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Tactical Development

Marjah and the Air Tractor

Friday, February 12th, 2010

Got a note from a friend of mine the other day who’s a big proponent of so-called “Counterinsurgency Aircraft.”

Truth be told, he nixed his cash-out career as a lobbyist to work for a COIN plane-making company, but the former Marine Hornet driver knows of what he speaks.

It’s a shame the Air Force seemingly deferred a decision on COIN planes and a COIN wing or squadron or whatever Mike Vickers said they were going to outline in the QDR.

And my friend noticed a connection on our posts about the COIN plane and Predator/Reaper losses.

I would like to get the “real” cost of doing business with a Predator, when you factor in additional Sat’s, people, ground stations, etc…

Compares pretty badly to the the Air Tractor — $5-$6 mil fully decked out, 10 hours time on station — from the austere strip at the FOB (or Camp Belleau Wood if it were there today) with no transit time. Imagine the difference if LtCol Christmas was able to brief face to face with the pilot and forward observer who would fly cover over his battlespace — for 10 hours at a time — one crew, feeding targets and imagery to each Cobra, Harrier and Hornet coming in for close air support.

We had that kind of long duration, manned capability in Vietnam in the O-1 Bird Dog, the O-2 Mohawk and the OV-10 Bronco. About time we had it again. 

Bottom line, is that no sensor today can give a pilot the same situational awareness when he is in a trailer north of Vegas looking at a few flat screen TV’s. For Airborne Forward Air Controller and Forward Observer duties a good man, with a lot of time on station, sensors and weapons can save dozens of lives.

I agree whole heartedly. I know those grunts waiting for the balloon to go up in Marjah would like nothing more than a couple Spads and Spectres to give the bad guys holed up there a what for.

– Christian

QDR Signals JSF and Counterinsurgency Planes Live

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Giving the DoD’s latest Quadrennial Defense Review a close look, it seems as if the Pentagon poobahs hashed out a juxtaposed message for the Boys in (sky) Blue. 

On page 10 of the executive summary of the 2010 QDR, it says that the US air force will be able to take advantage of F-22s and JSFs for air dominance and still buzz around in retro planes like the Super Tucano or Air Tractor when “training” counterinsurgency forces. 

U.S. air forces will become more survivable as large numbers of fifth-generation fighters join the force. Land-based and carrier-based aircraft will need greater average range, flexibility, and multimission versatility in order to deter and defeat adversaries that are fielding more potent anti-access capabilities. We will also enhance our air forces’ contributions to security force assistance operations by fielding within our broader inventory aircraft that are well-suited to training and advising partner air forces

That seems like a big victory for the COIN Air Force Wing advocates, but we’ll see what the details are when the services give their breakouts today (Colin and Greg are on the case). 

The QDR lays out more COIN-related aviation moves, including fielding two new Navy helicopter squadrons dedicated solely for special operations missions. One has to wonder whether those aviation assets will help answer the mail for those worried about a lack of dedicated aviation elements for MarSOF troops. And the fearsom Spectre will get a makeover as well, with the Air Force buying converting 16 C-130Js and phasing out older AC-130s for a net of 35 aircraft from 25. 

And, last but not least, my former Navy Times compadre will be glad to know the QDR calls for the Navy to add a fourth riverine squadron to the force. “PBR Streetgang this is Almighty do you copy, over…” 

– Christian

With Special Forces a New Tactic in Afghanistan

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009


Call them “snap HVCPs”…

My good friend from Fox News Greg Palkot has landed an embed with US Special Forces in Zabul province Afghanistan and posted some awesome video of their operations.

ZABUL, AFGHANISTAN Special Force teams have been in Afghanistan ever since the days after 9/11. Now more than ever, they’re at the “ tip of the spear,” in places like Zabul province in the southeast, where the Taliban is…“everywhere.”

“Whether it’s two or three local Taliban or foreign Taliban,” the “Major” (that’s all he goes by for this report due to security reasons) said, “It’s safe to assume they’re in every village.”

The “Major,” the commander of a company of Special Force A-Teams, says the new US counter-insurgency strategy is all about what the Special Forces have been doing here. Green Berets are involved in civil affairs programs in various Zabul villages, supporting schools, manning clinics, building bridges.

One of them shows an interesting new tactic they’re using to nab bad guys infiltrating from Pakistan and moving insurgents around in the wide open spaces and unmarked roads of Afghanistan’s south. Watching the video, it looks as if the SF is executing what I’d like to call “snap helicopter vehicle check points” (they call them helicopter-vehicle interdictions)…like a scene from Blackhawk down the operators scope out a suspicious vehicle from high up and swoop in on them with a flock of Blackhawks, running from the crew compartments with weapons drawn.

