Urban close air support (CAS) successfully employed in Fallujah in 2004 highlights the capability of Marine Corps-style command and control (C2) of aviation. The CAS plan was built on Marine Corps C2 basics—procedural control and unity of command, which were enhanced with a common map or grid reference graphic (GRG). This maximized the fantastic capability of aviation precision weapons and targeting technology, and in the case of Fallujah, made fixed-wing CAS an appropriate option for supporting fires, underscoring the utility and need for tactical aviation (TacAir) in the Marine Corps.
The main assault into Fallujah in November 2004 (Operation PHANTOM FURY/AL FAJR) commenced when eight GBU–31s, 2,000-pound joint direct attack munitions (JDAMs), dropped by Marine Fighter/Attack (All-Weather) Squadron 242 F/A–18Ds, smashed into a railroad-topped berm bordering Fallujah’s north side. The bombs created breaching lanes for Marines of the 3d Battalion, 1st Marines to exploit later that day. In the follow-on battle, as the Marines, soldiers, and coalition troops fought door to door through the city, supporting fires were perpetual, a cacophony of precisely delivered destruction. Airstrikes came continuously and in harmony with other fires; most were “danger-close” and rapidly sequenced.1 One battalion air officer remarked:
I tell you what, for like three weeks, it felt like nothing but a continuous faucet, a continuous fire hose of airplanes. I never knew a time in November when I had a TIC [troops in contact] when I didn’t get an airplane within about a minute.2
Although sporadic fighting continued for weeks after, it took about 10 days for the main resistance to be squelched in Fallujah. The high-tempo penetrating attack envisioned by Marine commanders was realized. It had been substantially facilitated by CAS.
The Fallujah operation was daunting. Any type of urban CAS qualifies as one of the most complex and demanding tasks known to modern warfare. In Fallujah the additional challenge of a counterinsurgency environment existed, thus the need to minimize collateral damage and win hearts and minds, something not achievable if a city is razed by aerial attacks under the glare of a ubiquitous media. Also, it was a joint fight, both on the ground and in the air. Ground and aviation units from other Services and nations participated. Finally there was the blue tracking problem. There were lots of good guys fighting in Fallujah—10 battalions worth crammed into a 5-kilometer square city composed of look-alike and densely packed, low-slung, brown/gray brick buildings.
Despite these challenges, the Marines never hesitated to employ CAS in Fallujah. Indeed Marines used CAS extensively in Fallujah earlier that year in Operation VIGILANT RESOLVE or “FALLUJAH I” in April 2004. When fighting broke out, Marine Corps Cobra and Huey squadrons provided CAS. These pilots wanted nothing more than to support their ground brethren at war on Fallujah’s mean streets. They were vulnerable to ground fire, however. The downed Black Hawk in Somalia is the best illustration of why Regimental Combat Team 1’s (RCT–1’s) commander did not want them directly overhead Fallujah but rather wanted them to operate around the city’s fringes.3
Historically, tactical strike fighters were the blunt objects of CAS and not appropriate for an urban counterinsurgency fight. Precision ordnance, coupled with sophisticated targeting systems, changed that. Tactical jets could provide surgical CAS, and because of their speed and operating altitudes, were invulnerable to enemy ground fire since the insurgents displayed little antiair capability beyond small arms and rocket propelled grenades.4 Ironically, in an urban environment, the discreet use of big bombs, even 2,000-pound JDAMs, was appropriate. When several bad guys were holed up in a structure and artillery, tanks, or other means of fire support lacked the punch to neutralize them, a big bomb could bring the building down on top of them. On the other hand, there were times when traditional strafing worked best; low-level, high-speed passes spattering cannon fire down a street either killed or intimidated.5
The Marines’ own TacAir, AV–8B Harriers and F/A–18D Hornets, was yet to be deployed, so when Fallujah cooked off in April and RCT–1 needed fixed-wing CAS, their requests went to U.S. Central Command’s combined forces air component commander (CFACC), who ran the air war in Iraq. The CFACC’s air control agencies, the combat air operations center (CAOC) and air support operations center (ASOC), responded with plentiful air support.6
