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by LTC Davis D. Tindoll, Jr., Senior Aviation Observer Controller and
CPT Michael J. Negard, Aviation Observer Controller, JRTC

This aviation article is a reprint. The original article was published in the U.S. Army Aviation Digest, March/April 1995.

During a recent rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC), Fort Polk, LA, a scout/weapon team was given the mission to launch immediately to conduct a hasty attack in conjunction with an infantry company that was attempting to seize an enemy supply point. The infantry company was conducting a movement-to-contact under the cover of darkness when it came under heavy enemy fire. When the OH-58 Kiowa/AH -64 Apache attack team arrived on station, its task was to immediately suppress the westernmost area of the objective to allow the infantry unit leader to break contact with the enemy and reposition his platoons. The AH-64 aircrew had difficulty distinguishing enemy from friendly units on the ground. Throughout the mission, there were no air-to-ground radio communications. The crew engaged what it thought was the enemy's western flank with 75 rounds of 30-millimeter high explosive (HE) and four 2.75-inch rockets. The results were catastrophic: eight friendly killed in action and two wounded in action, with only three enemy casualties.

Effective coordination between light infantry and attack aviation can maximize the capabilities of attack helicopters while minimizing the risk of fratricide. We will discuss some techniques and procedures for enhancing the effectiveness of coordination between light infantry engaged in close combat and attack helicopters conducting hasty attacks in the same area. The insights presented here are based on JRTC observer/controller (O/C) observations of training since the autumn of 1993. This article will benefit air and ground maneuver commanders alike.

The key to success for enhancing air-ground coordination and the subsequent execution of the tasks involved begins with standardizing techniques and procedures. The endstate is a detailed standing operating procedure (SOP) between air and ground maneuver units that addresses hasty attacks in a close combat situation. This article will cover--

  • The coordination required between the attack team and the infantry brigade, battalion, company, and, most importantly, the lowest-level unit in contact.
  • The night-vision capabilities of the attack team. This includes the forward-looking infrared (FLIR) system, the thermal imaging system (TIS), and night-vision goggles (NVG).
  • Techniques for the infantry to mark its positions, particularly during periods of limited visibility.
  • The effects of the weapons employed by the attack team.

To achieve victory on the modern battlefield, we must apply overwhelming combat power to defeat the enemy. This strategy demands the effective integration of all available assets into the ground maneuver plan. However, at the JRTC -- in operations other than war scenarios -- infantry and aviation units often close with the enemy in unpredictable situations. Planning and coordination are often minimal. Because of the urgency of the situation, aviation and infantry units often execute hasty attacks after having been afforded only minutes to plan and coordinate. Although aviators are frequently at a readiness condition status that facilitates quick reaction, this measure is not enough. The results of insufficient planning by either unit cause enemy battle damage assessment (BDA) rates and incidents of fratricide to move in the same direction as illustrated in the opening scenario.

When enemy BDA rates are high from attack helicopters, fratricides also tend to be high because ground troops are dispersed near enemy troops. Conversely, when BDA rates are low, fratricide rates are also low because of overly restrictive fire control measures placed on the aviation attack team. These situations occur when leaders fail to coordinate effectively. The following contribute to inadequate or ineffective air-ground integration:

  • Aircrews do not understand the ground tactical plan or the ground maneuver commander's intent.
  • Common control measures that allow both air and ground units maximum freedom of fire and maneuver are not established.
  • Aircrews cannot differentiate between enemy and friendly forces on the ground.

In any case, the firepower, agility, and speed of the attack aircraft are substantially diminished and the opportunity for infantry and aviation unit leaders to seize the initiative and shape the engagement is jeopardized. Effective integration of air and ground assets begins with the ground maneuver brigade. When the aviation task force receives a mission to provide assistance to a ground unit engaged in close combat and planning time is minimal, the initial information provided by the brigade should be sufficient to get the aviation attack team out of its own assembly area and into a holding area that may be in the sector of the infantry battalion involved in close combat. The holding area must be a concealed position that allows for final coordination between the attack team leader and the infantry unit leader before the attack begins. It is located within frequency modulated (FM) radio range of all units involved. Alternate holding areas, along with ingress and egress routes, must be designated if occupation is expected to last longer than 15 minutes.

The brigade (see Figure 1) provides the location of the holding area--along with an air axis, route, or corridor for entry and exit through the brigade and battalion sector. The brigade also provides the call signs and frequencies or single channel ground and air radio system (SINCGARS) hopsets and communications security (COMSEC) information regarding the battalion in contact. If the unit is SINCGARS-equipped, the attack team must also have the common "time," which may be taken from global positioning systems (GPSs). In addition, the brigade provides the general location of the objective or engagement area.

