Although NATO, as an Alliance, has never executed an opposed amphibious landing, it continues to grow, maintain, and exercise its amphibious warfare capability and the role of Air Power in support of Landing Operations continues to evolve. Although exercises such as the recently concluded Trident Juncture series emphasize combined arms maneuver from the sea and have brought amphibious landings back into vogue, the stark reality is NATO as an Alliance has not had to execute that aspect of maritime warfare in generations.
Improving interoperability between maritime air forces of many nations, integration with the land-based air component to perform Joint Air Power functions, and decreasing the time between ‘call for support’ and Close Air Support (CAS) strikes by improving the command and control structure inside the Amphibious Objective Area (AOA) are all key elements of NATO’s amphibious force training today. This article will review the history and development of amphibious tactical air control and identify potential focus areas for future amphibious joint force training so that the force may be better prepared for the change in air support to amphibious operations capability that will occur with the fielding of the F-35.
The Origins of Tactical Air Control
During Operation OVERLORD in June of 1944, Air Power provided only limited support directly to the amphibious landing, but through indirect support, ‘crushing air power’ was the decisive factor in the invasion’s success.1 Although a significant amount of Air Power was employed, it was not a well-integrated effort supporting the landing. Its main uses consisted primarily of photo-recce and paratrooper insertion missions, strikes deep in country on aircraft manufacturing and repair facilities, and executing air-to-air engagements over the English Channel. Remarkably, ‘no in-theater formalized structure linked the Ninth [Air Force] and its subordinate commands directly to specific land forces units’ and CAS was not executed until after the landing was already well underway.2
Concurrently, in the Pacific, Air Power became more integrated into amphibious operations with the advent of ship-launched CAS aircraft and an integrated fires concept. The concept of Tactical Air Control for amphibious operations,3 with the specific function of overseeing planning of air missions from within the naval force and exercising control of those same missions within the AOA, was born during the island hopping campaign in the Pacific, beginning with the assault on Tarawa.
A secondary function of tactical air control was to provide Air Support Coordination, deconfliction and integration with the fires control center, which was co-located afloat aboard the amphibious flag ship. In many cases, calls for fires support on the beach were routed in a cumbersome Command and Control (C2) arrangement through the land component chain of command then to the flag ship at sea and finally to the aircraft. Despite the challenging C2 procedures, naval gunfire and shore bombardment from the air became an integrated function in preparation for the deployment of the Landing Force and CAS missions were developed into a full-time requirement. Although attributed to the Pacific campaign, significant effort in coordinating air strikes as requested by the Land component in near real time had also been developed for operations in the Mediterranean, notably for the reclamation of Sicily, including the use of radar for final control of fighters and bombers.4
Air C2 in the Amphibious Objective Area
Each NATO nation with an aircraft carrier or amphibious assault ship capability has developed a different internal command structure to execute these air integration functions. Stemming from lessons learned in the Pacific, in 1946 the US re-designated the Air Support Coordination element as Tactical Air Control squadrons (TACRONs) and embarked a TACRON on each amphibious assault ship to oversee the planning and execution of Tactical Air Control inside the AOA, an arrangement which still exists today. However, aboard US and French nuclear powered aircraft carriers (CVN), organic ship’s company departments coordinate with the embarked Carrier Air Wing in the planning, development and execution of air missions. Since the CVN’s primary mission in an amphibious operation is support and protection of the Amphibious Task Force (ATF), its unique C2 model should be set aside during a more detailed review of the internal air C2 functions imbedded within the ATF. The UK employs an Air Support Operations Centre (ASOC) that performs the functions in a blend between the US CVN and US Amphibious model. Italy and Spain rely upon the Amphibious Task Force Commander’s staff for the planning and upon the embarked Maritime Air Operation Centre or the ship itself for the control and execution of air operations. For those not familiar with amphibious air operations, this may be a confusing C2 arrangement. The key takeaway is there are multiple methods in use for the coordination of air in the AOA.
