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Forward air control is the provision of guidance to Close Air Support (CAS) aircraft intended to ensure that their attack hits the intended target and does not injure friendly troops. This task is carried out by a forward air controller (FAC). For NATO forces the qualifications and experience required to be a FAC are set out in a NATO Standard (STANAG). FACs may form part of a Fire Support Team or Tactical Air Control Party, they may be ground based, airborne FACs in fixed wing aircraft (FAC-A) or in helicopters (ABFAC). Since 2003 the United States Armed Forces have used the term joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) for some of their ground based FACs.
A primary function of a Forward Air Controller is ensuring the safety of friendly troops. Enemy targets in the Forward Edge of the Battle Area (FEBA) are often close to friendly forces and therefore friendly forces are at risk of friendly fire through proximity during air attack. The danger is twofold: the bombing pilot cannot identify the target clearly, and is not aware of the locations of friendly forces. Camouflage, constantly changing situation and the fog of war all increase the risk. Forward Air Controllers are not needed for air interdiction, the term used for air attacks conducted at further distances from friendly forces.
Even as close air support began during World War I, there were pioneer attempts to direct the trench strafing by the ground troops laying out signal panels on the ground, firing flares, or lighting smoke signals. Aircrews had difficulty communicating with the ground troops; they would drop messages or use messenger pigeons. Benno Fiala von Fernbrugg, an Austro-Hungarian pilot, pioneered the use of radio for fire control; at the Battle of Gorlice he used a radio transmitter in his airplane to send changes via morse code to an artillery battery on the ground. Colonel Billy Mitchell also equipped his Spad XVI command airplane with a radio, and the Germans experimented with radios in their Junkers J 1.
The Marines in the so-called Banana Republic wars of the 1920s and 1930s used Curtiss Falcons and Vought Corsairs that were equipped with radios powered by airstream-driven generators, with a range of up to 50 miles. Another method of communication was for the pilot to drop messages in a weighted container, and to swoop in and pick up messages hung out by ground troops on a “clothesline” between poles. The objective was aerial reconnaissance and air attack. Using these various methods, the Marine pilots combined the functions of both FAC and strike aircraft, as they carried out their own air attacks on the Sandinistas in Nicragua in 1927. The commonality of pilots and ground troops belonging to the same service led to a close air support role similar to that sought by use of FACs, without the actual use of a FAC. This distinctive doctrine would persist, recurring in the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
French colonial operations in the Rif War (1920) of 1920 - 1926 used air power similarly to the Marines in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas but in a different environment, the desert. The French Mobile Groups of combined arms not only used aircraft for scouting and air attack; the airplanes carried trained artillery officers as observers. These aerial observers called in artillery fire via radio.
When the United States Army Air Force was founded on 20 June 1941, it included provisions for Air Ground Control Parties to serve with the United States Army at the division, corps, and Army headquarters. The Air Ground Control Parties functions were to regulate bombing and artillery in close conjunction with the ground troops, as well as assess bomb damage. They were thus the first of similar units to try to fulfill the functions of the FAC without being airborne. However, these units were often plagued by "turf wars" and cumbersome communications between the respective armies and air forces involved. As a result, it could take hours for an air strike requested by ground troops to actually show up.
Forward Air Control came into existence as a result of exigency, and was used in several theaters of World War II. It was a result of field expedience rather than planned operations.
FACs were first used by the British Desert Air Force in North Africa, but not by the USAAF until operations in Salerno. During the North African Campaign in 1941 the British Army and the Royal Air Force established Forward Air Support Links (FASL, a mobile air support system using ground vehicles. Light reconnaissance aircraft would observe enemy activity and report it by radio to the FASL; the FASL would then call in air strikes. They also introduced the system of ground direction of air strikes by a FAC (originally termed a mobile fighter controller) traveling with the forward troops.
During Operation Barbarossa, in the latter part of 1941, Generaloberst Wolfram von Richthofen circled over fleeing Russian troops in a Fieseler Storch and called in Stukas and other German ground attack aircraft on the enemy.
