Since UAVs are very bad at actual observation (except maybe as an inexpensive help for individual infantry platoons, controlled by those same platoons), this aircraft will also be manned. Aside from this concern, UAVs are also not adaptable.
First airborne FACs appeared during World War I. In that war, aircraft were employed for surveillance due to ground commander’s difficulties in interpreting the unfolding battlespace. First aircraft used had a crew of two, a pilot and an observer who would sketch the situation for the ground commander; information was later used to make battlefield maps, and aircraft also helped in directing artillery barrages. This led directly to development of CAS fighters and interceptors: some observers started dropping small bombs from aircraft on enemy positions or strafe trenches with guns, and both sides tried to prevent the enemy scouting.
Observations made were often inaccurate – strength of enemy formations could be misreported by thousands. However, information was provided far sooner by airborne observers than by other means, though development of CAS (and thus FAC) doctrine was being neglected in favor of failed strategic bombing deep behind enemy lines; only in 1917 did France and Germany realized its true value.
Interwar period led to the separation of FAC and CAS duties, since performing CAS often led to the FACs neglecting their primary duty. Only US Marine Corps, having no separate air service, was able to concentrate aircraft on CAS duties. And while World War II led to many (soon forgotten) improvements in carrying out CAS missions, appearance of airborne forward air controller had to wait until Korean war. While doctrine did permit use of airborne FAC in air-to-ground operations, there was no equipment allocated for such function, nor was any training undertaken specifically for the mission.
Forward controller did appear during World War II, but he was located on the ground, guiding aircraft to targets in his view. First such use was during battle of El Hamma in North Africa, and then in Battle of Salerno. Large scale employment of forward ground controllers happened during march up Italy; they would describe target and its AA defenses to friendly pilots. Similar system was used in the Pacific. Still, there were no airborne FACs; closest thing to airborne FAC to appear were reconnaissance aircraft, which could call artillery strikes on target, and would sometimes request airstrike, physically leading fighters to the target.
In Korea, after jet fighters (F-80 and F-86) had proven themselves too fast and with too limited loiter time to serve as an effective FACs, airborne Air Force FACs flying T-6 Texan aircraft marked targets for air strike with 60 mm marking rockets, or coordinated artillery smoke shells as a common reference point. During retreat, ground FACs were unable to coordinate strikes for fast jets, which had only 20 minutes on station, and this duty fell to the airborne FACs (known as Mosquitos). On 9th July 1950, Mosquitos were first used for direct air strikes, with two FACs arriving into target area ahead of 20 F-80s and guiding them into attacks on enemy positions. Same aircrews controlled F-80s next day, resulting in 17 North Korean tanks destroyed. Additionally, Mosquitos performed tactical reconnaissance over the front line, and were soon given authority to autonomously call for air strikes when required.
It wasn’t unusal for Army observers to fly in back seats of T-6s, a practice that had started within one month of the FAC operation. And with time, observers became familiar with environment they were operating in, greatly increasing their effectiveness – a worn out path or increased number of cooking fires in a village were possible indications of enemy activity in the area. Crews themselves concluded that an ideal FAC aircraft operated at low altitude, slow speed, provided good visibility for the pilot, had long endurance, good mobility and a robust communications package, excluding jet aircraft as FAC platforms. When squadrons flying T-6s were asked if they would like to switch to the O-1 Birddog, they noted its vulnerability to the ground fire.
A/FACs duties during the Korean war included tactical reconnaissance, locating and observing “refugee” groups in order to identify guerilla units, control of air strikes in vicinity of friendly troops, and control of pre-planned air strikes, penetrating reconnaissance deep behind enemy lines, dropping leaflets, continuous cover of convoys, search for bypassed enemy troops, covering advances of small units, providing transportation for isolated ground FACs, deep reconnaissance, special weather missions. These missions grew from nature of FAC operations and characteristics of FAC aircraft, which must operate at least from first to last light. In the first 18 months of the Mosquito’s existence, 93% of all close support sorties were controlled from the air; Mosquito also became primary source of intelligence for the Joint Operations Center, and often performed visual reconnaissance both within the bombline and behind the enemy lines, as well as battlefield interdiction missions; after landing, pilots were debriefed at squadron for information on the enemy movements and positions, but understaffed nature of squadron intelligence sections prevented accurate and timely analysis and interpretation of data. Mosquitos were most usual source of CAS requests, and also often provided only reliable communication links for ROK units. Later on, system was additionally decentralized by introducing the C-47 Mosquito Mellow, which performed on-site command and control (such as tasking orders so that ammunition carried by strike aircraft is adequatly used) and in process cut the centralized and inefficient Joint Operations Center out of the loop. Mosquitos would also select what ordnance of avaliable would aircraft use.
