of the overall effort to preserve ground forces and to negate enemy NBC and precision weapon capabilities. The OPFOR believes it can achieve air superiority with the destruction of 50 to 60 percent of the enemy's air power.

However, if the enemy's air and air defense capabilities are powerful, the OPFOR might view air parity in the air war as a satisfactory outcome. That would mean that neither side could bring its full weight of air power to bear on the ground operation for the critical first week or so. This situation could offer the ground forces an opportunity for victory. For even partial success in the long-range fire strike, the following are key factors.

Continuous Reconnaissance

Continuous reconnaissance of enemy nuclear and precision weapons and air assets does not, of course, start with the outbreak of hostilities. It is continuous in peacetime, intensifying in periods of crisis.


The first, massive strike must achieve at least partial operational and tactical surprise. To be successful, the long-range fire strike must be preemptive. The OPFOR must strike airbases before aircraft have had time to fly to dispersal fields. Measures to achieve surprise may include attack without redeployment, timing, and unexpected weapons and methods.

Attack without redeployment. Aircraft from the operational and strategic rear are unlikely to deploy forward for the first strike. Such a move could trigger the dispersal of enemy air assets, or even an enemy preemptive attack (with many forward-deployed aircraft being vulnerable if hardened aircraft shelters for them are lacking). Aircraft from the rear may move up as the initial strike occurs to join the second strike and to replace casualties. Alternatively, they may use forward bases to stage through and not remain in the forward area.

Timing. To catch enemy air forces unprepared, the OPFOR plans to launch the long-range fire strike before preparations for ground operations are complete. The first air attack might precede the ground offensive by days or even weeks. However, it is possible that airborne operations would begin during the period of the initial strike of the long-range fire strike. In that case, the airborne insertion would have to be through the penetration corridors the long-range fire strike creates through enemy air defenses.

Unexpected weapons and methods. The OPFOR is likely to use unexpected weapons and methods. These might include the following:

  • Long-range missiles. The OPFOR might use long-range SSMs, ALCMs, and submarine-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) to spread chemical contamination and/or mines on enemy airbases to pin aircraft to the ground before the first air strike. If missile strikes achieve sufficient accuracy, they can also deliver precision conventional warheads against key C2, logistics installations, and missile launchers.
  • Fuel-air explosives (FAE). Relying as they do on blast, rather than fragments for their effects, FAE are excellent weapons for killing personnel, wrecking aircraft and maintenance equipment, and rendering unserviceable the doors of hardened aircraft shelters. With overpressures greater than those of small-yield nuclear weapons, such munitions affect wide areas. Delivery means could be SSMs, SLCMs, ALCMs, and air-to-surface missiles (ASMs), perhaps being given terminal guidance by special-purpose forces (SPF) teams with laser designators.
  • Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The OPFOR is developing methods of using UAVs for air defense suppression, including the use of UAVs to simulate raids, coupled with the use of air- and ground-launched antiradiation missiles (ARMs) to destroy radars activated to meet the dummy attacks.
  • ECM. The OPFOR might well aim to deploy more, and more sophisticated, ground- and air-based jamming platforms than the enemy would anticipate.
  • SPF. Even before the long-range fire strike begins, some SPF teams might conduct sabotage or assassinate selected key officers. They might also have the mission of incapacitating personnel, by contaminating food or water supplies.

Concentration of Effort

The long-range fire strike concentrates on the most important strategic and operational axes. It must mount a massive effort against the enemy's aviation groupings, both in the air and on the ground.

Continuous Action

The OPFOR must maintain continuous action over enemy airfields and against his aircraft, both day and night. Between massive attacks, it must continue smaller raids against CPs, air defenses, and runways.

Combined Arms

All services must contribute to the operation. Virtually all aviation resources participate, including at least elements of a strategic air army and much of army group aviation. Some strategic missiles may attack enemy bases and destroy C2 centers. Operational and operational-tactical SSMs do the same for targets within range and neutralize air defenses.

Long-range artillery can hit near air defense missiles and radars. SPF conduct reconnaissance and target designation and, perhaps, sabotage. Airborne forces may seize airfields. Naval forces may destroy enemy aircraft carriers, and elements of naval aviation may participate in airfield attacks.

Initial Strike

The initial, massive strike is crucial to the success of the operation as a whole. If it does not achieve a high proportion of its goals, imparting an unstoppable momentum, the air war is likely to settle down to a battle of attrition in which victory will go to the numerically superior side. The first strike actually comprises four phases of attacks: pinning, supporting, main, and follow-on. It ends with post-strike recovery.

Pinning Attack

The long-range fire strike opens with a massive strike on all airbases by ALCMs, low-trajectory SLCMs, and operational and strategic SSMs. The attack pins enemy aircraft to their airfields. The first salvo may be FAE warheads to destroy exposed personnel and equipment. This attack may be followed by scatterable mines, and perhaps persistent chemical bombardment, to close runways and taxiways until aviation strike groupings can arrive.

Supporting Attack

The support echelon comprises about 25 to 30 percent of army group aviation and 5 percent of long-range aviation devoted to the long-range fire strike. The support echelon's mission is to--

  • Open up air penetration corridors.
  • Attack the defending C2 system.
  • Execute further mining of airfields.
  • Conduct reconnaissance and deception.
  • Engage any enemy fighters not pinned to their airfields by the missile strikes.

The support echelon devotes to these tasks about 10 percent of the army group aviation's light bomber forces, 30 percent of its fighter-bombers, 25 to 30 percent of its fighters, and from 55 to 60 percent of its reconnaissance assets.

Main Attack

The strike echelon includes about 60 percent of army group aviation and 75 percent of long-range aviation. The army group aviation component contains about 85 to 90 percent of the light bombers, 65 to 70 percent of the fighter-bombers, 15 to 20 percent of the fighters, and 10 to 15 percent of reconnaissance aircraft.

The mission of the strike echelon is to--

  • Destroy enemy aircraft and personnel on airbases.
  • Destroy or neutralize CPs.
  • Close airfields so aircraft cannot rebase or get fighters into the air before the second massive strike.
  • Destroy enemy precision weapons and NBC delivery systems.
  • Destroy or neutralize enemy long-range artillery.

Accompanying reconnaissance a provides near real-time damage assessment.

Follow-On Attack

The OPFOR assigns follow-on forces and reserves on the basis of post-strike reconnaissance after the strike echelon's attack. They service targets not sufficiently damaged by the strike echelon and hit newly located targets (such as aircraft that managed to rebase before being hit). These forces comprise about 10 to 15 percent of army group aviation and 15 to 20 percent of the long-range bombers.

Post-Strike Recovery

Aircraft generally recover to dispersal airfields to avoid retaliatory strikes. It is the OPFOR rule that an air grouping should never, where it is avoidable, return to the base from which it mounted a raid.

