THE ANCESTRY OF FORWARD AIR CONTROLLERS

By Charles Pocock, Viper 7, 1966-67

Take and hold the high ground, has been a military axiom since the beginning of armed conflict.  Almost two centuries ago, in his often published book, On War, Karl Von Clausewitz lists three high ground advantages, (1) fighting uphill is always more difficult than fighting downhill, (2) firing down is more accurate than firing up, and (3) height gives the advantage of a better general view.  This third advantage of high ground is most important to the discussions in this section.  Clausewitz reasoned that a commander who could better view the field of conflict as the battle developed could better recognize situational advantages and disadvantages and therefore make better tactical judgments.

However, in a larger conflict the ultimate commander may be far removed from the actual hilltop overlooking a particular battle site, and in this case he must rely on others to make the observations.  Thus, there are three steps leading to a commanderís final decision.   Reconnaissance is the physical act of viewing the battlefield or the enemy position or disposition. Reconnaissance yields intelligence, which is combined with other intelligence to form information.  Information is what a field commander uses to make decisions.  The quality of the information is dependent on the accuracy of the reconnaissance and the quality of the intelligence it gathers, as well as the ability of people to process the intelligence into accurate and timely information. 

It would seem reasonable that if the battlefield terrain is flat and there is no hilltop to provide a commanding view, or if trees, hills or other terrain features obscure the battlefield, then some other means of gathering intelligence is needed.    Forward scouts, lookouts posted on distant hills or in towers are just some examples.  Traditionally, one of the primary missions of the mounted cavalry was reconnaissance, but the problem inherent with this and other types of reconnaissance is the timeliness of reporting and processing the findings into information.

Near Xian, in Northwestern China, there is a frieze work depicting very small people (perhaps dwarfs or midgets) tied to kites flying over a battlefield.  Whether this concept was actually tried or only speculated on is unclear.  But the object seems to be reconnaissance since no weapons are depicted.

Between 1480 and 1510 Leonardo de Vinci prepared drawings of man carrying airplanes or gliders and some of his sketches seem to have military overtones.  But it wasnít until 1804 when Sir George Cayley built and flew his first model glider, which was similar to modern aircraft.  Cayleyís full size glider first carried a man aloft in 1853.

In 1783 two French brothers, Jacques Etienne and Joseph Michel Montgolfier, wealthy papermakers of Annonay, France, sent up a balloon filled with hot air.  That same year French physicist, chemist and aeronaut Jacques Alexandre Cesar Charles released a large balloon filled with hydrogen, which made a successful two-hour flight, covering 43 km.  Also in 1783 the first human balloon ascent was made by the French physicist Jean Francois Pilatre de Rozier.  His first flights were in captive balloons and later in a free balloon.  Two years later, in 1785, French aeronaut Jean Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries, an American, made the first balloon crossing of the English Channel.  Probably without realizing it these early balloonists changed forever the way future wars would be fought.  They gave warfare a third, vertical, dimension.

Two of Napoleonís generals of artillery considered using manned, tethered balloons for reconnaissance and adjusting artillery fire after they took a test flight to a height of over 300 meters.  However, it is said that Napoleon himself rejected the idea of using balloons.  He reasoned that they would be too expensive, unreliable, and vulnerable to enemy action.  Additionally they would require an extensive logistics support system and a dedicated staff of people to handle them.  He reasoned that these people could better serve the mission of the army by carrying muskets.  While Napoleon may have failed to recognize the military application of airborne Forward Air Controllers, the concept did not die that easily.  Others continued to pursue the idea.

In 1862 President Lincoln appointed Professor Thaddeus Lowe as the first Chief of the Air Service of the Union Army.  Professor Lowe may better be remembered for his invention of refrigeration, but as part of the Union Army he pioneered four aviation concepts that are still valid today.  1) Airborne visual reconnaissance.  2) Airborne photographic reconnaissance. 3) Airborne artillery adjustment.  4) Communications relay.  As much as the new art and science of photography aided  Professor Lowe and his balloon corps, the invention of the telegraph also made it possible for the pilot of a tethered balloon to communicate his observations to people on the ground and in the most sophisticated cases talk directly to an artillery telegrapher.

The best-documented engagement of the effectiveness of the use of balloons in U.S. Civil War was during the siege of Petersburg and Richmond.  Both the Union and Confederate armies employed balloons and numerous aerial photos survive, depicting the positions of both opposing Armies.  In fact, any aerial photos of Civil War battlefields were taken from Union or Confederate Army Balloons.  To say that being a balloon pilot was hazardous duty would be an understatement.  The Confederate snipers, using high powered and long-range rifles, soon realized that the big gasbag was not the real target, but the man in the small basket below it.

