Close Air Support to Land Forces New thinking is needed

The importance of “close air support” to the land forces (increasingly called air-to-ground strikes) in winning modern wars is sometimes underrated. It is well known that just a few missions of fighter ground attack (FGA) aircraft and attack helicopters can deliver more ordnance by way of dumb 1,000 lb. bombs in a few minutes on an enemy position that is to be attacked than a medium artillery regiment can deliver in 20 to 30 minutes. What is not so well known is that 1,000 artillery shells would need more than 20 vehicles and 50 to 60 soldiers to transport from ammunition depots in rear areas to the gun positions and five to six hours to prepare for firing as everything is still done manually. 

In critical situations, particularly in fast flowing mechanised operations, accurate air strikes can save the day. The battle of Longewala during the 1971 war with Pakistan is a case in point. On that fateful day in 1971, the Indian Air Force had stopped the assault of a Pakistani armoured regiment at Longewala in its tracks. Also, it is a truism that accurate air strikes against the enemy in contact with the land forces provide a psychological boost to the morale of ground troops. Nothing heartens beleaguered infantrymen more than to see the enemy getting a hammering from one’s own air force and artillery. In fact, the US Field Manual makes the point that “the air space of a theatre is as important a dimension of ground operations as the terrain itself.” The problem of enemy air defence weapons can be overcome by evolving a coordinated suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) plan employing artillery, attack helicopters and air and ground based electronic warfare platforms.

Air-to-Ground Strikes in Mountains

The mountainous terrain on India’s northern borders presents peculiar professional challenges for the pilots of FGA aircraft. Defensive posts held by enemy troops are normally located on the dominating heights, while artillery gun positions, battalion and brigade headquarters, communications centres, logistics installations, loading points, vehicle parks, tactically important bridges and the barracks and stores housing uncommitted reserve troops and their arms, ammunition, rations and supplies are located in the valleys. The enemy posts on the LoC are usually of platoon strength (30 soldiers). The platoon is deployed in steel and concrete bunkers with a few emplacements for weapons such as 2-inch mortars and shoulder-fired rocket launchers. The bunkers could be double-storey with the upper one designed as a fighting bunker and the lower one, usually underground, for living. 

The widely separated posts are sited for all round defence on high mountaintops or along the sharp spines of narrow ridgelines or spurs and present small targets that cannot be easily acquired visually and are difficult to attack from the air as even a near miss by a dumb bomb can make it explode uselessly up to a kilometer away. The targets in the valleys lie along the banks of twisting and turning rivers and nullahs. The valleys are deep and tucked between sharply rising hillsides and are not easily approached by low-flying, fast moving FGA aircraft. It is an enormous challenge for a young fighter pilot to dive into a narrow valley, navigate his aircraft to the weapon release point and deliver his payload accurately on the target.  If these targets are to be successfully engaged, double or even triple the required number of missions must to be planned to achieve the desired result – unless PGMs are available in large numbers. 

Careful cost-benefit analysis often reveals that with the aerial delivery platforms and air-to-ground weapons available at present, the effort necessary is simply not commensurate with the result that might be achieved. To some extent this challenge could be overcome by employing attack helicopters. However, as the Afghan resistance proved against the Soviets and as was witnessed during the Kargil conflict, these lumbering fighting machines are extremely vulnerable to shoulder-fired SAMs. Since India is more likely to fight future border wars in the mountains than in the plains, as in the past, this shortcoming needs to be addressed early.

Low Intensity Conflict 

The remaining roots of Pakistan’s continuing proxy war in Kashmir now lie mainly in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) and across India’s western border in Pakistan’s heartland itself. A large number of terrorist training camps, assembly areas and launch pads are located across the LoC in POK. One or more major incident of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, such as the terror attacks at Mumbai on November 26, 2008, may compel India to launch air strikes across the LoC at some of these camps. Air Marshal Vinod Patney is of the view: “If we’re really serious about ending cross-border terrorism, the air force needs to cross the Line (LoC) more often… The army’s organic weapons have limited range and yield limited options. The use of aircraft will permit better selection of targets at considerable distances with more effective weapons. Moreover, the use of air power does not involve any desire to gain territory and, therefore, is not escalatory in that sense. In any case, it has now become necessary.” Whether or not the use of air power across the LoC is escalatory is a debatable issue. What is beyond doubt is that should the pursuit of such a course of action become necessary in the unending fight against Pakistan-sponsored trans-border terrorism, the IAF and the army should be well prepared for the joint orchestration of this option. 

