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