LIGHT AVIATION AT THE JRTCby the Aviation Division, JRTC
Army aviation is a vital member of the combined arms team at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC). In addition to the flexibility, lethality, and maneuverability that light aviation units bring to the JRTC battlefield, Army aviation commanders effectively integrate risk management and a strong safety focus in operations. Safety and standardization programs are strong, illustrated by the exceptional air and ground safety record Army aviation units achieve during demanding rotations. Soldiers and leaders at the JRTC demonstrate competence and enthusiasm while completing warfighting tasks and fieldcraft. Aircrews prove particularly proficient at the individual level. Unfortunately, the aviation branch is not as successful tactically at the collective level. Reduced levels of officer and NCO experience provide commanders and staffs predictable problems and challenges. This lack of experience is the result of reduced collective-level training opportunities at Home Station and competing career management challenges in a smaller Army. This management system reduces the amount of quality time officers and NCOs spend in tactical units. Additionally, resource constraints and distracters prohibit fully integrated combined arms training. This is especially true in regard to aviation task force-level training throughout the year at Home Station. Leader development suffers from aviation branch stove-piped organizations, where junior officers are shaped by the machines they fly. The result is officers not proficient in employing indirect fires or performing the security zone fight effectively, both functions necessary in attack/cavalry units. Routinely, aviation units do not synchronize air assaults well and fail to employ heavy-lift helicopters efficiently. Most light aviation units experience considerable difficulty synchronizing maneuver and fires with the ground force.
Typical Rotation Scenario
Though sequences vary, a typical rotation at the JRTC starts with an entry mission by the brigade combat team (BCT). The BCT stages at England AirPark in Alexandria, Va. The entry may be forced, opposed, or unopposed, and can be accomplished via airborne, air assault, air movement, or ground movement to secure a lodgment. Air cavalry is called on to perform reconnaissance and security operations while setting the conditions for the BCT's entry. Following the initial entry mission, air cavalry and attack units conduct search and attack fully integrated with the ground force to find-fix-finish small, decentralized opposing force (OPFOR) elements in sector while the BCT secures the lodgment. Often the BCT is assigned an out-of-sector (flex) infantry company air assault raid to seize a limited objective. It is common to assign command and control (C2) to the aviation task force for this high-visibility mission. This frees the infantry battalion commanders and staffs to focus on search and attack. The BCT attack on the Shugart-Gordon MOUT site is a premier mission performed at the JRTC, where Army aviation is employed to perform area reconnaissance, urban attacks, and air movement/assault, while the BCT focuses on seizing the village and returning control back to the local government.
Doctrinal defense against a mech-armor force is the other major mission performed at the JRTC. During the conduct of the defense, Army aviation is frequently assigned the security zone fight. During this mission the aviation commander rapidly shifts to attacks-in-zone as the fight transitions to the main battle area (MBA). The battle at the JRTC is a continuous 24-hour-a-day fight; there are no change-of-mission days set aside to prepare for the next phase of operations. The challenge for the aviation commander and his staff is to perform abbreviated Military Decision-Making Process (MDMP); command, control, and communications (C3); and maintain situational awareness during high-operational tempo (OPTEMPO). Success is dependent upon adequate staffing of the aviation task force by the aviation brigade and staff proficiency in the MDMP prior to arrival at JRTC.
Battalion-level commanders must train search and attack, develop staff competency at the task force level, integrate their operations with the ground maneuver force, and arrive at the JRTC with realistic expectations. The aviation branch has not doctrinally developed search and attack; hence, commanders struggle to define tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP). Light aviation task forces are routinely not manned with a fire support element (FSE), aircraft systems experts, or sufficient staff to perform continuous high-OPTEMPO operations, or equipped with fuel blivets, FARE systems, radios, ATS, unique aviation maintenance tools, and test sets. They are not properly trained in attack cavalry assault roles and missions, nor have they used the abbreviated MDMP in performing task force operations. Compounding the problem is an over-reliance by staffs on the aviation liaison team at the BCT. Commanders and staffs defer significant portions of the abbreviated MDMP to pre-advance course captains and lieutenants who are rarely fully integrated in the BCT staff. BCT aviation liaison teams cannot be expected to replace the experience or depth of the aviation task force staff.