The ATF will operate in waves, transiting both in surface landing craft and in rotary / tilt-rotor lift aircraft from the ships to the landing zone multiple times to land the entire Landing Force. Therefore, a High Density Aircraft Control Zone (HIDACZ) is normally constructed within the boundaries of the AOA to assist with deconfliction from aircraft not originating within the ATF. Routes inside the HIDACZ are developed for lift aircraft to transit from sea-based staging areas (Sea Echelon Areas (SEA)) to objectives ashore and are specifically designed to account for and avoid Fire Support Areas (FSA) containing ships providing Naval Gunfire bombardment, air defence aircraft orbits, and staging orbits for CAS and other aircraft which may be operating inside the AOA (Anti-Submarine helicopters or Maritime Patrol Aircraft for example). A fully developed airspace structure designed to safely permit operations of all aircraft, both rotary and fixed wing, is generated by the TACRON working closely with the embarked air elements. Air controllers exercise positive control over air missions inside the HIDACZ and work hand in hand with the maritime Air Defense Commander for identification of friendly forces transiting into the AOA.
The function of amphibious air C2 is not limited to control of the organic amphibious air missions; the Navy Tactical Air Control Center (TACC – manned by the TACRON on US LHDs) is a control facility which exercises C2 over all air missions inside the HIDACZ, including joint missions from other services. The TACC can be employed even if the Landing Force is not actually conducting a landing. In Operation Odyssey Dawn and the subsequent NATO Operation Unified Protector (OUP), multiple nations’ amphibious forces were positioned off the coast of Libya in preparation for possible operations. Although national restrictions on ‘boots-on-the-ground’ prevented the employment of the Landing Force, the TACC aboard the USS Kearsarge provided the only C2 capability in the Joint Operations Area until NATO’s AWACS arrived on day 5. During the first 12 days of operations, the TACC provided 9-line strike targeting, Air Intercept Control of Combat Air Patrol stations, and served as tanker coordinator for 318 tanker / 750 strike aircraft missions (accounting for 66 per cent of all fuel transferred).5
Differences of opinion regarding the use of Air Power to support an amphibious landing developed from the Land and Air Component Commanders. As witnessed in both the Pacific and European theatres in World War II (WWII), Air Power was not as effective at removing defensive positions on the beach as was originally envisioned. ‘Despite the intensive air and naval bombardment of coastal defences, those defences were, by and large, intact when the invasion force “hit the beach”. This was particularly true at Omaha beach, where American forces suffered serious casualties and critical delays. Despite a massive series of attacks by Eighth Air Force B-17s, V24s and medium bombers in the early hours of June 6, the invading troops were hung up on the beach.’6 Additionally, in WWII, necessity dictated a significant portion of the land-based Air Force to defend the afloat task force and a philosophy emerged ‘that in a NATO war, naval forces could be protected by land-based aircraft. [Even as numerous post-war exercises failed to show the validity of the prevailing philosophy], the fiction was maintained, probably because to admit that a need existed for carrier air defense would have entailed ruinous expense.’7 As NATO aircraft carriers were developed in the subsequent decades, the vast majority of aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships were constructed with this pervasive philosophy as a backdrop, resulting in limited or no carrier based defensive (air-to-air) or Airborne Early Warning (AEW) capability, with the French Charles de Gaulle and the eleven US Nimitz / Ford class nuclear carriers being notable exceptions.
The discussion about which service is responsible for defending ships at sea still colours the conversation today and remains one of the impediments to NATO functioning as a truly integrated Joint Force. In fact, some nations have doctrinally assigned aircraft embarked on an aircraft carrier directly to the Air Component Commander instead of the maritime component. In this case, the afloat Task Force Commander desiring aircraft to fulfill defensive anti-shipping or overwater air defence roles must request apportionment of the assets currently sitting on his or her flight deck from the JFACC. Exemplifying the Wales Summit concept of Pooling and Sharing, it has been proposed that a US Marine squadron will embark on the HMS Queen Elizabeth whilst the UK awaits delivery of her fleet of Lightning II aircraft.8 If this deployment proceeds, the supporting tactical air control construct must be carefully designed and communicated across the force to ensure comprehension, as the two countries have dramatically different models of amphibious air C2.