Subsequent Actions

From the beginning of the pinning missile strike to the end of the follow-on attack is normally 2 to 2.5 hours. Army group aviation follows up with a further attack in the middle of the day on CPs, air defenses, and runways. Then there is a further massive strike toward the end of the day. The OPFOR repeats this on the second day, and it continues until the OPFOR has won air superiority through the destruction of 50 to 60 percent of the enemy's air power. The long-range fire strike's successful conclusion is not, however, the end of offensive counterair effort. The OPFOR recognizes that the enemy can reinforce from his strategic rear and redeploy forces from other, less active or inactive theaters. Continual action is necessary to keep the initiative in the air, compensating for losses through reinforcement from aviation reserves.

Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses

Whether in the course of the support strike or during subsequent operations, the OPFOR must suppress enemy air defenses before it can execute deep penetration missions at bearable cost. As in ground operations, the penetration of ground-based air defenses must occur on specific, relatively narrow sectors or axes to create penetration corridors through the enemy's air defense system. Corridors are normally 10 to 15 km wide and of whatever length is necessary to get strike aircraft to their target area.

Within a corridor, the OPFOR must suppress key defending systems. It must ensure additional suppression on some medium-range systems (such as Patriot sites up to 100 km from the center line of the corridor). The assessment of which medium-range SAMs need to be dealt with depends on complex payload-range calculations. On selected sections of the route, aircraft may avoid such weapons by flying low, but there is a limit to which they can do this, if they are to strike deep targets.

The OPFOR normally creates one or two corridors in each army group's sector (probably largely coinciding with the intended main axes of the army group). It creates these corridors through the enemy air defenses using a combination of electronic and physical attack of enemy radars and missiles sites.

Electronic Combat

The OPFOR first attacks early-warning and ground-controlled-intercept (GCI) radars. For this, it uses standoff jamming (SOJ) aircraft and the laying of chaff on a broad frontage. Jamming of key nodes and communications links in the enemy air defense structure exacerbate time delays in the defense's reaction. It also means that the information passed by the early-warning network can be ambiguous, especially as to range. These effects result in acquisition radars receiving only tentative information and being able, therefore, to pass only limited information to fire control radars.

If sufficient degradation occurs at the top and middle levels of the air defense system, fire control radars (the hardest to jam and most numerous) may have to operate autonomously using only target azimuth data. Moreover, that data itself comes only from jamming spokes from a mixture of escort jamming (ESJ), SOJ, and self-screening jamming (SSJ) systems on attack aircraft. Without centralized control, the enemy may be forced into uncoordinated target engagements, leading to a rapid depletion of ammunition stocks for relatively poor returns.

Sowing chaff trails protects the entire penetration corridor. Trails may be as large as 36 km wide and 360 km deep and could last for several hours. A chaff trail conceals the size and formation of a raid and provides cover from which aircraft can emerge to fire standoff missiles.

Both ESJ and SSJ occur from within the chaff trail. This protects the sowing aircraft and also gives added general protection against all types of enemy emitters. SOJ aircraft can then follow the raid and operate from within the trail.

OPFOR aircraft can also use chaff for navigational purposes; for example, using bursts to signal turns. Of course, aircraft can lay false chaff trails for deceptive purposes. The OPFOR can achieve additional deception by launching groups of UAVs to simulate raids, causing enemy radars to expose themselves to ARM and cruise missile attacks and firing units to waste ammunition. The enemy might also vector additional fighters against them, wasting time and fuel. (For more information on EC, see Chapter 13.)

Physical Attack

The OPFOR can single out key SAM sites for physical destruction as well as (temporary) electronic neutralization. For example, fighter-bombers with conventional ordnance could attack a Patriot site. Operational-tactical SSMs could destroy SAMs sufficiently near the deployment areas of the SSMs.

Longer-range SSMs with improved accuracy could attack more deeply deployed SAMs, while long-range artillery and multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) could engage those close to the line of contact. Sabotage of SAMs, their associated radars, and C2 by SPF teams is also possible.

Actions of Fighter Aviation

Fighter escorts protect bombers and fighter-bombers en route to their targets. The high-performance, long-endurance fighters are likely to sweep ahead of strike groups, ideally to catch enemy fighters on their runways or just taking off. If they fail in this and have to engage in air-to-air combat, they force the enemy to expend fuel and ordnance needed to attack the bombers. Shorter-range and less sophisticated fighters are likely to protect fighter-bomber groups. They do not fly close escort, but provide airspace security on the axes used by the ground attack forces. Figure 10-1 illustrates a typical fighter-bomber raid formation, with supporting fighters and ECM aircraft.

Figure 10-1. A fighter-bomber raid by army group aviation (example).


The air defense (counterair) operation is a component of a strategic operation in a theater. It combines all the ground- and air-based air defense assets in any theater under a single concept and plan within the context of the strategic operation.

The air defense (counterair) operation can also provide protection for aircraft and missile systems conducting the long-range fire strike and ground maneuver forces striving to penetrate rapidly into enemy territory. It focuses on defending the OPFOR and allied forces and contributing to air superiority. The emphasis depends on whether or not the OPFOR has already seized the initiative in the air.

The best way to reduce the enemy's ability to influence the battle from the air is to execute a successful long-range fire strike. When mounted after the long-range fire strike, the purpose of the air defense operation is to defeat the enemy's residual air capability. The aim is thus more modest than that of the long-range fire strike. It would focus on defensive actions to protect friendly forces and installations from the enemy's remaining air capability.

Alternatively, the air defense operation can take place when the OPFOR does not hold the initiative in the air, either because the enemy has preempted or because the long-range fire strike has been less than totally successful. In this case, the immediate priority in the air defense operation is defending friendly forces, allowing them freedom for maneuver. Simultaneously, the OPFOR would try to cause maximum attrition of enemy air and air defense assets, thus contributing to the achievement of air superiority.

While primarily defensive in nature, it does not exclude offensive action. On the contrary, the OPFOR must still execute offensive counterair missions. The goal is still the achievement of air superiority, but over a greater period of time, or perhaps only for limited periods. Until the OPFOR achieves air superiority, its fighter aircraft, along with the air defenses of the ground forces, must protect troops on the ground.


The OPFOR would attempt to gain the initiative through the actions of the following forces:

  • Army group aviation.
  • Ground forces missile troops and artillery.
  • National air defense forces.
  • Air defense elements of other branches of the armed forces.

This coordinated operation of offensive and defensive forces should include attacks both against aircraft in the air and against their bases.

Organization for Combat

Initially, the air defense operation could consist of two echelons: the air and air defense organizations of the first-echelon army groups and the national air defense forces protecting State territory to the rear. As first-echelon army groups advance, the OPFOR would organize an additional air defense echelon to prevent the development of gaps. (The enemy could exploit these gaps to attack follow-on forces.) This would ensure continuity of the air defense effort from the rear of first-echelon army groups.


The target set for offensive missions is much the same as in the long-range fire strike. Defensive tasks, in order of priority, include--

  • Protecting administrative-political, military-industrial, and communications centers.
  • Providing cover for air bases, missile troops, and major headquarters.
  • Providing cover for defiles or chokepoints (such as bridges over major rivers) vital to operational maneuver.
  • Defending concentrations and deployments of major ground forces groupings, especially on main axes, and then of second echelons or reserves.
  • Protecting airborne and amphibious landing forces in assembly areas, while loading, and en route to their objectives.


