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The Aviation Support Battalion—
Workhorse of Army Aviation
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The Aviation Support Battalion
Workhorse of Army Aviation

The authors chronicle the 603d Aviation Support Battalion’s move across Iraq in support of the 3d Infantry Division’s Aviation Brigade.

If you were asked to develop an organization that could support a heavy division’s aviation brigade using published doctrine on combat operations, you might come up with something that resembles the current aviation support battalion. But suppose you were asked to develop an organization to support an
aviation brigade as it operated across a distributed battlefield and conducted split-based operations with multiple forward area rearming and refueling points. This organization also would have to move the aviation brigade’s ground assets (and its own) 300 miles across difficult terrain with little or no throughput of supplies. With these additional parameters, your design probably would change significantly.

This was the dilemma that confronted the 603d Aviation Support Battalion (ASB) when it was assigned to the Division Support Command (DISCOM) of the 3d Infantry Division (Mechanized) at Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia, for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Our logistics dilemma boiled down to this: How do you employ transformational tactics to support a division’s aviation brigade when you have legacy equipment, organizations, and capabilities? Part of the solution resided in the division commander’s guidance to “go light.” The rest of the solution evolved through trying nondoctrinal solutions, embedding aviation intermediate maintenance (AVIM) and direct support capabilities in supported units, identifying key tasks that would ensure the aviation brigade’s success, and making sure that leaders at every level knew not only what the key tasks were but also what being a key task meant.

The key tasks that were identified in the battalion commander’s intent during the military decisionmaking process were—

the aviation brigade’s success, and making sure that leaders at every level knew not only what the key tasks were but also what being a key task meant.
The key tasks that were identified in the battalion commander’s intent during the military decisionmaking process were—

• Get the 4th Brigade—the 3d Infantry Division’s Aviation Brigade, located at Camp Udairi, Kuwait—to the fight. To do this, we would dedicate internal cargo assets for external support.
• Provide an uninterrupted flow of bulk class III (petroleum, oils, and lubricants). It was imperative that the 4th Brigade would never have to look for fuel. We had to have it where and when they needed it.
• Move ourselves using a tactical road march of battalion elements. This operation would be our highest risk. Leaders would have to conduct close supervision during all phases of the move.

The major constraint in the theater up to and beyond crossing the line of departure was ground transportation assets. When we compared that constraint to the key tasks (all of which demanded transportation assets), it was intuitively obvious that we had to be creative in addressing the applicable tactical logistics functions of fuel, move, fix, arm, and sustain.

Fuel

The ability of the 603d ASB to provide adequate resupply of bulk class III to the 4th Brigade was tested early in the fight. The DISCOM’s planning process called for division- and corps-level fuel assets to be task-organized to the three brigade combat teams, including five to the 4th Brigade for movement into Iraq. Although those fuel assets eventually were returned to division and corps control, bulk class III was provided by supply point distribution for the majority of operations through the seizure of Baghdad International Airport.

In support of the 4th Brigade’s mission to destroy Iraqi observation posts and intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance units, the 603d ASB had fuel assets at Camp Udairi, from which the war was initiated, and at Objective Raiders, which was the 4th Brigade’s attack position. From Raiders, the battalion’s remaining tankers were further task-organized between the brigade’s main body, which was prepared to move forward over 200 miles to Objective Rams in central Iraq, and “Force Module 1,” which was poised to move to Jalibah Southeast Air Base, an intermediate staging base for support of the Tallil fight.

Our fuel estimates for the fight included fuel for the 1st Battalion, 3d Aviation Regiment’s three six-ship AH–64D Apache Longbow helicopter companies and the UH–60A Black Hawk helicopters used by six forward support medical evacuation teams in support of the forward brigade combat teams (BCTs).

Although the Tallil fight was planned as a 24-hour operation, it actually took over 96 hours. Marine Corps helicopters, which were collocated with Force Module 1 at Jalibah, also generated unscheduled bulk fuel requirements for the ASB. Providing adequate fuel was a critical task that was accomplished only through the willingness of soldiers and noncommissioned officers to work and drive in spite of exhaustion.

With the eventual destruction of the Iraqi 11th Infantry Division at Tallil, the 5,000-gallon corps fuel tankers that had been task-organized to the brigade combat teams returned to corps control “bone dry.” The overage allowed in our estimates had been completely consumed. Our bulk petroleum requirements (22,500 gallons) from the line of departure (Camp Udairi) to Tallil were still significantly less than those of an armored or mechanized BCT. Because of our unique fuel transport capability, we were able to remain flexible on this fluid battlefield. This was the first example in the war of the critical need for this specialized fuel transportation. From reception, staging, onward movement, and integration through the end of 2003, the 603d ASB’s petroleum and ammunition platoon dispensed over a million gallons of JP8 fuel, both retail and wholesale, to the 4th Brigade, corps aviation units, and joint, coalition, and other governmental agencies.

