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AF, sister services rally at Pentagon to focus on close air support

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. (AFNS) -- Representatives of each military service, joint warfighters, and civilian experts came together to discuss the future of close air support at an Air Combat Command-command hosted summit at the Pentagon, March 2-6.

Dubbed the Future CAS Focus Week, the event served as a joint forum for more than 60 participants and senior leaders to discuss the current state of the mission, existing and potential challenges, future requirements and capability gaps.

"We gathered the best minds in the joint arena to take a deep look at close air support," said Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the commander of Air Combat Command. "Our objective is to establish a way ahead that ensures close air support capabilities meet warfighter demands today and are sustainable into the future."

The chief of staff of the Air Force directed the focus week, a tacit recognition that budget and operational concerns are forcing the services to reassess how they organize, train and equip, and that it is more important than ever to take the time to assess the current state of the critical mission of ground troops from the air.

As the lead command for the Combat Air Forces, with a role of ensuring the right platforms and CAS experts in their cockpits, ACC was the natural choice to execute the event, said Col. James Meger, the commander of ACC's 355th Fighter Wing at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona.

"We have flown CAS missions since World War I," Meger said. "It's part of our DNA and commitment to our joint teammates and it will be part of our mission for another 100. We have built a strong CAS culture with our pilots and our joint terminal attack controllers. CAS entails a highly trained force to protect our friendly forces and hunt down and kill our nation's enemies."

In addition to representatives from each of the services, attendees included members of the Joint Staff, U.S. Special Operations Command, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Rand Corporation. Most important, attendees included representatives of the ground forces that benefit from CAS and the air crew and JTACs who ensure its application on the battlefield.

"Interservice collaboration is essential in order to determine the way forward for effective CAS in the future," said Marine Corps Major Dustin Byrum, the air officer department head, Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One in Yuma, Arizona. "As a Marine pilot and forward air controller, I have supported Air Force and coalition JTACs as well as been supported by Air Force aircraft. We have to be able to operate in a joint environment. Having all of our joint partners together to talk about fire support allows us to incorporate the views and capabilities of each service."

That point was echoed by Col. Jeffrey Burdett, the ACC's assistant deputy director of requirements here, who noted collaboration is critical in the face of changing threats.

"The enemy changes and we change," Burdett said. "While the joint community conducts close air support better than ever before, the current experience (i.e. operating in relatively uncontested airspace) has degraded our ability to operate in more demanding environments. In concert with our joint service partners, we developed an understanding of where the Air Force should focus its future resources to best support the CAS mission."

Focus week participants were divided into three groups. One group included experts in past CAS operations, who provided details on what the services have learned during more than a decade of continuous combat operations. A second studied the current state of CAS capabilities. The final group looked at emerging threats and how the services could factor those threats into training, tactics, procedures, and doctrine. Collectively, the groups approached their discussions from the perspective that CAS is broader than any particular platform.

"It's critical for those who follow our current operations to understand that CAS is not a mission defined by a single aircraft," said Rollin Dixon, the ACC's deputy chief of flight operations. "We want to pull in all the experts to really look at how we will continue performing this mission, regardless of the platform we're using."

According to John McHugh, the secretary of the Army said at a Defense Writers Group breakfast last month that, from the Army perspective, the CAS mission and support from the air is absolutely critical.

“What a Soldier wants to see, and what the command structure of the United States Army wants to have happen, is when circumstances on the battlefield require, we have explosive ordnances on the enemy position,” McHugh said. “What platform the Air Force chooses to utilize in that is a matter for their discussions and decisions."

Due to the classified nature of the discussions, recommendations won't likely be made public. However, the result of deliberations may be changes that will impact the course of Air Force training and execution for years.

"We sat down with all our joint partners, our customers, to ask them what they wanted and what they thought about the future of CAS. From there we melded recommendations to ensure all aspects of the Air Force's CAS mission continue to develop and are improved by technology and joint interoperability," Meger said. "Most important we provided recommendations to ensure the appropriate weight of effort was placed on the mission and that the Air Force CAS culture is not just preserved but that it advances."

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