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by MAJ Mark Sexton and CPT Dale Watson,
Aviation Observer Controllers, JRTC

This article focuses on mission planning for both deliberate and hasty attacks in a low-intensity environment and shares tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) that have proven effective during previous JRTC rotations.


This article discusses employment of light attack aviation and air cavalry forces in the low- to mid-intensity environment. Light attack aviation employment in this environment, specifically at the JRTC, differs significantly from the standard deliberate and deep attack that is generally associated with doctrinal attack helicopter operations. In Cortina, the armored threat target array is generally isolated, limited in number, and frequently very difficult to locate. When you add the constant pace of operations to this combination, the result is that attack units often become too busy to conduct deliberate planning for all missions. Furthermore, many of the missions are decentralized, small-unit operations executed at the platoon or team level.

Deliberate Attack

Light Attack/Air Cavalry in the Defense

Detailed planning is essential for successfully conducting deliberate attacks in all environments. Restrictive terrain and dense foliage hamper a commander's ability to conduct deliberate attacks at the JRTC. These terrain challenges impose on the company commanders an increased the level of detail in the planning process for deliberate attacks.

Opportunities for deliberate attacks at the JRTC are limited mainly to the defense and the military operations on urbanized terrain (MOUT) attack. During the defense, the brigade combat team (BCT) typically establishes an area defense with two infantry battalions abreast and a security zone in front of the main battle area (MBA). The security zone fight is often assigned to the aviation task force. It is vital to the overall success of the BCT's defense. Although the security zone is critical to the execution of the brigade's defense plan, the aviation task force must not lose sight of the "big picture." Aviation units need to think and plan the defensive fight in-depth, not just those actions in the security zone. The security zone fight is a transient fight only.

A major trend at the JRTC is for the aviation task force to plan only the security zone fight. Units typically do not plan "in-depth" for the subsequent fight that will take place in the MBA.

1. Emphasize planning the employment of attack aviation in the MBA.
2. Synchronize and tie it in with the ground units that own the terrain.
3. Planning in-depth requires a dedicated reconnaissance effort with clear reconnaissance objectives throughout the BCT's defensive sector.

Based on the enemy order of battle, the aviation task force will establish a screen as the primary security task in the BCT's security zone with the purpose of finding and destroying enemy reconnaissance elements. Once an aerial screen is established, it should be maintained until ground forces have been able to move in and occupy their subsequent observation posts (OP) or until the enemy reconnaissance elements are located and destroyed. At JRTC, attack aviation is one of the most lethal assets the brigade commander has at his disposal to conduct screening operations. They are also very limited in number. The unit must prioritize the times when they will be able to provide aircraft to screen the brigade's security zone.

Prior to establishing the screen, a zone reconnaissance should be conducted with terrain as the primary reconnaissance objective. A secondary critical objective is to locate and destroy any enemy found in zone.

The zone reconnaissance answers questions that directly influence the shaping of the BCT's defensive plan. Reconnaissance tasks that will facilitate the development of an integrated brigade defense include verifying proposed attack-by-fire (ABF) positions, OPs that allow eyes on named areas of interest (NAI), targets, and obstacle locations. Seeing the actual locations of obstacles and understanding their purpose as it relates to the engagement area (EA), block, fix, turn, and disrupt, will drive attack aviation's EA development.

Screen Operations

The BCT commander defines the success criteria of the screen. The critical tasks of a screening force include destroying or repelling all reconnaissance forces, and locating and maintaining contact with the lead company of lead battalions. Since destroying lead battalions is not a critical task, the BCT commander must plan for disengagement criteria that allow rearward passage of lines for the screening force. Once the aircraft no longer have responsibilities on the screen, they should immediately focus their efforts on the main battle area.

Engagement Area Operations

An engagement area is defined as an area along an enemy avenue of approach where the commander intends to contain and destroy an enemy force with the massed fires of all available weapons (FM 101-5-1, Operational Terms and Graphics). Aviation units find unique challenges in conducting EA operations effectively. Some of these challenges will be illustrated sequentially as they would develop during a typical scenario.

FM 1-112, Attack Helicopter Operations, states that battalions are responsible for planning EAs and companies are responsible for conducting direct fire planning. A trend at the JRTC is that battalions focus on multiple facets of their current operation; they do not initiate reconnaissance to establish a security zone and define the MBA as soon as possible after the receipt of the brigade order. A very important aspect of this reconnaissance is not only to ensure the zone is clear of enemy forces, but to also conduct an initial assessment of potential EAs.