As ground forces advance in an offensive operation, a gap may open between the forward elements of army groups and the bases of their fighter aviation. Therefore, fighters would redeploy forward onto captured or improvised airfields. Fighter-bomber units would then occupy the former fighter bases. More fighters would then move forward from the State to the former fighter-bomber bases to establish a seamless web of defensive aviation deployed in depth. Given the larger number of bases becoming available, it is even possible the OPFOR could create new air armies for the support of second-strategic-echelon forces.

Air Defense Tactics

The main focus of fighter aviation efforts is on protecting the main strike group, airfields, SSM deployment areas, key CPs, and logistics installations. The OPFOR expects enemy air power to attack across a broad frontage with a large number of aircraft operating in small groups echeloned both in height and depth. To repel such attacks, the operational formation of fighter aviation is in several echelons, including two to three at low altitude and two at high altitude.

The purpose of the first echelon is to engage the enemy on distant approaches. For this mission, it uses the best pilots to conduct independent "free hunt" sweeps in enemy airspace, beyond the reach of friendly SAMs. The OPFOR commits the second echelon in the area of the line of contact or somewhat over it. Fighters on standby at airfields reinforce and develop the operations of forward fighter elements.

To intercept small groups or individual aircraft, each fighter division has a sector of responsibility. Within that sector, it destroys targets according to the decision of the fighter division commander, by the simultaneous commitment of not more than one-third of the available aircraft.

Coordination with Ground-Based Air Defenses

Where fighters are operating in the same area as ground-based air defenses, it is necessary to ensure a strict segregation of aircraft and air defense fires (by height and/or by area) to prevent fratricide. Figure 11-1 in Chapter 11 illustrates the four possible ways of separating the activities of fighter aviation and of SAMs.

Changing Aircraft Roles

The demands placed on air forces are great and growing. In the past, it was unlikely that substantial numbers of aircraft would be able to switch roles, from the counterair battle to offensive air support. This should be more likely in the future, at least from a technological viewpoint. New aircraft types and improved munitions are increasing both capabilities and flexibility. Nevertheless, given the time and casualties required to establish air superiority, it remains uncertain whether changing roles from a defensive to an offensive posture could be achieved within a time frame acceptable to the ground forces. Still, this possibility is important when assessing any defensive strategy.


One of the primary missions for army group and army aviation is to provide continuous fire support to ground maneuver forces. Thanks to their range, speed, variable ordnance load, and accuracy of delivery (especially against moving targets), modern fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft are reliable fire support weapons for high-tempo, deep-penetration operations in the offensive. These same air assets can provide a large and flexible reserve of firepower in the defensive. Air fire support is responsive to sudden, sharp changes in the battlefield situation and can keep pace with highly mobile ground forces. It is a key component of integrated fire support, serving as a complement to artillery.

Integrated Fire Support

The concept of integrated fire support embraces all combat support provided to ground-gaining arms by missile troops and artillery and by aviation forces. Fixed-wing combat aircraft and attack helicopters provide aerial fire support to ground maneuver forces. Air support assets are an integral element of combined arms operations at army group and army levels.

Air support is extremely important for maintaining a high rate of advance because maneuver units can outrun their artillery support, and artillery units can outrun their logistics support. Maneuver units thus need air support to cover and support their advance.

Furthermore, aviation assets generally can strike targets that are out of artillery range. The army group can take advantage of the effects of the air strikes against targets 1,500 km in the enemy rear area. Fighter aviation aids the movement of troops to the tactical and operational depth of the enemy. Heliborne forces and fire support helicopters increase this capability to strike rapidly and deeply.

Fixed-wing aircraft support army groups and armies in theaters. These assets accomplish the missions of air defense cover, air reconnaissance, EC, and ground support. The aircraft can also conduct battlefield and rear area interdiction.

Helicopters have become increasingly important in execution of both the close- and long-range fire support battles. The increased use of helicopters frees fixed-wing aircraft to attack deeper targets. General-purpose and attack helicopter units can move with rapidly advancing armies and divisions conducting combined arms operations. The OPFOR routinely employs attack helicopters to provide direct fire support to tank and mechanized infantry units during both the offense and the defense. Helicopters also perform a variety of logistics, reconnaissance, jamming, liaison, C2, and communications functions. They also support heliborne operations.

The flexibility and maneuverability of operational-level aviation assets give them a key role in modern combat. According to the OPFOR, aviation has particular advantages over other combat forces because it can--

  • Conduct independent operations.
  • Execute rapid, wide maneuvers.
  • Combat enemy air, ground, and naval forces.
  • Execute missions under diverse tactical and environmental conditions.
  • Concentrate forces quickly for the execution of unexpected missions.
  • Redirect assets after launch to a different target.

Command and Control

The commander of army group aviation is subordinate to the army group commander, but has the title deputy army group commander for aviation.8 His CP is normally within 10 to 15 km of the army group's main CP to ensure a close relationship. This relationship ensures that there is no danger of army group aviation conducting separate, divergent operations in its own interests instead of subordinating the air effort to the needs of the ground operation. Of course, the army group commander takes advice from his air commander, and he must act within the constraints of the operational directive from the General Staff (or theater CINC). Indeed, the army group has an obligation to contribute substantial assets to the initial long-range fire strike. This is of direct benefit to ground forces, since air superiority is important for their success.

Planning and Preparation

Army group aviation and ground forces have an integrated C2 structure. This ensures close and continuous coordination in a combined arms operation. At army group level, the deputy commander for aviation serves as chief of aviation on the army group staff. The deputy commander and his staff evaluate the situation based on the army group commander's concept of operation. They then plan the air portion of an operation and recommend the proper employment of air assets to the army group commander.

The army group commander has overall responsibility to integrate air support with ground combat missions. To achieve a coordinated combat plan, army group aviation sends personnel and communications equipment to the armies. If time is short, army staffs may concurrently develop plans for their own levels, based on preliminary instructions from the army group.

The army commander and his aviation staff reconcile allocated air assets with air support requirements of ground force divisions. A maneuver division commander consults his aviation representative and develops detailed plans for targets in the first two days of the operation. He also makes estimates for subsequent days. If they plan to use attack helicopters, the planners divide air support between fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. The plan depends on the targets, flight distances, and disposition of enemy air defenses. Once approved, these division and army plans become part of the integrated army group fire support plan.

Then, the deputy army group commander for aviation issues specific orders to his aviation divisions and regiments. These orders cover targets, numbers of sorties, air approach corridors, communications codes, and mission timing. Air representatives at army, division, and brigade level then confirm, for their respective commanders, the allocation of air resources. Normally, the deputy army group commander for aviation holds a percentage of his forces in reserve to meet the unforeseen demands of division commanders. Maneuver division commanders can also withhold a percentage of their allocated air assets as reserves.

A higher headquarters may assign specific air support to a maneuver brigade. Then, the brigade commander explains his objectives to the commander of the supporting air unit and to the forward air controller (FAC) assigned to his brigade. He also seeks their recommendations.

Both army group and army commanders pay particular attention to the coordination of artillery and missile fire with preplanned and on-call air strikes. This fire can neutralize or suppress enemy air defenses before attack aircraft arrive.

