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Close Air Support and Drones

[ 19 ] February 10, 2012 |

Yesterday, Marcy Wheeler wrote a post pointing out that two of the six Americans confirmed killed by drone strikes were servicemen, a pair of Marines killed during a close air support mission (the other four are Anwar al Awlaki, targeted directly for assassination in a drone strike, and three other suspected Al Qaeda militants killed as “collateral” in drone attacks). There’s obviously some conflation here; the Marines died in a CAS mission during a firefight in Afghanistan, while the others were targeted more or less directly in the strategic drone campaign against Al Qaeda.  Nevertheless, Marcy argues that the death of the Marines reveals a larger problem about drone targeting; drone strikes are launched using insufficient information, thus leading to lots of accidental deaths (whether American military or foreign civilian.)

I think that this is mostly wrong, with a few elements that may be right.  The first problem is, I think, a misunderstanding of what modern close air support looks like.  On twitter yesterday, Marcy expressed the view that if an F-16 had launched the airstrike, there would have been an additional layer of intelligence and accountability. But, from the point of view of modern CAS, this is simply wrong.  Much CAS in Afghanistan is delivered from medium altitude by fighter-bombers such as the F-16 and the F/A-18.  These aircraft spend very little time over the target, and have very little ability to determine with any precision the events on the ground.  The weapons they release (often 2000# bombs) are targeted based on information from ground troops and (if available) live footage taken from drones. Close air support of this nature has, however, been part of the Afghanistan War since 2001, when special forces operators directed most of the targeting in support of Northern Alliance forces.

CAS is also delivered by aircraft such as the A-10 and the AC-130, which fly lower, slower, and have more time over the target.  However, a A-10 pilot still has less information about the course of a firefight than virtually any drone operator; drone pilots fly slower and can stay on station longer, and are less concerned about the possibility of getting shot down.  An AC-130 is a different story, because orbiting the battlefield is part of its job, but AC-130s are relatively few and don’t deliver much of the CAS in Afghanistan.

Moreover, the ordnance carried by a Predator drone does a lot less damage than the ordnance carried by an F-16 or an A-10. This isn’t always good; sometimes a 2000# bomb is an effective way to suppress or destroy an enemy position, or to kill a concentration of enemy fighters.  In friendly fire terms, however, the small weapons payload of the Predator is a distinct plus; NATO soldiers only die when they’re directly targeted by the Predator, as opposed to simply being near an F-16 strike.

The ideal CAS platform would be something like a Super Tucano, which has numerous weapon hardpoints, gunfire capability, and a low enough speed to loiter over the battlefield until the pilot figures out what’s going on.  For a variety of reasons (few of them relating to the question at hand), the Air Force has nary an interest in buying the Super Tucano or an aircraft like it.

The future of close air support is, as Drunken Predator suggests, fighter-bombers layered upon drones.  This isn’t ideal; there are some cases when having an A-10 would be of great help, and many cases in which a Super Tucano could handle CAS very effectively.  However, this is almost certainly a better situation than held at the beginning of the Afghan War, when fighter-bombers (and sometimes strategic bombers, such as the B-52 and the B-1B) delivered weapons without the assistance of near-ubiquitous drone footage.  In this system, drones collect intel, combined with ground troops, and deliver some of the weapons to targets, with the manned aircraft launching heavy ordnance based on drone and ground intel.

It should go without saying that friendly fire incidents happen in all of these scenarios. Close air support is necessary because enemy forces sometimes have positions which are either hard to attack directly from the ground, or from which they can pin down friendly troops.  In the latter situation especially, decisions on where to target bombs and missiles often have to be made in a very short amount of time with limited amounts of intel. Marcy quotes a report indicating that the spatial separation of different parts of the CAS team played a role in mistaken killing of the Marines, but doesn’t put this in any comparative context.  The history of CAS in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War I, and the wars of the War on Terror is replete with instances of CAS gone horribly awry, including low altitude strafing of friendly infantry and vehicles.  Pilots, SOF operators, and infantrymen all make dreadful errors about the precise location of friendly and enemy forces; in previous conflicts, the lack of communication between ground and air forces has been a tremendous problem.  The deaths of two Marines in a drone CAS strike in Afghanistan doesn’t tell us very much about the proclivity of the current system to create friendly fire casualties; for that, we’d need much more robust data comparing the frequency of such casualties in situations with and without drones. I don’t have that data handy, but I think there’s very good reason to think (based on the immediate availability of intel and the size of ordnance fired by drones) that the presence of drones tends to cut down on friendly fire casualties.

