Archive: The Air-Ground Task Force

The case for the Air-Ground Task Force (AGTF) was made in the November 2001 edition this Journal. This article will build on its predecessor by suggesting how such a force might be organised.
The premise that underlies the case of the AGTF is that in this era of compulsory, almost compulsive, “jointness,” organising air and ground forces taking part in the same campaign separately has become untenable. Since they will operate together in-theatre it is best that they be organised into an integrated force. This meshing will be most visible at force headquarters level and will not greatly change life at lower levels. At the top it will bring about radical change in organisation and outlook.
An AGTF[1] should always be a balanced, integrated, permanent, air-ground all-arms task force. It should be modular in organisation and be structured to accomplish a wide variety of missions without further reinforcement. This building block approach will also make reorganisation a matter of routine, United States Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1-0, Marine Corps Operations[2] avers. The AGTF can therefore be rapidly task-organised to carry out specific operations. Its size and composition will be determined by the mission to which it is committed. The AGTF should, however, have a standard organisational structure to maximise its flexibility, maintain its mission profile and extend a potential commander`s force-employment options. It must prepare for deployment and utilisation in this format and should not be declared combat ready unless all components of all its elements are ready and present.         
An AGTF will always include a ground combat element (GCE), an air combat element (ACE) and a combat service support element (CSSE). At its smallest, an AGTF will be built around a GCE consisting of a reinforced battalion, an ACE consisting of a mixed rotary and fixed wing squadron and a multipurpose logistics unit. Although they can be larger[3], the AGTF under discussion in this article will be built around a brigade-sized GCE, supported by an appropriate ACE, CSSE and command element (CE).            
AGTFs can either be “light” or “heavy.” Light AGTFs are built around airborne, air assault and other light infantry, light armour and lightweight artillery. It should be rapidly deployable across operational and strategic distances and will therefore have a light footprint. A heavy AGTF would include main battle tanks, other heavy armour, mechanised infantry and armoured self-propelled artillery. It will clearly be capable of fighting more intense battles and engagements than the light AGTFs but will also take longer to get into theatre and will require greater logistical support. It is suggested that national armed forces adopting the system have a mix of light and heavy AGTFs, with the emphasis on the former. AGTFs can be organised out of fulltime as well as Reserve units and may even contain elements of both in the same force.
Based on precedent, AGTFs should operate on an 18-month cycle, broken into three six-month periods. During the first the AGTF will be deployed or be ready for momentary deployment. During the second period the force will stand down and troops be sent on leave, individual and promotion training and so forth. The third period will be an intensive preparation at the individual, unit and formation level for the potential six-month deployment to follow.       
The CE
The CE will consist of the commander – usually a brigadier general or equivalent – his staff and a variety of support components, some permanent and some attached on an ad hoc basis. This element is primarily responsible for the command and control of the AGTF. The commander and his staff will form part of the headquarters and administrative company (HAC). The Napoleonic staff system remains unsurpassed and no command staff can function properly without a deputy commander and a chief-of-staff. A signal company[4] will contain the CE`s main communications centre (comcen), an electronic warfare platoon and a technical support and logistics capability. The CE should – as a minimum – also include an intelligence company, a protection force and a special forces platoon. The latter is there to give the AGTF commander a direct action capability against high value targets. The intelligence company should include a deception platoon, a long-range reconnaissance patrol (LRRP) platoon, interpreters and interrogators as well as an intelligence evaluation and analysis centre. The company`s deception platoon provides the commander with a robust deception planning and co-ordinating centre in support of his plans. Interpreters are a must for expeditionary operations in Africa as are properly trained and controlled interrogators. The LRRP brings an independent deep reconnaissance capability – a valuable asset in preparing for future operations.