Centralization Versus Decentralization

The OPFOR normally maintains strict centralized control of at least fixed-wing aviation. The combined arms commander does not always have operational control of the supporting aviation. Instead, centralized planning may apportion air support resources into regiment-flights or aircraft sorties with the required quantity of munitions. The combined arms commander may not know which aviation unit will accomplish the missions he requested.

Centralization takes advantage of the mobility and maneuverability of aircraft to concentrate them at the decisive point and time from dispersed bases. Centralized control simplifies the integration of aircraft being used in different, but complimentary roles (for example, reconnaissance, strike, air superiority), and their coordination with ground forces and air defenses. It also allows a rapid reallocation of air support resources to accomplish the most important missions that suddenly arise during operations. Aviation units not originally assigned for ground support may sometimes take part in delivering air strikes against ground targets.

Once air superiority is achieved, the OPFOR sometimes places fixed-wing aviation under the operational control of an army. For example, an army operating as an OMG in the enemy depth could receive a division or more of fighter and ground-attack aviation, and sometimes fighter-bombers as well, in direct support. This might be necessary, if the OMG is operating far enough ahead of the armies of the army group's first echelon that it is out of range for artillery support from the main force. An army-size OMG also has its own attack helicopter force.

On the other hand, the OPFOR has given largely decentralized control of helicopters to armies, and even divisions on occasion. This is partly because the OPFOR regards attack helicopters as flying artillery and partly because of the limited range of helicopters. It is also partly due to the fact that the army group may attempt to advance on multiple, separate axes, all of which would require some air support.

Operations on separate and disconnected axes may use decentralized employment of aviation, especially combat helicopters. In that case, aviation assigned for air support transfers to the operational control of the combined arms commander. He can employ it according to his needs, rather than waiting for aviation support from higher headquarters. This arrangement supports the doctrine for a fast-moving offensive.

A maneuver division acting as an army OMG could operate 100 km or more beyond other army forces. Such an OMG receives high priority for support by both fighter-interceptors and ground-attack aircraft. Because the OMG advances beyond the normal range for helicopter support from the army's main body, it often has army helicopters assigned to move with it.

Aviation Control Element

The staff of the army and division usually has an aviation control element (ACE). This element advises on the use of air assets. It transmits air support requests to aviation organizations, maintaining communications and control with aircraft in the battle area. It also advises the commander of air reconnaissance information.

At army, this ACE generally consists of the following personnel: an air controller, an intelligence officer, a liaison officer, and communications personnel. It normally has two sections. One section chief colocates with the commander; the other with the chief of staff. The ACEs at division level are similar to those at army level, but smaller.

Principles of Employment

Air superiority is a necessary condition for the effective support of ground forces and, indeed, for the operation as a whole. The OPFOR believes its aviation assets can exert a tremendous influence on the battlefield. It emphasizes that aviation can provide responsive and continuous fire support using the following principles.


The OPFOR does not spread resources evenly across its frontage but allocates them to key sectors and axes. From the outset, strategic and army group aviation concentrate on punching a few corridors through enemy air defenses and attacking air bases. The OPFOR makes every effort to maintain air superiority over these corridors, even if it cannot do so over the entire theater of operations. The thrusts of principal air and ground forces probably go through these corridors.


The coordination of aviation with artillery fire support, air defenses (both ground-based and airborne), and maneuver units is one of the most difficult problems of modern combat, particularly in the absence of air superiority. At army group and army levels, the CPs of supporting or organic aviation commanders are near the CPs of the ground forces.

The combined arms commander establishes air support priorities. The aviation commander and staff develop the details of the plan, working closely with their artillery and air defense counterparts. Divisions receiving direct air support have an air representative; maneuver brigades have an experienced pilot to act as a FAC.

When the division commander approves a request for direct air support, the air staff at army allocates forces to the mission and passes control to a vectoring and target designation post. The latter, which has its own mobile acquisition and height-finding radars, vectors the attack into the target area and provides information about enemy and friendly forces. It then passes control to the FAC who visually directs the attack.

The coordinated use of the airspace over the battlefield and aerial delivery of ordnance close to friendly troops are among the most complex problems of modern combat. The OPFOR stresses early attainment of air superiority to simplify the airspace-management problem. To reduce air-ground coordination problems as much as possible, OPFOR planners do not normally simultaneously use attack helicopters, fixed-wing ground attack aircraft, and artillery in the same fire zone. The OPFOR might time air strikes sequentially to achieve mass in the target area and reduce air-ground coordination difficulties.


The achievement and maintenance of air superiority require a continuing effort. Many phases of ground operations require continuous air actions to ensure success. This is especially true of penetrations of enemy defenses and the forcing of water obstacles.


If the OPFOR hopes to achieve concentration and continuity, it cannot use air assets to perform missions that can be adequately executed by other means. Thus the OPFOR may use missile strikes to suppress enemy defenses rather than using manned aircraft. Following this principle, the OPFOR might employ its ground-attack aircraft outside artillery range; for example, 30 to 40 km, sometimes up to 70 km from the line of contact.


To reduce loss rates to acceptable levels, surprise is an essential part of air action. Means of achieving it include--

  • Choosing unexpected or covered axes.
  • Attacking at unlikely times.
  • Attacking in unanticipated strength (for example, after covert reinforcement).
  • Using new weapons or tactics.
  • Limiting or preventing radio and radar emissions.
  • Degrading the enemy's early-warning radar net.
  • Making decoy raids.
  • Using camouflage, concealment, and deception on airfields.


Air power provides the most flexible and fastest-reacting source of firepower to cope with unexpected difficulties or expected developments (such as the commitment of an enemy corps reserve). For this reason, both army and army group maintain a reserve of number of sorties.

Reconnaissance and Targeting

Air reconnaissance is the principal method of gathering target intelligence. The chief of reconnaissance on the army or army group staff prepares an overall reconnaissance plan, which details tasks for operational-level aviation assets. Army and army group assets also provide intelligence to support division combat actions. Army group aviation's reconnaissance regiment and the armies' reconnaissance drone squadrons gather tactical and operational intelligence information to a 300-km depth. They may also collect strategic intelligence to support theater and national missions.

Aircraft crews on any mission should immediately report observed enemy activity. Dedicated reconnaissance aviation regiments have the primary responsibility for air reconnaissance. These regiments have specially equipped reconnaissance aircraft. Aviation assets also have airborne signals reconnaissance collectors.

The aircraft transmit perishable target intelligence by radio to ground CPs. The processing of data from an air reconnaissance mission can take 2 to 8 hours. To shorten this time, OPFOR planners are modernizing their techniques.

Armed reconnaissance can disrupt the enemy's resupply operations and troop movements through the immediate exploitation of reconnaissance data. The OPFOR does this with a flight of a reconnaissance aircraft and two to four attack aircraft. Targets for interdiction missions include nuclear storage areas, enemy airfields, troop reserves, and C2 centers. These targets may be up to 500 km behind the frontlines. However, it can be difficult to conduct armed reconnaissance flights before establishing air superiority.