First technique used for relaying target’s location to the attack aircraft was description via radio; this however had a high failure rate and clogged up the communications channel. Thus alternate methods of “wagging” wings in a descriptive manner (first used by a Mosquito whose radio went out during a first week of airborne FAC operations), executing a diving pass on the target and flying alongside fighter at the target and relaying need for correction in fighter’s gun shots were used. Aside from these descriptive techniques, FACs used target marking. In July 1950, first technique was devised; it consisted of dropping smoke-emitting or white-phosporous hand grenades from the T-6. However, it was difficult to drop the grenade accurately, and only 30% of grenades continued to smoke after hitting the ground; also existed a problem of prematurely-detonating grenades which could damage the Mosquito. About the same time, Mosquitos began carrying pistol flares, which like the grenades were inaccurate and had short duration of smoke. Third technique used artillery fire, with artillery burst being a reference point from which a vector and a distance to the target were given. In July, T-6s were outfitted with 2,36 in white-phosphorous HE rockets to mark the target. Rockets proved satisfactorily accurate and easily visible from the air. As a consequence of introducing the rockets, a reduction in radio transmission and increase in effectiveness and accuracy of attacks was observed. Marking rockets were also an effective weapon in their own right.
After the strike, A/FAC performed a bomb damage assessment. If target has not been neutralized, he asseses ability of the strike aircraft under his immediate control to perform a second attack in terms of remaining weapons and fuel endurance. If fighter can satisfy the requirements, strike is repeated; if not, fighter is released to return to the base, and a second fighter is called in, or requested from central command if none are avaliable under direct A/FACs command (or in its area of responsibility, if division is geographic). If target has been neutralized, FAC informes the pilot of attack aircraft to that effect, and assesses its ability to carry out a second attack and stay on station. After attack aircraft has either been determined to have a sufficient persistence remaining, or has been released and replaced with a fresh aircraft, FAC searches for additional targets. If none are found in its area of responsibility, FAC returns control of fighters assigned to him to a higher command, for a reassignment to an FAC that does have targets, and himself either returns to base or continues to provide visual reconnaissance. Mosquitos assigned directly to division as FACs were generally not allowed to perform deep reconnaissance by the ground commander, as doing so would prevent getting timely and effective CAS if needed. This however prevented Mosquitos from performing reconnaissance of the area behind the enemy lines (and even in 21st century, low-altitude recon is more effective than either ground, high-altitude or satellite recon) or supporting the behind-the-lines battlefield interdiction.
During the defense of the Pusan perimeter, USAF was short on the ground attack aircraft and Navy was asked to contribute some. Due to the difficulties in communication and limited endurance of Navy aircraft, same were eventually allowed to bypass the TACC and go straight to the Mosquitoes. After the first month, US ceased the practice of rotating aircraft over the entire front, as they realized that an observer who is familiar with the area can discover presence of enemy forces through changes in the terrain – such as color changes in the foliage.
Presence of FACs allowed UN commanders to monitor the entire frontline area, and restricted the enemy logistics and movement capability since trucks and trains are clearly visible from the air. Mosquitos did not operate during the night due to the insufficient number of aircraft for around-the-clock operations, lack of basic navigational equipment and difficulty of procuring strike aircraft at night. However, FAC losses were heavy, with one loss every 320 sorties (or 1 loss every 889 flying hours). As time passed, and importance of FACs was realized, flak damage to Mosquitos began to increase. In response, and due to difficulties in obtaining information from higher altitudes, Mosquitos began flying as low as 50 feet (15 meters) above the ground; for general reconnaissance, however, they flew at 1.200 to 1.500 feet (350 to 450 meters), even though 6.000 feet (1.800 meters) had been established as a minimum safe altitude.