  • Holding area
  • Ingress/egress routes
  • Call signs/frequencies
  • SINCGARS time back
  • Objective area

Figure 1
Brigade to aviation task force coordination

En route to the holding area, the attack team leader contacts the infantry battalion on its FM command net to verify the location of the holding area and to conduct additional coordination. The attack team leader (see Figure 2) receives information from the infantry battalion on the enemy and friendly situations. The battalion also verifies communications information regarding the unit in contact. By this time, the infantry battalion has contacted the infantry unit leader to inform him that attack aviation is en route to conduct a hasty attack.

  • Enemy situation
  • Friendly situation
  • Call sign/frequency verification

Figure 2
Infantry battalion to attack team coordination

Upon receiving the required information from the infantry battalion, the attack team leader drops to the infantry company's FM command net to conduct final coordination before launching his attack. Coordination begins with the infantry company commander and ends with the leader of the lowest-level unit in contact.

Regardless of which key leader the attack team leader coordinates with, the infantry company command net (see Figure 3) is the only suitable net on which both air and ground elements can conduct the operation. It allows all key leaders on the ground--to include the fire support team (FIST) chief and the attack team leader and his attack crews--to communicate on one common net throughout the operation. Operating on the command net also allows the attack team to request responsive mortar fire for either suppression or immediate suppression of the enemy. The AH-64 and the AH-1 Cobra are limited to only one FM radio because of the aircraft configuration. The OH-58 is dual-FM capable, which gives the attack team leader the capability to maintain communications with an infantry company as well as its higher headquarters or a fire support element.

Figure 3
Communications network

The attack team leader (see Figure 4) provides the infantry unit leader with his present location, which is normally the attack team holding area; the composition of the attack team; the armament load and weapons configuration; total station time; and the night-vision capability of the attack team.

  • Location
  • Composition
  • Armament load/weapons configuration station time
  • NVG capability

Figure 4
Attack team leader to infantry unit leader coordination

The composition of the attack team includes all aircraft types and numbers, to include scout observation aircraft. The armament load includes the types of weapons on board and the number of rounds available. The infantry key leaders consider the effects of these various weapons carried by the attack aircraft. Normally, the attack team will engage enemy forces during a hasty attack with area fire systems. These include the gun systems and the 2.75-inch rockets. These area fire weapon systems pose an extreme danger to friendly soldiers who may be in the lethality zone of the rounds or rockets.

When the AH-64 engages a target with the 30-mm chain gun, the high-explosive rounds create a lethality zone based on the burst fragmentation and round dispersion (see Figure 5). For example, when the AH-64 engages a target at 500 meters using the stabilized gunner's sight, it creates a circular lethality zone of about 177 meters in radius. The 2.75-inch rocket also produces a lethality zone (see Figure 6), depending on the type of warhead used and the mode of flight in which it was fired.

The Multipurpose Submunition High Explosive (MPSM HE) warhead, which provides improved lethal effectiveness against area targets--such as light armor, wheeled vehicles, and personnel--creates an oval-shaped lethality zone of 70 by 31 meters when fired from a range of 1,000 meters. To minimize the risk of fratricide, friendly ground personnel must exercise extreme caution when entering the lethality zone when the aircraft is firing.

Stabilized gunner's sight not used
Stabilized gunner's sight used
Helicopter firing range (meters)Lethality zone radius (meters)Helicopter firing range (meters)Lethality zone radius (meters)
Use applicable range safety fans during actual training.

Figure 5
Lethality zone of AH-64 30-millimeter chain gun

Helicopter firing range (meters)
Lethality zone

Figure 6
Lethality zone of 2.75-inch rocket with M261
multi-purpose submunition high explosive (MPSM-HE)

Tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided (TOW) and Hellfire missiles are point-target weapons systems carried by attack helicopters. Normally, these systems are employed against high-payoff targets only. They will not normally be fired against dispersed enemy infantry.

