Close Air Support Revisited

by Capt Dale R. Davis

Close air support remains essential to our success on a maneuver warfare battlefield, but providing it will be increasingly difficult.

The application of the Marine Corps’ maneuver warfare doctrine (FMFM-1) to the six functions of Marine aviation is still an area of debate. Articulating the ability of the aviation combat element (ACE) to perform missions as a Marine air-ground task force’s (MAGTFs) focus of main effort has become quite the rage, as demonstrated by numerous recent articles in our professional military journals.* Unfortunately, the doctrine of close air support (CAS), as it supports or fails to support maneuver warfare theory, is a subject that has been largely ignored.

The Marine Corps employs CAS more effectively than any other combined arms force in the world. This ability, however, does not compensate for the obvious contradictions between maneuver warfare theory and Marine aviation doctrine. Concepts such as fluidity, disorder, uncertainty, tempo, reconnaissance pull, and decentralized command often seem in conflict with aviation command and control doctrine. As the Marine Corps reorients toward the low-to-medium end of the spectrum of conflict and commits itself to maneuver warfare, it is appropriate to reexamine CAS requirements, doctrine, aviation force structure, tactics, and equipment requirements.

CAS Requirements and Doctrine

Why CAS? Does the Marine Corps really need it? Can we rely primarily on attack helicopters to support ground maneuver while fixed-wing aircraft are dedicated to air superiority and battlefield interdiction missions? Has the proliferation of the shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile (SAM) rendered CAS as ineffective as cavalry in World War II?

A quick analysis of helicopter survivability in Vietnam, Grenada, and Panama reveals the vulnerability of rotary-wing attack platforms. CAS provides flexibility to the maneuver commander, and it allows operations beyond the range of other supporting arms. Certainly during the early stages of an amphibious assault CAS will be required due to the lack of other supporting arms. It is CAS that allows a light, expeditionary force to conduct violent, successful combined arms warfare. On the maneuver battlefield, the Marine Corps will be more dependent on CAS than ever before. At the same time, however, CAS is a most inefficient use for Marine air. CAS missions generally affect the tactical level of war. No wars or campaigns have been won by CAS, only individual battles. Moreover, CAS is not easily executed. FMFM 5-4A, Close Air Support and Close-in Fire Support outlines the requirements for effective CAS as air superiority, suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD), marking requirements, favorable weather, flexible control, prompt response, and aircrew and terminal controller proficiency. The rapid changes in technology and tactics demand a review of these requirements.

Air superiority includes superiority over the ground-to-air threat as well as the air-to-air threat. On the modern battlefield the enemy may be able to deny air superiority without actually employing aircraft. The increased lethality of modern air defense weapons may severely inhibit air operations. This increases the need for effective SEAD. The conduct of SEAD operations has become exponentially more difficult as the performance of shoulder-fired SAMs has increased. Since larger radar-guided systems usually remain farther behind the forward areas in order to defend vital facilities, manportable SAMs and antiaircraft artillery (AAA) represent the predominant threat to CAS aircraft. The great advantages of these systems are high mobility and easy concealment. areas in order to defend vital facilities, manportable SAMs and antiaircraft artillery (AAA) represent the predominant threat to CAS aircraft. The great advantages of these systems are high mobility and easy concealment.

SEAD operations fall into one of two categories, destructive or disruptive. Since the threat is extremely difficult to target, heavy reliance must be placed on disruptive means of SEAD. These include technological countermeasures (electronic countermeasures, chaff, flares), operational deception, and sound tactics. While the ability to conduct future daylight CAS operations with relative impunity is questionable, night operations are a viable alternative. The effectiveness of AAA and infrared guided missiles is limited at night due to visual target acquisition requirements.

On the maneuver battlefield, flexibility is a key to success. Flexible control of aircraft is the responsibility of the Marine Air Command and Control System (MACCS). While it provides operational flexibility, the MACCS concept of centralized coordination and decentralized control presents a unique challenge to tactical flexibility. Rapidly changing situations and fleeting windows of opportunity demand decentralization within the command and control process. The air tasking order (ATO) is presently written at the tactical air command center (TACC) 24 hours in advance of execution. This 24-hour deadline requires submission of air requests at the infantry battalion level no later than 36 hours in advance of execution. Once the air requests are submitted, the maneuver unit commander has very little latitude in the employment of CAS.

One method of providing flexible CAS has been to write preplanned oncall, strip alert, and airborne alert sorties into the ATO. A more recent innovation has been “direct support” sorties, which are simply strip and airborne alert sorties allocated to specific maneuver units. Unfortunately, these methods fail to support maneuver warfare. The principles of reconnaissance pull, mission orders, and commander’s intent are ignored. There is no direct liaison between the supporting aviation unit and the supported ground unit prior to mission execution. Aircrew are usually unaware of the actual tactical situation. Untold opportunities slip away because aircrew have no knowledge of the commander’s intent or the supported unit’s scheme of maneuver.