In aircraft design, survivability was an important concern, with vital areas being armored. In fact, it often took precedence over the visibility, with T-6 being preferred over the L-5 and L-19. High wing was preferred for visibility towards the ground, however main obstacle in the T-6 was a relatively small canopy. It was still important to have a clear view upwards in order to see the aircraft being controlled; this view high wing obstructed. While some preferred twin-engined designs for survivability, actual usefulness of that measure is unclear, with chief causes of FAC casualties being pilot injury and fuel tank punctures. Preferred cruise speed was between 130 and 300 knots. High climb rate was also considered essential in order to avoid the ground fire after dropping low to mark or observe a target, and aircraft had to be maneuverable and responsive at slow speeds (one Mosquito discovered a set of tank tracks and followed them at an altitude of 10 feet). But most important concerns were possibly range and endurance, with ORO group suggesting seven-hour endurance as optimum, and T-6 was continually modified in order to increase the range; in the end, T-6 had range of over 1.000 miles. Group also suggested two seats, for the pilot and for the observer, with Carlton suggesting a third seat for the radio observer. Two seats would preferrably be in a tandem arrangement (observer behind the pilot) to allow observer better visibility. FAC aircraft were also preferably armed, in order to suppress any defenses, and destroy targets that do not require heavy firepower themselves so they don’t have to wait for the strike package (which might not even be avaliable at the time). However, such light targets sometimes presented potential build up points for the enemy forces, and thus opportunity for far more lucrative air strikes in the future. Ordnance also increased drag and reduced range, especially bombs. It was however generally agreed than FAC should have machine guns, preferably in .50 (12,7 mm) caliber, and mixing HE rockets with WP ones.
After Korean war, all lessons were (again, and fully intentionally) forgotten by the USAF. Increasing sophistication of ground threats resulted in claims that future FACs will have to be jet-powered, and US Strike Command manual on joint task force operations, released after Korean War, did not even mention airborne FACs. USAF was quickly left with no personnel, organization or equipment for airborne FAC operations.
In 1950, United States became involved in the Vietnam war with establishment of Military Assistance Advisory Group Indochina (MAACV-I), formed to help French forces stop Ho Chi Minh’s liberation campaign. France withdrew in the 1954, leaving a power vacuum after failling to establish a credible leadership in the South Vietnam. Until 1961, US assistance remained limited to low-scale training of South Vietnamese troops. But after Nikita Khruschev’s proclamation about USSR focusing on “national wars of liberation”, US DoD decided to established doctrines for counter-insurgency warfare; US Army and Navy established units specifically trained for unconventional warfare.
T-28B two-seater turboprop aircraft were given to the South Vietnamese; they could fly at slow speeds, loiter for hours and carry a large ordnance load. Aircraft selected received armor plating around vital components and cockpit, two .50 cal machine guns and ability to carry rockets and bombs. Crew usually consisted of an American pilot and a Vietnamese observer.
Early in 1962, with VietCong attacks against convoys increasing, president Kennedy escalated US involvement. This included FAC aircraft being used to monitor convoy progression and providing CAS when needed. Through the first half of 1963, no Vietcong managed to ambush convoys escorted by O-1 aircraft, while unescorted convoys were frequently attacked. Soon an Air Operations Center was established, centralizing control; just as in World War II and Korea, this had a negative effect on CAS aircraft performance, greatly increasing response time. South Vietnamese FACs were further hampered by two reasons: Diem’s insistence on personally approving any air strikes (fortunately, he soon lifted that requirement), and standing policy of South Vietnamese government encouraging severe punishment to VNAF FACs who landed with aircraft damaged by ground fire, or accidentally harmed friendly troops. These problems made Vietnamese FACs very passive and basically useless.
O-1 Birddog aircraft was small and capable of operating from remote air strips or dirt roads as short as 300 meters. They carried smoke rockets and were outfitted with an extra radio attached to back of pilot’s seat. Problem was that it’s engine was insufficiently powerful to power both radios at once, restricting its ability to communicate with both attacking aircraft and ground forces at once.
In January 1963, a negative development happened: in order to boost number of aircraft in the area, CINPAC ADM Harry Felt dropped the requirement for FAC personnel to have COIN training. By next month, Farm Gate detachment consisted of 42 aircraft and 275 personnell.
