April 01, 2010

COIN for Aviators

Okay, enough about Lady Gaga. And Israeli settlements. It's time to post on counterinsurgency again, and this is in response to an aviator's request for information on how he should prepare his unit for counterinsurgency. One of the resident aviators at CNAS, "Herbal" Carmen, weighs in with the following advice. (Herbal and the role his E-2's play in the contemporary operating environment, meanwhile, are discussed at greater length in Air & Space Magazine.) Take it away, Herbal:

We aviators spend lots of effort to train how to blow stuff up, and we’re pretty good at that.  But how do we train to combat where blowing stuff up isn’t always the answer?  In 2003, as the war in Iraq began, we were really focused on how to maximize proper weapons delivery on the battlefield.  With over 1000 sorties a day on the Air Tasking Order, the battle was as much about efficiently getting aircraft to the target area as it was physically placing the weapon on the target. 


Part of that standard pre-deployment training involved learning the rules of engagement, reviewing the laws of armed conflict and such lawfare topics that if not presented in the right way can cause aviators to turn off the ears or to turn violent against the JAGs giving the training.  Our JAGs in 2003 trained us pretty well with a series of increasingly challenging case studies.  Even so, what we focused on most was making sure that the air wing could do more than hit the broadside of the barn with a JDAM or LGB and then get back aboard the ship on the first pass with a 45-55 second interval.


When the shooting started in 2003, the ground forces that moved first.  On Kitty Hawk, we made no bones about the fact that we were supporting the troops on the ground that had to sleep in the dirt.  Our squadron sent our Top Gun-trained weapons tactics instructor in to work with the V Corps’ ASOC and we made friends with the MEF bubbas that ran the Marines’ CAS show.  Both of those moves helped immensely.  We were able to do a much better job at getting jets linked up with JTACs and jets were able to do a better job of getting weapons off the wings onto the right targets. 


What was surprising was the rapid pace at which the battlefield changed.  The Fire Support Coordination Line we knew when we briefed inevitably changed by the time we went feet dry.  Our situational awareness to what was actually happening on the ground wasn’t nearly what it should have been.  We now have two Army liaison officers on each carrier.  An article from Nimitz’s deployment talks about how important they were for their fight in Afghanistan.  When we deployed on Lincoln in 2008, we also had LNOs on board.  Since then it seems that the LNOs are probably even more in tune with what’s happening on the ground and doing a better job of turning that over to the aircrews.


Before the Sun Kings deployed in 2008, we started focusing our weekly briefings on intelligence topics beyond order of battle.  Our intelligence officer talked about human networks in Iraq and Afghanistan, piracy near Somalia, terrorism near the Philippines, etc.  These briefs were very general and often just touched on each topic. 


We also watched a few of the Frontline series of videos.  The one I thought helped teach us the most about COIN was The Insurgency.


Looking back, we could have done more that that built on previous knowledge.  We could have brought in Army officers, SEALs, and Marines that had been there in the previous year to talk about what was happening on the ground.  We did bring in one Marine who was training at 29 Palms with his battalion and it was very well-received.


About the same time in the workup cycle, I found Ex’s blog and others (Small Wars Journal, Long War Journal, etc.) that described what was happening on the battlefield.  We started circulating occasional links to stories about what was happening, hoping one or two of the aircrew would read the articles and start talking about them in the Ready Room.  Some did, and it helped incrementally.  We even started to find copies of printed stories with written comments in the ready room.  Even aboard the ship, where the internet connection was painfully slow, I would try to log on and then read and forward a story or two each day on what was happening.


The reason that we did this had nothing to do with COIN.  It boiled down to one thing that many Hawkeye bubbas hold true: superior knowledge is required to bring order to chaos. E-2C Hawkeye crews need to know more about what’s happening in the battlespace than anyone else out there because we’re often the only ones airborne that interact with everyone on the battlefield.  That’s why many of us spend hours and hours geeking out on tactics manuals, SPINS, commander’s intent messages, etc.  COIN was just the context.  In fact, at first we didn’t even know it as COIN.


So based on that what advice would I give to an aviation unit training for COIN?


  1. Train aviators to be experts in their machines first.  General McChrystal’s guidance doesn’t do anything to get an aviator across the ramp onto a pitching deck at night.
  2. Begin teaching aviators about COIN and about what’s happening on the ground casually.  By that I mean, give them something to talk about and bring that topic up at the lunch table without lecturing.  Let the discussions happen.  Because over time, they will develop their own professional interest.  Those discussions then spread to the ready room to the planning room to the cockpit.
  3. Get the intel officer outside his comfort zone and talk about people instead of weapons systems.  Have him talk to events that are happening and place them in context of who is who in the zoo.  MG Flynn’s report is the best example of why we need to look beyond order of battle.
  4. Watch some of the Frontline series videos and others every so often and then talk about the show afterward. Make popcorn. 
  5. Get some of the books about counterinsurgency in the squadron libraries.  Our Navy reading program does not have many, so pay attention to some of the reading lists that are floating around and buy a few of the best for the squadron.
  6. Bring in guys who have been there to talk about their experiences.  Aviators are keenly interested in hearing from the folks that have “been there.”  That knowledge and wisdom is soaked, and aviators build a human connection to the unit they’re supporting.  JTACS, company commanders, battalion commanders would all make great guests.
  7. Get the JAGs involved, but make sure they tailor the training to the attention spans of aviators.  Case studies are a very good way to do this.
  8. Do not fill up a no fly day with training and lectures on subjects that don’t immediately appear to be directly affecting safety of flight or mission accomplishment.  Nothing stops learning faster than a rest day filled with death by powerpoint.
  9. Make understanding how we’re fighting the war on the ground a part of professional training, not just a subject tacked on before the transit to theater.  Anything added on in the waning days of workups will be seen as a check in the block.