Air reconnaissance determines the enemy's intentions and collects intelligence to plan air and ground operations. It has four major categories of targets:

  1. Precision weapons.
  2. Active and potential enemy airfields.
  3. Defensive positions and systems (air defense C2 and early warning centers).
  4. Enemy reserves, supply depots, and approach routes (particularly key intersections and bridges).

Target Classification

The basis for planning air strikes is the classification and location of targets. The OPFOR classifies targets as single, multiple, line, or area. The target's classification affects the method of engagement. (See Figure 10-2.)



Attack Technique

Single (or Point)

Rocket launcher, tank or armored vehicle,
parked aircraft, or helicopter. Radar firing
point, observation point, or bunker.

Single aircraft using lower-level or dive
delivery of ordnance. ARM employed against
radars. Single helicopter using ATGMs or rockets.


Group of 10-20 single targets, occupying
an area of 1-1.5 m.

Attack by a small group of (2-8) aircraft or
helicopters with appropriate ordnance.


Tactical march column (usually 1 km or
longer), train, runway.

Attack by a single aircraft or a small group
along the long axis of the target. Helicopters
attack column from the flank.


Dispersal or assembly areas of battalion or
larger unit, supply depot, larger C2 center,
forward airfield.

Massive and concentrated air strikes, delivered
from various altitudes and directions.

Figure 10-2. Classification of air-strike targets.

Reconnaissance-Strike Complexes

OPFOR technological advances in reconnaissance, target acquisition, weapon-delivery systems, and automation have led to a concept integrating fire control and fire support capabilities. The OPFOR term for this concept at the operational level is reconnaissance-strike complex (RSC).9 Under this concept, an operational-level commander centrally controls long-range MRLs, SSMs, and fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, linked through an automated system for processing and disseminating reconnaissance data. The goal is to attack enemy targets in real time or near-real time. Long-range strike assets target their enemy counterparts, including precision weapons. (See Chapter 9 for more detail on the RSC.) An RSC may combine with EC assets to conduct an electronic-fire strike.

Mission Types

Maneuver commanders identify requirements for air strikes. The aviation commander and air staff then prepare orders for aviation units designating preplanned, on-call, and immediate air support missions to support these requirements.

Preplanned Missions

Most air strikes in direct support of ground maneuver formations are preplanned. The combined arms commander identifies the target, times, and desired effects. The aviation commander determines the force, ordnance, and attack technique to accomplish the mission. The air staff plans predesignated attacks in great detail and integrates them with other forms of fire support, in coordination with the staffs of artillery and air defense. Preplanned missions differ from on-call missions in that the predesignated attacks are part of a timed program rather than on-call at the discretion of maneuver commanders.

The plan for preplanned strikes normally covers the first one to two hours of combat operations. It may cover a period of up to 24 hours in a static situation. The plan specifies the following details: targets, strike force, time, location, attack technique and ordnance, communications codes, and approach and departure routes. Under favorable conditions, some aviation assets may also "free hunt" targets.

Air crews of aviation regiments and squadrons closely study preplanned target assignments to determine the best attack techniques, using large-scale maps for reference. In some cases, they study scale models of the terrain and targets in their sector. Models help the crews determine ingress and egress routes and plan tactical maneuvers. Pilots practice and develop variations to acquire a ready response to changes in the situation.

Once airborne, the aircraft fly to a designated checkpoint behind friendly lines. There, they confirm their target assignment with ground control. The OPFOR emphasizes strict adherence to predetermined timing and flight paths. This indicates they probably use "safe" corridors through friendly air defenses. The air crews also use prearranged signals for mutual identification. The ACEs and FACs maintain communications with attack aircraft either directly or through radio-relay aircraft.

As the aircraft approach the target area, FACs establish communications, making sure pilots correctly identify the targets. Once the pilots see the target, and the FAC confirms the target, the flight leader assigns individual targets and orders the attack. Aircraft follow the original flight plan through friendly air defenses unless changed by ground control.

On-Call Missions

Planners may predesignate a target for on-call attack by aviation assets. However, the ground forces commander can choose the time for the strike at his discretion. If the target no longer presents a problem to the ground attack, he does not call for it at all. This gives the ground forces the flexibility to take advantage of opportunities for success without stopping for an unnecessary air attack. Thus, the commander may save his air assets to use when needed.

The commander may also keep a portion of available air assets in readiness to execute on-call attacks against unexpected targets. Aircraft and helicopters designated for on-call missions can be airborne in holding areas or be on the ground at forward airfields. The size of these assets depends on the phase of the operation.

The on-call mission is basically the same as a preplanned mission, except for the attack's timing. During a "window of availability," usually no longer than 4 to 5 hours, air mission launches may occur at any time. On-call missions usually have secondary targets planned in the event the window of availability expires before the primary target becomes available for attack.

Immediate Missions

The ground commander submits a request for immediate air support to the next higher headquarters. The request moves up through the chain of command. If a request for air support does not exceed the division commander's allocated assets, he can order the air strike through his ACE. Otherwise, the army or army group must approve this request, depending on the size of support the maneuver division requested. As with preplanned support, the ACE at each command level participates directly to evaluate each air support request and to coordinate the strike mission.

Aircraft designated for immediate missions can be airborne in holding areas or on the ground at airfields. Occasionally an aircraft on armed reconnaissance patrol can respond to an air support request within its area of operations. The OPFOR recognizes three levels of combat readiness for army group aviation aircraft and crews. Aircraft in categories one and two respond to ground force requests for immediate air support.

Before takeoff, pilots receive a briefing on a checkpoint toward which to proceed and, possibly, on the target location. On reaching the checkpoint, the pilots contact the air representative of the ground force units being supported. This representative gives the pilots target designation or confirmation. Approach, attack, and recovery air control procedures remain the same as in preplanned air support missions.

Choice of Aircraft

The OPFOR prefers to use helicopters for immediate, time-sensitive strikes close to friendly forces. Attack helicopters have reduced logistics requirements compared to those of fixed-wing aircraft. This often allows deployment close to the main battle area and enhances their ability to respond to on-call or immediate missions. Helicopters have other advantages over high-performance aircraft as well. They have the ability to concentrate and probably maneuver undetected for an attack. They can also conduct ambushes. Compared to fixed-wing pilots, helicopter pilots are better able to evaluate battlefield conditions rapidly and exactly and to react without needing to make a second pass over the area.

On the other hand, helicopters are somewhat vulnerable to enemy fighters and ground fire. The OPFOR thus prefers not to use them in ground support outside the protection of the air defense envelope, at least if fighter top cover is not available.

The OPFOR employs fixed-wing aircraft more frequently in strikes on previously reconnoitered, fixed or semifixed targets, in the enemy's immediate rear, or at greater depths. In very fluid situations, fighter-bombers may also participate in "free hunt" sorties (armed reconnaissance missions), in which they attack targets of opportunity. High-performance aircraft are vulnerable to ground-based air defenses when executing ground attacks. This necessitates a low-altitude, high-speed target approach and minimum time in the target area.

