Lessons Learned: The USMC Approach to Close Air Support in Fallujah (Part Two)



(Reprinted courtesy of the Marine Corps Gazette. Copyright retained by the Marine Corps Gazette)

By Maj Fred H. Allison, USMCR (Ret)

Maj Allison is a former Marine F–4 radar intercept officer. He earned his doctorate in history from Texas Tech University and is currently a historian at the Marine Corps History Division, Quantico.


The USMC at Fallujah
Operation Phantom Fury (Second Battle of Fallujah): Operation Phantom Fury was a joint U.S.-Iraqi offensive in November and December 2004 (Credit: USMC)

The challenges of air control: avoiding traffic jams
Synergy between the air and ground elements was significant. It became common for coalition TacAir in OIF I to “bingo” (a predetermined fuel remaining amount) out of the V Corps zone and go to the Marine DASC (direct air support center) after enduring a “traffic jam” of aircraft awaiting targets in the Army’s V Corps zone.[14]

The senior Marine liaison officer in the CAOC (combat air operations center) recalled that:

. . . we had a lot of coalition forces that flew with us over their [sic] and every one of them would come up to us in the CAOC and say, ‘hey listen, how can you get us to fly in the Marine sector?’ They knew that there were things happening—they could rapidly employ their ordnance on worthy targets.[15]

After OIF I, C2 of aviation reverted to the CFACC (combined forces air component commander) throughout Iraq, including in the Marine AO, except below 11,500 feet where the Marines DASC had control. This would have worked fine because the Marines helicopters, the only type aircraft they had in VIGILANT RESOLVE, rarely flew above 11,500 feet. When Fallujah erupted in April 2004, however, the Marines needed TacAir that operated above 11,500 feet for CAS, creating air control problems.

The altitude separation between the two control agencies caused a split—a seam that interrupted the smooth and efficient flow of aircraft to ground units. The traffic jam scenario reminiscent of the V Corps zone in OIF I now reappeared in the skies over Fallujah. Pilots complained that sometimes it took in excess of 20 minutes once they were overhead to get them in contact with a FAC (forward air controller).[16] Pilots commented on the dangers, noting that:

. . . overhead the target of Fallujah because there was no control and we had to go from ‘Kingpin’ (CAOC callsign) to the DASC down to the FAC and it just wasn’t efficient or effective to support the GCE (ground combat element).[17]
In addition there was a safety hazard in that aircraft being controlled by different control agencies were in danger of midair collisions.[18]

Pilots, believing that a TIC (troops in contact) situation was top priority and sensing that the CAOC’s procedures were an impediment, circumvented the CAOC and contacted the Marines DASC directly. The DASC put the pilots in contact with a FAC who put them to work prosecuting a target. Even though ordered by the CAOC to not circumvent procedures, some pilots were passionate enough about this to face disciplinary action. One F–16 pilot asserted, “I would have done anything to help the Marines out down there, if it meant blowing the wings off my chest, I didn’t care.”[19]

Credit: Marine Aviation Command

The Fallujah HiDACS: simplicity as key for successfully deconfliction
Giving the Marines unity of command for FALLUJAH II would prevent any traffic jams caused by dual C2 setups. The CFACC and Air Force C2 officers saw the wisdom in Kling’s plan. The Air Force allowed that a system based on altitude deconfliction, such as at FALLUJAH I and An Najaf, would not work in a second Fallujah battle as it would be considerably more dense and intense. By turning the Fallujah fight over to the Marine Corps the CFACC could focus on other areas where insurgent activity was expected to increase. The CFACC acquiesced to the Marines request of unity of command, implemented by giving I MEF (Marine Expeditionary Force) a cylinder of airspace around Fallujah called a high-density airspace control zone (HiDACZ).[20]