The attack team leader should inform the infantry unit leader of his night-vision capability. AH-64 copilot-gunners may elect to use either the FLIR radar system or NVG based upon ambient light conditions. The FLIR system detects only thermal or heat sources while NVG enhance visible light. Normally, AH-64 copilot-gunners use the NVG for en route, heads-out navigation, then make the transition to the FLIR system for target acquisition, identification, and weapons delivery once in the battle position. Using the FLIR, the aviator flips the goggles up on the helmet visor in a standby position. The TIS on the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior is similar to the FLIR system on the AH-64 in that it detects heat sources. The aircrew also uses night-vision goggles but can look under the goggles when viewing the thermal imaging system and immediately make the transition back to NVG if necessary. The AH-1 aircrews rely solely on the use of NVG because the aircraft has no thermal imaging system. Understanding the night observation capabilities of the aircraft is imperative to the ground unit because it will eventually assist in determining the method of marking friendly locations, either through the use of visible light markers or infrared markers.

The infantry unit leader provides the attack team leader with his maneuver plan (see Figure 7). This includes updates on the enemy composition, disposition, and the most recent activities, particularly the locations of air defense weapons. He also provides an update on the friendly situation--to include the composition, disposition, and location of his forces and supporting artillery or mortar positions. He then provides a brief mission statement and concept of maneuver regarding the ground tactical plan.

  • Enemy situation
  • Friendly situation
  • Infantry mission/concept of maneuver
  • Method of marking friendly positions
  • Target description, location, and marking

Figure 7
Infantry unit leader to attack team coordination

The infantry unit leader also describes his method for marking friendly positions. The ability of the aircrews to easily observe and identify ground signals is a critical factor in reducing fratricide and maximizing responsive aerial fires. The signal or combination of signals is based on items commonly carried by the infantryman, must be acquirable by the night vision or thermal imaging systems on the aircraft, and must be recognizable by the aircrew.

The signals used by light infantry soldiers include chemical (chem) lights, laser pointers, and various other innovative devices. These devices have been used successfully at Home Station and at the JRTC by a number of aviation and infantry units. Some of the more commonly used signals are described as follows.

When the attack team is using thermal imaging systems, one of the most practical and readily available signals is the meal, ready-to-eat (MRE) heater. This heater, which is slightly larger than a common sandwich bag, is carried by most light infantrymen and can be acquired by thermal imaging out to nearly four kilometers. To further improve this signature, the infantryman can tie a rope to the heater and twirl it in a circular motion, making it even more distinctive.

Another excellent thermal signal is the heated space blanket. The blanket itself is a common item carried by medics. It has an olive-drab green outer shell with a reflective inner shell. A soldier can wrap three or four MRE heaters inside the blanket with the reflective side facing out. The blanket radiates the MRE-generated heat outward and provides an easily identifiable thermal signal. Heat-producing items may not be available in the unit. The only thermal signature is the body heat of the individual soldier. If this situation occurs, a single soldier or group of soldiers may simply take up a "scarecrow" position by holding their arms outward to provide a recognizable thermal signal. The scarecrow position is especially useful as a last-resort signal.

A variety of visible and IR light signals provides NVG-equipped aviators with an excellent means of identifying friendly positions as well as marking enemy positions. When using visible light signals, key leaders consider the possibility of compromising their positions as they attempt to provide an identifiable signal to the attack team. IR signals provide an alternative in that they offer a greater degree of protection to the soldier on the ground because they can be seen only if night-vision devices are used. Our forces presently have the technological advantage in the employment of night-vision devices. However, if the enemy has NVDs, use of these IR signal-producing devices may be negated. These devices should, therefore, be treated as an additional weapon or tactic to be used at the appropriate time and place and may not be suited for all combat environments. Chem lights, both visible and IR, are commonly carried by infantrymen and are easily acquired with night-vision goggles. Like the MRE heater on a rope, a chem light on a string twirled by an infantryman provides a very distinctive signal to an aircrew using NVG.

Another use of the space blanket includes illuminating the reflective side with an IR light source such as the IR light from a set of PVS-5 or PVS-7 night-vision goggles or an IR chem light. While two soldiers hold the blanket in position, a third illuminates the blanket so that the IR light source reflects toward the aircraft.

The SDU-5/E is an emergency distress pocket strobe carried in aviation survival vests. The device provides a distinctive and easily identifiable signal and can be procured through normal supply channels. It comes with an IR filter which is interchangeable with colored filters. With the IR filter, the strobe can be acquired out to nearly two kilometers.

Though not yet available in the Department of Defense (DOD) supply system, the Phoenix IR Beacon is a codeable IR beacon that provides an excellent signal. The unique IR coding system allows any sequence of flashes up to four seconds long, including Morse code, to be programmed into the unit by the user. The beacon can be seen from as far away as 2 kilometers. The biggest advantage is the ability to code one or many beacons, enabling any one device to be distinguished in a group. The device uses a 9-volt battery and weighs less than 2 ounces.