Sortie Allocation

The procedure for distributing army group aviation sorties to the armies and, in turn, to the divisions, is a top-down method. It starts from the total numbers of air sorties available (rather than a bottom-up method starting from the number of sorties required from some assessment of the number of targets).

The aviation commander does not allow air assets to remain idle, but aims for the maximum use of aviation resources each day (sorties cannot be "saved" on one day for use on the next). He maintains a daily reserve of about 10 to 20 percent of sorties to meet daily contingencies.

As a rule of thumb, each ground army operating on the main axis gets an average of two to three regimental sorties per day, with armies on secondary axes receiving up to one. The OPFOR maintains the strength of army group aviation in the face of attrition by reinforcement from the rear (depending on the availability of open airfields). On occasion, reinforcing assets may stage through reserve or dummy airfields to mount surge operations at crucial times.

Critical Periods

The most important role air power can play in the offensive is to provide air cover, keep enemy air away from friendly ground forces. This requirement is vital and ongoing. There are, however, certain periods when failure to achieve or maintain air superiority would assuredly result in failure, and the addition of offensive air support may be crucial to success.


While artillery provides most of the fire support for the ground penetration, air action is important in--

  • Speedy elimination of unexpected centers of resistance that cannot be bypassed.
  • Neutralizing enemy artillery and helicopter assets.
  • Disrupting and delaying the intervention of enemy reserves.

During the support of the penetration, and when trying continuously to disrupt and delay the movement of enemy reserves, ground-attack aircraft might attack in waves of from 4 to 12 aircraft each. On the other hand, the army group employs regimental sorties on an on-call basis when supporting the forcing of a river obstacle or defended line in the enemy rear or when trying to inflict decisive damage and dislocation on enemy reserves or counterattack forces.

Commitment of OMG or Second Echelon

The period of commitment of a follow-on force is usually one of great vulnerability to enemy air, indirect fire, or counterattack. This is especially the case if the OMG or second echelon has to complete the penetration of the tactical zone of defense. It presents a massed target array to the enemy over a period of several hours, even in the case of a division-size force. Air defense must be impregnable, and if the artillery has not kept up in adequate strength, direct air support may be necessary to complete the penetration, destroy or neutralize enemy artillery, interdict reserves, repel counterattacks, and even to lay smoke. During this period, the army group commits the bulk of its aviation in support (traditionally 70 to 80 percent).

Repelling Counterattacks or Counterstrikes

If the enemy succeeds in getting his timing right, he can mount a counterattack or counterstrike when the attacker is off balance and unable to effectively respond. Air power may be the main or only means of breaking up the attack, or at least of disrupting and slowing it.

Deep Operations in the Enemy's Rear

When conducting operational maneuver deep in the enemy's rear, OMGs, whether they be of division or army size, might find that artillery has difficulty in keeping up with the maneuver units, as does logistics support. The ground maneuver force thus looks to ground-attack aviation to compensate for deficiencies, particularly when forcing water obstacles or when breaching lines in the enemy's rear. Of course, air action also plays a key role in destroying withdrawing forces, interdicting enemy reserves, and disrupting enemy C2 and logistics support.


At least initially, air power often provides the primary source of fire to disrupt or prevent breakout efforts or relief attacks. If an encircled grouping establishes a viable defense, air action can also play a major role in preventing enemy aerial resupply.

Readiness Categories

The OPFOR recognizes three levels of combat readiness for army group aviation fighter-bomber aircraft and crews. Figure 10-3 defines the categories in terms of aircraft and crew status, how long they maintain that status, and the time it would take them to be airborne. These categories probably also apply to other types of ground-attack aviation assets. Aircraft in categories one and two respond to on-call missions.


Crew and Aircraft

Duration Of Readiness

Time Before Takeoff


Aircraft are fully serviced and armed. Combat crews are briefed on their mission and are in the aircraft ready to start engines. Ground personnel are assisting the combat crews.

1-2 hours

3-5 minutes


Aircraft are fully serviced and armed. Combat crews are briefed and are on standby in the vicinity of the aircraft ready to take off within a specified short period of time after receiving a mission order.

2-4 hours

15 minutes


Aircraft are refueled and serviced. Cannons are loaded. External systems (bombs, rockets, missiles, fuel tanks, etc.) are not loaded. Combat crews are designated, but not on standby; they have not been briefed on the air and ground situation, but will be before takeoff.

2-4 days

1-2 hours

Figure 10-3. Levels of air combat readiness.

Transit time can vary according to the proximity of the airfields to the target. It can be quite short for attack helicopters, since these stand by at forward operating sites located within the second echelons of forward divisions or armies, about 30 to 50 km from the line of contact.

Protective Measures

The OPFOR emphasizes the importance of camouflage, concealment, and deception and surprise in paralyzing hostile air defenses. To this end, it employs the following attack techniques and EC measures.

Attack Techniques

As far as possible, aircraft approach the target area along corridors created through enemy ground-based defenses. They usually make the approach at the lowest permissible altitude given weather and terrain restrictions, ideally at 50 to 100 m. Aircraft reduce radio transmissions to a minimum or operate silently.

The OPFOR exploits detected gaps in enemy radar coverage and uses decoy flights in advance of attacking aircraft to distract enemy air defense systems. If more than one pass is necessary to destroy the target, attacking flights approach from different directions or from bright sunlight. This minimizes visual detection, and recognition, and antiaircraft effectiveness.

Electronic Combat

Because the enemy air defense relies on electronic equipment, the OPFOR must neutralize it to reduce aircraft losses. Special SOJ and ESJ aircraft protect the raid, and raiding aircraft use SSJ systems. Moreover, the ground forces attempt to neutralize or destroy all identified air defense weapons and radars within range using indirect fire. All these efforts help to reduce OPFOR aircraft losses.


The OPFOR has steadily increased the offensive air capabilities of fixed- and rotary-wing assets to support fast-moving ground forces. They continue to improve the quality and quantity of all aircraft to achieve their tactical, operational, and strategic goals.

Air power provides the best means for suddenly concentrating potentially decisive fire anywhere on the battlefield and for projecting firepower into the enemy's depth. The OPFOR attaches particular importance to interdiction as a vital part of deep operations.

Ground-attack assets execute shallow missions against tactical and operational-tactical reserves, and bomber aviation conducts an operation against operational and operational-strategic reserves to prevent their timely and organized deployment. Long-range strategic aviation plays an important part in destroying or disrupting the arrival of strategic reserves in the theater.

Air Cover

Air cover prevents attack by enemy offensive air weapons on OPFOR troops and installations and prevents hostile air reconnaissance. This is the principal mission of fighter aviation. Air cover also protects other aviation assets involved in various phases of air support. Thus, air cover equates to combat air patrol or escort.

Phases of Air Support

Besides the long-range fire strike at the onset of theater-level hostilities, doctrine calls for air support of ground forces in offensive operations. The OPFOR recognizes four phases of air support, which correspond to the four phases of offensive fire support. The major difference between the phases is their time of deployment, although there are some differences in targeting, command, and delivery.

The four phases of air support within an offensive operation are--

  • Phase I: air support for movement forward.
  • Phase II: air preparation.
  • Phase III: preplanned and immediate air support of the attack.
  • Phase IV: air accompaniment.