Another vital element of the headquarters is the civil affairs office (CAO). The AGTF CAO is responsible for a number of critical functions in what is generally called the public affairs, humanitarian assistance and psychological operations fields. They are in particular accountable for “selling” the AGTF and its mission to the local population. In addition, honest and pro-active media liaison and public relations (in as much as these aspects of public affairs can truly be distinguished) is a commander`s sword and shield. Experience gained by NATO in Bosnia teaches that the PAO maximises its effectiveness by establishing radio and television broadcasters as well as newspapers and other publications, particularly during peace support operations (PSOs). Such stations and publications can easily be staffed by a combination of local journalists and AGTF personnel. In the US forces they are mostly drawn from the reserve component and are media practitioners in civilian life. As far as humanitarian assistance is concerned, the US has had much success with what they call the Civil Military Operations Centre (CMOC). This centre, usually commanded by a major, is the exclusive designated contact point for all nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) seeking contact with the AGTF. The purpose of this centre is to allow NGOs access without having them clutter the military decision-making process or distracting the commander and his close staff. The CMOC works well in the peace support and disaster relief context and will also be vital during more conventional military operations in urbanised areas. The US operated a CMOC in Beira Mozambique, during the 2000 floods and all reports received about its functioning were positive. The SADC peace support exercise in South Africa`s Northern Cape province the year before lacked a CMOC, instead using a formula military observers with actual experience thought undesirable and unworkable.                  
During recent PSOs force protection has come to the fore as a major issue. As warfare becomes increasingly asymmetrical attacks on headquarters and commanders will increase. Protection elements including snipers (for counter-sniping), military police (for VIP protection and access control) and static guards will become increasingly important. The assassination of the commander or the disruption of his headquarters can seriously delay or derail time-critical operations. Finally, additional assets, for example a mapping and survey platoon, a printing press, specialist signalers and the like can be attached on an ad hoc basis.
The AGTF, as a per se joint force, is the perfect military contribution to national (interagency/interdepartmental) or multinational (combined) operations. Of importance in such operations is the question of authority: is the military or a civil agency, such as the police or foreign affairs establishment in charge? Where it is the military, the CE – or other appropriate element – is already well suited to accommodate staff representatives and operational detachments from outside agencies, departments and multinational contingents. Where possible the joint operations centre (JOC) route should be avoided as it imposes another layer of command and control on the force.
The GCE is based on a modified brigade organisation commanded by a colonel. The structure of the AGTF places the majority of combat service support assets in the CSSE. The GCE is therefore composed of combat arms and the combat service and combat service support arms immediately required to support combat operations. The GCE should broadly be organised as follows: A reconnaissance battalion backed by a number of infantry and armour battalions, supported by an artillery as well as an engineer battalion, air defence company and a self-propelled anti-tank company.         
The mix of maneuver battalions in the heavy and light AGTFs will often be the result of what is available. A heavy force could be organised around two or three mechanised infantry battalions, an armour battalion and a light infantry battalion, preferably airborne (parachute infantry) or air assault (heliborne infantry), for vertical envelopment and raiding tasks. Light AGTFs should, as previously stated, be organised around light infantry forces and wheeled armour. A notional force could include airborne, air assault and light armour battalions. Considering such a force`s likely deployment area (littoral as well as Great Lakes Africa, it should also include at least one amphibious infantry (marine) battalion. The latter battalion must specialise in raiding, seizing beachheads and, even more vitally, riverine operations.
The mounted (motorised) reconnaissance battalion is the GCE commander`s eyes and ears on the battlefield. It gives him a three dimensional view of the ground through three scout- and a surveillance company. This company will include a sensors (radar, electro-optical, etcetera) platoon, a nuclear, chemical and biological reconnaissance platoon and an UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) platoon. The three scout companies will likely follow a standard organisation and consist of three scout platoons each with a support section including at least three vehicle-mounted 81mm mortars. The battalion will also have the usual headquarters and support organisation.       
The AGTF artillery battalion should be mixed in nature. It should include, in addition to the normal supporting elements (a surveillance troop that includes an UAV capability separate from the reconnaissance battalion`s), companies[5] of tube artillery, heavy mortars and man-in-the-loop cruise missiles of the Polyphem-type. Such systems will become increasingly vital in both peacekeeping and in conventional war as the requirement for accuracy increases and the tolerance for civilian casualties (so-called collateral damage) decreases. The precision of such weapons – and the relatively low unit cost – means less are required to achieve the desired terminal effect. In a heavy AGTF the mortars could be substituted by multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS). In the light forces the advent of truck-mounted self-propelled (SP) artillery, such as the 155mm French Giat Caesar, has made towed artillery obsolescent. The Caesar has the advantage of mobility on the battlefield and also fits inside a C130 Hercules medium transport. Armoured SP systems can accompany a heavy force.           
