Forward Air Control (FAC)

Introduction

It wasn’t very long after the invention of the airplane that men began thinking about how this marvelous invention might be used in warfare.  The truth, however, is that the airplane went onto the drafting table in 1480 and stayed there until 1903.

By 1907, the U.S. Army Signal Corps had begun preparing itself for flight.  An aeronautical division was created and staffed with three first lieutenants who agreed they had what it takes to try anything once.  In 1909, the Wright Brothers delivered its first aircraft to the Army Signal Corps.  No doubt, lieutenants drew straws to see who would go first.

The first conflict to extensively use aviation support for ground forces was the First World War when military and naval aviation was still in its infancy.  Aircraft then were small, flimsy, and slow, and the effect of rifle caliber machine guns (and light bombs) offered limited effectiveness.  Even so, military, and naval aviation psychologically affected ground troops, particularly those in static positions.  Unlike artillery, the airplane was a personal enemy; even the sound of an aircraft could make an infantryman’s blood run cold.

Although slow on the uptake, military ground officers learned that aviation support required careful planning and coordination and that the most successful attacks of the war were those where ground officers took air warfare very seriously.  To be fair, however, many of these ground officers were still thinking about the Indian wars and horse cavalry.

One significant challenge to everyone (aviator and ground officer alike) was air-to-ground communications — initially limited to using hand signals, dropping handwritten messages from the cockpit, or messenger pigeons.  The first use of air-to-ground electronic signals occurred at the Battle of Gorlice by Benno Fiala von Fernbrugg, an Austro-Hungarian pilot, who sent a morse code message to an artillery unit.

The term ground commanders use to describe aviation support provided to ground troops is “Close Air Support” (also, CAS).  The Great War began in 1914, but it was not until 1916 that the aviation community developed a specific air support doctrine.  British aviators developed two tactics that fell under the heading of CAS: trench strafing and ground strafing.  These early shapers of doctrine realized there could not be close air support without forward air controllers guiding it.

In response to the allied use of aviation close air support, the German enemy was quick to develop air combat elements of its own.  When they did — allied aviation casualties increased substantially.

Navy-Marine Corps Aviation

U.S. Naval aviation began with pioneer aviator Glenn Curtiss, who contracted with the Navy to demonstrate whether aircraft could take off and land aboard ships at sea.  Pilot Eugene Ely accomplished this feat in 1910.  Eugene apparently drew the short straw.

Marine Corps aviation began on 22 May 1912 when First Lieutenant Alfred A. Cunningham began duty “in a flight status” at the Naval Aviation Camp at Annapolis, Maryland.  Cunningham was the Marine Corps’ first aviator. 

During the 1920s and 1930s, U.S. Marines employed Curtiss Falcon aircraft and Vought Corsairs equipped with radios powered by airstream-driven generators — with a communications range of about 50 miles.  Another method of communication was for the pilot to drop messages in a weighted container and swoop in and pick up messages suspended from “clotheslines” between two high poles.  Under these circumstances, Marine aviation pilots functioned as FAC and strike pilots in operations against Nicaraguan Sandinistas.  In terms of combat aviation, the Marines excel when compared to the other services because of the support rendered to Marines by Marines.  Marine Corps Aviation is a “Marine Thing.” And while the Marines may not have “invented” CAS, they certainly deserve credit for perfecting it.

Now, about America’s Marines 

The U.S. Marine Corps is a unique organization within the Department of Defense.  Marines look different from other service personnel, and they think about warfare much differently than any of the other uniformed services.

The Marine Corps’ primary responsibility is to maintain an amphibious warfare capability.  To accomplish that mission, the Corps relies on ground forces that are relatively light and highly mobile.  Lacking a heavy footprint of forward-deployed forces (tanks, for example), the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) turns to its task-organized aviation components to provide heavy fire support to its maneuver elements.  

The primary link between ground and aviation forces is the Forward Air Controller (FAC).  FACs are Marine Corps aviators assigned to Battalion Landing Teams responsible for coordinating and controlling air assault support and close air support within their assigned ground units.  FACs also assist more senior air officers (AOs) within ground units in advising ground commanders on the tactical employment (and safety considerations) required for sound air combat operations.