Under certain circumstances, to intercept infiltrating or exfiltrating columns of terrorists, India may decide to launch trans-LoC raids by Special Forces and may even exercise its right of hot pursuit, as prevalent in and sanctified by international law. Hot pursuit operations would need to be supported by closely coordinated air strikes and may also require transport helicopters to move reserve troops quickly to their release or drop-off points close to or even across the LoC and to retrieve them after the operation. Such an operation would require fighter escort for the helicopters during both infiltration and exfiltration phases. Since trans-LoC operations would invariably be undertaken at night or in hours of poor visibility, it would be mandatory for the participating IAF units to be capable of night flying and accurate navigation to the release or drop-off points and to be trained for such specialised operations.

Need for better Response Time 

It is the synergy between the army and the air force that needs improvement on the Indian Sub-continent where the response time between an immediate air strike being initiated and delivered is still approximately one hour and 15 minutes – the time that it used to take during World War II. The procedures for demanding air support, vetting the demands at various levels of command, the coordination between the air base launching the strike and the forward air controller with the ground forces and, finally, the air-to-ground communications available to the strike pilot, all need to be substantially improved. Only then will the provision of close air support to a leading spearhead or a beleaguered defender be upgraded by an order of magnitude. A mechanised combat team commander in the plains and a company commander in the mountains must be able to bank on close air support being available in a here-and-now manner when the shrapnel is flying thick and fast around them like artillery fire is today. Not more than 20 to 30 minutes must elapse between the request for close air support and its delivery. 

Dedicated Strike Platforms 

In view of the lessons learnt during the Kargil conflict and the capabilities necessary for future wars, the IAF must re-assess the suitability of its weapons platforms and ammunition and launch a concerted drive to acquire the required means for delivery in the plains as well as the mountains. Ideally, the IAF should be equipped with a specialised, dedicated ground strike aircraft of the A-10 Thunderbolt or SU-25/39 variety. These aircraft are relatively slower moving, enable greater precision to be achieved in aiming, can carry several tons of payload per sortie, including air-to-ground precision strike missiles and bombs, and can sustain a lot of damage from the enemy’s air defence weapons. Writing about the role played by the US air power during the Gulf War, Maj Gen Robert H. Scales Jr. has states that, “The A-10 was devastating once the ground war began and once the aircraft dropped low enough to provide effective 30 mm cannon support.” 

Such aircraft would also cost only a fraction of the cost of multi-role aircraft such as the Mirage-2000. The risking of costly multi-role aircraft for tactical bombing runs has obviously to be very carefully considered. It is certain that in the coming decades, the IAF will continue to be called upon to launch ground strikes with precision munitions in support of the army. The IAF quite obviously cannot afford to acquire new, dedicated ground strike aircraft with its present budget. Once the need for such aircraft has been adequately debated and is established beyond dispute, additional funds will have to be provided to the IAF for their induction. 

IAF aircraft that are earmarked for ground strikes also need to be armed with precision strike munitions to achieve a telling effect. Free flight 1000 lb. and 500 lb. bombs cannot be dropped with the precision necessary to destroy individual bunkers, pillboxes and armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs). Just like artillery batteries firing standard high explosive ammunition are designed to ‘neutralise’ large areas of ground with their inherent dispersion of fire, modern jet aircraft flying at supersonic speeds and constrained by the threat posed by air defence weapons in the TBA and hand-held, shoulder-fired SAMs such as the Stinger and the Unza, cannot be expected to achieve precision even with rockets and their Gatling guns. Only laser-guided and TV-guided bombs with stand off capability, and fire-and-forget PGMs such as air-to-surface missiles, can provide the necessary reach and accuracy. 

PGMs

Also, the RSTA capabilities required for successful ground strikes must not be lost sight of. In an interview on the eve of Air Force Day in 2004, Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy, the then CAS, had highlighted several emerging technologies that he felt were critical to enable the IAF to maintain superiority in the South Asian region. In his view, among these were “sensors, specifically those that can be employed for target acquisition by night and bad weather… (and) stand-off short/ long-range precision guided weapons that could be launched from multiple types of carriers like helicopter and combat aircraft.”