Step 1: IPB. The first step in EA development is intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB). The IPB process drives the S-2's development of the enemy's most probable course of action and most dangerous course of action. It establishes the groundwork for determining the second step of EA development. Specific questions or reconnaissance objectives are closely tied to the S-2's IPB and the commander's priority intelligence requirements (PIR). A start point for defining the scope of reconnaissance is the modified combined obstacle overlay (MCOO). The MCOO is an important tool for selecting the ground where we want to kill the enemy. It highlights the major avenues of approach. These avenues of approach ultimately shape the development of EAs, the obstacle plan, the fire support plan, the placement of OPs, and the placement of decision points (DP). The MCOO is based on a map reconnaissance and other intelligence products. It must be revised to reflect the results of actual reconnaissance efforts. Many routes, trails, and roads are not depicted on the map. A thorough zone reconnaissance will identify any routes or lateral movement corridors that the enemy may use to bypass planned EAs. This information must be delivered to the brigade commander and staff for use in their course of action development.

A common trend at the JRTC is for the aviation task force to "blindly" take proposed EAs from the BCT and not refine them with a reconnaissance.

Step 2: Select the Ground. Select the ground where the enemy will be killed. At JRTC the selection of EAs is often done at the BCT based on a map reconnaissance. Another reconnaissance task that should be conducted during the zone reconnaissance is determining the "worth" of the proposed EAs: Does the EA allow attack aviation the ability to destroy the enemy? How will the EA shape the enemy's movement? Does the EA provide clear fields of fire? Can it be serviced from ABFs that provide cover and standoff range for the aircraft? What deadspace is in the EA and how will it be covered?

Conduct initial reconnaissance with a focus on identifying the limited areas where attack helicopters can use their weapon systems to engage and destroy both enemy armor/mech and dismounted forces. Once these areas have been defined and coordinated with the ground force commander as actual EAs, the unit should conduct further reconnaissance to determine ABF positions. The key to these locations is the ability to place direct fires accurately into the EA.

Techniques: Company commanders need the following information to conduct mission analysis and complete direct fire planning:
1. The number of aircraft that may occupy the position.
2. The azimuth from the position to the EA.
3. The range and altitude the aircraft must be at to clearly see the EA.

The most significant difference between standard EA development and that done at JRTC is the ranges that the aircraft will be able to engage targets. The very restrictive vegetation and terrain provide very few areas for Hellfire engagements and almost no areas to engage targets beyond 2,000 meters. This limitation must be taken into consideration with both weapons configurations and decision points/triggers to ensure the aircraft are in position to conduct engagements at the appropriate time. The key to placing sustained fires onto the enemy is the timing of the aircraft arriving on station. The company commander must inform the S-3 how long it will take his company to move to and occupy the various ABFs. Decision points are key to integrating attack aviation into the fight at the right time and the right place.

Step 3: Integration. The integration of the EA must be coordinated by the battalion staff for attack operations in the EA to be successful. The synergistic effect of the obstacle plan, the indirect fire plan, the ground unit direct fire plan, and the direct fires of attack aviation can be overwhelming to an attacking force. The aviation unit must take the time to understand the planned effects of the other battlefield operating systems (BOS) and incorporate those effects into their own plan. At the JRTC many aviation units attempt to conduct attack operations in a vacuum. They do not have a thorough understanding of the obstacle plan or the fire support plan for the brigade task force when they are planning their company-level operations. This not only sets them up for failure with their own engagements, it also sets them up for a high potential for fratricide.

Step 4: Direct Fire Planning. Direct fire planning is especially crucial in the JRTC environment. The restricted nature of the terrain severely limits the time window for successful engagements from attack helicopters. The units that are able to move into their ABFs and immediately place well-aimed and distributed fires onto the enemy are much more successful than those who have to deconflict their direct fires once they have occupied their ABF positions.

Figure 1
The absolute minimum detail in graphic control measures to conduct a security zone and
defensive operation. Is this enough to make you comfortable in a deliberate defense?

Weapons load planning, especially for Kiowa Warriors (KW), is critical to successful destruction of the enemy forces. The various types of 2.75-inch rockets that are available require prior planning to ensure the correct rocket is tailored to the target array and terrain limitations. The munition type must be brought to the forward area rearming and refueling point (FARP) to ensure the correct ordnance is available for subsequent loads. Complete staff integration is key to ensuring these types of details are not left to chance.

