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Rethinking Close Air Support
CSC 1992
Title:  Rethinking Close Air Support
Author:  Major J. M. Redman, United States Marine Corps
Thesis:  For the direct air support of troops in close
contact with the enemy, the best asset to accomplish the
mission will be, more than not, the attack helicopter.
Background:  The Marine Corps has long considered close
air support to be the main purpose of Marine aviation.  The
concepts and techniques of close air support have evolved
through the years based on the nature of the conflict and
the innovation of Marines.  Results of the 1973 Arab-Israeli
War brought about the most significant changes in close air
support techniques.  These techniques have allowed Marine
aviation to continue to provide air support to ground forces
despite significant improvements in air defense systems.
Although the conduct of close air support with fixed-wing
aircraft is still viable, it has become extremely difficult
to accomplish on the modern battlefield.  The coordination
and communication necessary for success is complicated
by the use of electronic warfare by the enemy.
While the execution of close air support with tactical
jets has become more difficult, the fire power capability
of the attack helicopter has increased.  This increased
firepower, coupled with the ability of the helicopter to fly
low and slow and remain near front lines, makes the attack
helicopter a suitable alternative for close air support.
Forward positioning of attack helicopters to support ground
units reduces response time and decreases the need for
communications.  This makes close air support easier to
Recommendation:  Marine Corps doctrine for the employment
of aviation should be changed to reflect a greater reliance on
the attack helicopter for close air support and the use of
fixed-wing aircraft for missions which utilize their speed,
range, and firepower.  Additionally, the inventory of attack
helicopters in the Marine Corps should be increased.
Thesis:  For the direct air support of troops in close
contact with the enemy, the best asset to accomplish the
mission will be, more than not, the attack helicopter.
I.	Evolution of close air support
	A.	Pre-1973
	B.	Post-1973
II.	Requirements for close air support
	A.	Responsiveness
	B.	Effectiveness
	C.	Survivability
III.	Advantages of the attack helicopter
	A.	Forward positioning
	B.	Reduced communications
	C.	Target acquisition/identification
	D.	Reduced weather capable
IV.	Positive steps taken
	A.	Night attack system
	B.	More aircraft
     The U.S. Marine Corps has always considered the
employment of aviation integral to the efforts of its ground
forces.  This tradition began shortly after World War I when
the first Director of Marine Corps Aviation, Major Alfred A.
Cunningham, wrote:  ". . . the only excuse for aviation in any
service is its usefulness in assisting the troops on the
ground to successfully carry out their operations."  Marine
Corps concepts and techniques for conducting close air
support(CAS) originated during the  "Banana Wars"  of the
1920s and 1930s and have continuously been refined through
experiences in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.(10:13)
     During an address to the officers at Quantico in 1988,
General A.M. Gray asked them what the purpose of Marine
aviation was.  The overwhelming response from the audience
was to support the Marine on the ground.  General Gray
firmly corrected the officers stating that the aviation
combat element (ACE) is there to support the MAGTF commander
in the accomplishment of his mission.  Since that address,
maneuver warfare has been officially adopted as the basis
for Marine Corps doctrine, and discussions over the role of
the ACE in maneuver warfare have been ongoing.
     This dialogue over the role of aviation has resulted in
the expression of many ideas about what is required for the
ACE to operate most effectively in support of the MAGTF in
maneuver warfare.  One of these concepts envisions the ACE
as another maneuver element of the MAGTF.  As such, the ACE
would be used not only in support of the ground combat
element (GCE) but also operate as an independent element with
its own mission.  Currently, doctrine still says that the
primary mission of MAGTF aviation is the support of the
GCE. (5:1-1)  There are missions other than direct air
support that aviation can do that can have a decisive effect
on the MAGTF's mission; however, this does not mean close
air support will not be equally important.
     In examining Marine aviation and its doctrine for
employment, we should review all current practices to make
sure we are conducting operations in the most effective
manner.  This includes our doctrine for conducting close air
support.  In the execution of maneuver warfare we want to
task aviation to accomplish something that no other arm can
do.  A corollary of that would be that we want to select the
best asset to do the mission at hand.  For the direct air
support of troops in close contact with the enemy, the best
asset to accomplish the mission will be, more than not, the
attack helicopter.  This is not to say that the Marine Corps
does not need fixed-wing air support.   On the contrary,
fixed-wing aircraft are what make the MAGTF unique and
enhance its combat power far above the size of its ground
forces.  However, based on their speed, range, and combat
power, they are better utilized in a battlefield air
interdiction role.