By the time the Italian Campaign had reached Rome, the Allies had established air superiority. They were then able to pre-schedule strikes by fighter-bomber squadrons; however, by the time the aircraft arrived in the strike area, oftimes the targets, which were usually trucks, had fled. The initial solution to fleeting targets was the British Rover system. These were pairings of air controllers and army liaison officers in light aircraft roving over the battlefield. Incoming strike aircraft arrived with pre-briefed targets, which they would strike 20 minutes after arriving on station only if the Rovers had not directed them to another more pressing target. Rovers might call on artillery to mark targets with smoke shells, or they might direct the fighters to map grid coordinates, or they might resort to a description of prominent terrain features as guidance. However, one drawback for the Rovers was the constant rotation of pilots, who were there for fortnightly stints leading to a lack of institutional memory. US commanders, impressed by British at the Salerno landings, adapted their own doctrine to include many features of the British system
Call signs for the Rovers were Rover Paddy and Rover David for the RAF; the names were those of the fighter pilots who originated the idea. The American version was Rover Joe. Rover Joe was not an individual, but an ad hoc unit of a pilot forward air controller, a ground forward air controller, and fifteen enlisted men, including communications specialists and other ranks. The unit could move right along with the ground forces it supported.
It soon became apparent that air strikes could be used even beyond the range of marking artillery, and that better target marking methods were needed. This led to the Horsefly FACs. There are two accounts of the origin of the Horsefly FACs in this case; both may be true, as they are not contradictory.
Regardless of inspiration, the first Horsefly FACs were launched on 28 June 1944. The scrounged L-5s had been equipped with SCR-522 VHF radios, and were flown by volunteer fighter-bomber pilots. Fighter-bomber squadrons were instructed that FAC missions had priority in targeting. The Horseflies operated at an altitude of 3,000 to 4,000 feet, ranging above small arms fire, roving up to 20 miles inside German lines, and marking targets with smoke bombs. To aid the strike pilots in seeing the tiny liaison craft, the upper wing surfaces were painted with one of four bright colors. Call signs were keyed to these colors: Horsefly Red, Green, Yellow, or Blue. When the German ground troops realized that the silvery-bottomed Horseflies were deadly, they concentrated fire on them. The counter to that was to paint the Horseflies the same khaki as ordinary artillery spotters. The Germans then became leery of firing on any of the khaki observation aircraft.
The Horseflies were obviously susceptible to enemy air attack and ground fire; they also added radio traffic to an already overburdened network. However, their effectiveness outweighed their disadvantages. The Horseflies became an integral part of XII Tactical Air Command, and moved with them from Italy to southern France to southern Germany. The Horseflies saw action until the end of the European war. Horsefly losses amounted to one L-5 wiping out its landing gear in a landing accident.
With the invasion of Europe (D Day), Fighter bombers began a new direct support role, operating with the assistance of radio-equipped FACs on the ground with the supported formations. The fighter bombers were on call from "Cab Ranks", orbiting points close to the forward edge of the battle area. From these Cab Ranks, the FACs could very quickly call on air support for any targets of opportunity or threats to the troops in their area. These FACs operated from White Scout Cars or Half Tracks (and later tanks) equipped with a wide range of radio sets for both ground to air and ground to ground communications. Airborne FACs were supplied from the Air Observation Post Squadrons of the RAF.
In November, 1942 units of the Australian and United States Armies were fighting the Japanese in the Battle of Buna-Gona, New Guinea. 4 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force was an army cooperation squadron flying support for the ground effort, in outdated two-seater CAC Wirraway trainers. They sometimes used the second seat to carry an observer. The local terrain was jungled; ground troops had difficulty in observing the enemy or in staying linked with one another. Therefore, the Wirraway pilots, with their superior observation, began directing artillery fire onto the Japanese from the air via radio, as well as carrying out their own strafing and bombing. One pilot, Pilot Officer J. Archer, even shot down a Japanese Zero, for the only known aerial victory by an Australian FAC.
