Morale: Is Anyone Up There

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March 9, 2017: One of the most popular American ground support aircraft are army and marine helicopter gunships. Yet because the army did not maintain a record of all the sorties its attack helicopters carried out it is difficult to put the contribution of these effective and popular ground support aircraft into perspective. Combat troops say they overwhelmingly prefer the A-10 or attack helicopter (especially the AH-64) for air support. Smart bombs are appreciated but not as much as a low, slow heavily armed aircraft that can hit targets promptly with autocannon or missiles. The troops appear to see the AH-64 as the first choice in most situations.

But the ground troops are not the only ones making the decision about what will be used. The most important factor is which ground support aircraft are available when air support is called for. When there is more than one aircraft type available it is up to the JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controllers) and JFO (Joint Fires Observers) teams on the ground to make the final decision. There are stats on that. A 2015 survey of Marine, Army, and Air Force JTACs and JFOs showed an overwhelming preference for the A-10. JTAC and JFO teams are trained to call in air strikes and most of these teams contain a combat aircraft pilot. At the same time these teams work directly with ground forces and are well aware of what kind of air support the ground troops find most useful. Ground controllers mostly (48 percent) preferred the A-10. The next most popular aircraft (which 13 percent preferred) was the AC-130 gunships. Air force leaders insist jet fighters (like the F-16, F-15 and F-18) can replace the A-10 but these three fighters are preferred by 14 percent of ground controllers and even fewer of the troops being supported. The AV-8B vertical takeoff jet is preferred by only four percent. Armed helicopters are preferred by 11 percent and armed UAVs by nine percent. What this survey did not take into account was the fact that the army and marines allow a wider number of people on the ground to call in air support from a helicopter gunship and the troops and controllers just assume there will always be some of these helicopters around. Such is not the case with jets and multi-engine gunships.

Basically complete data on the number of ground support sorties carried out by AH-64s and armed UAVs are not available while the air force data is. The army is regretting not maintaining complete sortie data over the last decade because it would give them a much stronger argument for getting more money for the attack helicopters. This would help the army deal with another persistent problem; the services view ground combat differently. This has always been a problem and it got worse after World War II when the U.S. Air Force became a separate service instead of part of the army. In their eagerness to assert their independence the air force leaders developed new doctrine and tactics based on an unrealistic view of how wars were fought on the ground. This has caused the army decades of problems, and endless disputes with the air force over air support for the troops on the ground.

 

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