The GCE will also include an air defence and an anti tank company. While modern air forces are a rarity in Africa, a force without proper air defence may well find themselves at the mercy of transport aircraft rolling out “dumb bombs” over the rear ramp. This primitive method has been used with some success by all sides in the DR Congo conflict. The AD company should consist of a mix of guns and missiles, supported by radar and electro-optical aiming aids such as the Thales Air Defence Alerting Device. A useful mix of weapons could be an upgraded ZU23-2 23mm gun – a suitable robust system – and pedestal or truck mounted short-range air defence (SHORAD) missiles such as the Starstreak or Mistral. There is no shortage of MBTs in Africa. The vast majority is elderly models (T54/55, Centurion) and most are in a poor state of repair. This does not absolve a force designer from providing proper anti-tank defence to an AGTF. The company must have a secondary direct fire capability to support maneuver forces in the attack or defence. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel wrote that direct fire support is often overlooked as a means of force protection and a way to reduce the size of an assault force in the attack. The company will likely be armed with heavy anti-tank guided missiles of the TOW or Hellfire/Brimstone class.[6] Anti-tank warheads are generally unsuitable for general fire support and it might be wise to invest in alternative warheads such as high-explosive multi-purpose or thermobaric (fuel-air explosive). Alternatively the company can be armed with a mixture of missiles and anti-tank guns or recoilless weapons.             
Africa, at the best of times, is a harsh continent. Decay and war has robbed much of its physical infrastructure and any AGTF must be well supported with combat and other engineers. For this reason the GCE should include at least a battalion of field engineers to provide combat engineering skills and, perhaps more importantly, mobility.       
The ACE is an integral part of the AGTF and will consist of air force personnel, led by a colonel where justified, under the undisputed command of the force commander. Some air force chiefs may resist this and see it as an attempt to end service independence. This would be unfortunate and inaccurate. The AGTF is an integrated fighting organisation. All its parts are interdependent. There will always be inter-service rivalry, especially at defence headquarters level where ideology and budget fights can be extremely acrimonious. But this rivalry should not cloud the fundamental issue namely that the services all share a common goal: winning the campaign or the war.   
The ACE can vary in size from a force capable of rendering most or all aviation functions to a detachment of specifically required aircraft. While the latter may do in some contingencies, it is best that the air element of a brigade-sized force, organised to operate independently on the African continent be capable of performing air-to-air, close air support, reconnaissance, air assault, air transport and electronic warfare missions. When required the ACE must have the ability to drop an entire airborne battalion or heli-lift an air assault battalion. This will require a credible number of fixed-wing fighter-, attack- and transport aircraft as well as transport and attack helicopters. As an absolute minimum the ACE should consist of a number of flights including one of four medium or light fighters, one of four C130-type transports as well as a Casa C212 or two, one of four attack helicopters and one with around eight medium helicopters and four to eight light utility platforms.    
The ACE must also include an aviation headquarters with a mature air traffic control centre (ATCC) and a developed field support and capacity. The ATCC must have close links with GCE AD component. This will have to include an engineer, supply, ordnance and maintenance capability sufficient to support the ACE under austere conditions. In this regard it will also be worthwhile further studying the working methods of the Swedish Air Force. 
The AGTF will by definition operate in an underdeveloped environment. It can also be expected that conflict or neglect would have degraded what little infrastructure there had been in the past. Refugees may also have overwhelmed what remains by the time the AGTF deploys. The force will therefore require robust logistics support as it will only be able to “live off the land” in the most fortuitous of circumstances. Long lines of communications will require the logistics element of a force to include, for example, more transport assets, while the absence of potable water and habitable structures will require additional engineer support, perhaps even a battalion instead of the usual company.   
The CSSE must offer the full range of logistics services to the AGTF. This includes supply, maintenance, transport, medical, military police and engineer capabilities. The appropriate size of each component will be determined partly by the task at hand, partly by the assets available and partly by precedent. For this reason it is recommended that the AGTF be supported by a reinforced supply battalion-group, a maintenance (workshop) battalion, a transport battalion group that includes an amphibious vehicle company, medical (field hospital) battalion, and a strong military police company. The force will further require a beefy engineer support battalion that in addition to its normal compliment of construction companies and field park includes a bridging company and another of amphibious experts.        