In early 1943 the Japanese launched an offensive against Wau. On 3 February 1943, a 4 Squadron Wirraway recced (performed Reconnaissance mission) Japanese dispositions at 1:20 PM. It left, to return at 2:39 leading the Bristol Beaufighters of 30 Squadron RAAF into the target area. The Wirraway marked the target with tracer fire, and the Beaufighters struck. A Japanese prisoner captured shortly thereafter reported that out of the 60 troops in his vicinity, 40 had been killed by the air strike. Later, in December, 1944, 4 Squadron directed the US 7th Fighter Squadron as they supported an Australian army attack in the Battle of Shaggy Ridge.
The other cooperation squadron in the theater, 5 Squadron, also took up the forward air control role. Both squadrons were re-equipped with the CAC Boomerang, which was an Australian fighter-bomber containing many Wirraway components. The Boomerangs had performance comparable to enemy fighters, and became the original fast FACs. Dissatisfaction with the poor target marking possible with tracer bullets led to 5 Squadron's use of 30 pound phosphorus bombs on Bougainville in 1944. During the Bougainville campaign, FACs from 5 Squadron directed as many as 20 Corsairs at a time in air strikes. With practice, ordnance came to be delivered as close as 150 yards from friendly troops.
American aerial attackers had to contend with fog and low-lying cloud cover, as well as heavy Japanese defensive ground fire. The situation led to the use of forward air control. On 16 May 1943, General Eugene M. Landrum ordered his air chief of staff, Colonel William O. Eareckson to coordinate air strikes with ground operations for the invasion of Attu. Eareckson borrowed an OS2U Kingfisher from the USS Casco (AVP-12). Using the seaplane's low speed and maneuverability to his advantage, Eareckson flew reconnaissance missions to spot Japanese positions. He would then spiral up through the clouds to rendezvous with strike aircraft and either lead the strike into the targets or describe the target location to the fighter-bombers. Ground fire not only hit the Kingfisher; it sometimes punctured the plane's single float. Eareckson would land in shallow water, beach the plane, and plug the bullet holes with rubber plugs before resuming his mission.
By May 1944 the Air Forces in Burma had worked out the technique of forward air control. This was exercised by a party of one or two officers plus six to eight enlisted men. They approved targets selected by the Army, called up air strikes by radio, and if necessary guided the aircraft to the target. On occasion, liaison aircraft would observe the strike. For the Chindit's Operation Thursday each column had a forward air controller to direct support from Mitchell and Mustang aircraft.
In the United States, despite its success in battle, the role of the FAC was not codified into doctrine until after the war's end, by which time no FACs remained in service in the US. In 1946, Army Field Manual 31-35 became the repository of the lessons learned by experience in battle. However, in 1947, the United States Air Force became a separate service, intent on strategic bombing. U. S. Air Force Forward Air Control expertise existed only on paper. Their doctrine ranked air operations importance as being primarily concentrated on strategic bombing, with interdiction operations secondary, and close air support last. The Air Force believed in central control of close air support originated by FACs within Tactical Air Control Parties assigned to the Army at regimental and divisional level. By contrast, the U. S. Marine Corps placed its TACPs down to battalion level; air strike requests for naval air originated with the commanding officer. However, the greatest practical difference between the two systems lay in their very definition of close air support. The Air Force considered air strikes anywhere within artillery range of friendly units to be close air support. The Marines defined it as air strikes within 50 to 200 yards of friendly troops, delivered within fifteen minutes of request.
The United Kingdom and Commonwealth continued to build on its experience in the Second World War in various campaigns around the world in the second half of the twentieth century, including the Malayan Emergency, the Suez Crisis, the Indonesian Confrontation and operations in Aden and Oman. With the re-formation of the Army Air Corps in 1957 this new corps's functions included airborne forward air control
The first comprehensive airborne forward air controller program was developed in Korea. Two weeks into the Korean War, the need for forward air control was starkly apparent, a powerful North Korean offensive was advancing so rapidly that the locations of the invaders could literally change hourly. US F-80 Shooting Stars flying from Japan had barely enough range to dump their bombs and turn back to base. Tactical Air Control Parties struggled to direct the air effort, but found their powers of observation limited by rugged terrain, near horizons, and an ever shifting tactical situation.
