Joint air attack teams: Integration of AAH and FGA missions as a combat force multiplier

Indian Defence Review | Aug 14, 2000

One method of achieving the necessary integration and close cooperation is by forming joint air attack teams - an idea whose time has come. The differences in speed, manoeuvrability, weapons systems and the AD threat to FGA aircraft and AAH demand careful selection of attack modes, clear delineation of air Space and skilful orchestration of the time of attack, particularly when the attack by the two elements is Simultaneous rather than sequential.

Conceptual justification and necessity of JAAT

The concept of “Airland Battle”, enunciated by the US Army and adopted as a viable defensive option by NATO, can be briefly summed up to imply that modern land battles are fought and won by air and ground forces working closely together. Obviously, such a simplistic approach does not highlight the complex array of skilfully coordinated actions during the planning and execution stages of each operation Dy army and air force formation commanders and their staff. However, every single conflict or intervention in the last decade, including the operation of the IPKF in Sri Lanka, has proved the point that mission accomplishment demands the highest degree of cooperation and coordination between the manoeuvre force on the ground, including its aviation assets and close air support (CAS) provided by the air force.

The Falklands War and Israel’s incursion into Lebanon have presented defence planners with two major though not insurmountable problems. Firstly, Fighter Ground Attack (FGA) aircraft are finding it increasingly difficult to penetrate the dense air defence (AD) umbrellas of manoeuvre forces to launch effective air strikes. Secondly, the electronic warfare (EW) measures adopted by the enemy successfully degrade the capability of FGA missions to deliver their lethal payload within acceptable limits of accuracy. Low Survivability and reduced effectiveness of FGA missions are bound to cause considerable anxiety. This is applicable with a variation of only one order of magnitude to strikes by Advanced Attack Helicopters (AAH). Hence, the suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) is rapidly becoming a high priority task whenever FGA or AAH missions are planned while operating in a high density AD environment.

During a LO-LO-LO attack mode, flying just above the tree tops at supersonic speeds, an FGA mission pilot’s time-over-target is not adequate to allow acquisition and engagement to the desired accuracy. Any help that he can get by way of guidance from a heliborne FAC and for unmistakable target indication would considerably enhance mission effectiveness. Ideally, FGA missions should be integrated with army aviation assets and indirect fire support from the artillery. Such a concerted employment of air support resources would be a potent combat force multiplier and would result in the optimum utilization of valuable and scarce assets.
One method of achieving the necessary integration and close cooperation is by forming joint air attack teams (JAAT) — an idea whose time has come. The JAAT provides the ground formation commander with a highly mobile, lethal force capable of engaging enemy forces beyond the range of ground-based direct firing weapons well before the enemy forces establish contact with own troops or mechanized forces. The JAAT can delay, disrupt or destroy enemy manoeuvre elements in any tactical situation, help contain enemy penetrations and provide commanders with useful information about enemy dispositions, locations and activities. The flexibility of JAAT may be used to counter heliborne or airmobile operations in own depth areas. Above all, JAAT can be employed to maintain continuous pressure over mobile enemy forces beyond the range of ground-based weapons particularly in situations of dire emergency such as when a heliborne force is counter-attacked by enemy armour before link-up can take place.

Forming a JAAT and requesting JAAT strikes

A JAAT is a composite team of army aviation’s scout helicopters AAH and air force FGA aircraft. The team may operate as the aerial punch of the combined arms team or it may operate independently, away from land-based units. A JAAT is formed as AAH and FGA aircraft join battle against the same target or target group such as a combat team. The aviation assets forming a JAAT may be brought together for a pre-planned CAS strike or for immediate CAS requests or during battlefield opportunities. The ground forces commander, normally the brigade commander or the GOC of a division, has the overall responsibility for the planning, coordination and employment of a JAAT. However, battalion or combat group commanders may request JAAT strikes at their discretion.
The process of pre-planned JAAT strikes follows the same decision-making process as that of routine CAS sorties. However, such strikes are likely to be extremely limited in number because of the rapidly changing tactical situation on modern battlefields, particularly during mobile operations. During defensive operations, while planning to deny the enemy a successful breakout over an obstacle system before first light, it would be prudent to plan JAAT strikes against enemy armour inducted into a bridgehead or In the process of breaking out. Should a bridgehead nave been denied to the enemy, such a pre-planned JAAT mission can be diverted with relish to the enemy’s ‘A’ vehicle waiting areas. Similarly, in offensive operations, the enemy’s corps reserve combat groups and vehicle-based infantry battalions scurrying to occupy a depth line of defence would be lucrative interdiction targets.

During meeting engagements and tank versus tank battles, spontaneous requests for immediate JAAT strikes would be commonplace. A JAAT can also act as an “anvil of fire” in the classic “hammer and anvil” tactics of destroying enemy forces. During defensive operations, enemy actions designed to disrupt the defender’s time frame or to pose unmanageable threats would be justified grounds for whistling in JAAT strikes. In situations where attack helicopters are “on call” to brigades, for example to a leading combat command, immediate JAAT strikes would be easier to plan and execute.

Requests for JAAT strikes will be made over the air Support request net in the normal manner. In the column for “Special Instructions” it will be necessary to specify “JAAT mission”. This will alert the supporting base or wing that greater coordination will be necessary. Simultaneously, if AAH are not “on call” to the formation, AAH support will have to be requested through general staff channels. This request Should also state “JAAT mission”. The FAC and the GLO with the ACT (air control team) will keep the respective wing and AAH squadron informed about the acceptance or rejection of the request and will coordinate execution once the JAAT mission has been accepted.