An effective signal is a hand-held laser pointer. Three of the more common pointers are the GCP-1A Ground Commander's Pointer, the LPL-30 Leader's Laser Pointer, and the AIM-1 Weapon Mounted Laser Aiming Device. The GCP-1A has an output power of 30 milliwatts and a range up to 5 kilometers. The laser may be adjusted by the user from a pencil beam to a floodlight. The system weighs 4.5 ounces and uses two AA batteries. The LPL-30 and AIM-1 are similar, small, lightweight laser pointer devices. Both systems have an output power of 20 milliwatts and can be used for distances up to 4 kilometers. All three devices are extremely effective at marking friendly locations and identifying enemy targets.

Battlefield conditions and moon illumination weigh heavily on the effectiveness of these devices. Ambient light from nearby towns, the impact of munitions, and environmental obscurants--such as haze, sand, and smoke--also must be considered. The same variables that affect NVDs will have an effect on the ability to see IR signals. Generally, greater illumination provides better visibility for aviators but tends to reduce the brightness of the IR devices. Lower illumination reduces visibility but increases the effectiveness of the lower-power output devices.

During daylight, colored smoke or aerial pyrotechnic devices--such as star clusters or flares--provide excellent signals. Infantry leaders must exercise caution when employing these types of signals. Like the visible light markers used during darkness, such pyrotechnic signals can also be seen by the enemy. Leaders on the ground may prefer to identify their positions using terrain reference points or by referencing from easily identifiable terrain features.

Other methods are available to the infantryman for signaling aircraft. The secret is to find what works best in your unit. The infantry unit leader then provides a concise description of the target and its location. If necessary, the ground unit uses geographical terrain features and smoke rounds from artillery or mortars, ordnance already impacting on the target area, illumination or tracer rounds, or other ground fires to provide a reference mark on the target. The attack team leader then informs the infantry unit leader of the battle position, attack-by-fire position, or the series of positions his team will occupy which provide the best observation and fields of fire into the engagement or target area (see Figure 8). The battle position or attack-by-fire position is a position from which the attack aircraft will engage the enemy with direct fire. It includes a number of individual aircraft firing positions. It may be preplanned or established as the situation dictates. Size will vary depending on the number of aircraft using the position, the size of the engagement area, and the type of terrain. The battle position or attack-by-fire position is normally offset from the flank of the friendly ground position. This ensures that rotor wash, ammunition casing expenditure, and the general signature of the aircraft do not interfere with operations on the ground. The offset position also allows the aircraft to engage the enemy on its flanks rather than its front and lessens the risk of fratricide along the helicopter gun target line.

  • Battle position location
  • Attack concept

Figure 8
Attack team leader final coordination with the infantry unit leader

The attack team leader then provides the infantry unit leader with his concept for his team's attack on the objective. Only upon completion of the coordination with the lowest unit in contact does the flight depart the holding area for the battle position. As the attack team moves out of the holding area, it uses nap-of-the-earth (NOE) flight to mask itself from ground enemy observation and enemy direct-fire systems. The attack team leader maintains FM communications with the infantry unit leader while he maintains internal communications on either the very high frequency (VHF) or ultra-high frequency (UHF) net.

In summary, when an attack team is committed to execute a hasty attack, mission success requires detailed coordination between the attack team and the infantry unit already engaged in close combat.

  • The maneuver brigade provides the aviation task force with the information available on locations, routes, and communications before the attack team's departure from its assembly area.
  • The holding area is a concealed position where final coordination is made with the infantry unit in contact before the attack team launches its hasty attack.
  • The attack team coordinates directly with the lowest-level unit in contact on the infantry company FM command net.
  • The infantry leaders must understand the ground effects of the attack team's area fire weapons systems.
  • Final coordination with the infantry unit includes agreeing on a method of identifying the friendly and enemy positions.
  • The means of identifying friendly positions should take advantage of the FLIR, TIS, and NVG capabilities of the attack team.
  • The battle position or attack-by-fire position should be offset from the infantry unit to maximize the effects of its weapons and to minimize the risk of fratricide.

Successful integration of Army attack aviation and light infantry requires considerable coordination and communication. The key to success begins at Home Station with intense, realistic training focused on developing and testing a variety of techniques and procedures. These techniques and procedures will differ from unit to unit, given the differences in personnel and equipment, as well as the mission of the units involved. Once established, these techniques and procedures must be standardized as unit-level battle drills and trained to standard on a regular basis. Only in this way will the integration of attack aviation assets with light infantry units maximize the capabilities of both elements to defeat the enemy on today's battlefields.

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