The 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.
Sounds 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.