Weapons choices are critical. They depend on the current type of threat being engaged and the area in which they are located. For instance, a .50-caliber machine gun is not the weapon system of choice when trying to engage armor/mech forces. In the JRTC fight, the 2.75-inch HE rocket is generally the most effective direct-fire weapon. The Hellfire missile is extremely lethal; however, there are very few areas where aircraft can engage with it at a range of more than approximately 2,000 meters. Rockets have proven to be the most effective weapon at the JRTC because they can kill dismounted personnel as well as destroy lightly armored vehicles.

Planning. One aspect of EA development that normally receives little attention is planning contingencies based on enemy reactions. Many units discuss contingencies based on weather and maintenance issues, but they do not plan on an uncooperative enemy force. The best battlefield effect at the JRTC is undoubtedly the thinking, uncooperative enemy portrayed by the 1/509th PIR. The aviation unit must be prepared to react when the obstacle is breached. Otherwise, the unobserved "trail" in the woods becomes the maneuver axis for the enemy's main attack and the OPFOR bypasses planned EAs.

Preparation. Preparation includes ensuring sufficient ammunition is available, establishing multiple FARP locations, and scheduling maintenance personnel and equipment to be available at the appropriate time. The S-3 planner and company commander cannot be expected to cover all of these areas themselves. These are issues that should be coordinated by the various staff sections.

Rehearsals at the aviation task force level are crucial to successful EA operations. This is the commander's chance to ensure that all of the elements of his task force understand their portion of the upcoming fight and the sequencing of the fight. Rehearsals provide the opportunity to confirm the timing and sequencing of the different units to include FARPs, command and control (C2) nodes, fire support assets, and the attack helicopters themselves.

Execution. The execution of the deliberate attack by attack helicopters at the JRTC is just like most other combat operations. The detailed plan seldom lasts past the initial contact. Yet the benefit of detailed planning does not go away once the fight starts changing. When the company commander or platoon leader has a solid understanding of the ground maneuver plan, the intent of the obstacle plan, and the preplanned fires, he is better prepared to employ his aircraft in a position to execute the brigade commander's intent than if he were operating independently:

  • His knowledge of the ground maneuver plan should allow him to contact the appropriate battalion to clear fires if the enemy is in close contact.
  • His knowledge of the fire support plan will allow him to call for a preplanned target or group, which will provide a more rapid response time than calling in an unplanned fire mission.
  • His knowledge of the obstacle plan will allow him to do an immediate analysis of the maneuver corridors and place some of his aircraft in new locations based on that analysis.

These are but a few of the benefits that are derived from doing detailed, integrated planning for EA operations.

Hasty Attacks

FM 101-5-1 defines hasty attack as: ". . . a result of a meeting engagement, launched with the forces at hand and with minimum preparation to destroy the enemy before he is able to concentrate or establish a defense." More often than not this is the type of operation attack/cavalry commanders find themselves involved in at the JRTC. There is no standard in Army aviation that defines the required actions to complete a hasty attack. This is understandable due to the variety of units and their differing missions. The following discussion emphasizes the minimum information requirements that are necessary during hasty attacks and some TTP that have proven effective at JRTC.

Two types of hasty attacks occur during rotations at JRTC. The first type is an autonomous engagement conducted against targets of opportunity. No air-ground integration is required. This engagement is straightforward. It is typified by chance encounters against enemy vehicles or personnel that are clearly identified as threat. Often the enemy has fired on the aircraft and the immediate action drill (hasty attack) is used to destroy the enemy. Immediate action drills suffice for most situations.

Technique: The primary consideration for these engagements is the location of friendly units. Updated graphics and situational awareness of friendly units' locations and missions will alleviate much of the risk associated with possible fratricide.

The second type of hasty attack occurs more frequently. More often than not, hasty attacks will coincide with actions that precipitated from ground contacts. Obviously, hasty attacks in support of ground units are more complicated and therefore will be covered in more detail. A thorough understanding of the responsibilities of both the ground and air element is essential for successful execution. The coordination between the ground unit and attack helicopters is normally the key to success or failure of the attack. There are minimum information requirements that must be exchanged for all coordinated attacks.

Clear communication. The key to success for any air-ground coordinated action is clear communication. A major problem seen at the JRTC is air-to-ground communication. This stems from the aviation commanders and crews not having a solid understanding of the ground scheme of maneuver and not knowing whose area they are currently operating over. Therefore, the aviation commander is not sure whom to contact.