The key functionaries in a JAAT mission are the AAH flight leader, called Air Battle Captain (ABC) in ~ the US Army, the FAC (preferably heliborne) and the FGA aircraft flight leader. While the FAC closely coordinates the integration of AAH and FGA strikes, both the ABC and FGA flight leaders direct the employment of their aircraft as per the tactics and drills in vogue in each service. The differences in speed, manoeuvrability, weapons systems and the AD threat to FGA aircraft and AAH demand careful selection of attack modes, clear delineation of air Space and skilful orchestration of the time of attack, particularly when the attack by the two elements is Simultaneous rather than sequential.

Execution of a JAAT mission

For preplanned JAAT missions, it should be possible to coordinate flight corridors and the use of air space over the target area; indirect fire support, specially for SEAD; and call signs and frequencies. However, for immediate or opportunity JAAT missions, such detailed coordination will ‘seldom be possible. On arrival at the pre-designated contact point (CP), the FGA flight leader should inform the FAC or the ABC about his call sign and mission number, weapons _ available and approximate loiter time. The FAC or the ABC should pass the following information to the FGA flight leader:

  • Nature of target;
  • Location of target and method of indication;
  • Initial Point (IP);
  • Heading (bearing) and distance from the IP or CP to the target;
  • Type of AD threat;
  • Location and plan of attack of attack helicopters: – FLOT
  • Any restrictions (such as those caused by indirect artillery fire);
  • Any additional instructions which may be necessary;

Where time does not permit a detailed briefing, the minimum essential briefing should include target location and description and the plan of attack of attack helicopters. The ABC should have the overall responsibility to coordinate a JAAT strike as he would have up-to-date information about the ground and air plan and would be in continuous contact with the formation HQ requesting the strike. He does not dictate attack methods and only coordinates the strikes by the FGA aircraft and attack helicopters in terms of air space and time.

Scout helicopters reconnoitre the target area for firing positions for AAH, also called battle positions, Suitable directions of approach, locations of enemy AD weapons launchers and command and control vehicles, choke-points and bottlenecks through which enemy forces may pass and potential engagement areas. On locating and identifying the enemy elements to be attacked, they ensure that visual contact is maintained throughout the operation. Subsequently, during the attack, the scouts provide visual security for attack helicopters.

The FGA aircraft usually enter the target area in a two-aircraft flight as the basic attack configuration. Terrain and weather influence the number of flights which can operate in a target area at one time. FGA aircraft commence moving for the strike from the CP or IP using low-altitude tactical navigation to draw maximum advantage from contour masking. The FAG or ABC provides updated information as necessary and gives the final attack clearance.

There are three basic attack options for JAAT: sector attack, sequential attack and combined attack. During a sector attack, the area of operation is divided into distinct sectors. This implies that the target array and the direction of attack are both divided. For example, the forward two troops of a combat team may be designated as one sector and the remaining elements as the second sector. In this situation, the FGA aircraft may attack one sector from east to west and the AAH may attack the other sector from the north. Sector attack is simple to coordinate and can work well even during periods of extensive jamming.

The sequential attack mode is employed when the target area is Small and attack avenues are limited. In this mode the FGA aircraft and AAH are assigned time blocks in which to engage the target, with no restriction on approach avenues. The AD situation, fuel and weapons availability permitting, both the elements of a JAAT may launch repeated attacks on the enemy to destroy maximum targets and to maintain continuous pressure.

Ideally, combined attack from the same approach achieves the best results. However, it requires immense coordination in terms of time and sharing of air Space. Combined training between FGA and AAH pilots is an essential prerequisite. The best advantage offered by this form of attack is that the AAH can locate and destroy enemy weapons as they open up on the FGA aircraft and engage these weapons with time to spare.

In all the modes of attack, SEAD, indirect fire Support and effective ECM are essential for the success of a JAAT mission. Suppressive artillery fires, planned In advance against the enemy’s known or suspected locations of AD weapons, should be brought down before a JAAT attack. Most AD weapons can be neutralized or suppressed by a modem dual-purpose improved conventional munitions or HE projectiles with variable time fuses. Artillery firing will also cause armoured vehicles to “button up”. Care has to be taken to ensure that own aircraft do not overfly artillery batteries and that a minimum safe distance of 500 m is maintained from impacting rounds.

In addition to artillery fire, the JAAT may employ a decoy operation to reduce the effectiveness of enemy AD weapons. The scout helicopters, or AA if the enemy does not respond to scouts, begin an attack on the JAAT target area causing enemy AD weapons to open up and reveal their positions. While these weapons are busy with the scouts or AAR, FGA aircraft engage the target from a different direction with a consequently lower AD threat and a better survival and accuracy rate. In situations where the enemy has a preponderance of AD weapons, it Is necessary to employ a part of the JAAT for SEAD. Using scouts to decoy enemy AD weapons, the AAH engage all weapons which open up. This is followed in quick’ succession by FGA attack. As the remaining AD weapons open up on the departing aircraft, AAH engage these from new firing positions. Though not the primary task of AAH, effective SEAD will greatly complement FGA strikes and help in accomplishing a JAAT mission.

At the end of the mission, both elements of the JAAT forward appropriate strike reports. Occasionally, during saturation attacks on large armour concentrations, one JAAT may hand over the target array to an incoming JAAT with a.situation update and briefing.

JAAT: Potent future force

The concept of JAAT is still in a nascent state even in NATO armies. However, it is evident that JAAT will be a potent and enduring workhorse on tomorrow’s battlefields. It will be an essential integral component of combat groups in air-mechanized warfare. JAAT will provide a sharp cutting edge to troops on the ground even in low-intensity operations. Successful JAAT attacks will require a high degree of inter-service cooperation and joint training. FGA and AAH pilots will need to be familiar with each other and develop a deep understanding of each other’s tactics and operational limitations. Effective ECM, SEAD and indirect suppressive fires will be key elements in the success of JAAT strike missions.