These four phases are not mutually exclusive. Air accompaniment may occur simultaneously with support of the attack for units on the main axis, while air preparation is taking place for other units about to make a secondary attack. At the same time, fighter aviation provide air cover for all of these ground force units.

The OPFOR plans to coordinate the fire support of SSMs, artillery, and air assets into the integrated fire destruction of the enemy throughout the entire depth of the enemy's defenses. Integrated fire support in an offensive begins when the supported OPFOR unit leaves the assembly area and continues until the supported unit completes the offensive mission.

Phase I: Air support for movement forward. The OPFOR introduced this phase to support the movement of an OMG. However, Phase I also applies to support of any uncommitted force moving toward commitment against the enemy. It consists of long-range fires to protect a force moving from an assembly area to the line of deployment into battalion columns.

Phase I specifically targets the most dangerous enemy long-range weapons that might strike the supported unit while it is still a considerable distance from the forward edge of enemy defenses. These targets primarily consist of enemy nuclear and precision weapons, long-range artillery and SSMs; they also include aircraft on airfields and combat helicopters. The OPFOR uses fixed-wing aviation, SSMs, long-range guns, and MRLs to destroy or neutralize these deep targets. The deepest targets are the responsibility of aviation. Air support for the movement forward may extend over several hours.

Phase II: Air preparation. Phase II, like Phase I, occurs before the onset of a ground offensive and across a specified frontage. Air preparation can precede a variety of offensive operations such as penetrations, forcing water obstacles, amphibious and airborne or heliborne landings, and counterstrikes. It may also precede the commitment of second-echelon or reserve forces or OMGs.

Generally, air preparation extends no farther than the enemy's immediate operational depth (that is, to the rear areas of defending corps, which is about 250 to 350 km). Air attacks destroy targets that conventional artillery and SSMs cannot because of distance, mobility, or their hardened nature. Targets thus include--

  • Enemy nuclear delivery means and precision weapons.
  • Airfields and forward operating sites for helicopters.
  • Artillery.
  • Electronic warfare sites.
  • C2 centers.
  • Deep defensive positions.
  • Reserves and their approach routes (such as key road junctions and defiles).
  • Logistics sites.

Depending on the combat situation, air preparation might take as little as 10 minutes or may extend to over an hour. However, it typically begins about 20 to 30 minutes before the supported force reaches the forward edge of enemy defenses. The length and organization of the air preparation reflects the--

  • Nature of the enemy's defenses.
  • Type and density of fire support means used for the preparation.
  • Role of precision weapon strikes in the attack plan.
  • Nature of the ground attack.

Air preparation usually occurs simultaneously with missile and artillery preparation. It requires close, detailed coordination with the latter with regard to timing, targeting, entry and exit routes, and support for the attacking aircraft against air defenses. The OPFOR might have to repeat this phase against well-fortified, deeply echeloned defenses. Army-level attack helicopters can engage some close-in targets, but targets in the immediate operational depth usually require attack by fixed-wing aviation from army group level. In special situations (such as amphibious assaults), strategic aviation and/or naval aviation may participate in air preparation attacks.

Phase III: Preplanned and immediate air support of the attack. Phase III begins when maneuver units launch their attack. It starts immediately after the end of the fire preparation and continues at least until OPFOR attacking units overrun enemy first-echelon battalions. The majority of air strikes are preplanned. Ground force commanders may request immediate air attack missions against centers of resistance within the limitations of their allocated resources.

The air support phase closely follows the operational plan prepared before the onset of the offensive. It is an extension of the strong artillery fires associated with offensive operations. As in Phase II, the targets generally are those beyond the range or destruction capabilities of artillery and missiles. These targets include enemy nuclear and precision weapons, C2 systems, and enemy reserves at tactical and immediate operational depths.

Phase IV: Air accompaniment. The specific point at which Phase IV begins is not always clear. However, it begins with the end of Phase III and continues until supported maneuver forces have accomplished their missions. This phase occurs during the advanced stage of offensive operations when the progress of ground forces has outstripped the prepared fire support plan; the commander must then reassess and reallocate air resources.

Once he has allocated air resources before an offensive, the army group commander plays little further direct role in the conduct of air support unless large reallocations are necessary. However, in Phase IV, the army group commander again has the primary role. He probably reallocates significant air resources to support maneuver forces as the combat situation develops.

To a large extent, the army group decentralizes to armies the responsibility for tasking air assets. The army group commander continues to hold some resources in reserve for the execution of deep missions of longer-term interest to the army group. The commander must also reallocate his air assets to maneuver forces according to the development of the combat situation.

The importance of direct air support increases dramatically in this phase because of the increasing difficulty of target acquisition by artillery and, indeed, because of the difficulty the artillery and its logistics support have in keeping up with a high-speed advance. The OPFOR sees air support as a particularly valuable substitute for artillery in meeting engagements and in pursuit.

The main burden falls on attack helicopter units, since they are best able to offer both rapid and intimate support, especially in difficult terrain or a confused situation. However, there is a reluctance to use helicopters outside the protection of the air defense umbrella, at least if fighter top cover is not available.

Air attacks can cover deployment and commitment of second echelons, engage enemy reserves moving forward, and prevent the enemy from establishing new defensive positions. Another important and demanding air-accompaniment mission is escorting airborne or heliborne forces being delivered into the enemy's rear. This requirement for air cover might occur over the enemy rear while the preparation or support phases are still underway over the forward edge of enemy defenses.

Choice of Aircraft

The four phases of air support to offensive ground operations use both fixed-wing aircraft and attack helicopters. The increasing number of attack helicopters enables them to play a greater role in the support of ground forces, freeing fixed-wing aircraft for missions against deeper targets such as nuclear weapons depots and airfields.

In a meeting engagement, air support assets (particularly attack helicopters) screen and support units as they maneuver into position. Also, air strikes attack enemy columns moving forward to reinforce engaged units. The OPFOR might employ attack helicopters in flanking attacks against reinforcing or counterattacking enemy armor columns.

In a pursuit, air support assets attack withdrawing enemy units through armed reconnaissance and in ambushes along withdrawal routes. These assets might be either high-performance aircraft or helicopters. Attack helicopters also can support forward detachments outside the range of artillery fire.

Attack helicopters now provide most of the direct air support to ground forces during the offense. The OPFOR has carefully studied using helicopters along with artillery fire. Fire planners normally employ attack helicopters after completing the artillery preparation; however, they may use both simultaneously. In such situations, helicopters have entrance and exit corridors parallel to and between artillery fire concentrations and under the trajectory of artillery rounds. Careful planning will permit their helicopters to pass under friendly artillery fire and to quickly provide fire support for attacking ground forces.

Helicopters can support ground forces that penetrate deeply into enemy rear areas. The OPFOR might employ pairs of attack helicopters in low-level flight. Attack helicopters fire in support of ground forces and guide reinforcement helicopters to attack targets if needed. A mixed force of fixed-wing attack aircraft and attack helicopters may strike assigned targets.