     To understand why the attack helicopter should be the
primary emphasis for close air support, we should begin by
examining the evolution of close air support and the
environment in which it developed.  This study will lead to
a discussion of the capabilities that are most important in
successfully fulfilling the CAS mission.  From these
considerations we can highlight the advantages of the attack
helicopter over the use of a tactical jet.
     The Marine Corps began to develop close air support in
the 1920s while conducting operations in Haiti, the
Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua.  These operations were
conducted against rebel style forces in jungle type terrain.
The technique of dive bombing was developed due to a need to
deliver ordnance accurately through the dense jungle.
During these actions the only antiaircraft defenses were
rifle fire.  Pilots were able to fly at an altitude of only
1500 feet without fear of suffering any damage.  These
relatively low flying aircraft could maintain an awareness
of the situation on the ground and had little difficulty
identifying the enemy.  They communicated with ground forces
mostly by Very Pistol, pick-up and drop messages, and
panels. (8:73)
     These early techniques for close air support were
carried into World War II and continually improved
throughout action in the Pacific.  Procedures were required
for overcoming the thick jungle conditions where
distinguishing friend from enemy was difficult.  On
Guadalcanal, when air colored panels proved unsuccessful,
radio-equipped  air forward observers  were placed with
front-line forces.  On Bougainville close cooperation
resulted in air strikes that destroyed Japanese forces
within 500 yards of Marine lines and sometimes as close as
75 yards.  Use of pre-mission briefs by infantry officers on
the terrain peculiarities and tactical situation, flights of
strike aircraft with ground liaison officers aboard, and
assignment of air liaison officers with rifle companies all
helped promote the cooperation and coordination needed.  The
use of colored smoke to mark friendly positions and white
smoke to mark the enemy also contributed to the effective
employment of aviation to support ground forces.  Because of
minimal air defenses and lack of an air threat, extensive
efforts were made to identify hostile targets, but these
didn't always prevent bombing of friendly units. The
employment techniques developed in these early battles would
carry over through the rest of World War II and be the basis
of doctrine for Korea and Vietnam. (8:167)
     Close air support in Korea and Vietnam was conducted
under basically the same conditions as in the Pacific.
Aircraft operated in a permissive environment that showed no
significant improvement in air defenses or in an air-to-air
threat.  As in previous wars the enemy was mostly infantry
fighting in rugged terrain and thick vegetation.  Major
changes in execution of CAS included the replacement of
propeller driven aircraft with jet aircraft and the use of
airborne forward air controllers.  The first resulted in
greater survivability but also made target acquisition more
difficult.  The second aided in target acquisition.  In
Vietnam, the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing provided aircraft to
the ground units of the Third Marine Amphibious Force by
pushing them to airborne alert positions on a continual
basis during all hours of the day and critical times at
night.  Ground units would then call the Direct Air Support
Center (DASC) to have an available aircraft sent to them.
Aircraft would fly into the area at medium altitudes and
contact the final controller who would talk the pilot onto
the target.
     Throughout this development of close air support,
Marine aviation seldom had to be concerned with other types
of missions.  Except for times in World War II when Marines
took part in the air superiority battle or the naval battle,
there was not a requirement to conduct typical interdiction
missions.  Thus the focus was on CAS.  During Korea and
Vietnam the air superiority and interdiction missions were
mainly conducted by the Air Force.  Again, the Marines were
able to focus their efforts on support of their ground
forces with the exception of a few sorties that were
provided to assist the Air Force effort. (11:285)
     Following the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the Marine Corps
began to take notice of the changes on the modern
battlefield and their effect on air support.  With the
growing Soviet threat and the likelihood that a war with the
Soviets would include Marine Corps participation, the
lessons from the Middle East were important.  As applies to
air support, the most significant change to warfare was the
introduction of an integrated air defense system.
Surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems forced aircraft to fly
below the effective altitude of the radar guided missiles.