Talk about a psych job! You’re just meandering along with your six madrassa buddies hanging for dear life onto the back of your Honda motorbike for your Jihad University graduation party and with the sun at their back, a bunch of bearded spacemen come swooping down to rain on your parade.  Seems like an expensive way to nab a few blocks of C4 and some wayward suicide bomber-wannabes from NoVa, but maybe it’s all a game of perception.


Also, on the gear front…Seeing a lot of Multicam, ACU and old-style three color desert camo mixed around. Also, looks like the beard restrictions have gone out the window. And the host of weaponry these guys are carrying? Was that an LWRC 6.8 PDW I saw on that second takedown?

Thanks to an anonymous tipper for the links.

– Christian

UPDATED: Details on Army’s New Afghanistan Duds

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009


No posts earlier today because I attended a detailed briefing with Army officials about their new program to field two new uniforms in Afghanistan to see if an alternative to the UCP is needed. We reported this earlier with the help of our friends at Soldier Systems, and in the interest of full disclosure, I need to give credit to my good friend Matt Cox at Army Times who broke the story.

Here’s an excerpt of tomorrow’s lead story on Military​.com:

The Army is set to field new combat uniforms to two battalions in Afghanistan next month in an effort to better equip combat troops fighting in the varied terrain found in that rugged climate.

For years some Soldiers had complained about the current multi-environment Universal Camouflage Pattern, arguing the toned down grey and green stood out in desert environments, rocky ridges and forested valleys found throughout eastern Afghanistan where most Army units now operate.

The new camo schemes include the Crye Precision-made MultiCam and a new pattern designed by the Natick Soldier Systems Center in Massachusetts.

MultiCam was designed several years ago with the help of Natick and is popular with special operations forces in the Army and Air Force — with some operators already wearing the squiggly brown, tan and green uniforms in Afghan combat.

Natick also developed a new variation of the UCP by adding coyote tan to the pattern, and will field the so-called UCP-Delta alongside the MultiCam one.

“We’re trying not to just deal with anecdotal information,” said Brig. Gen. Peter Fuller, chief of the Army’s Program Executive Office Soldier, during a Sept. 16 briefing with reporters at the Pentagon. “Just because someone else might be wearing something doesn’t mean that that is the best for all the environments.”

And Matt also broke the story of a 2009 study completed by Natick that showed the MultiCam performed better than a bunch of patterns as a “universal” camo and that MARPAT, Desert Brush and a Syrian scheme killed the UCP in almost all scenes. I obtained a copy of the study and I’d like to share it with our readers to do their own analysis…there’s a ton of data, but here’s the jist:

Though Army officials are loath to admit the UCP’s shortcomings, a 2009 Natick study showed the current uniform performing worse than four other commercially available patterns in all environments, including urban, desert and woodland.

The study, which was first reported by the Army Times and a copy of which was obtained by Military​.com, said MultiCam performed best as a universal pattern.

“If Army leadership desires a to maintain a single, multi-environment camouflage pattern for combat missions, data from this evaluation show the MultiCam pattern is the best overall, readily available pattern,” the study said.

The study indicated that the Marine Corps desert digital pattern, or MARPAT, and another pattern called Desert Brush performed best in arid and urban environments, while the MultiCam “was not as good as MARPAT and Desert Brush patterns it was significantly better than both patterns in two out of three woodland scenes,” the study said.

Both desert MARPAT and Desert Brush performed better than the UCP in eight of nine scenes testers evaluated, while MultiCam performed better than UCP in seven of nine scenes.

Photosimulation Camouflage Detection Test

Please be sure to read the entire story at Military​.com on Sept. 17.

(Photo: C. Todd Lopez)

– Christian

More on Ganjgal

Monday, September 14th, 2009

Okay, I’m totally fired up about this ambush in Ganjgal that needlessly took the lives of three Marines, a Corpsman and nine Afghan security forces.

A huge thanks to Mike j who forwarded me Jonathan Landay’s audio report from the battle. It’s about 15 minutes long and I gotta say, it is a MUST listen. I had a visceral reaction to it.

The audio report fleshes out the earlier story (as does the accompanying Landay piece) on just what happened in the ambush and how the village was oriented. As usual, this sounded like a horseshoe valley running east-west with high hills on the north-south rims. From the story and audio, it sounds like a well-supplied enemy force with plenty of ammo and even some body armor and helmets — all conducting military-style flanking maneuvers while pressing the attack.

It looks like the force — which was not small by any means, comprising some 80 Afghan security forces and 12 trainers — came from FOB Joyce. Judging from pictures of the base available online and this video shot at the base, there was more than enough room for a COIN plane landing strip and the minimal logistics to handle the upkeep and arming of, say, a COIN configured Air Tractor.