By 1964, VietCong and North Vietnamese Army alike had started using larger-calibre AA weapons. At the same time, US replaced the T-28 with larger A-1E, which could fly further and carry more ordnance. On 9th March 1965, 1st Air Commando Squadron aircraft were allowed to participate in combat operations in South Vietnam, without Vietnamese aircrews aboard and under US markings.
As of January 1965, there were 144 USAF airborne FACs in South Vietnam, a number set to drastically increase with full commitment of US forces later that year. ROE called for FACs to control all ordnance dropped in the South Vietnam.
While AFACs in Vietnam were very useful for directing air strikes, very often enemy would not be in the area once fast movers arrived. Thus FAC aircraft took to carrying their own armament, in effect turning into light CAS aircraft.
Various aircraft were utilized as AFACs during Vietnam war, but all had problems. O-1 was a light aircraft which only carried White Phosporous rockets for target marking and had no armament of its own. It was also slow; while this attribute is very useful for FAC aircraft – slow speed and low operating altitude are actually requirement for FAC – it had no armor, could not operate at night and did not have enough radios. O-2 had similar strengths and weaknesses as the O-1, but its two engines provided it with extra power, and it carried greater payload of smoke rockets. OV-10 and F-4 could carry their own weapons, but payload would not last for entire mission, and F-4 was too fast to serve as an effective AFAC.
FACs were usually colocated with troops they were supporting, O-1 Bird Dog had very long loiter time, as did OV-10 Bronco. OV-10 looked similar to P-38 Lightning, but could withstand 7 g turns, and both climbed and accelerated quickly; this allowed it to fly unpredictably, evading enemy fire. It was designed to give pilots very good view of the ground. Construction was very simple, and every system had a backup. Being armed allowed OV-10s to answer 78 of 98 CAS requests through April 4 to June 13, 1969, by themselves, and with average response time of seven minutes. OV-10s were first used by USMC in 1968, flying from Da Nang air field. Observers were primarly Bronco-qualified ground commanders and artillery officers. FACs in Laos and Cambodia used similar operating procedures.
When delivering weapons in close proximity to friendly troops FAC had to know where weapons would impact, which was done by observing the target and delivery aircraft’s nose position; gun was the preferred weapon for supporting troops in contact. But most important, and demanding, problem was actually finding and identifying the targets. More elusive enemy is, lower the FAC had to fly in order to find him; but after North Vietnamese Army augmented the VietCong and brought .50 cal weapons into the South, losses began to mount. US and ARVN could only gain intelligence through reports of locals, or by aircraft spotting the enemy. Pilots were assigned to individual sectors, becoming familiar with their operating areas; fresh tracks, smoke from places it should not appear in, too many farmers in the fields could all indicate VC or NVA presence in the area. Water buffalos were also moved into houses if peasants expected a firefight, providing possibly the best indicator.
While fast FACs were used in Vietnam, it was only in high-threat environments with insufficient terrain cover. Even then, they tended to delegate duty to slower turboprop FACs whenever possible. In 1968, F-4 Phantom II started being used as the FAC. As it originally lacked internal gun, it had a 20 mm gun bolted to the underside of the fuselage; this increased drag and thus fuel consumption, but provided needed suppression. Large engine intakes at the each side of the aircraft obscured ground view for the rear observer. F-4 was also easely detected by enemy gunners due to its large size and smoke its engines produced. It had some positive characteristics, such as ability to carry ECM gear.
After the Vietnam war, all lessons were again (intentionally) forgotten by Strategic Bomber Mafia dominating USAF (their latest “success” is pushing the strategic-bombardment-only F-35 as a “multirole” platform). Large-scale FAC programs were discontinued in all US services except the Marine Corps.
1991 Operation Desert Storm was the first test for airborne FACs after the Vietnam War. Marines had replaced OA-4 Skyhawk FACs with two seat F/A-18Ds in 1989, performing fast-FAC mission and integrating with slow OV-10s. They had also introduced concept of helicopter-based FAC, using AH-1 Super Cobra and UH-1 Iroquois helicopters. Helicopter FACs were used to control and correct artillery fire, including battleship 16-in shells.