Effective army group aviation operations in support of advancing troops require appropriate airfields. In some regions, certain types of modern aircraft can use unpaved airfields; they can also use some captured enemy airfields.

When appropriate airfields are available, modern aircraft, with increased operational range and load capability, can give air support for ground forces advancing at high speed. However, some OPFOR aircraft can operate from small, unpaved airfields, ensuring reliable support to the ground forces. The attack helicopter has the required flexibility to provide this support.

Airfields for fixed-wing aircraft. Each air regiment has from two to three airfields, each division has from four to nine, of which two-thirds are active and one-third alternate.

The army group might use 35 percent permanent bases, 35 percent dispersal fields, and 30 percent alternate (maneuver or reserve) fields to operate its fixed-wing aircraft. (Normally, aircraft do not return to the fields from which they launched the mission.) In emergency, aircraft might use highways for recovery or transit missions.

The aim is to ensure survivability of air assets through a combination of maneuver and dispersal, keeping a reserve of airfields for surge operations. The OPFOR makes extensive use of camouflage, concealment, and deception to enhance survivability. Deception airfields can amount to one-third to one-half of all permanent airfields.

Of course, as army groups advance deep, the problem of forward bases for aircraft can become significant. This explains the priority the OPFOR gives, during deep operations, to seizing enemy airfields with airborne or heliborne landings or with forward detachments. Airfield maintenance battalions, which advance with the forward-most ground forces, can restore or improve these as well as suitable highway strips.

Airfields for rotary-wing aircraft. Attack helicopters deploy to forward operating sites that either move forward with the advance or rearward with the withdrawal. For protection, the OPFOR places these sites near second-echelon units of forward divisions or with second-echelon divisions, that is, as close as 35 km from the line of contact. OMGs can take with them resources to create one or more forward operating sites so up to a regiment of combat helicopters can continue to operate from within the OMG once the separation from the main forces has become too great for safe transit or adequate loiter times.

Support for Amphibious and Airborne Landings

Successful action from the air is essential to the success of both tactical and operational landings. Army group aviation missions might include the following:

  • Reconnaissance.
  • Comprehensive suppression of enemy air defenses.
  • Escorting formations to their targets.
  • Neutralizing drop-zone or beach defenses.
  • Providing direct air support to ground forces.
  • Conducting aerial resupply.


Where elements of an army group in the offensive have transitioned to defense, priority in allocating air support normally goes to those forces that are still conducting a successful advance. Aircraft committed to helping a defending force have their fires integrated into the overall fire plan. The basic aim is to disrupt the enemy's attack plans with air attacks in his immediate operational depth.

The air fire support plan contains several variants, developed in detail. These variants take into account the anticipated actions of the enemy and his most probable avenues of approach. They cover air strikes against attacking forces that are out of range of artillery and SSMs. They also plan to use all fire support weapons to concentrate fire on forces that have reached, or penetrated, forward defensive positions.


There is an aviation counterpreparation plan for each planning variant. Its objective is to launch a powerful, surprise, concentrated strike of short duration to preempt the enemy's plan. The OPFOR intends for air strikes, along with intensive delivery of rocket, missile, and artillery strikes, to annihilate or neutralize enemy forces preparing to attack. This first phase of defensive fires should start before the enemy's preparation fires. The targets of the counterpreparation, roughly in order of priority, are--

  • Precision weapons.
  • Aviation on airfields.
  • Artillery in firing positions.
  • Enemy maneuver forces preparing to attack.
  • Major C2 installations, headquarters, and communications centers.
  • Water obstacle crossing sites.
  • Enemy reserves.
  • Equipment, ammunition, and fuel dumps.

Phases of Air Support

In the defense, as in the offense, the fire planner utilizes all available fire support to carry out the commander's plan. These defensive fires have four phases:

Phase I: fire interdiction of the advance and deployment of enemy troops.

Phase II: fire to repel the enemy attack.

Phase III: fire support of defending troops.

Phase IV: fire destruction of the enemy during a counterattack or counterstrike.

Choice of Aircraft

In addition to their key role in counterpreparatory fires, fixed-wing aircraft play the primary role in defense against enemy airborne landings. They have the range to strike enemy airborne troops in their assembly areas or to destroy aircraft on airfields prior to takeoff. Fighters can also interdict aircraft in flight, before they reach the drop zone.

In Phase I, the fight in the security zone provides opportunities to use army aviation helicopters. OPFOR helicopters (using terrain or smoke cover) conduct ambushes along the most likely enemy avenues of approach against advancing groupings. Minefields laid by fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters can also be useful in this phase to delay the enemy force or canalize the enemy attack.

Phase II, repelling an enemy attack, is one of the least favorable times to use aviation. Other fire support means concentrating firepower on the forward edge of the defense may have to check their fires as OPFOR aviation approaches that area. However, the combined arms commander normally keeps some aviation assets on call during this phase to provide a quick-reaction strike force wherever the enemy threatens to penetrate the forward defenses.

In support of defending troops (Phase III), helicopters with ATGMs counterattack armored or mechanized forces that have penetrated forward defensive positions. The helicopter force seeks routes that allow it to approach the flank of the enemy force undetected. If terrain variations do not provide adequate concealment for the force, helicopters may use smoke to conceal their approach. Helicopters can also block major enemy penetrations or supplement mobile obstacle detachments by laying mines along threatened flanks and gaps. During withdrawal, helicopters support rear guard units by attacking advancing enemy units from ambushes at minimum altitudes.

Helicopters also provide accompaniment for counterattacks or major counterstrikes by maneuver units (Phase IV) and help in the neutralization of enemy artillery. The army commander can hold attack helicopters in reserve as a mobile counterattack force.

1 Naval aviation includes maritime bomber, reconnaissance, and fighter aircraft that can support amphibious landings as part of an army group or theater operation. They might also help to repel enemy amphibious landings or to prevent enemy reinforcement in the theater. National air defense forces include fighter-interceptor and airborne early warning aircraft, as well as strategic surface-to-air missiles (SAMs); their mission is to defend the State against air attack.

2 Sometimes the OPFOR refers to this as long-range aviation.

3 At the army group level, units with aviation in their name normally consist of fixed-wing aircraft.

4 Some armies may have a mixed aviation squadron instead of a separate helicopter squadron.

5 A corps would have some of the same aviation assets as an army. These could include a combat helicopter regiment and a separate helicopter or mixed aviation squadron.

6 An army group could conduct an air operation on a smaller scale to establish local air superiority during an army group operation.

7 Under certain conditions, the OPFOR recognizes that the long-range fire strike phase of a war could last weeks rather than days. This could arise from opportunity, for example, if the enemy does not have strong air and air defense capabilities. On the other hand, it could be out of necessity, because of the nature of the enemy's ground force defenses or the inability to confirm destruction of his nuclear weapons.

8 This title is a special distinction. Even the commander of missile troops and artillery and the commander of air defense are not deputy commanders of the army group. Other branch chiefs are simply chiefs and not commanders.

9 The tactical-level counterpart is the reconnaissance-fire complex, which incorporates the fires of only tube artillery and MRLs under the control of the tactical commander.

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias