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AIR VOLCANO EMPLOYMENT
by CPT Joseph W. Jurkovac, CPT Edward K. Cagle, and CPT Paul E. Stote

This article discusses some tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) to employ Air Volcano minefields that support the tactical mission while minimizing fratricide risks.

Aviation warrant officers, maneuver unit S3s (Air), and engineers in the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell, Kentucky, developed the majority of these TTP in 1996. Observer/controllers (O/Cs) at the National Training Center (NTC) added recommendations based on observations of Air Volcano employment at the NTC. The O/Cs have seen some techniques that work and some that result in higher rates of fratricide and mission failure. This article addresses the successful techniques.

Before discussing the Air Volcano TTP, we want to cover the utility of the Air Volcano system. In other words, why use Air Volcano instead of a ground-delivered Volcano minefield? There are four advantages:

  • Expediency
  • Flexibility
  • Unrestricted Access to the Target Area
  • Range

Expediency: This is a combination of time, resources, and labor from a combat engineering point of view. In 2 minutes and 27 seconds plus flight time to the target, an 1,115-meter-long minefield can be on the ground and armed by one UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter and a crew of three. To put in the same size minefield with the same number of mines, it would take a combat engineer platoon approximately twelve hours, not including the time to transport all the conventional mines and establish the mine dump operation.

Flexibility: The quick reaction time of a loaded Blackhawk helicopter in flight to execute another planned minefield target based on an enemy event trigger is measured by the aircraft's flight time from point A to point B.

Unrestricted Access: Unlike ground units or a ground Volcano system, the Air Volcano it is not restricted by terrain to get to the target area and execute the minefield. Rough terrain or the enemy situation can often hinder the use of a ground Volcano. The vehicle is vulnerable to enemy ground forces enroute to its destination, and the tactical risk assessment may require too large a security force to accomplish the mission.

Range: Air Volcano can be delivered as far as 111 kilometers versus the 17.5 kilometer range of artillery-delivered ADAM/RAAM. The Blackhawk's range will vary due to atmospheric conditions, specifically temperature and pressure altitude. The basic planning table for the combat radius of a 160-canister load is located in Table D-1 of FM 20-32, Mine/Countermine Operations, April 1998.

The Air Volcano is indeed a critical asset on the modern battlefield and should be considered during planning as both essential elements of friendly information (EEFI) and its operational status as friendly forces information requirements (FFIR).

TTPs FOR A SUCCESSFUL AIR VOLCANO MISSION

I. PLAN AND PREPARE. The primary step to a successful Air Volcano mission is detailed planning, which begins early in the planning process.

Trends at the National Training Center have shown that the minimum planning time for a successful Air Volcano mission is around four hours.

1. The S3, task force engineer, and aviation LNO must identify the requirements for tactical employment early in the brigade's military decision-making process (MDMP).

2. Once a viable course of action is determined, an initial planning conference (IPC) is set up with the task force engineer, aviation LNO, and air mission commander (AMC).

3. The air mission briefing (AMB) follows the IPC.

a. It is paramount that any Air Volcano mission be incorporated into the IPC and AMB to ensure adequate information flow, synchronization, and planning input.

b. The mission must be incorporated into the aviation aircrew mission briefs as well.

4. Deliberate planning allows the aviation unit executing the mission adequate time to plan, prepare, load the system, rehearse, and conduct PCCs for the mission.

5. The Air Volcano is also covered in the engineer annex of the unit operations order and on the engineer graphics.

6. Once the location for the Air Volcano minefield has been identified in support of either the close fight of the ground tactical plan or the attack aviation deep fight, execution triggers must be identified. These triggers to employ the minefield must be based on clearly defined enemy events. They must not be executed based on time estimates, regardless of the enemy situation. Once the event trigger(s) is determined, the decision to execute the Air Volcano is translated to an event on the decision support template (DST).

a. When units try to execute time-driven situational obstacles, one of two things nearly always happens: Either the enemy or opposing forces (OPFOR) does not attack when it was thought he would, or the enemy does not use the avenue of approach that was templated.

(1) Believe it or not, the enemy sometimes misses their line of departure (LD) time also. For example, a unit is convinced that the enemy will attack at 0800. Their 4-hour duration Volcano is planned for execution at 0500, just in case the enemy attacks early. But all too often, the enemy attacks at about 1000, and the Volcanos self-destructed at 0900. This, obviously, has no effect on enemy maneuver.

(2) If the enemy never runs into the scatterable minefield, the unit has completely wasted this critical asset. Unfortunately, this happens quite often because the enemy has also read Murphy's Laws of Combat, and knows that the "easy way is always mined."

b. When observed enemy event triggers are not used, a unit misses out on the greatest advantage offered by Scatterable Mines (SCATMINE) -- flexibility. The strength of situational obstacles is that several can be planned based on the S2's enemy event template and avenues of approach, but only those obstacles that are needed are used. By using proper execution triggers linked directly to the observer plan, units can employ only those obstacles where they have confirmed the enemy's advance and where obstacles will achieve the desired intent. The situational obstacles planned for where the enemy is not can be saved for another day's fight.

(1) The triggers are Named Areas of Interest (NAIs) and are incorporated into the S2's reconnaissance and surveillance (R&S) plan. An observer must be assigned responsibility for the NAI (a scout or combat observation lasing team [COLT], for example).

(2) If scouts or COLTs are not located deep enough to observe the triggers, or have already been tasked to cover other NAIs, then consider attack or reconnaissance helicopters, if available. Attack aviation usually conducts a deep fight anyway, so tie them into the R&S plan for observation of any deep triggers.

(3) Assign criteria to the NAI. In other words, determine a size and type of enemy element that is worthy of employing a Volcano minefield. Do not employ an 1115-meter minefield because a regimental reconnaissance vehicle or division reconnaissance team (DRT) passed through the NAI. Use the forward security element (FSE), advance guard, or similar size element as a trigger for employment.

II. EXECUTE

1. To ensure proper placement of the minefield, have engineers or the overwatching unit mark the start and end points of the minefield. This not only ensures proper placement of the obstacle, but also helps avoid fratricide.

a. Centerline markers can also be added, if required by terrain and limited visibility, to keep the pilots on line during their run.

b. The unit must develop TTPs for marking during day and night employment.

c. Make sure the system used for marking does not conflict with the way direct fire target reference points (TRPs) and trigger lines for artillery targets are marked. Doctrine requires the minefield to be marked if behind the forward line of troops (FLOT).

d. Minefields should be marked prior to employment to avoid fratricide.

2. To assist in ensuring accurate and timely placement of the minefield, mark an initial point (IP) for the aircraft. The IP is an easily identifiable terrain feature with which the pilot can align his run, already flying in the proper direction parallel to and on line with the orientation of the minefield. This will allow the pilot to transition into the final run for the execution of the minefield without having to make any drastic turns prior to the start point.

3. Use Aircraft Readiness Condition Levels (REDCON Levels) to increase responsiveness. A REDCON level varies by SOP, but an example is REDCON-3 (30 minute launch criteria), REDCON-2 (aircraft on auxiliary power unit [APU], 15 minute launch time), REDCON-1.5 (engines at idle, 5 minute launch time), REDCON-1 (engines at fly ready for takeoff).

a. Deep triggers in the corps or division sector provide the early warning to facilitate the execution of the appropriate REDCON level.

b. Move the aircraft up to the brigade TAC or main CP (based on METT-T), and into a forward assembly area (FAA) or a holding area. Do not position the aircraft in the brigade support area (BSA) or aviation assembly area. Advantages of this technique:

(1) Gives the crew the best enemy and friendly situational awareness.

(2) Shortens the flight route and execution time.

(3) Saves fuel (thus increasing station time).

(4) Provides excellent command and control for the ground maneuver commander/S3.

(5) Bolsters security for the aircraft.

c. The use of an aerial restricted operations zone (ROZ) for the aircraft is NOT recommended. This limits station time due to high fuel burn rates (1100-1200 lb. per hour) and exposes the aircraft to the AD threat.

4. To synchronize the effort and pull it all together, communications are critical.

a. The unit on the ground (either engineers or the overwatching unit) must have the frequency and call sign of the aircraft.

b. Ground-to-air communications allows several functions that help ensure the success of the mission:

(1) The unit that marked the minefield's start and end points can talk the aircraft in to the target from the IP and ensure proper and accurate placement of the minefield. Have an observer on the ground adjust placement, if required, and communicate with the pilot.

(2) The observer can also warn the pilot of any known dangers in the vicinity of the target area or the approach route.

(3) Upon completion of the mission, the observer can confirm the employment of the minefield at the planned location and then send up the required scatterable minefield report (SCATMINREP) to higher HQ. The task force and brigade engineer should transmit the SCATMINWARN report to all units, with confirmation from the aviation LNO, once the trigger has been initiated.

c. To ensure the accuracy of placement, conduct a battle drill type rehearsal using the full-dress technique by the aircrew and observer prior to execution. Once communications are established between the observer on the ground and the aircraft, the pilot should then run the course of the minefield from the IP to the end point. This practice run will allow the pilot to ensure visual recognition of the marking system on the ground and allow the verification of proper air speed and elevation to properly fire the canisters on target. The addition of an engineer in the aircraft with the crew will also facilitate the employment and C2 of the mission.

5. Several units at the NTC have made use of either an Air Volcano request form or a planning card. These are useful and efficient tools for planning Air Volcano missions, and should be included as products of the air mission briefing (AMB) or attached to the unit operations order.

a. Units should develop Air Volcano request forms or planning cards, making sure to include the aircraft frequency and call sign.

b. Another recommended technique is adding a target area sketch showing key terrain and the minefield placement and orientation. The sketch is both useful to ground forces and aviators. It assists ground units in understanding the intent and location of the minefield. With the appropriate detailed information added, such as direction of flight from the IP and the ground marking system used, the sketch is most beneficial for the marking/observing unit and the aviators who will fly the mission.

c. To facilitate use by the pilot, reduce the size of the card to 5"X8" or kneeboard size.

IN SUMMARY

Recommend the following TTPs for the execution of Air Volcano minefields:

  • The Air Volcano mission must be included in the MDMP, IPC, and AMB.
  • Detailed route and mission planning will lead to a refined and successful SEAD plan.
  • Develop enemy event-based triggers for execution.
    • The triggers are observed NAIs and part of the R/S plan.
    • The triggers can be observed by scouts, COLTs, and observation and attack aircraft.
    • Establish NAIs to execute appropriate aircraft REDCON levels.
  • Mark minefield start and end points (center line if required).
  • Establish an FAA or a holding area for the aircraft to reduce reaction time.
  • Establish an IP for the aircraft to reduce employment time and line up the run.
  • Establish ground-to-air communications (aircraft frequency and call sign).
    • Ground observer talks aircraft in to the target from the IP.
    • Aircrew and observer execute a full-dress rehearsal.
    • Observer and aircrew confirm proper placement of minefield.
    • Observer and aircrew conduct SCATMINREP.
  • Use an Air Volcano card for planning and execution.
  • Use lethal, non-lethal, and obscuration SEAD during execution to increase aircraft survivability.
  • Use AH-64s and OH-58Ds in the escort role and in overwatch of the target area.

Following these procedures will not only ensure successful mission accomplishment with the accurate and efficient employment of Air Volcano minefields, it will also help prevent fratricide. The outcome of the vignette below is completely avoidable as long as we continue to "Train the Force."

The weather was good, conditions were set, and the air assault operation was a "GO." Task force scouts called in their final reports on the objectives, the pathfinders marked the landing zones, and both elements moved out of the surface danger zone range of the pre-assault fires about to be initiated by their brigade.

The next significant event in this operation would be the employment of Air Volcano minefields at planned locations within the attack aviation engagement areas. The intent: to disrupt the advance of enemy-mounted counterattack forces along high-speed avenues of approach, allowing the Apache helicopters in overwatch to destroy all tracked vehicles. The plan was for the Apaches to attack throughout the depth of the enemy column and engage armored vehicles with their Hellfire missiles while the enemy mechanized and armored forces attempted to breach the Volcano minefields and become bottlenecked in choke points. Within minutes, any enemy formation posing a threat to ground forces in vicinity of their LZs or objectives would turn into a column of burning, smoking hulks.

Division HQ had approved the use of 48-hour duration Air Volcano minefields, so the maneuver units planned their employment at a designated time prior to the air assault. They decided to employ six Air Volcano minefields that night prior to the air assault--four with 48-hour duration and two with 4-hour duration. The Blackhawk pilots fired the canisters on time and on target. Air Force bombing missions had been successful, leaving three major bridges destroyed between the enemy's combined arms reserve (CAR) location and their objective. It would take them just over 48 hours to repair the CAR's attack route.

The air assault went as planned. The air assault task force seized all of their objectives, though taking longer than planned, and what was left of the enemy had withdrawn off the objective unable to organize a counterattack.

The final phase of the operation was to transition into a hasty defense. The light infantry had to hold their newly claimed key terrain, a critical road intersection deep behind enemy lines, and await link-up with friendly armored units. The heavy forces were conducting a coordinated ground attack to link-up with the air assault task force and conduct a passage of lines through the light infantry to continue the attack to a follow-on objective. All was going as planned.