The Marine Corps’ approach was different from that of the U.S. Air Force and its relationship with the Army. The Marines’ willingness to integrate CAS into an urban fight surprised Air National Guard F–16 pilots who noted a distinct difference between Marine and Army ground units. One of them observed, “It didn’t matter what they [Army units] were against, what was going on, what they saw, what we saw, they would never, ever clear us to drop.”7 Another pilot put it succinctly, “The ASOC didn’t give us any work and they [Army units] weren’t buying any bombs.”8
The Marines were “buying bombs.” One of the Air Guard pilots contacted the Marine direct air support center (DASC) and, unlike the delays he had experienced with the Air Force/Army control system, was instead immediately given a mission. Soon the other TacAir pilots were doing the same and flying CAS missions in support of RCT–1. The Marines were not just slinging bombs at the enemy; each strike was deemed necessary, indeed essential, as the best means to deal with the threat. Forward air controllers (FACs), air officers, and pilots took extreme care to make sure the bomb or bullets hit the designated target. Another coalition pilot supporting VIGILANT RESOLVE remarked, “Our Marines?. . . put themselves much more in harm’s way than if they were out there just randomly killing. They are painstakingly careful about collateral damage.”9
Political leaders called off Operation VIGILANT RESOLVE, probably because of the negative media coverage—the “CNN (Cable News Network) effect”—of the fighting, and RCT–1 pulled out at the end of April. But in subsequent weeks, I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) brought in Marine TacAir, F/A–18D Hornets and AV–8B Harriers, basing them at Al Asad. This allowed them to be included in the planning for future operations in Fallujah.
LtCol Gary Kling, call sign, “Static,” an F/A–18 pilot and the Air Officer, 1st Marine Division (1st MarDiv), had the lead in planning air support for a subsequent Fallujah fight. His close associate at the 3d Marine Aircraft Wing (3d MAW) was another F/A–18 pilot, LtCol Christopher “Moe” Mahoney. Maj Geoffrey Anthony’s DASC from Marine Air Support Squadron 3, of Col Jon Miclot’s Marine Air Control Group 38, “worked hand in glove” with Kling and his planning team. He assigned Capt Dawn Ellis to lead an air support liaison team from the DASC to Kling’s division air shop. Ellis provided the specialized C2 knowledge and experience to the planning team as well as essential connectivity and communications between the DASC and the division air office.11
Early on in the planning process, Kling and Mahoney met and worked on developing a concept for the operation. Kling noted that it was more than an air support issue; their task was to “integrate all the division fires, CAS, artillery, mortars” to support the ground combat element’s rapid and penetrating attack plan, one that would not only rapidly secure Fallujah but also outpace the CNN effect. Kling recalled that within Marine Corps air tactical manuals, formal doctrine existed that could be applied to the problem, specifically, “from strike coordination and reconnaissance (SCAR) and armed reconnaissance templates. . . .”11 They chose to call it “keyhole CAS” because, as Kling explained:
The idea behind the original keyhole template in Afghanistan [Kling had seen one employed a couple of years earlier by an STS (special tactics squadron) airman] was that you had too many planes for a very small target area and that you would push them away from the target area so that you could manage them. . . . there were relatively few troops and too many planes over a small target with limited fires assets available.
The Fallujah problem was much more complex due to ten battalions (six U.S. and four Iraqi) in a city with artillery, mortars, fixed and rotary wing aircraft and everything else a Marine division brings to the fight. This was a fires integration plan, not just a CAS plan. We kept the name ‘keyhole’ because it had reached the ‘tipping point’ with many aviators and we needed something they could envision.12
Now that they had the concept for the operation, Kling and the other planners availed themselves of RCT–1’s value-laden after-action/lessons learned reports derived from the FALLUJAH I battle. Unity of command seemed to be of utmost importance. Unity of command would allow all aviation to flow into the zone under the oversight of the Marine DASC, which would provide flexibility and efficiency. The Marines had unity of command in their area of operations (AO) in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM I (OIF I), or the “March to Baghdad,” and it worked extremely well.