Aviation brigade commanders must train and resource their subordinate battalions as task forces at Home Station. It is imperative that the battalion commander has the opportunity to develop competency in his organization prior to a rotation at the JRTC. Battle focus should be on learning to integrate combat systems and aviation units from outside the organic organization (e.g., assault battalion staff trains on attack and cavalry operations). Aviation brigade commanders should have more of a voice in the rotation collective-level training objectives. Too often, the light aviation objective is purely adjunct to the training objectives of the BCT. The D minus 180 conference at Home Station is the first opportunity the aviation brigade commander has to influence his subordinate battalions' training at the JRTC. This conference is especially critical as the scenario is scripted following this initial meeting. Training objectives presented at this conference will ensure light aviation training needs are part of the rotation.
Each BCT deploys to JRTC with a subordinate aviation task force that is task organized around either an assault or attack battalion or air cavalry squadron headquarters. Typically, the organization includes an assault company, a heavy-lift platoon, a headquarters company with a Class III/V platoon, a MEDEVAC platoon, an AVUM-AVIM team, an ATS element, and two attack or air cavalry companies/troops. The 101st Airborne Division (AASLT) deploys a separate assault task force and the cavalry attack task force organizations that are subordinate to the BCT. Unity of the aviation effort and unity of command are unique challenges for the BCT during this high-OPTEMPO rotation. Special operations aviation (SOA) deploys in support of the 75th Ranger Regiment and typically is organized to support assault, heavy lift, and attack operations from the intermediate staging base (ISB).
Light aviation commanders must determine how to perform search and attack (see the CALL website: Training & Doctrine - Training Techniques). Doctrinal zone reconnaissance or movement-to-contact ensures complete reconnaissance. Avoid the pitfall of assets being piecemealed by the BCT commander; otherwise, the tenets of reconnaissance will be violated and the results obvious. Conduct reconnaissance to FIND the enemy. Light aviation FIXES the enemy through continuous reconnaissance or by screening avenues of approach. It is not uncommon for the OPFOR to be FIXED merely by the presence of armed aircraft on the battlefield. Aviation proves quite lethal and effective in the FINISH phase of search and attack, by performing hasty attacks or securing the ground force that moves to contact. In order to be effective, aviation commanders must insist upon determining the reconnaissance objective, express bypass and engagement criteria, and develop a scheme of maneuver that is fully integrated with the ground maneuver battalion that owns the terrain. The BCT commander must permit the aviation commander to mass his aviation - either for reconnaissance or attacks. Otherwise, the aviation task force will be piecemealed and ineffective. The BCT commander will have to give up 24-hour aviation support in favor of maximizing his limited assets to accomplish the mission.
Search and Attack
|Zone reconnaissance or movement to contact - commander's decision!|
|How to avoid piecemeal of assets - mass; accept tactical risk during other periods!|
|How to maximize aircraft capabilities with focus on tactics, not aircraft systems?|
|What TTP to find/fix/finish - are we integrated with ground forces?|
|Has the commander expressed intent for reconnaissance/hasty attack?|
Security Zone and MBA
Light aviation is frequently assigned two missions during the defense: defense of the security zone and attacks in the MBA. To this end, the aviation commander must prioritize allocation of air cavalry attack assets according to the BCT commander's intent and scheme of maneuver. The BCT commander usually allocates engineers, military intelligence sensors, and mechanized infantry and armor assets to the aviation task force for the security zone fight. The aviation task force will always have priority of fires during this fight. Commanders should ensure their staffs are proficient at the employment of these key non-aviation assets. Is the unit prepared to control terrain? A trend at the JRTC is that battle staffs are not prepared to employ ground assets. They fail to develop the security zone in sufficient depth to attrit the prescribed number of mechanized infantry and armor vehicles or provide early warning, reaction time, or maneuver space for the MBA battalions. Transitioning to the MBA fight proves particularly challenging. The staff is too often overwhelmed with the planning required to execute the security zone fight and does not adequately coordinate the MBA fight with the ground maneuver battalions. Engagement area (EA) development and synchronization of attacks are rarely achieved during the planning for the defense. Often, the aviation task force commander is forced to allocate a majority of his assets to the security zone fight. Depending upon attrition and battle damage, most aviation units are incapable of massing fires in the EA, missing the opportunity to be decisive during the MBA fight. It is not uncommon for attack helicopters to be employed in the MBA without close coordination with the supported ground force. A chance of fratricide increases accordingly.
