Soldiers, Airmen train together for urban warfare

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Andrew Gates
  • 354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Combat in urban environments, such as that recently conducted in Fallujah, Iraq, is becoming more commonplace, said defense officials. Providing protection to ground forces in such close quarters is a challenge for Soldiers and Airmen alike.

During an exercise here, Soldiers from the 172nd Stryker Brigade and Airmen from here worked together to practice urban close-air support techniques.

The exercise helped one of the brigade’s Stryker armored wheeled vehicle battalions, based at nearby Fort Wainwright, prepare for future deployments, officials said.

“This was a fantastic opportunity,” said Lt. Col. Russell Smith, of the 3rd Air Support Operations Squadron. His unit acts as liaison between aerial forces and ground forces. “We were able to work with wing units and our Army customer to conduct operations with fighters at an Air Force fighter base. This was unprecedented.”

The brigade at Fort Wainwright is transforming from an infantry brigade to a Stryker brigade, Colonel Smith said. This has meant a lot of changes in how they conduct operations and how much they rely on the tactical air control parties of the 3rd ASOS.

“The Stryker is a very mobile, very fast weapon system,” Colonel Smith said. “It can quickly move away from protective artillery. Because of that, Strykers rely heavily on close-air support.”

Since Strykers are so mobile and survivable, they may suddenly move from a battle where enemy forces are located in an open area to one in an urban environment, Colonel Smith said.

“That’s what makes our job of targeting where the good guys and the bad guys are (located) so much more important,” he said. His unit provides tactical controllers and specially trained Airmen, known as joint terminal attack controllers, who can pass information between the ground commander and pilots.

“Urban (close-air support) is very different from other types of combat,” said Lt. Col. Quentin Rideout, 355th Fighter Squadron director of operations. “In a linear battlefield such as (Operation) Desert Storm, enemy forces were arrayed along a front, and it was easy to see where the forces (were). In a nonlinear battlefield, such as Afghanistan, there are no set lines and no set battle forces. Either one of these (factors) can require protecting forces in an urban setting.”

Providing close-air support in an urban environment is challenging for air assets, he said. “You want to be able to protect your ground forces, but you are also concerned about collateral damage and harming civilians in the area.”

F-16 Fighting Falcons and A-10 Thunderbolt IIs are well-suited to the urban mission, said Col. Robert Broderick, 354th Operations Group deputy commander.

“We are trained in the airborne forward air control mission,” he said, “and we can precisely target guided munitions in crowded environments.”

Because of the urban environment and the mixture of enemy forces and civilians, the aircraft may be limited in the munitions they can use, he said.

“If you have a group of enemies on the third floor of a five story building, you don’t necessarily want to take the whole building down. You don’t want to (harm) noncombatants unnecessarily,” he said.

When ground-force commanders know how aerial forces can protect their troops in an urban environment without arbitrarily affecting civilians, they can better use those forces, Colonel Rideout said. One of the best ways to do this is by embedding a pilot with the Army planning cell to effectively present to Soldiers the aerial support Airmen can provide.

“We used this very effectively in Afghanistan (during a recent deployment),” Colonel Rideout said. “We had a pilot embedded in a planning cell. He worked with (the Soldiers) and got on the same battle rhythm. He ensured that when the team planned operations, they were able to plan air assistance in from the beginning. It gave the joint forces the idea of what we can provide from a third dimension.”

One of the key elements in any close-air support operation is communication, the colonel said. “CAS is communication. If you can’t talk, you can’t do CAS. That’s why training like this is important.”

Communication must flow both ways, Colonel Smith said. Because of rapidly moving forces and limited visibility, the ground commander might not see if troops are in trouble, or exactly where enemy forces are. Air assets, because of their height, can pass real-time information through the controller on the ground.

“We can provide a great deal of situational awareness,” Colonel Rideout said. “Since air power operates in three dimensions, we can be above or behind enemy ‘lines.’

“When you get into a combat situation, you fight the way you have trained. This is the first time that I have practiced urban CAS,” he said.

“Everything in the past few weeks has been a huge learning curve, but the fact that we are doing it is great,” he said. “Everyone involved gets a feeling of what needs to happen. We learn what the ground forces need and how we can provide that to them. The ground forces learn to look at airpower as another element available to them.”