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Luke Bell
Luke Bell

Danger Close BEST

11 Platoon quickly comes under heavy attack, and calls down fire from artillery units back at Nui Dat, danger close to its position to hold back the enemy force. 12 Platoon reinforces, but the attack is only getting stronger. 11 Platoon become isolated, in danger of being overrun.

Danger Close

Two U.S. Air Force joint terminal attack controllers from Pope Field, N.C., look on as an A-10 Thunderbolt II releases its munitions during a close air support training mission at the Nevada Test and Training Range in September 2011. Photo by TSgt Michael Holzworth, USAF

Another major consideration for friendly forces is the proximity of the external asset. The manuals abstractly approach the weapon and ammunition as a system, but even with the advent of modern technology, a person with a beating heart and a thinking mind is still pulling the trigger. The proximity of that person to the battle is significant, especially when he is delivering ordnance close to Soldiers on the ground. Commanders must understand that calculating the risk of a danger-close joint direct attack munition (JDAM) delivered by a fixed-wing aircraft is much different than danger-close 30mm cannon fire from an Apache helicopter because the pilot provides additional control of the decision, further mitigating risk.

The proximity of an asset to the battle can also help reduce the risks to civilians. Civilian considerations dictate how the commander can use fires. Significant political effects, both within the host nation country and in the U.S., may determine whether fires can be used at all. In some instances, danger-close fires might be considered reasonable because of the accurate manner in which they are delivered or because of the urgency of the situation. Clearly, a commander willing to deliver external fires close to his own troops has a legitimate need to protect them in this manner. In most instances, commanders using external assets within close range will be acting on more accurate information than when using them from farther away, for the closer the enemy is, the easier it is to identify them and distinguish them from the civilian population. To manage fires close to civilians and civilian structures near the battle, collateral damage estimates (CDEs) are an important tool for balancing political repercussions of considering the safety of your own force over the civilian population or vice versa. Ensuring the safety of your own force is paramount, but the safety of civilians outweighs the destruction of enemy forces. Weighing these factors is difficult because any decision favoring one over the other can have a positive or negative political effect that will affect the strategic environment, depending on the results of the fires. The current information technology environment can magnify these results as the rapid flow of information can quickly create a strategic effect from a tactical battle.

After considering the potential effect of fires on the nearby civilian population, a commander must focus on the enemy because the decision to deliver fires danger close is based on the enemy location. We assume the enemy desires close battle to negate our advantage of external assets, namely aerial and cannon fires. As we engage the enemy at close range, a danger-close fire mission disrupts their decision cycle and can turn the tide of a battle in our favor. Conversely, rigid application of the doctrinal approach allows the enemy to exploit his intended advantage of negating our external assets through close fighting. This situation can often be the decisive point of battle for either side. Furthermore, a commander must make this decision within seconds, so it is essential to prepare him to think through a similar situation prior to the battle. This simple exercise will greatly improve his decision process. The tactics of maneuver warfare suggest forcing the enemy to compromise between the organic fires from the element on the ground and the fires from above. The on-scene commander seeks to force the enemy into a situation in which if they assault forward, they will be killed by direct fire; if they stay in their position, they will be killed by fire from the air; or if they retreat, they will be killed by both. The deliberate decision to deliver danger-close fires ensures the commander retains his firepower advantage over the enemy.

First, are risks to friendly troops from enemy fire greater than the risk of conducting a danger-close fire mission? For example, the 0.1 percent PI outlined in JFIRE for 30mm guns from an Apache helicopter is 70 meters, the distance considered danger close. If the enemy is hurling grenades toward friendly troops, a combat leader can quickly estimate the PI for a grenade. Clearly, enemy grenades landing within 10 meters of friendly forces has a greater PI than 1 out of 1,000. Furthermore, the 10 percent PI distance, or 1 out of 10, for 30mm guns from an Apache is 25 meters, which a commander can determine is still a safer probability than the enemy grenades. Therefore, directing the pilot onto the enemy within these close ranges is a responsible decision.

