The Air Force is struggling to adapt its Cold War airplanes and attitudes to new counter-insurgency fights. On Monday I introduced Major Robert Seifert, an AC-130 pilot who, in an excellent article, proposed putting the sensor-laden, heavily-armed gunships at the front of a new COIN strategy. He says the Air Force should release the AC-130s to roam around Iraq, working with ground controllers to spot and kill insurgents. Today I wrap my Q&A with Seifert:
Q: Would heavier use of gunships result in more civilian casualties?
Seifert: The gunship ONLY shoots when given permission by the ground force commander. It is easy to think that I am proposing that gunships should be allowed to roam the countryside shooting all the bad guys they can find, but nothing is further from the truth. Read again the situation in the article where I saw tracers in my window, got the sensors on the suspicious guys running away and then called the Army to tell them what had happened. The Army [Command and Control] called the unit at the coordinates we gave them and got word that, yes, they had been attacked. Army C2 then cleared us to shoot, BUT we saw the bad guys getting in cars, so we asked for further guidance. C2 said to keep track of them and they formed a QRF which ultimately resulted in 15 captured and us telling the troopers where to start digging to find the box of AK’s and RPGs. Army C2 could have said shoot them on the spot and there would have been zero collateral damage. This would have been the case whether they were in open fields (which they were) or in the center of a town.
Most air assets would not have been able to shoot in a town though because they use 500 lb bombs minimum. The gunship, unlike anything else though, can fire a single 2.5-lb HE 40-mm warhead anywhere you want it. This warhead is the rough equivalent of a hand grenade or the 40-mm grenade our soldiers shoot from their rifles. So, you have an air asset that fires an equivalent weapon as a single soldier. The ability to do this is battle-changing. The gunship’s two biggest strengths, in my opinion, are the situational awareness and the low-yield weapons. People think the 105-mm is huge, but it has a 32-lb HE warhead, vs 500-lb warheads [on bombs]. Could you use these weapons to kill lots of innocent people? Yes, and it has unfortunately happened – but only when ground force commanders and/or gunship crews have made significant mistakes.
Q: So if you were in charge, what would you do to improve Air Force COIN capability?
Seifert: If I were King, I’d have several irregular-warfare wings, but I’d break them down between [Close Air Support] and transport wings. I found no synergy from being part of a wing that had transports and CAS aircraft. For example, I’d have an irregular wing of A-10s, AC-130s, an OV-10-type aircraft — and I think the small gunship is an awesome idea. Not necessarily for operating out of small airstrips, but for the ability to buy enough of them so they’re not hoarded and so they don’t cause the Air Force to only have two dozen like they do the present gunships. A small gunship with one or two 30-mm cannons and a crew of about four would be awesome. I also would put the wings in ACC versus AFSOC, as I found AFSOC deep in their heart only wants to support “special ops” ground forces, whereas I have found ACC wants to kill bad guys for whoever was nice enough to point them out. The transport irregular warfare wing would obviously have some C-130s, CV-22s and a small transport. And both wings though would have a … squadron for training friendly forces on how to operate the various wing aircraft.