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Army aviation must integrate COIN, major writes

May. 2, 2013 - 08:51AM   |  
OH-58D Kiowa Warriors often flew less than 150 feet above the ground while protecting ground elements in Iraq. That unintentionally alienated locals, an Army major writes.
OH-58D Kiowa Warriors often flew less than 150 feet above the ground while protecting ground elements in Iraq. That unintentionally alienated locals, an Army major writes. (Sgt. 1st. Class Eric Pahon/Army)
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Army attack aviators might seem tangential to the efforts of ground troops in the battle for hearts and minds by adhering to counterinsurgency doctrine, but the two are intertwined, an Army official writes in Armed Forces Journal, a sister publication of Army Times.

Army aviation is isolating itself from the COIN fight, and that is unintentionally undermining those ground commanders, writes Maj. Lee Robinson, a former assistant professor at the U.S. Military Academy and now the executive officer at 1-1 Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, Fort Riley, Kan.

Robinson argues that aviation’s focus on military supremacy comes at the cost of COIN on the ground. Future doctrine, he writes, must separate enemies from populations, emphasize team-level decision-making, acknowledge in doctrine the superiority of unmanned aircraft for certain missions and better integrate ground and air operations.

“In COIN, the conventional metrics of hours flown and enemy targets killed have less relevance than, say, the safety of roads or security of villages,” he writes.

Robinson, who served two tours in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division and the 1st Cavalry Division, described Army attack aviators in Iraq employing “several tactics that unwittingly helped to foster the very disorder the insurgents sought to create,” including test-firing weapons near population centers; shooting up streets to engage suspected roadside bombs; and flying at low altitudes when they had weaker infrared systems.

“OH-58D Kiowa Warrior aircraft often flew less than 150 feet above the ground while protecting ground elements,” Robinson writes. “Such actions, while occasionally fruitful in detecting enemy activity, more reliably upset the locals. Helicopters can scatter a farmer’s sheep only so many times before he begins to view coalition forces as an annoyance rather than an ally.”

The separation between aviation and COIN is ingrained in policy, Robinson argues, as aviation leaders are exempt from COIN training that tactical commanders receive in theater.

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He proposes creating a doctrinal template better integrating unmanned aircraft into the Full Spectrum Combat Aviation Brigade.

Helicopters are generally the better choice when troops are on the ground, Robinson writes. Pilots can bring intuition and contextualize action on the battlefield. Visible helicopters deter insurgents from attacking, thereby building trust with the local population, and, “attack aviation assets can help establish security for key leader engagements, then leave the immediate area during the actual meeting, thereby avoiding an overbearing presence.”

For missions that require stealth and longevity, unmanned aircraft are better, Robinson writes. Generally, unmanned aircraft are less detectable, harder to hit with small arms, have better sensors, loiter longer and more slowly, and can “provide a real-time feed to operation centers at some fraction of the cost (in terms of risk, dollars and manpower) of rotary wing assets.”

Robinson writes that “extreme care should be taken to engage only targets that are clearly insurgents.” Helicopters might engage targets with nonlethal means, such as flares, though even these could backfire if they burn a farmer’s crops, he notes.

In arming unmanned aircraft, the value of destroying a given target must be weighed against COIN goals. Although Robinson says, “the jury is still out” on arguments over whether the use of unmanned strikes reduces or increases civilian casualties, he recommends using unmanned assists and helicopters in tandem to reduce collateral damage.

Robinson argues for better integration of air and ground operations. Aircrews must know whether a ground commander they’re supporting is clearing an area of insurgents or trying to win over the population, he writes.

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