Move

Two of our three key tasks—getting the 4th Brigade to the fight and providing it an uninterrupted flow of bulk class III—demanded adequate truck support. These tasks were complicated because of insufficient external transportation assets available to the 603d. Unlike the division’s maneuver BCTs, the 4th Brigade and 603d ASB are “come as you are” units and rapidly deploy with all home station equipment. This provided the 603d ASB a unique opportunity to use home station equipment that was not deploying from other division units to solve a known weakness. Some unique equipment assigned to the 603d’s A Company (AVIM)—dolly set lifts—are usually affixed to company shop sets to provide portability. Typically, they are not suitable for cross-country movement, especially in a desert environment. Someone in the battalion suggested that we hand-receipt 30-foot M871A2 semitrailers and 5-ton M1088 medium tactical vehicle tractor trucks from the 703d Main Support Battalion at Fort Stewart, Georgia. Our shop sets would be securely mounted to the trailers, so very little square footage would be added to the unit’s deploying equipment list.

This idea provided a more reliable means of moving our shop sets and was successful for three reasons. First, our AVIM company was able to remain mobile and self-sufficient. Second, the solution did not tax an already overburdened division transportation resource. Third, and most importantly, it allowed the commander the flexibility to move critical shop and skill sets on the battlefield if needed.

Once deployed, our “move” dilemma grew. The 4th Brigade had only about 50 percent of the transportation assets it needed to be mobile. However, it was expected to move, in a single lift, 1H ammunition basic loads; 5 days of supply of class I (subsistence) and bottled water for the ASB and an additional day’s worth for the 4th Brigade; 10 percent of the brigade’s organizational clothing and individual equipment; and more.

Again, the 703d Main Support Battalion had an untapped resource—a second set of trailers (minus prime movers) from Army pre-positioned stocks (APS). The ASB had M1088 tractor trucks available since we had wisely decided to leave an AVIM phase maintenance capability at Camp Udairi. (We also left half the authorized stockage list [ASL] and the Standard Army Retail Supply System [SARSS] terminal so connectivity to the division’s SARSS–2AD terminal could be maintained while the ASB moved.) This thrown-together lift was used to move the 4th Brigade’s aviation unit maintenance (AVUM) equipment, prescribed load list, and bench stock (low-cost consumable items) and to meet the ASB’s internal transportation needs.

Making the AVUM companies mobile was critical. Based on our mission and the commander’s intent, we concluded that aviation maintenance would be performed at the unit level with only backup capability from the ASB required until facilities and the most precious resource—time—were available. Tractors and trailers were imbedded in the 4th Brigade’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company; the 1st Battalion, 3d Aviation Regiment (1–3 Attack Battalion); and the 1st Battalion, 3d Aviation Regiment (2–3 General Support Aviation Battalion). The remaining shortfall in lift and requirements was met by assuming risk and making tough decisions across the brigade and ASB—we simply could not bring everything! Duplicate materials-handling equipment, cranes, and other items were left behind at Camp Udairi.

Fix
In addition to the risk associated with normal direct support ground and AVIM maintenance, we identified vehicle recovery as a high-risk task during the 4th Brigade’s ground movement. Our assessment proved to be accurate. Most recoveries occurred during the brigade’s move across western Iraq. All brigade recovery assets were under centralized control although they remained within their battalion serials. The brigade moved in two separate convoys with virtually equivalent capabilities: ground contact maintenance, wrecker support, and, most importantly, command and control. Unit and direct support recovery teams proved to be the brigade heroes by exercising battle damage assessment and repair techniques and nondoctrinal recovery procedures seldom used in garrison. The plan emphasized self-recovery, with tow bars and wrecker recovery as the secondary means. This plan gave recovery crews freedom of maneuver and reserved critical assets for when they were needed most. The biggest dilemmas proved to be vehicles mired in sand or mud and trailer tire failures (and we had no spares). Many of the tire failures could be attributed to overloading, no doubt due to limited transportation assets. Central tire-inflation systems worked as advertised.