In OIF I differences between the Marine Corps’ and U.S. Air Force’s approaches were apparent. The DASC flowed strike aircraft of all types, not just Marine, to targets in the Marine zone for quick target prosecution. In the Air Force’s centralized control system, strike control remained at the higher echelon control agencies, which meant delays in getting clearance to employ ordnance. Additionally, the Army/Air Force system lacked the air-ground synergy implicit in the Marine Corps. This synergy came from an integrated air C2 system. Marines bring a complete C2 suite, radars, all of the equipment to the fight; furthermore, Marines conduct systematic and thorough training to integrate air with ground. On the other hand, the Army relies on the Air Force for air C2, and without dedicated training, friction results. Finally air-ground integration is Marine Corps culture and ethos that pays real dividends in a complex and dynamic combat environment. It really works.13
Synergy between the air and ground elements was significant. It became common for coalition TacAir in OIF I to “bingo” (a predetermined fuel remaining amount) out of the V Corps zone and go to the Marine DASC after enduring a “traffic jam” of aircraft awaiting targets in the Army’s V Corps zone.14 The senior Marine liaison officer in the CAOC recalled that:. . . we had a lot of coalition forces that flew with us over their [sic] and every one of them would come up to us in the CAOC and say, ‘hey listen, how can you get us to fly in the Marine sector?’
They knew that there were things happening—they could rapidly employ their ordnance on worthy targets.15
After OIF I, C2 of aviation reverted to the CFACC throughout Iraq, including in the Marine AO, except below 11,500 feet where the Marines’ DASC had control. This would have worked fine because the Marine helicopters, the only type aircraft they had in VIGILANT RESOLVE, rarely flew above 11,500 feet. When Fallujah erupted in April 2004, however, the Marines needed TacAir that operated above 11,500 feet for CAS, creating air control problems.
The altitude separation between the two control agencies caused a split—a seam that interrupted the smooth and efficient flow of aircraft to ground units. The traffic jam scenario, reminiscent of the V Corps zone in OIF I, now reappeared in the skies over Fallujah. Pilots complained that sometimes it took in excess of 20 minutes once they were overhead to get them in contact with a FAC.16 Pilots commented on the dangers, noting that: . . . overhead the target of Fallujah because there was no control and we had to go from ‘Kingpin’ (CAOC callsign) to the DASC down to the FAC and it just wasn’t efficient or effective to support the GCE (ground combat element).17
In addition there was a safety hazard in that aircraft being controlled by different control agencies were in danger of midair collisions.18
Pilots, believing that a TIC situation was top priority and sensing that the CAOC’s procedures were an impediment, circumvented the CAOC and contacted the Marines’ DASC directly. The DASC put the pilots in contact with a FAC who put them to work prosecuting a target. Even though ordered by the CAOC to not circumvent procedures, some pilots were passionate enough about this to face disciplinary action. One F–16 pilot asserted, “I would have done anything to help the Marines out down there, if it meant blowing the wings off my chest, I didn’t care.”19
Giving the Marines unity of command for FALLUJAH II would prevent any traffic jams caused by dual C2 setups. The CFACC and Air Force C2 officers saw the wisdom in Kling’s plan. The Air Force allowed that a system based on altitude deconfliction, such as at FALLUJAH I and An Najaf, would not work in a second Fallujah battle as it would be considerably more dense and intense.20 By turning the Fallujah fight over to the Marine Corps the CFACC could focus on other areas where insurgent activity was expected to increase. The CFACC acquiesced to the Marines’ request of unity of command, implemented by giving I MEF a cylinder of airspace around Fallujah called a high-density airspace control zone (HiDACZ).