This placed them in the envelope of radar-guided
antiaircraft artillery (AAA) which proved to be extremely
more effective than the manually guided systems Marines had
faced in previous wars.  For protection from these systems
close air support tactics were developed using low level
flight to mask the aircraft from enemy radars.  Low level
flight terminates in a pop-up at the target for acquisition
and identification.  The use of these tactics requires a
terminal controller to mark the target by some means such as
artillery and to employ assets to suppress local air defense
     These current techniques for CAS result in a necessity
for good coordination and communication.  This requirement
is encumbered by the use of electronic warfare to jam
aircraft communications.   This is on top of the difficulty
already associated with talking to a low flying aircraft
from a position on the ground.  Even without enemy activity
it is hard to accomplish the mission.  With the chaos that
will occur in actual battle, the execution of close air
support with fast moving aircraft becomes even harder.
     Another aspect of the modern battlefield is the
mobility and firepower.  In previous wars Marines faced an
enemy that was foot mobile.  Actions against the enemy were
relatively slow-paced and allowed time to call in close air
support.  In an armored environment there may not be enough
time to wait for an aircraft to come from somewhere else.
It must be available immediately.  Also, in this environment
the enemy is more likely to have weaknesses in his rear area
which will require the use of aviation assets to go deep to
     These changes in the environment in which CAS must be
executed have had a noteworthy impact.  Prior to 1973 a
pilot could orbit above the battlefield out of harms way
until he was requested by a ground unit.  CAS could be
conducted at altitudes where a pilot could see the target
area easily and could have a terminal controller talk his
eyes onto the target.  Communications were not hindered by
anything other than the technological limitations.
Coordination was relatively simple, and the only major
problem that occurred was the weather.  Today, to meet the
threat of the mid-intensity battlefield with an integrated
air defense, we must depend on the ability to communicate in
an electronic warfare environment sufficiently to coordinate
getting air on station, marking the target, and suppressing
the enemy's air defenses.  Aircraft can not linger over the
battlefield and respond immediately to air requests.  They
can remain in an airborne alert status out of range of enemy
radars, but this is not the most efficient way to use them,
because of the amount of fuel burned by modern jet aircraft.
In a sustained land campaign, this could be costly in the
long run.
     In determining the capabilities of an aircraft to
perform close air support, we can generally break the
requirements into three categories:  responsiveness,
effectiveness, and survivability.  No matter what
environment, but especially an armored one, the Marine on
the ground wants air there immediately.  The most rapid
response from a jet aircraft will come when it is in an
airborne alert status.  This concept is easily accomplished,
but it also has drawbacks.  First, in a situation where
assets are scarce, airborne alert is considered an
inefficient use of assets and may require the extensive use
of airborne tankers.  Second, the ground unit must request
the asset through the air command and control system which
may be overburdened.  As a forward air controller in a large
exercise, I often found the air request net to be extremely
busy when I needed to request air.
     The other method of rapid response is to place aircraft
on ground alert in a rear area.  This technique is more
efficient than airborne alert; however, it still requires
going through the command and control system.  Also, the
aircraft will have farther to go to get to the target.
Forward basing of the AV-8B Harrier is a concept designed to
minimize response time which in turn reduces fuel
requirements and increases payload.  In theory, this is a
great concept, but in reality the limitations of the
aircraft and the logistical requirements to support forward
site operations make it a less than optimum solution. (9:19)
      The next capability needed of a close air support
aircraft is to be effective.  To be effective a pilot must
be able to communicate with the terminal controller, acquire
the target, and deliver, during day, night, or bad weather,
sufficient combat power to destroy the target.  The Marine
Corps has the doctrine to be able to conduct effective CAS
during the day, but as previously mentioned it takes a great
deal of coordination and requires good communications.  To
talk to an aircraft on a low level ingress, the terminal
controller often times must relay through some other agency.
This in itself complicates the process.  Presently, the
Marine Corps is limited in its ability to conduct CAS at
night or in bad weather.  This is being improved with the
introduction of the F-18D and the incorporation of the night
attack system into the Harrier, but these are still
relatively untested in operations close to friendly troops
and leave us limited in our all-weather capability.