During the brigade’s move from Attack Position Raiders in Kuwait to closure on Objective Lions (Baghdad International Airport), ASB and aviation brigade wrecker crews executed over 60 recovery missions. Four days and 220 miles after departing, the 4th Brigade and the 603d ASB arrived at their destination with nearly 100 percent of their equipment and personnel. The only exception was one M105 trailer that likely was pilfered from the battlefield before the successful recovery of the truck to which it was attached.

The positioning of the ASB’s command and control throughout the convoys provided another unique challenge. Before crossing the line of departure, we deliberated on where to position key leaders to facilitate command and control of the large serials that were part of the 4th Brigade’s ground vehicle tactical road march. Our ultimate decision was to place the ASB executive officer and command sergeant major forward, company commanders and first sergeants as serial commanders, and the ASB commander and support operations officer in the trail party with the recovery assets. The number one responsibility of the battalion commander and support operations officer was to leave no soldier and no piece of equipment behind.

Because of the positioning of the ASB leaders, all 4th Brigade equipment and personnel arrived safely at Baghdad International Airport. This fact reinforces our contention that we should include leader positioning on the battlefield as part of the deliberate decisionmaking process. If you are a leader, identify the high-risk portion of any mission, confirm that putting yourself there will have the optimal impact on the situation, and place yourself there—even if that means leading from the back.

Arm


Before hostilities began, the 4th Brigade was tasked with establishing a theater-level ammunition holding area at Camp Udairi. Although the mission was executed to standard, it was a drain on the battalion S–3 and support operations sections because the manpower was not available in the brigade or the 603d ASB to establish and manage an ammunition holding area of that size around the clock. To solve this dilemma, an attachment of armament personnel from the ASB fortified the Aviation Attack Battalion’s armament section. This provided considerable flexibility and enabled the Aviation Attack Battalion to perform 24-hour operations and still conduct preventive and unscheduled maintenance of the armament systems. Forward area rearm and refuel personnel from the 4th Brigade and 603d ASB were asked to provide combat lifesaving assistance on two occasions when medical personnel could not keep pace with patient throughput at an air ambulance exchange point.

Sustain

Providing class IX (repair parts and components) support also presented a challenge. How do you support both a moving brigade (conducting split-based operations) and a stationary maintenance activity (performing phase maintenance at Camp Udairi)? After considerable thought about what would be needed when and where, we decided to split the ASL. Our earlier decision to leave our SARSS terminal at Camp Udairi so we could maintain a link with the division’s SARSS–2AD terminal prevented a 5- to 10-day lapse in passing requisitions while we were moving and provided responsiveness to the ASB phase maintenance teams.

However, it became difficult to get the parts that were on our ASL or theater ASL to the supported units. Theater distribution was immature, so we used internal lift from the theater distribution center to reach forward units and ASB locations until we arrived at Baghdad International Airport. The ASB AVIM company commander put together armed convoys to push critical repair and spare parts forward. This brought to light another equipment problem. The ASB had more crew-served weapons than ring mounts on its modification table of organization and equipment (MTOE). Also, the ring mounts were for the family of medium tactical vehicles trucks. The ASB required mounts for crew-served or squad automatic weapons on many high-mobility, multipurpose, wheeled vehicles to provide flexible force protection options for the numerous convoys in a supply-point-distribution-centric theater. The ASB had to find alternative ways to provide internal security for convoy operations.

What Have We Learned?

Training. Light discipline at night, such as turning off all internal lights and using light filters on flashlights, is something we rarely do well during training, although we expend a lot of effort trying. However, our soldiers realized the importance of this discipline and executed it flawlessly when it mattered. (Some things don’t need a lot of training; they are instinctive to most soldiers.) We must evaluate training schedules in the rear, cut the easy-to-train, low-payoff events, and focus instead on the more challenging tasks. This is the best endorsement for the phrase, “train as you fight.” (To this end, the battalion recently completed an aggressive training plan. The training included a convoy simulation exercise, simulated call-for-fire training, medical evacuation requests, preparation of a landing zone, use of the Engagement Skills Trainer [a simulation that offers scenarios such as ambush, search and destroy, and military operations on urbanized terrain], and a capstone exercise convoy live fire.)

Communications. Everywhere we stopped, our communications sergeant spent a lot of time setting up the single-channel antijam man-portable (SCAMP) terminal and attempting to establish effective communications, only to learn later that the host network SCAMP terminal was not set up. Before crossing the line of departure, we spent considerable time training operators across the DISCOM on operating the SCAMP. That time turned out to be wasted. Communication, particularly the ability to crosstalk between support battalions, is important. The capability for units to communicate is and must remain a top priority. We must have reliable, long-range, over-the-horizon communications systems in support units.