When fast jets operated on their own, they produced neglible results, dropping expensive ammunitions on decoys or previously destroyed targets, while having trouble finding well camouflaged and/or dug-in targets. They were not given the authority to descend to altitudes that would allow them to visually spot the enemy, nor did they have capability to loiter while looking for targets. OA-10s and F-16s flying as “Killer Scouts” frequently violated altitude restrictions, allowing pilots to spot targets with binoculars. Brigadier General Buster Glosson said that the Killer Scouts “increased the effectiveness of the F-16 force three- or four- -fold”.
Naval F-14s and F-18s also operated as FACs, with first batch of F-14 pilots being taught by Marine instructors. Along with Marine schooling, Navy also adopted a requirement for all FAC aircraft to be two-seaters. USMC believed that the mission was too important and physically demanding for one pilot to accomplish it alone safely (indeed, several fratricide incidents caused by the A-10 can be blamed on altitude restrictions and on A-10 being the single-seater).
In 2001, Special Operations troops and CIA paramilitary forces were inserted into Afghanistan to bolster the indigenous North Alliance. Afghani aircraft, bases and air defenses was quickly over, which led to the war becoming a FAC-run affair. GPS guided weapons were quick to cause fratricide, proving for the Nth time that technology alone is not an adequate answer. Thus ground FACs were paired to attack aircraft or to airborne FACs.
In 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom, FACs practiced with SOFs, allowing latter to capture two air fields in western Iraq on 20 March 2003, despite presence of IADS (Integrated Air Defense Systems). In the north, few hundred SOF and airborne paratroopers effectively coordinated with airborne FAC-directed CAS to tie up entire Iraqi divisions.
Basic requirements can thus be listed as follows:
- slow speed
- good endurance (at least 7 hours)
- small size
- good maneuverability
- robust construction
- two-man crew (tandem seating)
- good cockpit visibility
- rough field, dirt strip and road base operating capability
- STOL capability
- good visibility for pilot and the observer
- ability to carry 60 mm rockets for marking targets, and armament for CAS strikes and suppression (12,7 mm MG, rockets, bombs)
- high climb rate
Aircraft will use PT6A-68C engine, which is 1,83 m long with 483 mm diameter, weights 200 kg , provides 1.262 kW of power, and has fuel consumption of 227 kg per hour. 7 hour endurance requirement thus means that aircraft will have to carry at least 1.600 kg of fuel. Armament will consist of 2 internal 12,7 mm machine guns, and wing hardpoints capable of carrying bombs, rockets and gun pods.
Length: 9,3 m
Wing span: 9,5 m
Height: 2,16 m
Wing area: 11,3 m2
Standard operational: +7/-3
Combat operational: +8,5/-3,2
Empty weight: 2.200 kg
Fuel capacity: 840 l (689 kg) internal, 1.340 l (1.099 kg) with drop tanks 0,82 kg/l
- forward body tank: 485 l
- aft body tank: 265 l
- wing tanks: 90 l
- drop tanks: 500 l
Fuel fraction: 0,24
With 100% fuel: 256 kg/m2
With 50% fuel:
weight: 200 kg with 1.262 kW
fuel consumption: 204,4 liters per hour
Power-to-weight ratio: 0,23 kW/kg
Endurance on internal fuel: 3,89 hrs
Endurance with drop tanks: 6,34 hrs
Maximum speed: 600 kph
Cruise speed with external stores: 525 kph
Combat radius: 1.021 km on internal fuel, 1.664 km with external fuel tanks
Takeoff distance: 400 m
Landing distance: 600 m
2×12,7 mm M2 Browning internal with 1.600 rounds total
6 hardpoints (4 under wings, 2 wingtip)
- wingtip hardpoints: IRIS-T
- under-wing hardpoints: 60 mm rocket pods (12 rockets each) carrying either marking, HE, incidientary or AP rockets; 250 kg bombs; 125 kg bombs; 500 l (400 kg) fuel tanks
Unit flyaway cost: 2.000.000 USD
Cost per flying hour: 300 USD
Unit cost is calculated by using that of Super Tucano which costs 5 million USD and weights 3.200 kg, for 1.562,5 USD/kg; as OLX is far less complex, this value is reduced to below 1.000 USD/kg.
Super Tucano, which uses same engine, has endurance of 3,4 hours with 695 l of internal fuel; this gives fuel consumption of 204,4 l/h.