Release the Gunships! Part One


Categorie: Air, Iraq |

ac130u.jpgThe tech-heavy, increasingly irrelevant Air Force is finally making a half-hearted effort to actually contribute to low-tech counter-insurgency fights. But it could do a lot more, according to Major Robert Seifert in a recent piece for Joint Forces Quarterly. First up, the service needs to reconceptualize the enemy, Seifert writes:

Strategists yearn for a center of gravity to attack in order to crush the insurgency, and many claim there is none. They fail to see that the center of gravity is the individual insurgent and the location of his attack. For it is at that location alone, and only for a brief time, that the insurgent we struggle to define is an irrefutable enemy and a definable target. Strategists and tacticians both must look at each insurgent attack in the same light as our grandfathers looked at Germany’s war industry. 

Next, the Air Force must give more freedom to one of its most effective weapons, the AC-130 gunship, to go out and destroy this “industry.” Why gunships? Because they combine a wide range of sensors and weapons in a platform with a long loiter time. It’s a perfect combo for a low-threat environment. The problem is that the Air Force assigns gunships to orbit over specified ground units for hours at a time, whether or not those units are likely to come across any bad guys:

[Gunships] fly every night in Iraq but rarely identify a single insurgent due to the inefficient manner in which they are requested by the Army and employed by the Air Force. … [A] simple yet fundamental change in AC–130 employment can kill or capture more insurgents, save friendly lives, and improve prospects for coalition success.

“I am convinced that if I was allowed to employ my gunship the way I propose, I would find and kill insurgents every single night,” Seifert told me:

I would ask where the insurgents are most likely to be (although I would start figuring it out pretty quickly myself) and I would then fly over those areas as much as possible all the while being on a frequency that all of the ground forces in the triangle knew to call at the first sign of trouble. Sure a lot of insurgents would get away every night but you catch a dozen insurgents every night and you start demoralizing them pretty darn quickly. I’ve shot dozens of them and they don’t even know what’s shooting them. AC-130s against insurgents is a total and complete unfair fight. We’ve made it fair, though, by sitting the gunships in the same spot for hours at a time “defending” whatever ground force happens to be in that location. 

My concept is no different than how police forces are used. Do cop cars sit in the same spot and defend a neighborhood? Or do they roam around looking for bad guys all the while being on call to EVERY citizen in their jurisdiction. Cops are the best weapon against bad guys and gunships are the best weapon against insurgents. Another example is F-15 employment. Do F-15s sit in the same spot defending a particular army unit against air attack or do they roam the skies looking for MiGs and waiting for AWACS to push them to the first indication of MiGs? The Air Force has perfected the art of air-to-air and is the reason the Iraqi Air Force wouldn’t even take off. Put the same effort and expertise into gunship employment and you’d start seeing insurgents that didn’t want to leave their houses.

ac130image.jpgSounds a bit optimistic to me, but the man does make an interesting argument. Today and tomorrow I am posting a two-part Q&A with Seifert:

Q: Do you think the gunship presence in theater will support this new strategy? In other words, are there enough planes?

Seifert: There are more than enough planes in theater. Keep in mind there are 13 U model gunships in existence with 4 more being built [plus 8 H models -- ed.]. My article proposes two every night which would put a gunship anywhere in the triangle WORST case in 20 minutes. Another one or two would be nice but two employed optimally would change the course of the war. Have fighters working the same way and talking to the gunships and you’d have an airborne sensor on scene in minutes. And once that sensor locks on the insurgent(s), it’s a done deal. The gunship shows up and is either cleared to engage by the ground force commander for known insurgents or the gunship escorts a QRF to the scene so they can see if the insurgents act hostile or not. Approximately 10 seconds after showing hostile intent, there’s a single 40-mm round on the way or a single 105[-mm] howitzer round, ground commander’s choice. Again, the insurgent doesn’t even know what’s shooting at them. A total and complete unfair fight. 

Q: In your article, you posit that the insurgency’s center of gravity is the individual fighter and his attacks. I disagree. I say the center of gravity is ideological and infused in the regional populace. Can you address my assessment in light of your proposal?