1. Ensure aviation commanders and crews understand the ground scheme of maneuver.
2. Keep a thorough communications matrix or chart in the cockpit covering all the units that may need support so that the aircraft can come up on the correct frequency or hopset. Once initial radio contact is made, the aircraft should inform the ground element of its number and type of aircraft, its weapons load, and station time available. The ground element should inform the aircraft of its location and the current tactical situation. Friendly location and markings are crucial to night operations.
3. Ground forces should use a distinctive marking system to aid the aircraft in identifying friendly locations and thus preventing fratricide. There are many techniques for marking friendly unit locations. The method should be pre-determined to reduce confusion during hasty attacks. Day markings may include colored smoke grenades or VS-17 panels with a specified color being displayed or formed into a specific shape. Nighttime markings can include colored chem lights, IR strobes, or laser pointers. The table on page 4-7 shows several different methods that are available.

Target handoff. The next step is the target handoff to the aircraft. A proven method is for the ground unit to give its current location (8-digit grid) and the direction and distance to the target from that location. This method eliminates the confusion of someone with a ground perspective trying in vain to describe a hilltop, stream intersection, or some other terrain reference to the aviator who has a very different perspective. It is important to relay the composition of the enemy element to the aircraft so that the pilot understands what kind of visual cues he is looking for. It is also very effective for the ground element to use some type of marking device to mark the actual enemy location for the aircraft. Some effective marking techniques are listed in the table.

Clearance of fires. Once the enemy element has been located, the aircrews must ensure they have cleared their fires through the ground element that is in contact. Knowing the effects of the weapon system being employed is very critical at this point. The pilot must take into account the collateral effects of his munitions and the potential for injuring friendly ground troops. The attack axis for the aircraft may be determined as much by friendly unit locations as by the surrounding terrain and vegetation. The aircrew must make all reasonable efforts to confirm the reported locations of friendly elements before firing.


Glint Tape


Must be illuminated with IR
GPS Grid




8-digit preferred
IR Strobe X
VS-17 PanelX
Signal MirrorX Requires sunlight
SmokeXXXDistinctive signature
Chem lights X Effective as a swinglight
Laser Pointer X Can mark both friendly and enemy locations
Star Cluster X Marks general area
Swinglight X IR light on string
Connected 9-volt batteries XTaped to helmet - generates heat
MRE Heater XPosition away from body heat
Reverse Polarity Tape X




1. The 2.75-inch rocket has multiple warhead options.

  • The 10 lb. warhead has a 50 meter burst radius.
  • The 17 lb. warhead has a 75 meter burst radius. The difference can make quite an impact in a close ground fight.
2. The attack axis of the aircraft has a large impact on the beaten zone of 30-mm rounds or .50-caliber rounds.
3. The orientation of the aircraft in relation to the friendly forces on the ground can determine the difference between a good engagement and a fratricide.

When the engagement is complete, the aircrew should tell the ground unit they are "rounds complete." The two elements should discuss the battle damage assessment (BDA) from the engagement and determine if a re-engagement is required. If an immediate follow-on attack is not necessary, the aircraft should either return to its previous mission or return to the assembly area to FARP and debrief the unit S-2.

Usually an attack team maneuvers to destroy the enemy in hasty attacks at the JRTC. A trend at JRTC is ineffective teamwork used during the hasty attack. The "wingman" concept bases its strength on mutual security. During an engagement, both aircrews must clearly understand their responsibilities to ensure a successful attack.

EXAMPLE: Aircraft at JRTC frequently tend to initiate an engagement before the wingman is in a position to cover his attack.

Technique: Develop and rehearse a battle drill for securing an aircraft as it engages. Aircraft tend to lose contact with the enemy. This is the wingman's responsibility. Many aircraft make an initial "gun run" on the target, and while turning to set up for another run, they lose contact with the target. This occurs when the wingman is not integrated into the engagement; in other words, while one aircraft is making a turn to re-engage.

Technique: Make sure the wingman remains in position to engage or maintain eyes on the target. This choreographed action will increase the fidelity of the engagement.

Quick Reaction Force

Every unit that has conducted a JRTC rotation in the past two years has had to deal with the issue of "on-order hasty attacks," more commonly known as "911 missions." The problem with these missions is they often become a unit's focus, thus detracting from the pre-planned mission. The aviation task force must have a plan in advance to conduct integrated missions with the ground elements. They must also have the capability, particularly during search and attack operations, to react to on-order missions.