Since the supported unit commander does not have launch authority, he is unable to commit his dedicated CAS without approval from the tactical air commander (TAC). CAS flexibility is held hostage to long-haul communications through a lengthy chain of command. CAS mission tasking and launch authority should be pushed down to the regimental level. The ACE should retain the authority to divert any missions to support the MAGTF but should otherwise simply monitor these processes. The assignment of specific aviation subunits vice sorties (i.e., Section 1, VMA-513 vice Mission Number 7061) in direct support of ground units will provide the ground commander with the greatest degree of latitude in the employment of CAS and create the level of air-ground integration necessary to apply the principles of maneuver warfare.

Prompt response is closely tied to flexible control and is dependent on communications, aircraft availability, and flight time to the target. Forward basing and airborne/strip alerts help reduce response time. The concept for employment of the AV-8B Harrier revolves around forward basing. Located at a forward site near the supported unit, the Harrier waits in a strip alert status for mission tasking. Close proximity to the target theoretically reduces flight time and fuel requirements, thus decreasing response time and increasing ordnance payload.

Capt Sean P. McDonald’s article “Expeditionary Site Operations” (MCG, Jan90) sheds the harsh light of reality on this issue. To optimize forward site operations, significant requirements must be met in terms of site dimensions, composition, and logistics support. To carry a relevant payload, the Harrier will require a rolling takeoff on a prepared surface. This does not correlate to the image of a Harrier rising like the Phoenix out of a clearing to wreak havoc upon the enemy. Airborne alert provides the best response time, but this procedure is inefficient in terms of aircraft utilization. The limited flight times of modern jet aircraft demand either in-flight refueling or more sorties to cover a given time period.

Aircrew and terminal controller training is an issue that has received attention recently. The requirement that all forward air controllers (FACs) must be pilots is a detriment to effective CAS, whose missions are the most complicated supporting arms missions to coordinate and control. The limited exposure to ground operations, relatively short tour lengths, and often the lack of desire inhibit the proficiency of aviators as FACs. In terms of cost effectiveness and combat readiness, it makes little sense for Marine aviators to do anything other than fly. A more logical choice for FACs would be officers with the military occupational speciality (MOS) 7208/direct air support center (DASC) background. They understand the procedures and communication requirements perhaps better than Marines of any other MOS. In addition to removing MOS restrictions, FAC tour lengths should be increased to the three-year standard, for obvious reasons.

Finally, aircrew need to concentrate on more specific mission training. Due to the diverse capabilities of modern aircraft, pilots are required to train for many different missions. Undoubtedly, within the F/A-18 community, aerial combat maneuvers and deep strike tactics predominate the flight schedule at a cost to CAS proficiency. Greater specialization will lead to more effective mission accomplishment.

Aviation Force Structure

Achieving greater specialization within the aviation community requires corresponding specialization within the aviation force structure. The ACE should be restructured to accomplish the six functions of Marine aviation more effectively. At the Marine expeditionary force (MEF) level, the ACE should consist of air groups that are task organized to perform specific Marine aviation functions. An antiair warfare (AAW) group would be responsible for conducting all offensive antiair warfare and air defense missions, such as combat air patrol (CAP) and deep strike escort. An offensive air support (OAS) group would be responsible for conducting all strike and CAS missions. The heart of the OAS group would lie in three dedicated direct support (DS) squadrons. Each DS squadron would be committed to CAS missions in support of a corresponding infantry regiment within the ground combat element (GCE). In addition to the three DS squadrons, the OAS group would contain two general support (GS) squadrons. These squadrons would be responsible for strike missions and would provide the MAGTF commander flexible combat power at the operational level. Tactical employment of DS aircraft would be the responsibility of the supported regiment. The DASC would be primarily responsible for employing the GS squadrons in immediate support of the MAGTF and routing aircraft through MAGTF airspace. Of course all aircraft are MAGTF assets, and the DASC would be authorized to divert DS aircraft to immediate support of the MAGTF when necessary. MAGTFs smaller than a MEF would task organize in a similar manner, retaining a close relationship between the GCE and the ACE’s DS subunit


Appropriate tactics are generally determined through an analysis of the mission, enemy, terrain and weather, troops and fire support, time-space, and logistics (METT-TS-L). Aviation tactics are no exception. CAS tactics have evolved to meet the air defense threat From lowaltitude ingress pop-up attacks to avoid medium altitude, radar-guided SAMs to high angle dive bombing to avoid AAA, tactics have changed as the threat has changed. Technology occasionally enables new tactics that were previously not feasible. The amazing improvements in night flight technology and precision-guided munitions have breathed new life into CAS tactics. Aircraft will be able to provide CAS at night when enemy air defenses are suppressed. Precision-guided munitions will reduce targeting problems, reduce exposure over the target, increase target destruction, and allow stand-off ordnance delivery. These factors add up to combat power and survivability.


