Artillery: France Leads The Way


September 8, 2008:  France is reorganizing its approach to forward observers (the specialists at the front who call in artillery fire and air strikes.) The new "fire support specialists" will now call in air strikes as well as air power. In most nations, the air force insists on having its own fire controllers for air strikes, leaving to army "forward observers" the task of calling in artillery fire. But the French generals recognize that this approach is counterproductive. Thus the current French force of 500 fire support specialists will be increased to 900, and all will be trained to handle artillery and air strikes.

The U.S. Army is still having a hard time making that switch, mainly because the U.S. Air Force refuses to give up control over air strikes. For decades, the air force has resisted, and insisted that only air force personnel, trained and equipped to be "air controllers," perform this task. Then came smart bombs, like JDAM, and targeting pods, like LANTIRN and Sniper, which proved enormously popular with the troops on the ground. That's because the smart bombs and targeting pods made friendly fire from the air much less likely. It's a dirty little secret in the air force, but in the last half century, more U.S. troops have been killed by American warplanes, than by enemy ones. But U.S. warplanes are now much less of a threat to American troops, and the ground troops can't get enough air support.

 Now the air force has become a victim of its own success, and inability to provide enough air controllers to fill the demand. There's a war on, and there are many emergency situations where a smart bomb could save the day. But without an air force air controller on the scene, it takes longer, if ever, to get the air force involved. Often pilots in the air get linked up with some desperate ground troops who don't have an air controller handy, and witness the impact of the air controller shortage first hand. Over the last seven years, hundreds of air force pilots have personally experienced this shortage of air controllers, and are coming over to the army concept of training a lot more people to handle calling in air strikes.

 The air force is still mesmerized with the idea that the air controller job is one that can only be done by an officer. But the army points out that they have had NCOs calling in firepower from mortars, artillery and attack helicopters for years, and that this works. The navy and marines have also had forward observers that can call in anything. Moreover, the army has developed a concept of "joint fires", where their "artillery controllers" would handle air strikes and naval gunfire, and thus become "joint fires" controllers. Moreover, the army believes that better tools make it possible to quickly train enough people, most of the them sergeants, to provide at least one controller for every 30 or so troops.

Technology makes a big difference. The army has a binoculars type system, which incorporates a laser range finder and a GPS. This unit produces the GPS coordinates of whatever the user is looking at, and zaps, with the laser rangefinder. If the binoculars are hooked up to a digital military radio, the controller can send those GPS coordinates to a warplane overhead, discuss the type of attack (bomb size, strafing) required, and order it to proceed.

As much as the air force dislikes having its pilots taking orders from army sergeants, equipped only with some high-tech binoculars, the growing demand from the ground, and pilots urgent for a solution, has compelled the air force to compromise. The current arrangement allows the army to train its joint fires controllers to call in air strikes, but only as a last resort. Otherwise, the joint fires controllers must work through the nearest air controller. Failing that, the soldier controller can do what they know how to do. It's a workable compromise, and the soldiers like and respect the air controllers (who are fighter pilots doing a tour of duty on the ground.)


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