The Future of Tactical Air Control
Until recently, amphibious force aircraft have lagged behind in C4I upgrades against their fighter and ground-striking peers. Only in the last few years has the US outfitted its Marine assault support aircraft with a datalink. The lack of a robust C4I capability was also resident in the TACC. Only the ship’s operations center could utilize the Link-11 or Link-16 architecture, and the vast majority of air control, including 9-line and mission report (MISREP) exchanges during OUP, was executed via voice. With the advent of Link-16 into MH-60R SAR helicopters and the pending C4I upgrades to the MV-22 and assault support helicopters (AH / UH-1 series), embarked aircraft will soon be able to generate as much or more situational awareness regarding the battlespace than the controllers in the TACC on the ship. This dichotomy of situational awareness has caused some level of friction between air controllers, who typically operate without access to datalinks, and aircrew, whose equipment is typically more modern, and the challenge will only increase with the advent of the F-35.
The F-35 will bring a host of C4I capability, eclipsing the awareness of any controller position on the ship. Additionally, NATO planners must start to conceptualize the change in overland strike capability this aircraft will bring. No longer will the organic amphibious aircraft (AV-8B Harriers and various vertical-lift platforms) be solely relegated to movement and assault support operations. Although the existing AV-8B Harriers have some capability to project power ashore, their primary role is normally CAS for the Landing Force, and their ordnance load and range limitations restrict most deep strike operations. The F-35 will bring an increased strike capability to the amphibious force. However the F-35B will have a profound, and in many ways unforeseen, impact on all aspects of amphibious air missions. Some of these impacts may be anticipated through assessment of the F-22’s current interoperability with 4th generation fighters. Today, the F-22 has become a force multiplier by improving the capability and Situational Awareness (SA) of all aircraft around it. ‘The F-22 essentially acts as a quarterback for all of the aircraft airborne and increases the SA of the entire force. Today, the Joint Force Air Component Commander in Central Command rarely launches a force package into Syria without having an F-22 with the force because the F-22 enhances the entire effort.’9 The F-35 will do the same for the aircraft operating in the amphibious objective area.
Operation OVERLORD was the pinnacle of European amphibious planning and execution, but it was executed in a manner befitting the strength of the force at that time – mass. Today’s amphibious forces across NATO are much more lean and agile, and operate with integrated air, naval and marine elements as a combined amphibious force to conduct beach landings. Although not executed by the Alliance, amphibious operations have been employed at the national level, most notably by the Royal Navy / Royal Marines in Argentina and more recently by French forces in Mali. NATO doctrine reflects the fact the Alliance has limited experience as a joint amphibious force; in many cases, the doctrine reflects national perspectives that are unique to the capabilities of that individual nation. NATO’s Naval and Striking Support Force (STRIKFORNATO) is exploring a review of seaborne air control concepts, such as the Maritime Air Operations Center, in an effort to improve the efficiency and integration of maritime air into joint operations (and vice-versa).
Perhaps most importantly, regardless of the nationally derived C2 model in use aboard a specific aircraft carrier, NATO doctrine, including Allied Joint Publication (AJP) 3.3, Allied Tactical Publication (ATP) 8, and other related publications, does provide a solid foundation for both air and maritime components executing joint air missions. Improving this element of the Joint Force coordination remains a primary focus of the Maritime Air Coordination community. As evolutions in aircraft capability emerge, NATO Maritime elements, to include Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM), Naval Striking and Support Forces (STRIKFORNATO), and national Maritime Operations Centres, should continue to review and revise Air C2 doctrine to evolve in conjunction with the increased capability demonstrated by aircraft upgrades and newly fielded aircraft types to ensure the amphibious force remains capable and relevant in the overwater air control domain.