The Marine Corps invests heavily in training its FACs — from initial officer training and naval flight school to completion of tactical air control party school.  This training (and lessons learned throughout previous campaigns and conflicts) continues to improve the sophistication and effectiveness of CAS.  The effectiveness of MAGTFs hasn’t changed in well over 100 years.  When enemy troops hear the sound of Marine Corps CAS aircraft, their blood turns cold because they know what is left of their miserable lives must be measured in seconds.

Some History

World War II

The Marine Corps reached its peak aviation capability with five air wings, 31 aircraft groups, and 145 flying squadrons.  Guadalcanal became an important defining point in the evolution of Marine Air.  Marines learned that they must achieve and then maintain air superiority, that transport ships were vital targets, and that the Marines must be prepared to create and defend expeditionary airfields.  But, for the first two years, Marines could not support the Fleet Marine Forces in the way it had trained; instead, Marine aviators flew in support of the fleet and land-based installations.

After the battle of Tarawa, Marines began flying CAS missions in support of the landing force.  The first real close air support mission provided to landing forces occurred during the New Georgia campaign, Bougainville, and the Philippines.  In these missions, Marine Corps air liaison officers coordinated air support with troops on the ground.  These measures were perfected during the Battle of Okinawa.

During World War II, Marine aviators accounted for 2,355 Japanese kills while losing 573 of their own aircraft.  Marines accounted for 120 aces and earned 11 medals of honor.  After the war, President Truman reduced Marine aviation organizations to three air wings and further reduced funding so that the Marine Corps could only afford a single air wing to fight in the Korean War.

The Korean War

The first major surprise of the post-World War II period arrived on 25 June 1950.  North Korea invaded South Korea — and they weren’t joking.  The United Nations Command in Tokyo, headed by General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States Defense Department in Washington, D.C., were completely surprised.  The United States and the Soviet Union agreed at Cairo and Yalta that the Korean Peninsula should be temporarily and jointly occupied by U.S. and U.S.S.R. forces until Korea could learn to govern itself after many years of Japanese occupation.  The Americans never imagined that the Russians would launch a sneak attack to settle the issue militarily.

The expensive lesson learned by the Americans was that the USSR could not be trusted.  Ill-prepared UN and US forces were quickly overwhelmed by nine infantry divisions and one armored division of Soviet T-34 tanks.  The South Korean Army, barely a year old, only knew one tactic: run like hell.  South Korea’s capital city, Seoul, fell in three days.

In response to urgent requests for American reinforcements from the Far East Command, the 1st (Provisional) Marine Brigade was dispatched to South Korea, arriving on 2 August 1950.  The Brigade included a reinforced Marine infantry regiment and a Marine aircraft group.

The air group included Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF) 214, VMF 323, VMF 513, Marine Observation Squadron (VMO) 6, and Marine Tactical Air Control Squadron 2.  Altogether, the air group consisted of 60 Vought F4U Corsairs, 8 Consolidated OY Sentinels, and 4 Sikorsky HO3S-1s.

General MacArthur didn’t ask for an air group, but he got one anyway — that’s how Marines prepare for war.  The fact was that despite the Marine Corps’ efforts toward convincing the Army of the value of close air support in World War II, there was no Army interest in developing such a capability.  This situation only got worse once the Air Force became a separate service.  The flyboys wanted the glamor of being fighter pilots and strategic bomber drivers.  At that time, no one in the Air Force was interested in providing close air support to ground troops.  Both Navy and Marine Corps aviators are trained to provide CAS, but of the two, the Marines are better at it.  The close air support provided by Marine Corps pilots saved U.S. forces from annihilation in the Pusan Perimeter.

After the 10th Corps’ withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir, the Korean War bogged down in a slightly modified rendition of trench warfare.  The effectiveness of Marine Corps CAS had taught the Chinese Communists that they had a better combat survival rate by conducting nighttime operations.  In any case, with no interest by the U.S. Army or U.S. Air Force in close air support operations, most CAS missions performed in the U.S. 8th Army were conducted by the Royal Air Force, British Navy, Royal Australian Air Force, South African Air Force, Greek Air Force, and Royal Thailand Air Force.

Serving on call to Marine ground forces, Marine aviators continued to employ CAS during daylight operations but also began to develop radar-guided bombing techniques for night operations.  As previously mentioned, allied air forces began contributing to tactical air strike missions.  Assisting with tactical strike missions were Airborne Forward Air Controllers (also, Fast FAC), who (according to some statisticians) should be credited with 40,000 CAS sorties and air strikes that killed 184,000 enemy troops.