What are the requirements for an effective CAS platform? The most critical requirement is survivability. For years, survivability has been tied to speed, which reduces periods of exposure to the ground-to-air threat. The predominately successful use of air defense guns and small arms by the enemy in Korea and Vietnam fueled the movement from propeller-driven aircraft towards jets. The proliferation of highly effective man-portable SAMs has compounded the survivability issue further. Night flight capabilities, reduced infrared (IR) signature, IR countermeasures, precision-guided munitions, and structural resistance to battle damage are necessary components of a survivable CAS platform.

An additional requirement is the ability to respond rapidly to immediate CAS requests. An effective CAS platform should be able to loiter on station for four to five hours without support. Finally, CAS aircraft must be capable of carrying and accurately delivering substantial loads of ordnance. Jets are the least suitable aircraft for the CAS mission. An aircraft with a turbo-prop or reciprocating piston powerplant seems much more reasonable. The greater fuel efficiency, ability to operate from rough, unimproved air-strips, and short takeoff capabilities far outweigh the disadvantage of an increased maintenance effort.

Is there an optimum CAS platform for the Marine Corps? The Air Force’s A-10 is often recognized as a true CAS platform. While it incorporates many of the capabilities required by the Marine Corps, it cannot operate from small carriers. As a jet, it is susceptible to foreign-object damage and has a limited loiter time. Other potential CAS aircraft are an upgraded version of the OV-10 or the Pucara (built by Argentina). These aircraft have limited ordnance loads of approximately 4,000 pounds. An effective CAS platform was in the Marine Corps’ inventory in 1952. The A-1 Skyraider-carrying 12,000 pounds of external ordnance and four internal 20mm guns and capable of operations from small carriers, short unimproved expeditionary airfields, and roads-loitering over the battlefield for four to five hours providing continuous CAS to maneuver forces. It also was capable of sustaining multiple small- and medium-caliber antiaircraft artillery hits, was agile enough to defend itself at low altitude against the air-to-air threat, and was cheap enough for the Marine Corps to buy in sufficient numbers. The Skyraider provided Marines accurate CAS in Korea and Vietnam. An aircraft built along the same lines as the Skyraider, with the advantages of modern technology, would provide the Marine Corps with the aircraft that William S. Lind calls the “Mudfighter.”

Appropriate CAS ordnance is also a factor to consider. In light of the political influence on rules of engagement and the need to minimize collateral damage in any future conflict, it may be more appropriate to spend millions of dollars on precision-guided munitions that can be delivered by relatively inexpensive aircraft than to develop expensive aircraft to deliver cheap, inaccurate ordnance.

Joint Operations

Future conflicts will almost assuredly entail joint operations. One of the most pressing fears of the Marine Corps is that misinterpretation of the 1986 Omnibus Agreement, which approved a new policy for command and control of Marine Corps tactical aviation during sustained operations ashore (see MCG, May 90, p. 9), will lead to the loss of operational control of Marine air by the MAGTF. This problem is complicated by the fact that our aircraft, especially the F/A-18 and A-6, are so capable of conducting air superiority and battlefield interdiction missions. The acquisition of an ugly, slow, propeller driven “CAS only” aircraft would ensure that Marine air will be there to support maneuver. The Air Force probably would not even classify it as a tactical aircraft.


In summary, CAS remains a necessary component of Marine combat power. It has become exceedingly more difficult to coordinate and conduct. Streamlining the tasking process and delegating the authority to commit allocated CAS sorties to the maneuver commander will provide more flexibility. Increasing the proficiency of aviators and FACs through specialized training and experience, combined with more specialization within the aviation forces structure, will improve mission effectiveness. To ensure that CAS remains available we must integrate technology and new tactics to increase survivability and allow exponentially greater combat effectiveness. Finally, it may be necessary to acquire a “CAS only” aircraft that survives on the modern battlefield, while ensuring a CAS capability remains within the MAGTF during joint operations.


*For examples see:

  • Maj R. Scott Moore, “The Art of MAGTF Warfare” (MCG, Apr89)
  • William S. Lind, “Maneuver Warfare and Marine Aviation” (MCG, May89)
  • Maj James P. Etter, “Marine Air: Look to the Battlefield …” (MCG, May89)
  • Maj John B. Saxman, USAF, “The Role of Marine Aviation in Maneuver Warfare” (MCG, Aug89)
  • Major Steven B. Donnell “The ACE as a Maneuver Element” (MCG, Aug89).