If nothing else, the balloon service of the U. S. Civil War proved that the concept of an air service was sound.  During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 balloons were used for military observation by the armies of both nations.  During that war the French minister Leon Gambetta made a dramatic escape from the besieged city of Paris by balloon.  Perhaps the first air-evacuation by a Forward Air Controller ever recorded.

Balloons were also available and used in the Spanish American War.

During the Mexican Incursion of 1916 the First Aero Squadron deployed their aircraft in Arizona to support the cavalry in the pursuit of Poncho Villa.  The loss of several JN-4 aircraft and pilots was dramatic and their effectiveness was questionable.  Both balloons and aircraft were used in various rolls in WW I.  Several other missions, such as air-to-air combat and tactical bombing, developed during the war, but the primary missions of visual and photographic reconnaissance, artillery adjustment and communications relay remained as cornerstone missions for both sides.

WW II:During the period following WW I, air force chiefs on both sides of the Atlantic shied away from placing air forces in a role of simply supporting the ground or naval services, which had a conceptual lock on primacy in conduct of war in their domains.  The attraction of the long-range strategic bombing and air superiority missions distracted aviation leaders from the possible use of air forces as a significant contributor to land battle.  In addition to the interest offered by the "unique" air missions, questions of independence were never far from the minds of the Royal Air Force and US Army Air Corps commanders.

For the allies, perhaps the genesis of true cooperation between ground and air forces came in the Middle East in the autumn of 1940, the only area where the British Army was actually up against the enemy.  The attraction of Cairo as seat of both ground and air headquarters for the region led to an overall climate of close cooperation between the services.   RAF forces in Egypt included fighter, bomber, and Army Cooperation squadrons that included the high-winged Lysander, an observation craft introduced in 1936. Nevertheless, the RAF looked down on cooperation, defined as tactical reconnaissance and artillery spotting.  South African AF forces operating against Italian forces in East Africa as part of the British theater command produced the next innovation on April 1, 1941, when the SAAF created a Close Air Support Flight, whose commanders advanced with the headquarters of the leading ground units and used SAAF communications to apply their aircraft according to the needs of the situation.  This innovation was unfortunately ignored.

The unsuccessful allied battles for Tobruk in 1941 crystallized British recognition that their air support system was unsatisfactory.  The main difficulties were the cumbersome and indirect Army communications nets, lack of coordination between air and ground units for recognition of the latter, and the inability of aircraft to make radio contact with army units. In addition, the respective headquarters had been moved and become separated. An interservice conference held in Cairo in September produced the joint Army and RAF Middle East Directive on Direct Support of September 30, which defined the air support mission and led to the creation of jointly-staffed Air Support Control centers (ASCs) for each army corps.  At each corps HQ and its subordinate divisions and their brigades, there were RAF Forward Air Support Links with two-way radios to communicate with aircraft and receive intelligence from them as well as a radio monitoring function.  Air support requests from brigades on the line were evaluated at the ASC center, and if approved, the ASC's RAF Rear Air Support Link would task units to dispatch aircraft.

While Middle East theater commanders were finding solutions, the service commanders at home were grappling with the problems as well.  Following the defeat in France in the Summer of 1940, where the RAF failed to provide meaningful support to the battle, while Luftwaffe operations showed how successful air-ground cooperation could be, the RAF over-reacted and on December 1, 1940, created the Army Cooperation Command, on the level of the Fighter and Bomber Commands.  One of the few positives of the expedition to France was the RAF's designation of Air Observation Posts, successfully using artillery observers in light aircraft, flying above the guns or friendly lines, just high enough to see into "dead ground" not observable from ground observation posts.  The first application of Air OPs used US-designed Taylorcraft Austers.  The RAF's first Air OP squadron was deployed to North Africa in July of 1941, and fifteen such squadrons were in service by 1945, using versions of the Auster.  US forces similarly deployed artillery observers in Piper and Stinson liaison aircraft to good effect after US forces landed in North Africa in 1942.

The RAF Army Cooperation Command included 71 Group with about a dozen Lysander squadrons, and 70 Group, dedicated to training, policy and support of the operating squadrons. Assignment of the Lysanders, which had been shown to be grossly inadequate during the 1939 fighting in France, was perhaps more evidence of how the Air Staff continued to treat the cooperation mission with disdain.  However, the new command did put into service a dedicated radio network, army officers in light vehicles who would accompany the leading troops and radio support requests directly to a control center for evaluation by Army and RAF staff officers working together. This proposal was endorsed immediately by both services, and the control centers shortly became known as Army Support Signals Units.  The Army Cooperation Command was eventually recognized as an unnecessary separation between the fighter resources and the ground units, and it was taken out of the loop.