Despite having agreed on a common forward air control doctrine embodied in Field Manual 31 – 35 Air-Ground Operations, a turf war broke out between the Air Force and Army over FAC doctrine for the entire war.  The Marine Corps maintained its FAC operations in support of Marine ground forces.  The Navy and Air Force operated independently.  With no common doctrine agreed upon during the Korean war, forward air control systems were shut down in 1956.

War in Indochina

When Forward Air Control was revived in 1961, it reemerged as a jumble of errors — unreliable radios, inadequately configured aircraft, differing concepts of close air support, and impeding jungle terrain.  Control of Marine Corps aviation in Vietnam became a very sensitive issue from the outset of the Marine Corps’ in-country operations.

Senior Marine aviators remembered their experience in Korea, where the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing had been under the operational control of the U.S. Air Force.  They believed Air Force managers had unwisely employed Marine aircraft and aviation capabilities.  In particular, they deeply resented being denied “permission” to provide close air support to their Marine infantry brothers, which caused increased death and injury to Marines that would have otherwise been avoided.  In Vietnam, Marine aviation generals were determined not to allow a repeat of the Korean War experience.

In 1964, when air operations were undertaken over Laos and North Vietnam, Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp[1] authorized General Westmoreland to designate the senior U. S. Air Force commander in Vietnam as coordinating authority since both Air Force and Navy air units were participating in these operations.  A year later, when the decision was made to “land the Marines” at Da Nang, it was natural for Admiral Sharp to direct that a similar arrangement be devised to coordinate fixed-wing aviation in support of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (9thMEB).

The Commanding General, 9thMEB reported to the Commander, U.S. Military Assistance/Advisory Command, Vietnam) (COMUSMACV).  Major General Joseph H. Moore, Commander, 7th U.S. Air Force, Vietnam, exercised coordinating authority over tactical air support and traffic control.  CINCPAC reaffirmed the Air Force’s authority just before assigning a Marine F-4 fighter squadron to 9thMEB — General Westmoreland, COMUSMACV intended to place the Marine squadron under the operational control of General Moore, but Admiral Sharp objected.  Thirty days later, Admiral Sharp published a directive governing the conduct and control of close air support.  Admiral Sharp stated that close air support was the chief mission of U.S. aviation in South Vietnam.

After receiving CINCPAC’s instructions, Westmoreland ordered revisions to his “air support” directive.  The new order reiterated CINCPAC’s appointment of General Moore.  The CG III MAF (LtGen Walt) retained operational control of Marine aviation, but to ensure maximum utilization of all US aircraft, Walt’s instructions were to notify General Moore (2nd Air Division) of any un-utilized USMC aircraft so that they could be used in support of non-Marine Corps MACV operations.

The CG 1stMAW, Major General McCutcheon, met with General Moore to coordinate air efforts relating to air defense operations.  Moore wanted operational control over all air defense assets — General McCutcheon demurred.  The F-4 aircraft was a dual-purpose airframe, capable of CAS and air-to-air operations.  To relinquish these aircraft to the USAF would deprive Marine ground commanders of their most important (and most lethal) supporting arm.

There was not a lot of love between the Air Force and Marine Corps Aviators.[2]  According to the former Chief of Staff of the 1stMarine Aircraft Wing (1stMAW), Colonel Thomas J. O’Connor, “The arrival of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 531 (VMFA-531) and Marine Composite Reconnaissance Squadron One (VMCJ-1) (in Vietnam) marked the end of a long period of planning, coaxing, cajoling, begging, and outright pressure to obtain space for the units to operate out of Da Nang Airbase.  During the early planning stages [for the deployment], high-level commands battled at the Pentagon, CINCPAC, and in the Far East over [the question of] who would conduct air operations out of Da Nang.  Navy and Marine Corps commands invoked the nebulous authority of Marine Air-Ground Task Forces.  Events overtook the plans.  The Air Force was there [Da Nang] — and they invoked the military equivalent of “squatters rights” — they occupied the entire east side of the airfield.  The Air Force was unwilling to move around and vacate more space for the deploying Marine fixed-wing units.  Finally, under the weight of plans approved at high levels, and with Marines, deployment dates irrevocably approaching, the Air Force finally gave in.  Some promises about future construction to enlarge their area, commitments of Marine support of various projects, and a lot of sweet talks did the trick.”