This battle, like the Wanat COP battle in 2008, should be a wake up call for better support from CAS and arty.

Couple other things:

Pedestrian, please don’t tip me off to Danger Room posts…we’ve been talking COIN air forces before they jumped on the bandwagon. And I agree with Ed on the UAV logic…too small, not enough weapons and I want human eyeballs in that cockpit — preferrably two sets. The way I see it, if this force was so well supplied, a low, slow, prop plane could have caught the action in time to snuff it out. And “asdfg” — we reported at Military​.com a few months ago that the Corps was looking to outfit their KC-130Js into Spectre “lites” in the coming year. I’ll look into updating that story for you…

I’m not letting this one go, folks.

– Christian

Could the COIN Plane Have Saved Lives?

Monday, September 14th, 2009


Sorry for the delay in posting, folks. Was on a much-needed vacation with the family that recharged my batteries and prepared me for what is certain to be a very newsy fall.

One thing I wanted to make a note of with our readers is a story that ran last week on Military​.com from a well-respected journalist whom I’ve known for years, Jonathan Landay. He writes for McClatchy news and was involved in a sudden ambush and firefight that resulted in the loss of two senior enlisted Marines, a young Marine officer and a Navy Corpsman — all on an advisor team for Afghan forces.

Jonathan’s takeaway from the ambush and the hours-long firefight that ensued was that the Marines were begging for some kind of fire support to help get them out of the pinch in Kunar. Because of the new restrictions placed upon forces there to avoid civilian casualties — or the perception of civilian casualties — fire and air support for the Marines (and their Afghan troops) was delayed for hours. Anyone reading this who’s been in combat knows how long an hour is when the bullets are flying — most of the fights I’ve been in have lasted minutes, and that was plenty.

…The U.S. troops had to wait more than an hour for attack helicopters to come to their aid and their appeal for artillery fire was rejected, with commanders citing new rules designed to avoid civilian casualties, the report said…

When an Afghan soldier demanded helicopter gunships, U.S. Major Kevin Williams replied through an interpreter: “We are pinned down. We are running low on ammo. We have no air. We’ve lost today.”

The Americans were assisting Afghan forces in an operation that called for Afghans searching the hamlet for weapons and then meeting village elders to plan police patrols.

But U.S. officers suspected insurgents were tipped off about the operation beforehand, as the coalition and Afghan forces were ambushed as they approached the outskirts of the hamlet at dawn, the report said.

Aside from the policy aspect of the screwup, there’s something that might be worth considering here that could have made the crucial difference. We’ve been covering the larger issue of COIN air power and the micro issue of a COIN support and recce plane. Would not have something like this made a decisive difference in the ambush?

Let’s look at the key points:

The COIN plane would have 5 hours of loiter, more than enough time to recce the area before the meeting with the elder that was the bait of the ambush. The crew could have alerted the advisors and their Afghan charge well before they entered the village of the ambush setup.

Even had they missed the emplacements, the COIN plane could have provided graduated levels of precise CAS and could have worked as a FAC-A for artillery and mortar support. Helicopters are great for this, but they were too far away and have limited loiter time. A COIN plane can be based at FOBs or even COPs with only a few hundred meters of runway and a skeleton maintenance crew.

Sure there is greater risk to the pilots and there’s plenty of logistical problems to account for. But it seems the solution to this problem is well within our grasp and the Pentagon has been much too slow to send it down range.

This loss of life is a tragic (and preventable?) shame and rest assured that Defense Tech and Military​.com will continue to investigate its circumstances and follow its conclusions.

– Christian

COIN Air Force on its Way

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009


A top Pentagon official told a small group of defense reporters this morning (July 23) that the upcoming QDR will likely propose the formation of an aviation cadre devoted solely to irregular warfare.

The Pentagon’s guru for special operations and low intensity conflict, the renowned Michael Vickers, told us that he believes a light strike, light reconnaissance aircraft would be useful to troops in an unconventional fight.

“That’s one of the issues that this QDR is looking at about how to create these sort of irregular warfare air units — should we do that, number one, because nothing has been decided — then what that mix might be. But it might not reside in the special operations forces, it might reside in the general purpose forces as sort of a counterinsurgency capability,” Vickers said.

Of course, this jibes with the Navy’s Imminent Fury initiative and rumblings from Norty Schwartz (USAF-COS) to create an irregular air wing in the Air Force.

Vickers went on to raise an interesting point — one that the brief I posted yesterday from the Navy’s IWO hinted at in the section on Imminent Fury — that an aircraft like that could also be an advantage to training local forces in counterinsurgency air techniques.