North Africa also served as the laboratory for US tactical air cooperation, following the US landings in Morocco.  The AAF doctrine was to keep air power independent of ground command, requiring air support requests to come through an attached  Air Liaison Officer, and the ALO had no communication with pilots and there were no forward air controllers.

During the fighting in North Africa and in the invasions of Italy, ground forces came increasingly to rely on air support, and air commanders became more aware of their ability to play a significant role in ground battle.  In the July, 1943, invasion of Sicily, fighters from Malta covered the beaches, under overall direction of Air Command Posts near their bases, but under the tactical direction of headquarters staffs and Forward Fighter Controls on ships in each landing area.  Crowding the controllers and headquarters staffs together on one ship, with a complicated communications system, was found unnecessary, leading to a recommendation for separate Air Force Fighter Direction ships.

Coordination of battlefield air support took its modern form after the allies moved past Rome and encountered the German defensive Gustav Line.  The final step was the British institution of the "Rover" system, so called because the forward air support post could switch from one ground brigade headquarters to another without interrupting communications or air support operations.  The Rover unit consisted of an RAF controller, and Army Air Liaison Officer, and VHF radio for aircraft communications.  Although the Rovers customarily operated with a view of targets, they could also operate blind on the basis of information reported to them.  Their function was to apply air power to targets, often fleeting, close to the front line.  A fundamental feature of the system was use of waves of strike aircraft, with pre-briefed assigned targets but required to orbit near the line of battle for 20 minutes, subject to Rover preemption and use against fleeting targets of higher priority or urgency.  If the Rovers did not direct the fighter-bombers, the latter attacked their pre-briefed targets. US commanders, impressed by British at the Salerno landings, adapted their own doctrine to include many features of the British system, leading to differentiation of British "Rover David", US "Rover Joe" and British "Rover Frank" controls, the last applying air strikes against fleeting German artillery targets.  One important aspect of the Rover system was the willingness to use large numbers of tactical attack aircraft, which were only available because air supremacy was achieved in the area.

The planners of the Normandy invasion took full account of previous experience. Each beachhead was assigned a headquarters ship with an air staff responsible for directing all air operations in its sector, supported by a sea borne control center installed in an LST.  Once the allied forces had established themselves in Normandy, two fighter control centers were established, the British 83 Group Control Center and a similar center under the US Ninth Air Force.  The two centers divided the battlefield, cooperating at times.  Complementing the direction center structure were the tried and true Rover posts. New techniques included the use of tanks with aircraft radios instead of guns, manned by air officers and radio operators, accompanying armored units, and Rovers mounted in highly mobile half-track vehicles.  AAF airborne "Horsefly" controllers, flying in liaison aircraft and had been tried in Italy but were not favored, although British Air OPs and airborne US artillery observers for artillery direction were effective from the beginning.  The Air OPs even developed a deterrent effect as German artillery units came to fear their ability to bring down counter-battery fire.

Ninth Air Force Commander, Lt. Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg brought BGen. (later Maj. Gen.) Elwood R. "Pete" Quesada in as commander of the 9AF's IX Tactical Air Command.  Quesada, a successful fighter leader in North Africa and Italy, became the ideal of the US ground commanders with whom he worked.  Twelve days after the invasion, Quesada set up his headquarters separated only by a single hedgerow from Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley's First Army headquarters.

Planners' enthusiasm for the use of air power as part of the battle led to occasional errors.  Heavy bombers operating at higher altitudes were responsible for a number of short-bomb incidents, especially when air commanders insisted on bombing perpendicular to the line of battle to allow more strikes along the line, even despite Quesada's insistent advice to the contrary.  Unindoctrinated aircrews sometimes bombed the yellow smoke used to mark allied positions, believing the yellow smoke to be their desired aiming points.

Typical of the stories of FACs in WW II was the contribution of one FAC ground party during the Battle of the Bulge's siege of Bastogne: "... An air support party that had been rushed to Bastogne on 18 December integrated CAS into the fight throughout the siege.  The chief air controller was Capt. James E. Parker, a veteran fighter-bomber pilot with considerable experience in both the Pacific and European theaters.  Parker talked to flight leaders en route to Bastogne, gave them approach instructions, and helped them identify intended targets.  P-47s came in low and fast, catching the Germans by surprise.  On more than one occasion, ground troops received CAS within fifteen minutes of requesting an air strike. ... Enemy flak was heavy and elusive, with German batteries apparently moving from position to position around the perimeter.  On 28-29 December, Captain Parker coordinated a series of combined arms air-artillery attacks that finally silenced the threat.

BACK