Once again, there are dual and non-contradictory tales of the FAC startup effort. Lieutenant Colonel Stanley P. Latiolas, operations officer of the Fifth Air Force that was operating in Korea, suggested having a slower airplane spot targets for the fuel-hog jets. Colonel John R. Murphy, who knew of the success of the Horseflies, asked the Commanding General of the Fifth Air Force, Earle E. Partridge for five pilots to fly reconnaissance.
On 9 July 1950, Lieutenants James A. Bryant and Frank G. Mitchell flew the first FAC missions of the Korean War from K-5 in Taejon. They flew into K-5 with two L-5G Sentinels modified with VHF radios but were unable to get the radio to work. Borrowing two 24th Division L-17s, the lieutenants - working under callsigns "Angelo Fox" and "Angelo George" (the Joint Operations Center being called "Angelo") - called down about 10 flights of F-80s resulting in what Lt. Col. John R. Murphy called "the best day in Fifth Air Force history."
The following day saw the first use of a T-6 Texan for a FAC plane. During the direction of RAAF P-51 Mustangs, the T-6 radio became unserviceable. The FAC continued indicating targets by flying over them and rocking his wings. The resulting strikes were the first of many successful attacks made without radio contact, as United Nations bombers operated on many non-compatible radio frequencies. The T-6 became the standard FAC aircraft for Korean use; several of the smaller, slower liaison planes were shot down by North Korean Yaks (including 6 L-17s lost to enemy air action) and they were retired. Fifth Air Force also turned to higher performance aircraft for the FAC mission. P-51 Mustangs and F4U Corsairs were used to penetrate enemy air space after it had become too hazardous for T-6s.
The two original FACs had switched to a T-6 and promptly flew a sortie directing air strikes by P-80s that knocked out 17 North Korean tanks near Chonui. The T-6 Texan was such an obvious success for directing air strikes that an ad hoc forward air control unit began to coalesce; it would become the 6147th Tactical Control Group nicknamed the Mosquitoes. More T-6s and more pilots were acquired. The 6147th TCG became one squadron working as three man Tactical Air Control Parties in radio jeeps, and two squadrons of aerial forward air controllers. C-47s were also used by the group as Airborne Command and Control Centers.
Although the T-6 entered the FAC role as a "hot" aircraft, it was soon encumbered with numerous adaptations that degraded its performance. A belly tank was added to extend its range. Both members of the crew wore complete survival gear, and the plane was loaded up with smoke grenades. Eventually, a dozen smoke rockets were added under each wing for marking targets. With half a ton of added weight, the T-6 was slowed to 100 miles per hours top speed, and its service ceiling was considerably reduced. The lower performance was not the only detriment to the T-6's role in forward air control. It is a low-wing monoplane; consequently, the plane often had to be flown tilted to one side for visibility. However, the Texan's ruggedness, easy maintenance, and ability to operate from small rough airfields outweighed the disadvantages. The 6147th tested the L-19, later known as the O-1 Bird Dog. The L-19 offered no better performance than the Texan and was unarmored. It was rejected because of its vulnerability to ground fire. There was also an abortive attempt to use the L-17 Navion as a FAC bird. The Navion's low wing design precluded any success in observation.
During 1950, the 6147th Tactical Control Group operated as far as 50 miles into enemy territory, using relay aircraft to remain in radio contact. The Mosquitoes proved their worth by directing the limited number of air strikes against the most important enemy targets, optimizing the United Nations firepower.
By July, 1951, the war had ground to a stalemate. As a consequence, North Korean and Chinese ground fire had become such a threat that Mosquitoes penetrated only a couple of miles into enemy lines. The enemy had also noted that the T-6s operated at low altitude, and often flew below cloud cover to navigate. Being adaptable and ingenious, the communists took to stringing wire cables from ridgetop to ridgetop to catch Mosquitoes. They even infiltrated the United Nations lines to string up cables on the friendly side.