“One of the advantages with that kind of aircraft being adapted to the counterinsurgency battlefield is that they tend to be very inexpensive and something that a partner nation could afford. … They’re getting a look,” he said.

But before you think Vickers was hedging on the creation of an irregular air force, listen to what he said later when pressed.

“I think there is a need for that kind of capability. I think that capability is being looked at in the QDR. But the question is how much, and exactly the mix,” Vickers added. Notice he didn’t say ‘whether’ it would be created or part of the recommendations from the QDR.

And then this more demonstrative statement:

“I’m fairly confident we’ll end up with something. The question is how large a force and what capability to we put in there and whether we put it in over time. But some kind of irregular warfare something or other — some Air Force unit, whether it’s a series of squadrons or a wing or a group or whatever — I think is an idea whose time has come.”

Looks like the Spads will be back!

– Christian

ArmyPedia 1.0

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009


In a conversation today with Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the head of the Army’s Combined Arms Center in Leavenworth, Kans., we learned that the Army is getting all Wiki on us.

Basically Caldwell is embracing the Web 2.0 phenomenon of making reference material available online in an easily updatable fashion by creating so-called Wiki pages based on the popular Wikipedia online reference source.

Caldwell told a group of military bloggers on a conference call today that he’s trying to neck down the number of doctrine manuals from nearly 550 to just below 100 and to include some of the TTPs derived from them on Wiki pages. The way it works is that you can examine the tactical doctrine pages after logging in with your AKO account and you can update the pages with your own experiences and practices. Each area is moderated by a subject matter expert who edits entries and can chat with a Soldier updating the post to have him clarify his addition.

To Caldwell, this is the most efficient way to reach experts and get their feedback — the actual Joes in the fight.

“We want to take the expertise of the Soldiers who are out there and get the experts input,” Caldwell said.

So far the Army has posted seven TTPs in the last 10 days and received 5,000 page views. The goal is to have 230 manuals available by Wiki so Soldiers can have better access to the most updated information on how to win their fight.

– Christian

Awesome: Israelis to Test “Flying Jeep” in Two Months

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

flying jeep.jpg So, when does the civilian version come out?

Paris Airshow — Israeli developers working on a ducted-fan flying hovercar say that a full-size, turbine driven unmanned prototype will fly “within two months”. Flight tests with a smaller electrically-driven model, they say, have validated their basic technology.
The Reg flying-car desk spoke today with Janina Frankel-Yoeli, marketing veep at Urban Aeronautics of Israel, at the Paris Airshow. Urban Aeronautics prefer to call their designs “fancraft”, thereby distinguishing them from hovercraft, which can’t actually fly.
“We’ve solved the three basic problems of ducted-fan craft,” he says. “Our craft are stable, they can lift heavy loads, and they can fly fast — better than 100 knots.”

The US Army and Air Force tried to get something like this going for decades, but could never work out the kinks. The tactical benefits, particularly in casevac and urban combat, would be immeasurable — though I do wonder if it’d perform in high altitude environments like the Hindu Kush. Either way, hats off to the Israelis for getting the ever elusive flying car technology this far along.
Exit question: who remembers this warlock?
–John Noonan

Buffalo Chicken, Anyone? (MRE Update)

Monday, September 8th, 2008


Napoleon famously quipped, “An army marches on its stomach.” And anyone who’s been hungry in the field knows that few things out there are as big a deal as chow. So when I visited Natick last week, I was especially interested in seeing what was new at the DoD Combat Feeding Directorate.

Well, buffalo chicken, for one thing. That’s right, warfighters; come FY ’09 you’ll have a new menu item in your MREs. And I had a chance to taste the stuff, and I’m happy to report it’s really good … and I’m a hot wing connoisseur.

Jeremy Whitsitt, Combat Feedings outreach coordinator, explained that the command is conscious of the morale elements along with the nutritional value of menu choices . “An item like buffalo chicken makes a Soldier feel in touch with life back home,” Whitsitt said.

Since 1992 Combat Feeding has added over 200 components to the basic MRE.

Whitsitt described the “ration timeline,” which is the strategic plan behind combat chow:

- Initial wave eats MREs for 15–20 days. (No requirement for heat or electricity.)

- After that “heat and serve” group rations (like the Unitized Group Ration — Express) will be used for the next 10–15 days.


- Then hopefully things are settled to the point that a chow hall is up and running and “A Rations” are being served. This assumes refrigerators, boilers, and stoves are in place.

Speaking of the UGR-E, Whitsitt demonstrated how easy it is to fire one of those bad boys up. The box comes with chow for 18 folks, and with the simple pull of a lanyard, the auto-boiler starts heating the entrees. They’re ready to eat in about a half hour.