The brigade combat team must establish launch criteria for the quick reaction force (QRF). The brigade commander should establish the criteria so there is no room for doubt in the heat of battle. This is not a decision that should be left to the aviation battle captain who happens to be on shift when a radio call comes in to the TOC. The commander's criteria will preclude confusion between units over what actions warrant the employment of the aircraft.

One of the difficulties units face is how to provide aircraft for pre-planned missions yet retain dedicated aircraft as a QRF.

Technique: Establish a timeline that provides a team of aircraft at a time to "mission coverage" and a separate team dedicated to "QRF" coverage. This gives the unit the ability to conduct planned missions as well as react to on-order hasty attacks at the latest hot spot in the brigade's area of operations.

Dedicated aircraft and crews provide two distinct advantages to reacting with aircraft that are already conducting a deliberate mission. The first advantage is the aircraft that are currently conducting reconnaissance or security operations will be able to complete their current mission without interruption. The second advantage is that a standing QRF crew will be able to focus on the immediate details of the on-order mission and will have much better situational awareness when they arrive on station to support the ground unit. Additionally, if the commander decides he needs more combat power for the current mission, there are two crews standing by who should already have good situational awareness and have aircraft that are already prepared to launch.

The difficulty with this type of aircrew management is that the unit will probably not be able to cover the entire 24-hour period for continuous operations. Twenty-four hours leaves no flexibility for the aviation commander to mass his forces to execute specific missions in support of brigade-level operations. There is also no dedicated time window for maintenance operations.

Technique: Resolve this problem by planning to conduct approximately 20 hour's worth of QRF coverage per 24-hour period.

One benefit of planning 5-hour flight windows for the crews is the ability to make slight shifts to aircrew cycles and then be able to mass aircraft at critical points in the brigade fight. When crews are on 8-hour cycles, the ability to shift their duty day is not as flexible. Assuming risk with no aircraft coverage for a defined period substantially increases the commander's ability to mass his aircraft and provides a dedicated time window for the maintenance managers to plan their work around.

The key to implementing such a plan is close coordination between the aviation task force and the brigade combat team staff. Rotations at the JRTC have shown infantry units do not conduct active combat operations 24 hours a day. They allocate a portion of the day to planning, resupply, and reconstitution operations. Ground units should focus their combat operations on the S-2's pattern analysis and event templating. This should provide a time window for massed participation by the aviation task force to complement the ground scheme of maneuver. On the other hand, the BCT may want to cover the infantry's planned down time with additional aircraft on station to give the enemy the impression that there is a large amount of activity taking place.

The unit must have an established readiness condition (REDCON) level for the QRF. This gives everyone in the BCT a time reference of when to expect aircraft to arrive on station if the QRF is activated. There must be a requirement to report to the requesting unit if the established timeline cannot be supported on a specific QRF request.

Technique: Attack units should have an established SOP for their QRF. The crews should accomplish some pre-combat tasks before their shift begins. These include but are not limited to:
1. Pre-flight and run up aircraft to include a spare.
2. Communications check.
3. S-2 update brief.
4. Operations update from the battle captain.
5. Update battle graphics.

These steps will help ensure there is no gap in coverage between the QRF crews. These crews have to be located at a designated place of duty during their QRF shift. The crew, the battle captain, and the RTOs in the TOC should know this location. They need direct communication with the battle captain at all times during their shift.

One of the most significant factors to the success of well-executed QRF employment is situational awareness. More often than not at the JRTC, the QRF crews are located in the company/troop CP and are monitoring the aviation radio nets. This does not give the crews the situational awareness they need to be able to respond immediately into the close fight. As discussed above, at least one member of the QRF should be located in the battalion TOC. This will increase both situational awareness and response time for the actual launch of the QRF.


The largest single factor that enhances the overall performance of light attack and air cavalry forces at the JRTC is greater integration with the ground maneuver forces. The units that are the most integrated in both planning and execution achieve the best results on the JRTC battlefield. The use of liaison officers is one technique that usually increases the integration process in a very measurable way. The other option is a purposeful effort by the S-3 and his subordinates to communicate with the ground maneuver units and the brigade staff several times daily to ensure the aviation task force TOC is properly tracking both current operations as well as the planning for future operations.

btn_tabl.gif 1.21 K
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