|Has the commander expressed his intent clearly? Apportionment of assets? Security zone in-depth? Capable of massing attack helicopters?|
|Has the commander prioritized employment: attack vs. cavalry focus?|
|Is the unit prepared to control terrain and employ ground forces?|
|Is EA development coordinated with the ground maneuver battalion in the MBA?|
|Are attack helicopter operations coordinated and synchronized in the MBA?|
Basic, fundamental reconnaissance is problematic at JRTC because aviation commanders rarely maximize forces forward and fail to develop the situation because they piecemealed too many elements. Once making contact, aviation commanders rarely maintain contact long enough for a ground force to maneuver to contact. Aircraft are frequently engaged as leaders fail to retain freedom of maneuver; the commander rarely briefs bypass criteria. Deficiencies in reconnaissance are attributable to commander and aircrew focus on aircraft systems and not on tactics. Additionally, the scheme of reconnaissance is not detailed or based on a well-developed reconnaissance and surveillance (R&S) plan. Light aviation commanders must determine the reconnaissance objective, issue bypass and engagement criteria, and allocate sufficient assets to maintain continuous reconnaissance and contact. The BCT commander must be willing to accept tactical risk during periods of no aviation coverage.
|Is the reconnaissance objective clearly stated?|
|Has the commander expressed the intent for reconnaissance?|
|Are bypass and engagement criteria expressed?|
|How to achieve continuous reconnaissance, maintain forces forward, and maintain contact?|
|Is condition setting measurable? How is the mission affected if the unit fails to achieve stated results?|
Hasty attack is one of the more successful missions performed by light aviation at JRTC. Usually conducted during the FIND phase of search and attack, aircrews work in close coordination with the ground units to ensure clearance of fires. Success is attributable to radio communications being established down to infantry company and sometimes platoon level on the non-linear battlefield. Deliberate attack success is difficult to achieve because of element piecemealing by the BCT. Frustration is considerable during operations where the light aviation commander cannot mass direct fires in any of the attack methods--maximum destruction, phased, or continuous--because his assets have been providing 24-hour coverage and now are not available for operations due to fighter management and crew day limitations. The aviation battalion task force's abbreviated MDMP is often flawed because the BCT commander fails to express his intent for the attack. Not all issues rest with the BCT commander, however. There is a consistent trend that light aviation staffs do not perform battlefield calculus; shooters-to-target miscalculations normally are masked until the end of the mission. The BCT commander is equally bewildered, wondering why his attack aviation did not win the fight for him.
|Has the commander expressed his intent for the attack? Is it within unit capabilities: maximum destruction, phased, or continuous?|
|Is the staff performing battlefield calculus: shooters to target calculations?|
|Is EA development coordinated with the ground maneuver battalion?|
Deliberate assault operations are generally successful at JRTC, especially initial entry air assaults. This is attributable to ample initial planning time in the ISB and the high level of C2 that assumes ownership: the BCT and the light aviation battalion task force. The initial planning conference (IPC) is conducted early, as is development of the ground tactical plan. This permits the light aviation commander to perform early reconnaissance to confirm primary and alternate landing zones (LZs) and ABF positions, as well as to locate and destroy OPFOR elements in the vicinity. The air mission brief is usually conducted early and all aircrews normally participate. Rehearsals soon follow. The BCT assumes responsibility for the pick-up zones (PZ) and the aircraft are prepositioned early. This is where things start going wrong. Light aviation forces are too inflexible. Execution normally follows the plan, even if the OPFOR adversely influences the plan. Aircrews fly the same routes on subsequent lifts where aircraft were previously shot down. Flight techniques do not change; aircrews seem impervious to the perils of flying at 100-150 feet above the trees along routes where OPFOR air defense has made previous engagements. Though a suppress enemy air defense (SEAD) plan was executed for the initial air movement to the objective, fire support is rarely employed to suppress or destroy enemy air defense (EAD) once the fight starts. Subsequent air assault and air movement operations following the initial entry mission receive considerably less attention by the BCT. The light aviation commander is challenged to complete the IPC in a timely manner, largely because the ground maneuver battalion is tied up conducting missions and cannot dedicate time or effort to planning for the upcoming air assault. The ground tactical plan is developed very late. Aerial reconnaissance is not conducted. The air mission brief (AMB) is incomplete and so late that a rehearsal is out of the question. The BCT assumes little, if any, responsibility for the mission. It is at this point that assault operations normally do not succeed. The light aviation commander must be personally involved in this process in order to reverse this trend. If he leaves the planning to the aviation liaison team at the BCT, the plan will never come together. Face-to-face coordination with his fellow infantry battalion commander is essential to getting the planning back on track. Though it is impossible to achieve the time available during the initial entry mission, it is precisely the battalion commander who must gain control of managing critical shortages of time.