As part of the infantry battalion's hasty defense, Alpha Company had the mission to secure the main road leading into the objective area from the south. They also had a "be prepared" mission to conduct link-up with friendly forces, for this was also an alternate route which the armored units would use to approach and conduct the passage of lines through the light infantry. The road seemed easy to defend according to the map. Several kilometers to the south, the road cut through a high ridgeline running perpendicular to the road. The commander of Alpha Company decided to establish his defensive position on the friendly side of the cut through the ridgeline, allowing his company to mass fires on any enemy unit that would be forced to come through the choke point one vehicle at a time. To provide early warning of approaching enemy vehicles and to identify the friendly armored forces who may use the route for the passage of lines, the company commander decided to position his third platoon forward of the cut on the other side of the ridgeline. Third platoon would have the mission to conduct link-up with friendly forces in order to pass them through the battalion sector.a mission they would not live to execute.

2LT Graves, the Third Platoon Leader, formed up his platoon to continue the march over the ridgeline. The ridgeline was steep, the vegetation thick, and the soldiers were tired and tense. The battle for the road intersection had lasted through the night of the air assault, and then throughout the following day and into the next night. The previous 36 hours of fighting, coupled with terrain the platoon was traversing in the heat of day, had pushed each man to his physical limits. In addition, the troops were tense with anticipation as they crossed the ridge line not knowing what enemy, if any, may be waiting for them on the other side.

Finally, they reached the top of the ridge line without making enemy contact and began their descent down the other side. The movement became easier now, their rucks felt a little lighter, and their tension began to ease. 2LT Graves could see the road leading up to the cut, and he could see that at the bottom of the ridge was a relatively open field to both sides of the road with only knee high grass and bushes. He had the platoon execute a short halt to catch their breath so he could conduct a hasty leader's recon. He scanned the area and confirmed what most of his soldiers were already thinking: no enemy had picked this spot in which to fall back and consolidate. Satisfied with his assessment of the situation, 2LT Graves moved his platoon out again down the ridge toward the road.

The platoon moved at a comfortable pace, each soldier becoming a little less tense as they approached the bottom of the hill, growing more confident in the fact that they shared this ridgeline with no one. Before reaching the bottom of the ridge, the platoon turned ninety degrees toward the road where they would establish a position on the high ground of a draw to observe the road for approaching vehicles. The vegetation was still thick, but not high.

Suddenly there was a loud explosion on the flank of the platoon formation, then another, and another. 2LT Graves saw over half of his lead squad fall to the ground. The soldiers' screams pierced his ears as they went down. The rest of the platoon began to disperse in all directions to seek cover from the unknown assailant who was attacking them. The soldiers did not realize that as they ran through the shrubs and tall grass, they were kicking and stepping on scattered mines throughout the field. More and more explosions erupted around them as they ran, and more soldiers fell to the ground wounded or dead. 2LT Graves also ran for cover in the chaos, wondering what was happening to his platoon, where the enemy was, and how they were causing such carnage. That was 2LT Graves' last thought as a piece of shrapnel found its mark just below his helmet. He would never know that most of his platoon was wounded or killed by an Air Volcano minefield put in two nights before by friendly forces.

It took the soldiers of Alpha Company, with assistance from an engineer platoon and the battalion's casualty evacuation assets, the rest of the day to extract Third Platoon from the deadly, unforgiving live minefield. The wounded and the dead were the easiest to extract, for those soldiers had already cleared their own areas through the minefield by the least desirable method. The rest of the platoon, however, had to carefully exit the field to avoid other tripwires that could cause additional detonations and casualties. It was a time-consuming and tedious task, one that fried nerves and mentally exhausted every soldier involved.

The commander of Alpha Company was the last to leave the evacuation site. He sat alone now, up the ridge from the minefield, cradling 2LT Graves' helmet in his arms. As darkness fell, the mines began to sporadically self-destruct one at a time, their 48-hour duration coming to an end. He sat staring up the road, his gaze occasionally drawn to an explosion of a mine, pondering what he could have done to avoid the incident. He thought life could not get much worse than this. Good men had lost their lives for nothing. Fratricide is the worst way to go, and explaining it in the letters home to the parents of the deceased, the mothers and fathers of his men for whom he was responsible, would be painful and difficult....

Just then, he heard a rumbling sound off in the distance. The sound was like thunder, and was growing louder with every second. As he looked up, he saw the first column of T-80 tanks rolling down the road toward his ridgeline.his luck just got worse.
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