This situation described by Colonel O’Connor would not change until the Marines constructed an expansion of airfield facilities at Da Nang, Chu Lai, and Marble Mountain.

The Number of Planes

Marine Corps aviation units also increased as the number of ground units increased within the III MAF.  In March 1965, two F-4 squadrons supported 9thMAB.  In April, Marine Aircraft Group 16 (MAG-16) (initially a composite helicopter air group) arrived to absorb the fixed-wing squadrons.  In May, advance elements of the 1stMAW headquarters arrived in Vietnam.  In June, MAG-12 arrived at Chu Lai; in July, MAG-11 joined the fight by assuming operational control over all fixed wing squadrons at Da Nang (from MAG-16), including VMCJ-1 VMFA-513, VMFA-542.  At the end of July, another helicopter air group arrived (MAG-36), along with a missile battalion (2d LAAM Bn).  In September, MAG-36 began operating out of Chu Lai with squadrons HMM-362, HMM-364, VMO-6, H&MS-36, and MABS-36.  HMM-363 operated at Qui Nhon.  MAG-16 at Da Nang operated with HMM-261, HMM-361, VMO-2, and two support squadrons (H&MS-16 & MABS-16); HMM-161 operated from Phu Bai.  HMH-462 arrived in Vietnam in late September 1965 and joined MAG-16.  Helicopter squadrons rotated between South Vietnam, the U.S. Seventh Fleet, and Marine Corps Air Stations on Okinawa.

The Control Factor    

General McCutcheon did not intend to deprive Marines of their aircraft, but he did understand the necessity of having one overall air defense commander.  A memorandum of agreement between the USAF and Marines highlighted the basic policies, procedures, and air defense responsibilities.  The Air Force had overall air defense responsibility.  McCutcheon designated Marine units to support the general air defense effort.

The system of CAS employed by Marines in South Vietnam was the product of innovative thinking during the island campaigns of World War II.  By 1965, the Marine air support doctrine had been continuously modified to keep pace with technological advances.  Marine attack aircraft were required to fly close air support missions against enemy troops within fifteen meters of friendly lines.  To reduce the risk to allied infantry, CAS was a controlled event by tactical air controllers (airborne) (also, TAC (A)) in high-performance aircraft, a forward air controller (airborne) (FAC (A)), or a forward air controller (ground) (FAC (G)).

Most III MAF aerial observers (AOs) performed their missions in light observation aircraft.  The AOs were also air controllers qualified to direct air strikes, artillery, and naval gunfire support.  Airborne controllers (familiar with the tactical situation on the ground) remained “on station” for extended periods.  AOs established and maintained contact with supported infantry units on Frequency Modulated (FM) tactical radios while directing attack aircraft over an Ultra High Frequency (UHF) net.  Communications for air support control was a “flexible” arrangement that depended on the circumstances and availability of ground radios.  FM radios of ground forces were incompatible with UHF radios of jet aircraft.  Moreover, UHF radios in ground units, usually at the battalion level or higher, were unavailable to company or platoon size units — where the fighting usually took place.

After the air controller relayed pertinent targeting information and mission requirements to the attack pilots on station, he then marked the target with a white phosphorus rocket or a colored smoke grenade.  Once the AO was certain the attack pilot had identified the intended target, he cleared the attack aircraft to make their firing run.  Once cleared, the lead pilot rolled in toward the target marker and dropped his ordnance.  Using the lead pilot’s “hits” as a reference, the controller furnished the second plane in the flight with whatever corrections were necessary and cleared the aircraft to make its run.  The above procedure continued until all attack aircraft had completed their mission.

The two types of CAS missions flown by Marines in Vietnam were preplanned and on-call.  The preplanned mission was a complex process.  First, a battalion commander would submit a request for fixed-wing aircraft through the air liaison officer — usually the day before his battalion began an operation.  The request would go to the Direct Air Support Center (DASC) and the Tactical Air Direction Center (TADC) of the air wing headquarters at Da Nang.  All CAS requests were assimilated at that level, and orders were issued to fixed-wing air groups (MAG-11 and MAG-12).

On-call missions could be processed and executed almost instantaneously — they were flown either in support of troops in contact with the enemy or against targets of opportunity located by airborne or ground controllers.  Once the air groups received their orders, they scheduled flights and issued mission requirements to the individual squadrons.  This procedure required approximately 20 hours from the initial time of request to deliver the ordnance to the target.