|Does the BCT accept responsibility for the air assault? When is the IPC?|
|Is the ground tactical plan completed early enough to permit reconnaissance of the LZs and ABF positions? Is the AMB timely and complete?|
|Is the PZ rehearsed? Who controls the PZ? How is the PZ organized: sling loads, etc?|
|Does the staff update analysis modify the plan commensurate with enemy contacts? Have enemy actions been anticipated between first and second lifts?|
|Does the fire support plan support the movement and landing plan? Subsequent lifts?|
Light aviation S-2s are generally inexperienced, with little distinction between the role of the S-2 as a military intelligence officer or an Army aviator. The S-2 must consider the effects of weather and terrain on aviation operations. Merely passing the BCT's visualization of the battlefield down to subordinate aviation companies is insufficient for the conduct of tactical aviation operations. A focused aviation IPB must be accomplished. Since the aviation task force occupies a significant amount of terrain, air avenues of approach must be determined to ensure proper placement of air defense assets in the vicinity of the tactical assembly area (TAA). The intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB) must focus on templated enemy formations in addition to the individual high-priority targets (HPT), since this will drive the allocation of assets during attack, reconnaissance, or assault operations. Battalion staffs must complete an event template as a routine effort during the abbreviated MDMP. Wargaming, a critical neglected step in the MDMP, is based on this event template. The S-2 must play the role of an uncooperative OPFOR during wargaming. Branches and sequels (contingencies) must be included in wargaming. Pattern analysis is a major effort for most S-2s. There is little time to establish or develop analysis in depth during the rotation, but that which is developed significantly influences the MDMP. Plotting OPFOR events over time and space will usually paint an accurate picture for predicting future operations. Units that perform proactive pattern analysis are usually more successful and spend less time reacting to the enemy.
Targeting can prove difficult since aviation battalions do not have an organic FSE. The aviation brigade resources the task force for the rotation, but there is normally little proficiency at the commander and staff levels. Targeting is further challenging since the aviation task force must integrate fire support planning with the BCT and the ground maneuver battalions on a high-OPTEMPO battlefield. Conducting a daily targeting-synchronization meeting is a proven technique to keep the aviation task force well integrated with the ground units. Most disturbing is the trend that aircrews maneuver throughout the battlefield with incomplete or, in some cases, no battlefield graphics posted on maps. TOCs rarely have current and complete graphics displayed. Assault units are by far the worst, as fire support coordination measures and friendly graphics are too often ignored. It is common for assault and lift aircraft to fly over position areas, across the gun-to-target (GT) line, or into targets being engaged by friendly artillery. A2C2, left to the aviation liaison team at the BCT, is incomplete and inadequate to ensure safe air movements or operations. Furthermore, commanders do not express the critical fire support tasks or intent for fires during major operations.
Employment of engineers will likely challenge the light aviation commander and staff, especially in the TAA while establishing force protection during initial occupation. The BCT commander will probably identify the aviation TAA as his number two or number three priority for the employment of engineers, competing with the forward support battalion (FSB) or artillery battalion, with a priority of effort directed towards survivability. Aviation commanders who aggressively gain control of engineers early and subsequently direct their efficient use, immediately building force protection in the TAA, will find themselves better prepared to conduct sustained operations during the rotation. The same philosophy holds true for the employment of engineers in the security zone. Early, focused use, with a priority of counter-mobility, ensures adequate preparation for the defense before these critical assets are pulled to prepare positions in the MBA for the ground maneuver battalions.
Successful employment of air defense assets is largely a function of the BCT commander's priorities. It is likely the aviation TAA will be high on his list of areas to protect. Thus, the aviation TF staff must plan for the emplacement of air defense assets along likely enemy air avenues of approach. As valuable as active air defense is to force protection, passive measures are equally essential tools that are too often ignored. Commanders must remember to employ dispersion and camouflage in the TAA, at least to the best of their ability. While it is difficult to disperse 60 helicopters, it is possible to break the parking areas up non-linear and less vulnerable to air attack. Camouflage and berm the forward area rearming and refueling point (FARP), as well as the tactical operations center (TOC) and living areas. Enforcing maintenance and use of aircraft survivability equipment (ASE) reduces the chance of fratricide from friendly air defense. Rehearsing the unit scatter plan ensures survivability and reduces risk in the event the commander decides to evacuate all aircraft.