     The final qualification that a close air support
platform must meet is survivability.  In an environment with
a heavy integrated air defense system, one key to survival
is minimum exposure time.  Exposure to air defense systems
can be minimized by destruction, suppression, confusion, or
evasion.  Destruction and/or suppression of air defense
systems is the responsibility of the supported ground unit.
Confusion is accomplished with electronic countermeasures,
infrared flares, and chaff dispensers.  Evasion is the
result of utilizing appropriate tactics to remain hidden
from the threat as long as possible.  For the modern
battlefield this means flight as close to the earth as
possible at high airspeeds.  This increases the complexity
of conducting CAS and requires skill and a high degree of
training.  In a permissive environment as experienced in
Vietnam and before, or as was attained in the Persian Gulf
War, survivability is achieved by gaining air superiority
and flying above the threat of AAA. (13:15)
     The Marine Corps does have the capability to meet close
air support requirements with fixed-wing aircraft, but in a
manner that has become complex and difficult to coordinate
even in peacetime training.  In a mid-intensity conflict
with a non-permissive air defense environment, fixed-wing
close air support may reach a point where it is not
feasible.  The speed, range, and payload capability of
tactical jet aircraft make them more suited to attacking
major targets in the enemy's rear area that may have a
decisive effect on the enemy's ability to fight.  The
Marines had never really faced a situation, until the
Persian Gulf War, where there was an adequate array of rear
area targets to strike.  This can explain why close air
support has become the primary mission for Marine fixed-wing
aircraft.  We should keep this in mind as we look at our
doctrine for employing the ACE in future conflicts.
     Realizing that fixed-wing aviation can perform the CAS
mission, then we must look at the capability of the attack
helicopter to see if it is a better platform to accomplish
the mission.  The greatest advantage of the helicopter is
its responsiveness to ground forces.  The ability of these
assets to move right along with ground forces or wait in
holding areas close by puts them where they need to be
immediately.  A good example of this occurred in the Persian
Gulf War.  The commanding general of the 1st Marine Division
found himself at one point in front of his leading elements.
All of a sudden, he had Iraqi T-62 tanks coming at him.
About the time he realized this, a flight of AH-1 Cobras
appeared and took the tanks under fire.  In this one
engagement alone, this flight of Cobras took out nine tanks
and five other armored vehicles. (4:49)  Not only can attack
helicopters locate themselves close to the infantry, but
they can, if the situation warrants, sit at ground idle and
extend their time on station considerably.  If that isn't
feasible, a forward arming and refueling point (FARP) can be
easily  established using a couple of transport helicopters
carrying fuel and ordnance.  One AH-1 pilot stated that he
has been able to remain on station for nearly five
hours. (3:38)  This is the responsiveness that is required
for the close support of troops.
     This forward stationing capability of the attack
helicopters also makes it very effective in the close
support role.  With the capability to land and receive a
face-to-face brief from a ground unit commander, the
problems in communication between the terminal controller
and the aircraft are mostly alleviated.  This is similar to
the methods used in World War II at Bougainville; the pilots
are briefed on the terrain and the current tactical
situation.  The nature of the  helicopter and its ability to
fly low also increase its effectiveness.  For fixed-wing
aircraft at high speeds target acquisition is their number
one obstacle.  A low, slow flying helicopters, with two sets
of eyeballs and familiarity with the situation, will have an
easier time acquiring targets and identifying them.  With
reduced visibility often being the greatest weather
restriction, attack helicopters can operate in conditions
far worse than fixed-wing aircraft.  Whether the ceilings
are only 200 feet or the  visibility less than a mile, by
flying profiles of 10 feet in altitude and less than 40
knots, the AH-1 can still operate.  Although the night
capability is very limited at this time, funding for a night
attack system has been approved, and the AH-1W night attack
capability in the future will equal that of any fixed-wing
     The delivery of sufficient combat power is the last
criteria of effectiveness that must be assessed.  No doubt
fixed-wing assets carry more punch overall, but the
firepower on the AH-1W is nothing to ignore.  With the
capability to carry up to eight Hellfire and TOW antitank
missiles, 2.75 or 5 inch rockets, and 750 rounds of 20mm
ammunition, a flight of AH-1Ws could provide adequate close
support to an infantry unit.  This is particularly true if
we use fixed-wing aviation farther out to disrupt large
enemy formations.  I believe it is safe to say that attack
helicopters are very effective.