Seifert: I know what you’re saying but I still say that the insurgent shooting at U.S. troops is the center of gravity. Destroy and demoralize him as quickly and efficiently as possible and the war will start going better.  The insurgents keep fighting because we haven’t made it painful enough for them to stop fighting. Sure there is the politicial aspect to the war but there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that we need to kill as many insurgents as possible, as fast as possible, as cheaply as possible, as unfairly as possible, etc etc. Killing insurgents with M-16s and F-16s is tough, dangerous, complicated, expensive, etc. Killing insurgents with an ammo-laden transport aircraft that can loiter in the Sunni triangle for 10+ hours every night shooting bullets that cost pennies compared to other means of killing insurgents and now we’ve got a chance of winning the war without bankrupting our country. I will also say that the Arab culture respects strength. If the gunships were unleashed, the only defense would be to stop attacking US forces. Again, you’d get away with some attacks but it would only be a matter of time before a gunship or another air asset caught you or a US soldier called quick enough to get the gunship in place. How many hours long battles have you read about in the paper. Why? Other air assets respond but only the gunship has the situational awareness and the ability to shoot a single 40-mm round at a time to efficiently kill insurgents and not cause collateral damage. The gunship is the only air asset I know that shows up on scene and quickly has more situational awareness than the ground forces. Too many times I’ve told ground forces that personnel were sneaking up on them and that we were 10 seconds away from a round on target the second they gave the command. No other asset compares (in a low threat environment like Iraq). There are CAS aircraft and then there is the AC-130. How many times have you read about other air assets making low passes and dispensing flares to scare away the enemy after they’ve attacked our forces.  Why are we asking our pilots to fly hundreds of feet from the ground to dispense flares? Our pilots’ bravery is unquestioned but there has to be a better way. When you have enemy forces attacking your forces, they need to be killed, not scared away. I’ll say it again, the Arab respects strength.

Air Force eyes small gunship
Air Force “going out of business”
Iraq has COIN planes; USAF doesn’t
Air Force unveils COIN manual


12 Responses to “Release the Gunships! Part One”

  1. Sean says:

    Too many US military leaders still doesn’t seem to have grasped that counterinsurgency requires simulataneous military and political action to solve. They are already very good at killing insurgents when they can find them- that’s not the problem. But finding them, and convincing un-committed Iraqis not to fight, can’t be done with weapons. And it won’t just fall into place if the military situation improves.

    Then again, I think the US lost the war in Iraq several years ago, so no change in tactics would do much good at this point.

    This is a very interesting blog you have, David.

  2. Keith says:

    interesting picture you used for that. If memory serves that’s footage taken by an Apache just before it shot up an unarmed farmer and family members. Of course such things will be eliminated by the use of fixed wing gunships. Or at least, you’ll have less to explain when the 40mm’s scatter any evidence.

  3. Dave says:

    the footage is from an Apache just before it shot 3 insurgents. the short version of the video you refer to is very ambiguous (and gut wrenching) but the full video (available online if you search) makes it clear that the Apache was in fact shooting “bad guys” and not unarmed civilians. and before you dismiss my comments, know that I protested against this war several times BEFORE it began.

  4. Alan says:

    The day of a costly fuel hungry big four engine aircraft flying with guns are limited. Soon AC-130s are going to need a hell of a lot of money spent on them for maintenance to the wing spars. In the next 10 years we are going to see unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) mounting a gun maybe even several guns Like the “Gladiator” and those systems will have the ability for aerial refueling. I have just completed design work on a single-engine aerial refueling tanker platform for unmanned aircraft systems utilizing the U-27A mounting the United Technologies PT6A-68, a 1250 shp engine to carry 900 gallons of fuel for “ultra slow aerial refueling” (USAR). This tactical weaponized tanker will be able to perform air-to-air refuel at airspeeds down to a 100 knots at lighter weights down to 70 knots at less than 3 degrees of angle of attack that took some doing. The U-27Q will have “Short Take Off and Landing ” (STOL) capability allowing it to utilize unimproved landing zones keeping the tanker close to the mission area. With unmanned fueling tankers able to resupply the U-27A only the pilot and a squad of Marines will be needed to set up a brief landing zone perimeter that can then be moved to another location and a new lily pad. Having several attack UAS flying over the mission area for days not hours and being able to perform aerial refueling is the future, Operating a half century old transport design using over 500 gallons of fuel fuel per hour flying around with several crew members on board that’s not how to go after the bad guys anymore that is old school. With the new ultra light smart bombs that are now being developed and closer sensor to shooter link now only a satellite dial up away allowing the shooter to see the image from the air taking out a target from a small gunship UAS is just about here. With aerial refueling of those future attack UAS along with the “Predator and Reaper” the days of the manned AC-130 are limited, Sorry Hercules time to move out and make room for a more cost effect weapon system I look forward to see you in a Museum.