As should be obvious, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the legitimacy, legality, accuracy, or good sense of the campaign to target suspected terrorists with drones in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, et al.  The issues raised by the use of drones in support of conventional military operations as opposed to the use of drones in what amounts to a strategic bombing campaign-light aren’t completly separable, but they’re distinct enough that great care should be taken before conflating the two.


Comments (19)

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  1. rea says:

    For a variety of reasons (few of them relating to the question at hand), the Air Force has nary an interest in buying the Super Tucano or an aircraft like it.

    The Wikipedia article you link says otherwise.

  2. UAVs are so kewl that any story which involves a drone automatically becomes about the drone.

    Which leads to some shaky journalism.

  3. Pathman25 says:

    “nothing whatsoever to do with the legitimacy, legality, accuracy, or good sense of the campaign to target suspected terrorists with drones”

    Except for the fact that it’s immoral. Killing other human beings is immoral.

    • rea says:

      Killing other human beings is immoral.

      Well, you’re either a lunatic or a saint, I’m not sure which.

    • wengler says:

      This is America, son. Killing makes the grass grow.

    • Njorl says:

      Killing other human beings is immoral.

      Which is why we should do it with fighter/bombers instead of drones.

      Taking people’s stuff is immoral, so it should be done with a pick-up truck, not a U-Haul.

      Cutting people open is wrong, so it should be done with a knife, not a razor.

    • Socraticsilence says:

      Then essentially your aguing for anarchy right- because the modern state kills people both intentionally and unintentionally in every nation on earth. Of Course Anarchy’s far worse in terms of average outcomes but hey at least you get the smug sense of moral superiority that comes with opting out of the system.

  4. cpinva says:

    CAS (and artillery support) has always had an inherent risk for the ground troops. as the ability to more accurately target the enemy, and aim the bombs/guns has increased, the risk level has decreased, but not disappeared entirely. with modern GPS, and bomb guidance systems, friendly troop odds of being hit are very small, which is great. it’s great, unless you happen to be one of those that’s hit, then it’s not so great.

    the only ways to eliminate the risk entirely is to stop making war, or stop using CAS/artillry support. personally, i vote for the former.

    • Njorl says:

      It’s surprising how often you encounter arguments against specific tactics or weapons which are essentially arguments against war. Then, if you argue in favor of the tactic (given a state of war), you get labelled pro-war.

  5. Njorl says:

    CAS drone operators are likely to be in close proximity to the people with the best view of the battlefield, which may well be recon drone operators. In any case they are almost certainly going to be in a better position than a pilot to abort a mission which is erroneously sent after a friendly target.

    They also have the advantage of a lack of personal danger. CAS is a dangerous mission, and no jet pilot wants to have to make an extra run. A drone pilot is under less pressure. He can abort an attack if he has a doubt about the target, then go back again if it turns out to be valid. If he loses his drone, that’s bad, but it isn’t a dead pilot and a lost jet.

  6. wengler says:

    I think letting the CIA have drones is a huge issue, as well as all of the drone strikes in NW Pakistan. The ROE there has basically been ‘fire if there is the possibility they are Taliban/al Qaeda/person in a robe and silly hat with a Kalashnikov’.

  7. Pathman says:

    Here is Lee Camp on our endless wars. It’s informative and funny!

  8. Indiana Joe says:

    How about giving the troops their own drone?

  9. ajay says:

    Most memorable CAS screwup in the early days of the Afghan War – dropping a bomb that almost killed Hamid Karzai. (I am carefully not saying which direction that erred in.)

  10. Zone of War says:

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