     The final measurement to test the capability of the
attack helicopter is survivability.  This is where many
opponents would say that it falls short.  Several articles
have referred to helicopter losses in Vietnam as an
indication that they will not be able to survive on the
modern battlefield.  Although helicopters are vulnerable to
a variety of weapons systems, so is a Marine infantryman.
Survival consists of four elements:  orientation,
susceptibility, defendability, and vulnerability.  To
survive a pilot must remain oriented to events on the
battlefield.  He must employ the appropriate tactics to
reduce his susceptibility to detection by the enemy.  He
must have the capability to respond if detected.  Finally,
if fired on, the aircraft must be able to sustain some
damage and return to a secure area. (12:69)  Attack
helicopters can survive on the modern battlefield by using
the terrain to reduce susceptibility and standoff weapons
systems when the situation requires it.  Where the AH-1W is
deficient is in its armor protection; however, as the Gulf
War showed, the AV-8B is also very vulnerable when hit.
     One additional area that should be regarded in this
study is the use of air support in the amphibious assault.
This is the main reason that Marines have such an extensive
air force and very little artillery support.  In the
traditional amphibious assault the fire power of fixed-wing
aircraft would be preferred over the attack helicopter.
Today, with the application of maneuver warfare doctrine,
this may not be true.  We want to make our landing in an
area where the enemy is not, so the use of attack
helicopters is viable.  We still need to employ fixed-wing
aircraft for interdiction of the enemy in the amphibious
objective area and to shape the battlefield.
     The attack helicopter, whether the AH-1 or the AH-64,
proved in the Persian Gulf War that it is a credible asset
on the modern battlefield and can survive.  With the reality
of a shrinking budget, we must make careful decisions on our
force composition.  One way to save money is to invest more
in less expensive attack helicopters and less in more
expensive tactical jet aircraft.  The F/A-18 strike/fighter
is an immensely capable airframe and, in my opinion, can do
everything that the Marine Corps needs in a tactical
fixed-wing aircraft.
     The Marine Corps has recently taken some very positive
steps in enhancing the employment of the attack helicopter.
One of these, the night attack system, has already been
mentioned.  The other is the decision to increase the number
of AH-1s in the light attack helicopter squadrons from
twelve to eighteen.  In line with these steps, doctrine
should be changed to reflect a greater reliance on the
attack helicopter as a CAS platform.  This would include
deletion of the term close-in fire support.  Another step
that should be made is to stop deployment of AV-8Bs with our
Marine Expeditionary Units and double the number of attack
helicopters that deploy.  This would, however, require the
number of attack helicopter squadrons in the Marine Corps to
be increased.  That doesn't sound like a bad idea either!
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Marine Corps Gazette May 89: 26.
2.	Davis, Capt. Dale R.  "Close Air Support Revisited:
Doctrine, Tactics, and Technology.  Marine Corps Gazette
October 90: 34.
3.	Dixon Jr., Maj. William H.  "Close-In Fire Support:
Is It Degraded by Bad Doctrine?  Marine Corps Gazette
October 90:  37.
4.	Ewers, Col. Norman G.  "A Conversation With Lt. Gen.
Royal N. Moore, Jr."  Marine Corps Gazette October 91:  44.
5.	FMFM 5-4A Close Air Support and Close-In Fire Support
Quantico, VA:  Marine Corps Combat Development Command, 1988.
6.	Garrett, Thomas.  "Close Air Support:  Which Way Do We
Go?"  Parameters December 90: 29.
7.	Gibson, Maj. Mark J. and Maj. Barry M. Ford.  "Do Grunts
Deserve the AH-1W SuperCobra?  Marine Corps Gazette September
90:  71.
8.	Hallion, Richard P.  Strike from the Sky Washington and
London:  Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.
9.	McDonald, Capt. Sean P.  "Expeditionary Site Operations."
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Present Annapolis, MD:  The Nautical and Aviation Publishing
Company of America, 1983.
11.	Momyer, Gen. William W.  Airpower in Three Wars
Washington, D.C.:  Office of Air Force History, 1985.
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Marine Corps Gazette August 89:  69.
13.	Saye, Wing Commander Jeremy G.  "Close Air Support in
Modern Warfare."  Air University Review January-February 80:  2.

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