  5. [...] Related: Why the A.F. sucks Prototypes, please Army to A.F.: hands off Release the gunships, part one Part two A.F. eyes small gunship F-35 over-budget A.F. lacks COIN planes A.F. “going out of business” 3 Comments so far Leave a comment [...]

  6. [...] After 20 years of development, the V-22 is finally out there in the real world working — and slowly proving that tilt-rotors can do more than dramatically crash and kill Marines. As for that AC-130? The rescue underscores what folks have been telling me for months now: that gunships are really good at finding small targets on big chunks of terrain. In a rescue op, you spirit people to safety after locating them. Over Iraq, you shoot them — another thing gunships are really good at. [...]

  7. [...] Why gunships? Because they’ve got long legs, accurate guns and sharp eyes — all perfect for spotting and killing sneaky bad guys in big, empty chunks of terrain. No Comments so far Leave a comment RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI Leave a comment Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong> [...]

  8. [...] More and more, native troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are doing the dirty street-level fighting while the U.S. and allies offer up airplanes for support. After all, it’s one thing to put rifles in the hands of a few hundred dudes and call them an “infantry battalion.” It’s quite another to put together safe, useful flying squadrons. (Video!) [...]

  9. dasloat says:

    Bob Seifert does not speak for the community and does not understand the bigger picture. I appreciate where he is coming from, but before claiming to speak for the community, he needs more credibility than 45 combat sorties over Iraq- (A very low number for a gunship crewmember) There is a lot of command and control going on behind the scenes to determine who gets to work with the gunship. Every crewdog gets frustrated from time to time when they feel that they are being utilized poorly, but this is when they need to call home and let their C2 know what the situation is.
    Time to reel in the fangs just a little bit and get back inside the box. When proposing personal theories in JFQ, buy-in from the community experts would be a good thing to get beforehand.

  10. Robert Seifert says:

    To the author of the last comment. . .are you kidding? I’ve got 2,800+ hours in the gunship and you think I’m going to ask the “community” for permission to write an article for a Department of Defense professional journal. You don’t write an article like this without tons of input and when a former Chief of Staff of the Air Force told me “Your points are on target. . .” and took the article to Mosley, you tend not to worry too much about guys like you. As far as combat sorties go, you criticize my 45 Iraq sorties but fail to mention that my director of operations and squadron commander had ZERO combat sorties in Iraq and is probably why they didn’t and don’t understand how to best utilize the gunship in an INSURGENCY versus previous gunship conflicts. Your “get back inside the box” pretty much says it all and helps to explain why the Air Force has been relegated to second team status in Afghanistan and Iraq.

  11. [...] The Air Force’s 25 AC-130 gunships, pictured, are some of the most effective weapons in the U.S. air arsenal. But they’re old, and too few. Air Force Special Operations Command had the great idea of taking 16 C-27J light airlifters and adding guns, to complement the bigger AC-130s. But that plan appears to be unraveling, as the Pentagon trims funding for C-27s. [...]

  12. U Boat Pilot says:

    To dasloat: Were you even in the squadron yet when Bob was around? I think Bob was on point whith a lot his article. You don’t neet 200 combat sorties over the desert to realize that the gunships are not utilized effectively. Having to stay in my BAO over a quiet OBJ while troops are getting mortared only a few miles away can be just a tad frustrating. Trying to call that back to C2 only gets you a reprimand for “trolling” when you get back on the deck. That’s screwed up, regardless of what’s going on “behind the scenes.”

Leave a Reply