The Fallujah HiDACZ went up 25,000 feet with a 15-mile radius. An inner circle 5-mile radius centered over Fallujah was the keyhole. Within this space the Marines shaped their desired unity of command. They resolved on a “push” fixed-wing CAS system and “pull” rotary-wing system. TacAir would be on call orbiting between the 5- and 15-mile circles, whereas rotary-wing CAS providers operating from battle positions on Fallujah’s fringes would respond when specifically requested by ground units and “employed any time in a battalion’s zone with no coordination beyond FAC control.” Coordination for fixed-wing CAS was between the two regiments (RCTs–1 and –7) to which all coalition ground units were attached, including Army, special operations forces, and Iraqis. The two Marine RCTs would operate parallel to one another on a north-south axis pushing through Fallujah. The keyhole template met Kling’s basic requirement for the plan, “integration driving efficiency and speed, minimizing fratricide, keeping it simple.”21
Simplicity in the keyhole template was crucial to success. Different types of aircraft and projectiles were separated vertically within the HiDACZ. Rotary-wing aircraft from their battle positions on Fallujah’s fringes would operate below 3,000 feet, fixed-wing aircraft would stay above 9,000 feet, and in between would be artillery, mortar fires, and a dense assortment of unmanned aircraft systems (UASs). Aircraft came in the keyhole—the inner 5-mile circle—only when cleared and under the handling of a FAC or joint tactical air controller (JTAC) and ready to prosecute a target immediately. They had free reign in the keyhole to maneuver in order to maximize their chances of hitting the assigned target, but they had to get steel on target as soon as possible, as other FACs serving other battalions were waiting their turn. Until they were cleared into the keyhole, fixed-wing aircraft were stacked at four orbit points, cardinal compass directions, around Fallujah between the 5- and 15-mile circles constituting the HiDACZ. Within each stack different type aircraft were deconflicted by altitude; for example, the AC–130 would be at 9,000 to 12,500 feet; above it would be strike fighters from 13,000 to 19,000 feet; above them would be EA–6B Prowlers; above 22,000 would be the domain of the Navy’s P–3 aircraft.
In this system, therefore, artillery and air were automatically deconflicted, which obviated one layer of fire support coordination. Furthermore, because few strike jets were “cleared hot” into the keyhole, time served as a deconflicter of fixed-wing CAS. The air officers of the regiments and battalions were in close proximity to the fire support coordination center, which allowed them to have the “big picture” of the placement of other friendly units, and thus the danger of fratricide was minimized.
RCT–1’s Operation VIGILANT RESOLVE after-action report also asserted the great utility of a common map or GRG. Kling and his team enhanced RCT–1’s FALLUJAH I GRG, made it useable for day and night operations, provided different scale maps for different users as appropriate, and made detailed sector maps. Commonality of place names was manifestly important to ensure that supporting fires were expeditious and accurate. It was posted on the 1st MarDiv website for all to access, and Kling and his team of airspace planners made a “round robin theater tour” to ready rooms throughout, including aboard the USS John F. Kennedy (CVA 67), to brief the GRG and keyhole CAS plan. Capt Ellis highlighted the GRG’s importance to pilots: “If you don’t have this in your cockpit?. . . if you can’t talk to this, go home; we’ll send you home.”22
Finally, the CAS plan for FALLUJAH II relied on Marine Corps-style procedural control. It allowed for routing a lot of aircraft into a tightly confined space, in a compressed time. Procedural control is in variance with Air Force positive control or radar control. Procedural control is less restrictive on pilots. As a 3d MAW staff officer described it, procedural control is: . . . like on a highway you can put two cars doing 80 miles an hour and put them three feet apart with a line down the center, and as long as they know not to cross the line [they will be safe], but if I had to do that by radar I’d have to put a huge space between them. So [with] procedural control you can actually saturate the area more with aircraft, so long as everybody goes by the procedures?. . . that’s not doctrine to the Air Force?. . . they look at it as a loss of control.23
Type II CAS—prosecution of a target when neither the pilot nor the FAC sees the target but both have digital imagery or coordinates that can ensure that the right target is hit—was used predominately. This was appropriate for Fallujah because the strike fighters operating above 9,000 feet certainly were not going to get eyeballs onto targets in the brown slur of Fallujah’s architecture, while FACs on the ground often had their views of the targets blocked by buildings, or they had to keep their heads down because of enemy fire. Deep air support, in effect, was being supplied at close range. Targets were discovered or identified by pilots, FACs, and JTACs.