In mid-November, 1952, the Mosquito T-6s were called upon to direct the battlefield interdiction strikes being flown for Operation Cherokee. Unlike the Close Air Support missions usually improvised by the FACs, the Cherokee strikes were preplanned raids of about 50 aircraft. Although planned interdiction raids would not seem to need guidance, the size of the attacking force tended to overwhelm TACPs. Mosquitoes marking the targets with smoke rockets helped lighten the load. The Cherokee strikes were successful in destroying enough supplies to hamper the Communist effort.
By war's end, the United Nations air campaign had become so dependent on airborne FAC's directing strikes on targets invisible to ground FACs that the latter could go three months without directing a strike.
The Mosquitoes flew through war's end, amassing 40,354 sorties, two Presidential Unit Citations, and a Korean Presidential Unit Citation. The Mosquitoes lost 33 men and 42 aircraft during the course of the war. The Mosquitoes were disbanded in 1956, as they were considered a wartime expedient. After they were disbanded, the United States once again had no Forward Air Control capabilities.
In the Vietnam war the term Forward Air Controller was used for Vietnamese Forward Air Controllers and was not used in reference to US Air Force Forward Air Controllers. The United States unleashed a tremendous amount of air power during the Vietnam War. It would be controlled by the most widespread forward air control effort in history. The rugged jungle terrain readily hid communist troop movements. American fighter-bombers were so fast that pilots had great difficulty in distinguishing between enemy troops, friendly troops, and civilians. Forward air controllers directing air strikes thus became essential in usage of air power. Visual reconnaissance formed the core FAC mission during the Vietnam War, as the FAC flew light aircraft slowly over the rough terrain at low altitude to maintain constant aerial surveillance. By patrolling the same area constantly, the FACs grew very familiar with the terrain, and they learned to detect any changes that could indicate enemy forces hiding below. Tracks on the ground, misplaced vegetable patches, an absence of water buffalo, smoke from cooking fires in the jungle, too many farmers working the fields—all could indicate enemy troops in a vicinity.
Flying low and slow over enemy forces was very dangerous; however the enemy usually held his fire to avoid discovery. Each of the O-1 FAC aircraft originally used carried three different radios for coordinating with everyone involved in an air strike: an FM radio for the ground forces, a UHF radio for the fighter aircraft, and a VHF radio for contact with the Air Force Tactical Air Control Party to coordinate approvals and requests for air support. The FAC radioed for strike aircraft after spotting the enemy. He marked the target with smoke grenades or white-phosphorus rockets to pinpoint targets. After directing the fighter-bombers' attacks, the FAC would fly low over the target to assess the damage.
Major Atma Singh, of the Indian Army, flying the forward air control mission in a HAL Krishak, played a crucial part in this successful defense against steep odds. The Pakistani loss of armor was one of the most severe since the great armored clashes of World War II. Major Singh won the Maha Vir Chakra for his performance under heavy ground fire.
NATO is making efforts to increase the safety and reduce the risk of fratricide in air to ground operations. Co-operation between different NATO agencies such as the NATO Standardization Agency and the JAPCC resulted in the development of common standards for Forward Air Controllers and these are now set out in STANAG 3797 (Minimum Qualifications for Forward Air Controllers). NATO FACs are trained to request, plan, brief and execute CAS operations both for Low Level and Medium/High Level operations and their training NATO FACs includes electronic warfare, suppression of enemy air defences, enemy air defence, air command and control, attack methods and tactics and weaponeering.
FACs in the United Kingdom are trained at the Joint Forward Air Controller Training Standards Unit (JFACTSU). In light of operational experience British FACs now form part of Fire Support Teams as well as TACPs able to direct a wide range of fires some FACs are also provided by the Royal Marines (and Royal Marines Reserve) with the majority coming from the RAF Regiment Tactical Air Control Parties. The Army Air Corps also provides Airborne Forward Air Contollers Cornet Prince Harry of Wales, the third in line to the British throne, served as a FAC on Operation Herrick during 2007 and 2008.
At the completion of the TACP course Aviators are granted the 7502 FAC MOS and are considered certified and qualified JTACs.
Non-aviator FACs in the United States Marine Corps must meet the following requirements.:
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