Some could argue that these two risks will combine to compound the risk further, but assuming this danger-close fire mission will disrupt the risk from enemy fires in exchange for the risk from our own ordnance is a more accurate assessment. Furthermore, calling danger-close fires will reduce the long-term risks since the enemy will likely continue to fight in close range if a commander decides not to use external assets to disrupt them.

A second question the commander must ask is how will this fire mission affect the enemy and can it potentially change the tide of battle? This question ensures the commander identifies and weighs the intended effect of the fire mission. Analysis of the purpose is twofold. First, the purpose of the fire mission is physical, meaning the fires can destroy enemy forces, which in turn will reduce the risks to friendly forces. Second, the purpose of the fire mission is psychological, meaning the fires can disrupt the enemy and change the decision cycle of the enemy commander who may have thought that our force would be unwilling to conduct fire missions that close. The fire mission can communicate to the enemy willingness and competence to bring fires very close, even if it does not physically harm them. The twofold effect of destroying enemy forces and disrupting the enemy decision cycle can turn the tide of the fight or end the battle. Therefore, it is imperative that we effectively train our forces to confidently and competently utilize fires danger close.

The third relationship is between the commander and the external assets, commonly pilots. The perspective of the pilot or shooter is important to the commander in a danger-close environment. As with many combat relationships, the commander is literally putting his life and the lives of his subordinates in the competent hands of the pilot although the two may have never met nor has the commander personally assessed the abilities of the pilot. As the pilot hammers in rounds danger close to friendly forces, trust and mutual understanding take on a depth and breadth of meaning unmatched in other environments, yet the same pilot in training is restricted to an overly safe distance. Unique to this relationship is the requirement that the on-scene commander transmit his initials in the call for fire, which acknowledges responsibility for the risk associated with the fire mission. This absolves the pilot of the responsibility of the decision when he is following the order from the commander on the ground.

When pilots follow the request for danger-close fires, the supported commander must take responsibility for the risk, otherwise the pilot may hesitate to provide support. Even when a pilot is legally absolved of responsibility when shooting close to friendly troops, he would clearly treat the mission differently than if troops are a safe distance away, but why?

Leading subordinate commanders, platoon leaders, and NCOs through case studies and shared experiences can greatly increase their preparation. Coupling this with realistic training that incurs some increased risk will pay priceless dividends with the ability to save lives in combat. As stated before, the decision to deliver danger-close fires often occurs within seconds where any hesitation can quickly become a costly delay, multiplying the negative effects of the battle.

In order to advocate for strict adherence to the MSD and avoid firing danger close in training, those who are risk averse will argue that close combat is relatively infrequent in modern battle and therefore does not need to be a focal point of training. On the other hand, the high potential of casualties in this situation negates the infrequency of this type of battle. Not only are the stakes high in close combat, its results can quickly have negative operational and strategic effects if high-level staffs are not prepared to properly address the civilian population, the media, adjacent units, and policy makers about the outcome.

Thus far, I have pointed out the irresponsible approaches to preparing units for use of external fires in close combat. While a majority of military units conduct outstanding training that is effective, I do offer a few conclusions that challenge leaders to reassess how they prepare for close combat in terms of managing risk.

First, the safe employment of danger-close fires is feasible in both combat and training. Safe employment of these fires must look beyond the weapon, ammunition, and distance outlined in the manual and view the complete picture of combat including the terrain, friendly forces, proximity of the external asset, enemy actions, civilian considerations, and the intended effect of the fires. Danger-close fires are not a simple weapon and ammunition relationship, but a command decision that weighs many factors.

Second, trust and mutual understanding are built in training, expanded through combat experience, and vitally important to small units engaged in close battle. Commanders must foster this within their own units, with adjacent units, and with their supporting elements. 041b061a72


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