Information was exchanged, as the same imagery was often shared between one and another. Once positive identification was made, clearance to attack was passed to the pilot by a FAC or JTAC. Although no one really had eyes-on, the target could be very close, even across the street. A vertically delivered bomb could collapse the building with little danger of fratricide because the building would contain the blast.24 Buildings next to other buildings that had been struck by bombs still stood; their windows had not even been blown out. A few pock marks evidenced a blast that had destroyed a building only 10 meters away. Insurgent hideouts also were mini arsenals. By collapsing the building, insurgents were killed and arsenals destroyed and therefore not available for leakers to use later.25
Airstrikes did not stop at night. Air officers and FACs, leveraging UAS-gained intelligence prepped the battlefield for the next day, taking down buildings known to harbor insurgents or arms caches. The ever popular, and omnipresent, Air Force AC–130U droned overhead, its optics and sensors surveying and reconnoitering the urban battlefield, exchanging information with FACs and air officers on the ground. Its sensors could pick up body heat, and when they did, insurgents were quickly ushered into Allah’s waiting arms. It was music to the Marines’ ears at night, “. . . background music for everyone. He would lull everyone to sleep with the ‘giant potato gun.’ The Marines loved it.”26
The accuracy of the air-delivered fires was phenomenal. Minarets attached to mosques, obviously prime insurgent observation points and snipers’ posts, were often targeted. A laser Maverick, guided bomb unit, or laser-guided bomb could “roll the thing open like a can,” and leave the mosque itself virtually undamaged.27 Strafing at times too was appropriate and could have an awesome impact. One Marine commander noted how Harriers and Hornets were brought down to 3,000 feet and made a strafing pass. “It had an awesome impact,” he asserted.28
The keyhole CAS plan allowed virtually the entire arsenal of coalition air assets to be brought to bear—not only strike fighters and attack helicopters of all Services, but also electronic warfare aircraft, Navy and Marine EA–6Bs, which remained adjacent to the city and employed electronic magic to impair the enemy’s communications system. The Navy’s big submarine-chasing P–3s, now equipped with a full suite of electronics, provided enhanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and C2 assets.
Rotary-wing aircraft operating on Fallujah’s fringes at times used laser energy from fixed-wing fighters above to guide their Hellfire missiles to targets within the city. Attack helicopters also escorted casualty evacuation flights and land convoys around the city. That’s what Marine AH–1W Cobras were doing on 11 November 2004 when two of them were shot down within minutes of each other at two different locations, one west of Fallujah and the other north, pointing out that the rotary-wing CAS birds were in a real down-and-dirty gunfight with the insurgents.
It also serves to remind us that airspace for the high-flying TacAir indeed had a permissive environment in Operation AL FAJR; the enemy fired nothing that threatened their sanctuary. If the enemy had employed weapons that could range them, the CAS plan and its implementation would have been entirely different. But the enemy did not, and the value of TacAir, tied with precision weaponery and targeting, was made obvious, and in the case of FALLUJAH II, it was predominately Marine TacAir. Although Air Force, Army, and Navy aircraft flew numerous strikes, in the final tally, at least 80 percent of the CAS strikes in November in Fallujah were delivered by 3d MAW aircraft, precisely and expeditiously. Approximately 318 precision bombs, 391 rockets and missiles, and 93,000 machinegun or cannon rounds were sent down range by aircraft—in concert with over 6,000 artillery rounds and almost 9,000 mortar rounds fired.29 There were no fratricides.
This blitzkrieg of supporting fires no doubt caused the deaths of many of the estimated 2,000 insurgents who had chosen to stay and fight. The city was not reduced to rubble. True insurgent strongholds went down, but minor damage was inflicted compared to other cities that have endured an intense urban fight supported by aviation.30 Civilians, the vast majority of whom had vacated the city thanks to a focused information operations program, returned in time to vote in large numbers in the election held on 30 January 2005.