The Fallujah HiDACZ went up 25,000 feet with a 15-mile radius. An inner circle 5-mile radius centered over Fallujah was the keyhole. Within this space the Marines shaped their desired unity of command. They resolved on a “push” fixed-wing CAS system and “pull” rotary-wing system. TacAir would be on call orbiting between the five- and 15-mile circles, whereas rotary-wing CAS providers operating from battle positions on Fallujah’s fringes would respond when specifically requested by ground units and employed any time in a battalion’s zone with no coordination beyond FAC control. Coordination for fixed-wing CAS was between the two regiments (Regiment combat teams or RCTs–1 and –7) to which all coalition ground units were attached, including Army, special operations forces, and Iraqis. The two Marine RCTs would operate parallel to one another on a north-south axis pushing through Fallujah. The keyhole template met Kling’s basic requirement for the plan, “integration driving efficiency and speed, minimizing fratricide, keeping it simple.”[21]

Simplicity in the keyhole template was crucial to success. Different types of aircraft and projectiles were separated vertically within the HiDACZ. Rotary-wing aircraft from their battle positions on Fallujah’s fringes would operate below 3,000 feet, fixed-wing aircraft would stay above 9,000 feet, and in between would be artillery, mortar fires, and a dense assortment of unmanned aircraft systems (UASs). Aircraft came in the keyhole—the inner 5-mile circle—only when cleared and under the handling of a FAC or joint tactical air controller (JTAC) and ready to prosecute a target immediately. They had free reign in the keyhole to maneuver in order to maximize their chances of hitting the assigned target, but they had to get steel on target as soon as possible, as other FACs serving other battalions were waiting their turn. Until they were cleared into the keyhole, fixed-wing aircraft were stacked at four orbit points, cardinal compass directions, around Fallujah between the 5- and 15-mile circles constituting the HiDACZ. Within each stack different type aircraft were deconflicted by altitude; for example, the AC–130 would be at 9,000 to 12,500 feet; above it would be strike fighters from 13,000 to 19,000 feet; above them would be EA–6B Prowlers; above 22,000 would be the domain of the Navy’s P–3 aircraft.

An M-198 155mm Howitzer of the US Marines firing at Fallujah, Iraq, during the Second Battle of Fallujah: “The United States Marine Corps (USMC) M-198 155mm Howitzer gun crew of 4th Battalion, 14th Marines, Mike Battery, Gun 4, left to Right, Sergeant Justin Grafton (gunner), Private First Class Matthew Camp (cannoneer), Sergeant Mike Dasher (section chief), Lance Corporal Josh Rosenberger (cannoneer), Corporal Will McGee (assistant gunner), Corporal Jonathan Layman (ammunition team chief), and Lance Corporal Jonathan Fox (cannoneer). Marines at Camp Fallujah, Iraq, engage enemy targets in support of Operation Phantom Fury.” (Credit: U.S. Department of Defense)

In this system, therefore, artillery and air were automatically deconflicted, which obviated one layer of fire support coordination. Furthermore, because few strike jets were “cleared hot” into the keyhole, time served as a deconflicter of fixed-wing CAS. The air officers of the regiments and battalions were in close proximity to the fire support coordination center, which allowed them to have the “big picture” of the placement of other friendly units, and thus the danger of fratricide was minimized.



14. Rebecca  Grant,  “Marine Air in the Mainstream,” Air Force Magazine, June 2004, p. 7.

15. Post interview.

16. LtCol Gary A. Kling interview by LtCol John Way, 15 January 2005, Iraq, transcript held by Marine Corps History Division, Quantico; Capt Dawn Ellis, telephone interview by author, 28 June 2005, transcript held by Marine Corps History Division, Quantico.

17. Kling-Way interview.

18. Ellis-author interview.

19. Richter interview.

20. Kling-author interview; Col Howard D. Belote, USAF, “Counter Insurgency Airpower,” Air and Space Journal, Fall 2006, p. 22.

21. Kling-author interview;  RCT–1, Command Chronology, July-December 2007.


***Posted February 7th, 2010