Friday, April 08, 2011

Free Fire Zone

Delivering munitions from a fast-moving jet in combat is a difficult task and it involves more than simply flying the aircraft to a point from which the munition can proceed to impact with the desired target. Precision guided munitions make that part of the job a whole lot easier. Free fall ballistic drops are a tougher task, but seldom done with modern aircraft. Computers and technology have taken the skill and experience out of the equation.

But when you've got troops on the ground that you are supporting and the line of contact is fluid then a lot more enters the equation. As the crude bumper sticker reminds us, "S*** Happens".

Second Friendly Fire Incident for NATO

Friendly fire is always on the table and it isn't restricted to only airplanes. Artillery, rotary-wing assets, direct fire weapons like tanks, anti-aircraft weapons and even simple infantry fire can cause fratricides. The necessary coordination to minimize the risk is not a trivial task. I'm wondering how NATO is doing it.

As far back as the Vietnam unpleasantness we had very specific rules of engagement. In areas with friendly ground troops, whether directly engaged with the enemy or not, all ordnance delivery required coordination with a controlling agent. Deconfliction could be handled by a DASC (Direct Air Support Center) or an airborne command post like a C-130 filled with a pod full of controllers with radios or the more modern AWACS.

For more sensitive operations, there was a need for a Forward Air Controller. That individual might be airborne, either in a slow-mover aircraft like an O-2 or OV-10, or embedded with the ground unit moving in an M-113 APC or Bradley. Jeeps and airborne FACing has given way to Special Ops types from the services trained in control and coordination. When airborne FACs are used occasionally it is from a fast-mover aircraft dedicated to the specific engagement area. The controller is in direct communication with both the delivering aircraft and the  supported unit ground commander.

It can be frustrating, but often a very attractive target can go unstruck because of lack of communication and failure to get strike approval. That is a better outcome generally than fratricide. But, what is NATO doing here? What communication does the fighter driver have with supported forces? What radios are available? What language is spoken? Who is designating targets?

This situation looks suspiciously like "armed reconnaissance" where a flight is tasked to search an area seeking targets of opportunity and then striking them without further approval. That can only work when you are absolutely certain that the only military targets in the area are hostiles.

The distinction raised by the TNC spokesperson that the tanks were on flatbeds and flying the rebel flag is meaningless. Tanks travel on flatbeds. The treads are not Michelin high-mileage radials. They aren't made for several hundred mile treks down the highway. And, flags are rags that can't readily be seen from a jet passing 2000 feet overhead at 450 knots. There are identification panel procedures that can be used on top surfaces of armor for visual checks by supporting aircraft and it isn't rocket science to use them.

Meanwhile, Geraldo stages another dramatic event in which he displays courage under fire while trying to get his driver and camera-man to comply with his instructions:

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