1. L’Etoile, LtCol Joseph A., interview by LtCol John Way, 16 June 2005, Twentynine Palms, transcript held by the Marine Corps History Division, Quantico.
2. Payne, Maj John S., interview by LtCol John Way, 5 February 2005, Iraq, transcript held by the Marine Corps History Division, Quantico.
3. Toolan, Col John A., interview by author, 4 February 2005, Quantico; LtCol Jeffrey J.Murray, interview by Maj John Piedmont, 2 May 2004, Al Taqaddum, Iraq, digital recording and summary held by Marine Corps History Division, Quantico; Maj Derek T. Montroy, interview by author, 17 February 2005, Quantico, digital recording and summary held by Marine Corps History Division, Quantico. Interviews cite the danger to rotary-wing aircraft of enemy small arms and rocket propelled grenades. Murray mentions that six helicopters had been hit by enemy ground fire.
4. Kling, LtCol Gary A., e-mail comments to draft manuscript, 18 December 2007, in author’s possession, Marine Corps History Division, Quantico; hence noted as Kling-author interview.
5. This is not to imply that “intimidation” rounds were fired. Kling asserted that “we were trying to kill someone every time the trigger was pulled,” Kling-author interview.
6. Toolan-author and Montroy-author interviews.
7. Campbell, LtCol Sean, USAF, Air National Guard (ANG), interviews by author, 15 June 2005, Selfridge ANG Base, digital recordings and summaries held by Marine Corps History Division, Quantico.
8. Richter, Maj Tom, ANG, interview by author, 15 June 2005, Selfridge ANG Base, digital recordings and summaries held by Marine Corps History Division, Quantico.
9. Dickman, LtCol Nate, USAF, interview by author, 15 June 2005, Selfridge ANG Base, digital recording and summary held by Marine Corps History Division, Quantico.
10. Miclot, Col Jon, interview by author, 18 April 2007, Miramar, digital recording held by Marine Corps History Division, Quantico; LtCol Geoffrey M. Anthony, e-mail to author, 27 May 2008, held by Marine Corps History Division, Quantico.
11. Kling-author interview.
13. Post, Col Marty, interview by author, 29 January 2004, Headquarters Marine Corps, tape recording and summary held by Marine Corps History Division, Quantico.
14. Grant, Capt Rebecca, “Marine Air in the Mainstream,” Air Force Magazine, June 2004, p. 7.
15. Post-author interview.
16. Kling interview by LtCol John Way, 15 January 2005, Iraq, transcript held by Marine Corps History Division, Quantico; Capt Dawn Ellis, telephone interview by author, 28 June 2005, transcript held by Marine Corps History Division, Quantico.
17. Kling-Way interview.
18. Ellis-author interview.
19. Richter-author interview.
20. Kling-author interview; Col Howard D. Belote, USAF, “Counter Insurgency Airpower,” Air and Space Journal, Fall 2006, p. 22.
21. Ibid. Also RCT–1, Command Chronology, July-December 2007.
22. Ellis-author interview; Kling-author interview.
23. Lee, Col Ken, interview by author and David Anderson, 15 June 2007, Headquarters Marine Corps, transcript held by Marine Corps History Division, Quantico.
24. Butterworth, LtCol John M., interview by LtCol John Way, 4 February 2005, Iraq, transcript held by Marine Corps History Division, Quantico.
25. Kling-Way interview.
26. Smay, Maj David P. and Maj David E. Straub, interview by author, 17 May 2007, Patuxent River, MD, transcript held by Marine Corps History Division, Quantico; Capt William Vaughn interview by by Maj Joe Winslow, 7 January 2005, Iraq, transcript held by Marine Corps History Division, Quantico.
27. Smay-author and Straub-author interviews.
28. Toolan-author interview.
29. 3d MAW MicroSoft PowerPoint briefing dated 18 January 2006, information held by Marine Corps History Division, Quantico.
30. Keiler, Jonathan,“Who Won the Battle of Fallujah,” Proceedings, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, January 2005, pp. 60–61.