Superior precision firepower can give ground forces a decisive edge in limited wars. Long-range lethal munitions and precision targeting promise to provide an immense edge to well-equipped ground forces. According to Maj Gen Robert H. Scales Jr., “The lesson from the Gulf War is clear: in a high intensity war, firepower must break the enemy’s will to resist before close combat begins. Firepower must so weaken the enemy that close-in killing by infantry and armoured forces becomes a coup de grace rather than a bloody battle of attrition.” The Indian army’s recent experience in Kargil has also provided the same lesson. Maximum Indian casualties occurred during initial assaults on the icy mountaintops occupied by regular Pakistani soldiers before the artillery had built up to the level of being able to concentrate 100 guns on each locality being attacked. Sustained, accurate and high volume concentrated artillery firepower eventually won the battle for India by completely decimating enemy sangars and enabling the infantry to assault virtually unopposed. Tiger Hill and many other objectives were finally re-captured without a single casualty. Air strikes by the IAF also achieved significant results and helped to weaken the enemy’s resolve. The battle winning utility of ground and air firepower in limited wars was established beyond doubt. 

Combat Heli-lift Capability

During limited war, due to restrictions on the level of application of force and other limitations, operations by Special Forces (SF) assume even greater importance than in full-scale operations in aiding the commander’s design of battle. SF units can conduct either unconventional warfare or act unilaterally in the enemy’s rear areas in support of ground operations. Unconventional warfare operations can concentrate on strategic and operational level goals and may aim to achieve either immediate or long-range effects on the conflict. Such operations could include interdicting enemy lines of communications and locating, identifying and destroying important military targets. SF units would also be employed to collect strategic intelligence and conduct psychological operations when necessary. The greatest value of SF units to commanders at all levels is to add depth to the ground operations, forcing the enemy to deploy a large number of combat forces to protect his rear areas. The most desirable method of insertion of SF units behind enemy lines is by helicopters. 

The need for surprise is even greater in limited war than in full-scale conventional conflict because of the many restrictions imposed on the conduct of operations. In what is generally regarded as his most important contribution to military thinking, Maj Gen JFC ‘Boney’ Fuller has made an important distinction between ‘moral’ and ‘material’ surprise. Moral surprise, he avers, means that the enemy is unaware that you are coming and material surprise means that the enemy knows that you are coming but can do nothing to stop you. In Fuller’s opinion, only moral surprise can achieve an immediate decision. The component of modern forces that is most suitable for achieving tactical and sometimes even operational level surprise is an air assault formation that is self-contained in combat heli-lift capability. An air assault brigade is capable of achieving both moral and material surprise through its speedy deployment from an unexpected direction. One of the reasons for this is that helicopters can use ground tactically without depending on it for mobility. An air assault formation can move dispersed and fight concentrated. Soft targets such as command and communications centres, forward airfields, important bridges, logistics installations and SSM hides could form primary objectives for wreaking havoc in the enemy’s rear at operational depth. 

The selection of objectives would also be dependent on the ability of ground assault forces to ensure a timely link up. Also, with its growing regional responsibilities and increasing calls for joint international action, as also to defend its island territories and its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), India needs to develop a potent air assault capability. However, an air assault brigade would cost the equivalent of a light armoured division to raise and maintain. Force multipliers are sometimes budget multipliers too! All of these critical capabilities require a fleet of combat helicopters that are specially designed for the purpose. These must be acquired in sufficient numbers, progressively increasing the total capability to at least one air assault brigade over a decade.

Conclusion

It can be justifiably argued that India is unlikely to be confronted with a Kosovo-type situation in the foreseeable future. Nor is there is a likelihood of repeated air strikes such as those launched by the US against Iraq on many occasions after Gulf War I or those frequently launched by Israel against Hizbollah hideouts in Lebanon till recently. As such, besides fighting the air war to achieve a favourable air situation, the IAF will be primarily called upon to strike ground targets in support of a limited ground war and it is these ground strike capabilities that need to be further developed and honed. Like artillery fire, there is now an inescapable need for immediate air support to also be ‘on call’ so that it can be delivered in real time. Even for pre-planned air support, it is unrealistic to ask the corps staff to plan 24 hours in advance. Pre-planned air support should be available to a commander in the field at two hours notice – the usual response time for reacting to emerging situations.” If attack helicopters are now considered the ‘fourth squadron’ of a combat group, the time has come for dedicated close air support assets to act as the ‘fifth squadron’, particularly during offensive operations so that fleeting opportunities can be optimally exploited. The efficacy and success of air-to-ground strikes will be enhanced considerably by the acquisition of an optimised ground strike aerial platform that is dedicated for the purpose.