Downed aircraft recovery team (DART) operations are usually conducted effectively at JRTC. Units are successful because of strong standing operating procedures (SOPs) that are rehearsed by the AVUM prior to execution. Commanders cannot ignore the requirement for security when performing DART operations, nor can they duplicate this mission as CSAR. DART and CSAR are two independent missions with totally different planning and execution. Refuel operations are very strong, characterized by competent NCO leadership in the Class III/V platoons. Challenges are encountered in units where the battalions no longer own the Class III/V platoons and must rely on an OPCON relationship from the aviation brigade HHC. It is not uncommon to observe standardization and safety issues in the FARP with these units. Fuel blivets and FARE systems are routinely deadlined until safety repairs are made. Sling-load operations in these platoons are often hampered by a lack of training and understanding of the Department of Army requirements pertaining to rigging and certification of sling loads. These problems are the result of loss of fidelity at the aviation brigade level and the ad hoc relationship that ensues during a rotation at JRTC. Aero-medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) and casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) operations are also very successful at JRTC. This is attributable to MEDEVAC units that place liaison in the aviation task force TOC and to commanders who assign CASEVAC responsibility to the MEDEVAC platoon leader. Under this arrangement, all aviation medical missions are under the C2 of a single leader in the aviation battalion task force. MEDEVAC missions are authorized by the FSB (Charlie-Med), with aircraft launch authority being the aviation commander. Aviation task force responsibilities include tactical intelligence, A2C2, fire support, aerial security, weather forecasts, and aircraft maintenance. This has proven to be an effective relationship between aviation and combat service support (CSS).
It is easy to become overwhelmed with missions at the JRTC. This is especially evident when the BCT commander wants 24-hour aviation coverage: the ability to mass attack helicopter fires on a moment's notice, continuous reconnaissance across the depth of the battlefield, and air movements well forward. Who is going to explain limitations and capabilities to the BCT commander? Many aviation commanders depend on the aviation liaison team at the BCT to explain it. Units that rely on pre-advance course lieutenants and captains do not fare as well as those units where the aviation task force commander is personally involved in decisionmaking at the BCT level. The challenge is to get involved early so as to not de-rail the entire brigade plan after completion of the MDMP. Approaching the BCT commander early with a doctrinal solution not only ensures development of a more effective plan, but also goes a long way toward assuring the BCT commander's confidence in his aviation unit. It is also important that the aviation commander enforce a disciplined daily battle rhythm for the staff. Deciding what meetings are essential toward synchronizing the aviation fight and then determining the scope of each meeting will battle focus the staff. Additionally, subordinate commanders will appreciate a battle rhythm that frames their workday. Aviation commanders must remember that the subordinate commander is the "customer" - not the BCT commander and staff. Focus downward rather than upward. Subordinate commanders deserve your attention.
Commanders should arrive at the JRTC with realistic expectations. They should identify two or three areas in which they want to improve their unit, and work along with the observer/controllers (O/Cs) to improve in those areas. Subordinates learn if they are assigned a clear doctrinal task and purpose for all missions. Force the BCT to do the same. Since the entire MDMP emanates from receipt of mission, it is imperative that the staff and subordinate units start off on the right track. Army aviation too often performs non-doctrinal missions with conflicting task and purpose and with predictable results. The disciplined employment of the unit is the responsibility of the battalion commander. Achieving air-ground integration is tough.
If units wait until their arrival at JRTC to start integrating operations with the maneuver ground force or artillery battalion, the results will be less than satisfying for all concerned. Effective air-ground integration starts at Home Station as an aviation task force.
The OPFOR does not fight a scripted fight at JRTC. They will exploit a unit's failings, and it will snowball throughout the rotation unless basics are applied from the beginning. Fight the OPFOR, not JRTC. Fight the OPFOR for this rotation, not the last rotation.
Commanders must beware of the urge to be so responsive to the BCT that minimal necessary planning and preparations for combat which are essential to survivability on the battlefield are ignored. Responsiveness for the sake of responsiveness will not play out well against a world-class OPFOR; what lessons are subordinates learning? Additionally, subordinates lose confidence in a chain of command that routinely jeopardizes their welfare for the sake of responsiveness. The BCT commander will likely respect the aviation commander that insists upon competent, responsible employment.
A commander must define for himself how success is measured at the JRTC. If it involves "beating the OPFOR" or some variation of body count, it is unlikely the rotation will be successful. If, on the other hand, basic fundamentals of Army aviation and combined arms employment are applied, competent leadership to subordinates is provided, and soldiers are inspired, the rotation will be a success. If success is improving the unit in two or three major areas, the rotation will be a success. And, oh, by the way, you just might win a few along the way.
Chapter 1: Capturing Aviation Lessons Learned
Chapter 3: Light-Army Aviation at the JRTC: Do We Perform Search and Attack?
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