In the case of an emergency (on-call) mission, the TADC or DASG could divert in-flight aircraft from their original missions to a new target.  The TADG could also call on aircraft, which each air group maintained “on call” around the clock for just such contingencies.  Marine air also provided this combat support for other than Marine Corps units.  During the battle of Ba Gia in June 1965, the A-4s of Colonel Noble’s MAG-12 took off on their first night launch from Chu Lai to support the embattled outpost 20 miles to the south.

For three days, MAG-12’s Skyhawks and (F-4B) Phantoms bombed and strafed the enemy positions around the clock.  Four months later, F4Bs from Colonel Anglin’s MAG-11 and the A-4s from Colonel Brown’s MAG-12 flew 59 sorties in support of U.S. and South Vietnamese troops at the Plei Me outpost (20 miles southwest of Pleiku in northwestern II Corps).  The air assault against the outpost resulted in a significant engagement, the Battle of Ia Drang Valley, in which the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) killed 1,238 enemies in 12 days.  In the third quarter of 1965, MAG-11 and MAG-12 flew 4,614 sorties in support of Marine units and 1,656 sorties for the ARVN units.

Marine attack aircraft performed several other missions besides their primary task of close air support.  Both the F-4 and A-4 communities flew direct air support missions.  Similar to close air support, these strikes were not conducted near friendly lines and did not require integration with the ground unit’s fire support plan, although coordination did take place at an echelon of command above that of the maneuver unit.  The aim of the direct air support strikes was to isolate the enemy from the battlefield and destroy his troops and support mechanism.  The two fixed-wing groups also played a vital role in protecting the MAG-36 and MAG-16 helicopters.

During the Vietnam War, the United States introduced several fixed and rotary wing gunships, including several cargo aircraft modified to support gun platforms.  These performed as CAS and interdiction aircraft.  The first of these was the C-47 (Spooky) — converted from the Douglas C-47 airframe (DC-3).  It was highly effective in the CAS role.  The troops loved it.  The USAF also developed the Fairchild AC-119 and the Lockheed AC-130 gunship.  The AC-130 has been around for a long time; it is one of the finest airframes ever produced for defense purposes.  Multiple variants of the AC-130 exist and continues to undergo modernization.

Usually, close support is thought to be only carried out by Fighter-bombers or dedicated ground-attack aircraft, such as the A-10 — but even high-altitude bombers capable of high-precision guided munitions are useful in a CAS role.

During Operation Enduring Freedom, the scarcity of fighter aircraft forced military planners to rely on B1B aircraft relying on GPS-guided munitions and laser-guided JDAMS.  One benefit of the high-altitude airframe, aircraft can be utilized on 12-hour in-flight missions.  The USAF employed many of these airframes in Afghanistan.  International CAS missions were flown by Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway (F-16s), the U.K. (Harriers, Tornados), and several U.S. aircraft.

Finally, using information technology to direct and coordinate precision air support has increased the importance of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in using CAS, laser, and GPS to communicate battlefield data.  Recent doctrine reflects the use of electronic and optical technology to direct targeted fires for CAS.  Air platforms communicating with ground forces can also provide additional aerial-to-ground visual search, ground-convoy escort, and enhancement of command and control (C2), which can be particularly important in low-intensity conflicts.

For an interesting first-hand account of the Fast FAC mission, see The Playboy Club.

Sources:

  1. Blair, C.  The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950-1953.  Random House, 1987.
  2. Corum, J. S.  Airpower in Small Wars: Fighting insurgents and terrorists.  Kansas University Press, 2003.
  3. Dorr, R. F.  Vietnam Air War Debrief.  London Aerospace Publishing, 1996.
  4. House, J. M.  Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century.  Kansas University Press, 2001.
  5. Krulak, V. H.  First to Fight: An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps.  Naval Institute Press, 1984
  6. Tenenbaum, E.  The Battle over Fire Support: The CAS Challenge and the Future of Artillery.  PDF, Focus Strategique, Institute Français, 2012. 

Endnotes:

[1] U.S. Grant Sharp, Jr., USN (1906 – 2001) served as Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Pacific Fleet (1963 – 1964) and Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Pacific Command (1964 – 1968).  

[2] Despite their carnal relationships since 1947, there remains no true love between the USAF and USMC aviation community.