Shaping Close Air Support for the Fight Against ISIS: The Kurdish Opportunity

By Ed Timperlake and Robbin Laird

Close air support in the context of the fight against ISIS is about providing support for those forces on the ground engaged in the fight against ISIS.

A key force in the fight is the Peshmerga who clearly need supplies and air support to enhance their effectiveness against the radical Islamic force.

The discussion of how to provide CAS is not simply a technical issue of providing JTACs and US or allied airpower; it is about positioning support in a way that the forces on the ground, in this case the Peshmerga can see strategic as well as tactical support.

As Joseph Kassad suggested in a recent interview:

The problem for the US and its allies is simply that the Peshmerga know how to fight; the Iraqi government does not.

Now the US is using Turkish bases to prosecute the fight, but Turkey is at best an ambiguous player in this fight, and certainly is no friend of the Kurds. Kassab added that the President of Kurdistan has offered a former Iraqi air base to the US and its allies from which to fight ISIS, a move which would not only reinforce the relationship with Kurdistan but be recognized instantly by ISIS as a significant threat to their activity in Iraq.

“We really do prefer that we use it for the Kurdistan itself rather than coming from Turkey because this will give a lot more strength to the Kurds.”

Such a base would be far enough from indirect fire weapons yet close enough for CAS and perhaps a Forward Operating Base (FOB) for helos as well. Such an airfield  not only can be an effective move inside Kurdistan but it also  sends a signal to Syria/Russia, Iran  AND Turkey.

In addition to a base from which the US and allied aircraft could fly, we need to understand how important CAS support is in striking against pop up threats like ISIS.

We argued earlier that there was a clear need for an airpower transition in Iraq prior to the US precipitously leaving the country in 2012. As Secretary Wynne wrote in 2010:

What may be needed is a forward look at the Table of Organization and Equipment or TOE that will remain for the Iraqi Armed Forces and Police—what lies beyond rifles, trucks, and body armor. 

Training for such activities is what we have been exposed to by the media; but there is much more that is needed, notably with regard to air and naval forces.

We added in a later article that year, the following:

As the transition accelerates the most significant U.S. forces are air and naval forces.

These forces are crucial in training Iraqis but also working with nascent Iraqi forces to ensure their territorial integrity as well as to build upon US working relationships in the region.

The war in Kuwait was about territorial integrity, which remains a fundamental issue in the region.

With all the emphasis on MRAPing operations, it is now time to step back and to re-invigorate air and naval forces in the region able to re-assure Iraq and deter Iran.

Obviously, this did not happen but could be introduced into the current environment to build an integrated Iraqi Air Force flying Super Tucanos and Helos in close air support missions. There is a key advantage of training professional a more elite air corps, which can provide as well the kernel for the rebirth of the nation as well.

We argued the case of for the airpower element to transition in Afghanistan as well and the Iraq case may be reemerging as a key area to shape an airpower transition strategy.

And we underscored with regard to the transition in Afghanistan, laying a solid foundation in countries with whom we are collaborating in the fight against terrorists, shaping a CAS air corps provides some key advantages.

As the U.S. looks forward to work with allies worldwide in the years to come on COIN and related operations, the U.S. will not be bringing the entire gamut of capability to the party.  Working with allies in current and projected financial conditions requires a new formula: the U.S. supports allies who can fend for themselves, up to a point.

But allies likely to need COIN assistance are not in the top 10 financial giants of the global economy.  And they will need and can afford what the Super Tucano can offer.

As an article by Chris Kraul highlighted:

Unsleek and unsupersonic, the Super Tucano hardly fits most people’s concept of a modern warplane. But Brazilian manufacturer Embraer is finding a growing market for the retro “light attack” propeller-driven aircraft among nations looking to secure their borders, fight drugs and support counterinsurgency operations.

Ecuador is one such customer. The two Super Tucanos that flew into Manta air base late last month were the first delivered on a 24-plane order that President Rafael Correa placed shortly after Colombian armed forces entered Ecuador’s airspace in March 2008 to kill a high-ranking FARC rebel leader, Raul Reyes.

Although the $250-million purchase was seen as a reaction to Colombia’s violation of its sovereignty, Correa in his weekly television address Feb. 6 said that the aircraft acquisition didn’t signal an arms buildup. Rather, he said, the planes were replacing Ecuador’s fleet of mostly 30-year-old A-37 Dragonfly aircraft made by Cessna.

But Correa is wrestling with a problem that the planes can help him confront: the persistent presence in his territory of guerrillas with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or, FARC. Without specifically mentioning FARC, Correa said the aircraft would help support the Ecuadorean military as it fights “regular and irregular forces” inside the country’s borders.

(It was a Colombian air force Super Tucano that dropped the “smart bomb” that killed Reyes, then second in command of the FARC, as he slept at a camp a mile inside Ecuadorean territory.)

And the model has already been highlighted by the 12th USAF in working with Columbia: what needs to happen is to recognize this model and move ahead in global support for these types of operations with the U.S. providing its complement to those allies willing to field counter-insurgency airpower.

As we emphasized earlier

The 12th is supporting nations just off our shore and recently held a U.S. Air Power demonstrationin celebration of 100 years of aviation in the Dominican Republic.

Unheralded success has just been achieved by this partnership between SOUTHCOM and the Dominican Republic Air Force flying the Embraer Air Super Tucano. This remarkable and replicable success is made possible by U.S. “Hi” ISR technology in partnership with the Dominican Republic “Lo” technology the Super Tucano.

It has not been widely reported that this war against drug barons is being won in the sky.

Although drug money is unrelenting in finding ways to supply their corrosive product for now in the war against narco-criminials and terrorist this is a huge accomplishment, and the opening headline from Dominican Today quoted above says it all.

Along with the success in Dom Rep, the Colombian AF is wining the fight against the FARC with sensors and shooters—again the Super Tucano.

Consequently, this “Hi-Lo” mix is beginning to look like a winning formula for world wide partnerships between the U.S. and other nations by using American ISR that can give hot vectors in both the air-to-air and air-to-ground mission to a Light Armed Attack Aircraft (LAAR) like the Super Tucano.

Regardless of what country and service there is a combat bond between Squadron Pilots and those affectionately called “the grunts.” The USMC has that factor as one of their most cherished way of war. The USAF and US Army in close quarter combat has the same life and death combat bonding.

As technology is relative and always progressing the mission of taking out targets from the air will evolve because the goal is survival in combat against a reactive enemy in both the air and on the land.

CAS is a partnership forge in battle and the U.S. has been historically very good ever since the USMC perfected it in WW II. Today’s coalition CAS is excellent and there is no doubt U.S. and its Allies will be the world class gold standard into the future.

This video shows that partnership in combat, and an intangible factor that is creating a generation of experience:

In short, shaping CAS capabilities can be part of a strategy of Iraq transition and not simply a capability that the U.S. has to insert every time one has a pop up threat like ISIS to deal with.

The U.S. has the technology and combat skills to be effective in any aspect of CAS.

If U.S. Airpower services have to engage with other forces employing their aircraft in being the “low” part of the mix it will still be an effective combat force.

As the old proverb goes: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”





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