Naval elements and the supporting establishment
Naval elements, especially amphibious units, can be added to the AGTF if and as required.
Although unconnected the AGTF is dependent on its supporting establishment. Marine Corps Operations calls this the force`s “fifth element,” responsible for recruiting, training, equipping and sustaining it.    
Alternative organisations
There is never only one perfect answer to a problem in the social sciences, including warfare. The AGTF system examined here is presently in use and is the culmination of years of practice and experience. On the face of available evidence it works very well. At least one alternative has been tried.
The Russians in the late 1980s developed an alternative to the above approach. They readopted a corps structure that dispensed with the divisional level and consisted out of a number of brigades, including some from Frontal Aviation (the Soviet-era tactical air force). The structure, first employed during World War Two for Operational Maneuver Group, was called the “Integrated Army Corps” in its later incarnation. A further development was to be the “Future Army Corps.” The former included a mixed aviation brigade – which included ground attack aircraft, attack helicopters – and the latter a mixed aviation brigade and a transport helicopter regiment.
The organigram is impressive on paper[7] but appears unwieldy in practice. Commanders at all levels seemingly have more subordinates than accepted command-and-control practice and organisation theory condones. “The span of control should not exceed a commander`s capability to command effectively. …as a rule of thumb an individual can effectively command at least three and as many as seven subordinates.”[8] The brigades integral to these corps also do not appear to have integral aviation assets – something clearly vital in the context explored here. The approach is therefore not recommended.  
Applied to South Africa
The AGTF system can easily be applied to the SANDF, where force preparation (training) is the task of the services and force employment (operations) the task of a joint headquarters. As previously argued, the SANDF and its Services (through the so-called “type formations”) are organised for administrative convenience. The joint headquarters can call on a number of task forces and two brigade headquarters to carry out operations on its behalf but neither the task forces nor the brigades have any shape or real structure. Adopting the AGTF system will remedy this and other deficiencies previously highlighted.       
Looking at the Army`s “type formations” and unit tables the SANDF should be able to organise at least six light and three heavy AGTFs out of its active and reserve components. The Air Force should be able to provide an ACE for at least four of the formations, based on its future equipment tables. It would be a good start.       
One aspect that will have to be addressed is the current “echelon” or immediate resupply system. At battalion level little will change, but at ATGF-level the brigade administrative area (BAA) and its echelons may have to be reengineered. The current system, efficiently run by the SA Army`s corps of warrant officers, should be retained as much as possible. Officers have of late usurped too many of their functions.
Looking wider
There has been some talk of a permanent SADC brigade. The AGTF format is again well suited to the concept and may form the building blocks of a pan-African force underpinning the African Union and a continental partnership for peace programme.     

[1] The AGTF as described below is broadly based on the Marine Air Ground Task Force as successfully employed by the US Marine Corps for the last several decades. The concept is lucidly explained in the USMC`s manuals, particularly in Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1-0, Marine Corps Operations, Headquarters United States Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, Washington, D.C, 2001, page 3-13. (Available on the Internet in .pdf format at This author acknowledges his reliance on this manual in the preparation of this article. 
[2] Marine Corps Operations, page 3-13.
[3] This would include expeditionary forces built around divisions, numbered corps and field armies.
[4] In the SA Army the correct term for a signal company is a “squadron” and for a platoon a “troop.” This is not the case in all African militaries and the terms platoon, company and battalion are used throughout this article for the sake of simplicity and clarity.
[5] The correct term is a battery. Each generally includes six or eight artillery systems.
[6] The South African equivalents are the ZT3 and the Mokopa respectively. The ZT3 is essentially a copy of the Israeli version of the TOW and the Mokopa is a Kentron development along Hellfire lines. 
[7] See for example Jean-Clause Cecile, The Russian Army, Between the Past and the Future, Raids, No 4, March 1995, page 16.   
[8] Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 6, Command and Control, Headquarters United States Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, Washington, D.C, 1996, page 91.

African Armed Forces Journal

March 2002