Medical assets. The ASB needs medical assets. Forcing the ASB to depend on medical support from the units it supports—units that may or may not be collocated with it—is not a viable solution. The division provided one attached field ambulance until battlefield losses of ambulances occurred elsewhere. The units we supported were manned to provide medical treatment for their own personnel and had difficulty supporting an additional 530 soldiers from the ASB.

Rising to the occasion. In many cases, soldiers who were not stellar performers in the rear not only rose to the challenge but also impressed us every day. We must not disregard soldiers in the rear and assign them to the “rear detachment” based on performance alone. We concluded that a vast majority of soldiers, when placed in an environment in which they are expected to perform missions directly associated with the reason they joined the Army, rose to the challenge and then some. This occurred over and over again in Kuwait and on the Iraqi battlefield. It is worth the risk to carefully evaluate soldiers and give them opportunities to make a difference and quite possibly change the course of their careers and lives.

Operating in a split-based environment. This is very difficult for a DISCOM ASB and tests its ability to remain flexible and creative in maintaining aircraft and ground equipment in more than one area of operations. Although its MTOE does not support this concept, the ASB worked through it. In October 2002, the battalion supported an aviation task force at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California; a rotation in Kuwait; and an intensive flying-hour program at Hunter Army Airfield and Fort Stewart. The biggest problem for the battalion to overcome was configuring the unique capabilities of the 603d ASB “back shops” and the distribution of personnel with technical military occupational specialties in the aviation maintenance field. Then we had to scrutinize the management of repair and spare parts in three distinct regions. We were successful because the entire battalion chain of command was involved in the military decisionmaking process and we used a clearly defined “troop-to-task” approach. The correct placement of leaders and soldiers in all areas proved invaluable.

APS and the ASB. With the exception of the 3d Infantry Division’s cavalry squadron, the 603d ASB and the 4th Brigade are the only units in the division that do not draw equipment from APS. With a partial APS issue (for example, command and control vehicles, fuel tankers, cargo trucks and trailers, and ground support equipment), the ASB and the 4th Brigade could establish a more timely initial operating capability. The theater should be prepared to support a partial APS issue for common equipment across the ASB. However, unique ASB AVIM capabilities and the battalion’s entire ASL should deploy from home station.

Keeping soldiers at all levels informed. This is the very least we can do for our soldiers. On a fluid battlefield, moving in large serials within convoys in enemy territory over extended distances increases the possibility of soldiers becoming separated from main units. Publishing fragmentary orders to a base order is optimal throughout an operation. However, other means of keeping soldiers informed include thorough movement briefs, daily battle update briefings, and commander’s huddles. Leaders should take advantage of every opportunity to brief soldiers on the current situation. A soldier should have situational awareness from the receipt of an order from higher headquarters through the end of the mission.

ASB versus forward support battalion (FSB). The ASB was tasked to perform functions similar to those of an FSB. The ASB’s organic transportation assets are designed to move only 50 percent of its unit equipment in one lift, the battalion has only three ammunition specialists to support forward area rearming and refueling point operations, and no medical assets or personnel are assigned to the battalion. We were required to submit formal requests for augmentation by other battalions in the DISCOM to better posture ourselves and our customers throughout the battlespace. Doctrine calls for many things to happen as a result of corps augmentation or throughput. In an immature theater such as ours, there may not be enough augmentation to go around. Couple that with the newness of the ASB and the confusion with FSB capabilities, and the ASB’s full potential is not realized. We need to reexamine the ASB’s structure against the contemporary operational environment and emerging doctrine and submit recommended changes that support adding mobility and fuel assets, an ammunition transfer point section, and medical support capability to the ASB’s table of organization and equipment.

The 603d ASB is known as the “Workhorse.” It was the tenacity reflected in this nickname that enabled the 603d ASB to tailor its current equipment, organizations, and capabilities to support the 4th Brigade successfully as it moved across Iraq. Enhancing the structure of future ASBs will allow this workhorse of Army aviation to continue to excel on any battlefield. ALOG

Major Timothy J. Whalen currently serves in the 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized) in Germany. He has a bachelor’s degree from the U.S. Military Academy and a master’s degree from Georgia State University. He is a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College.

Lieutenant Colonel Richard T. Knapp commands the 603d Aviation Support Battalion, 3d Infantry Division (Mechanized), at Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia. He has a bachelor’s degree in vocational arts education from Northern Illinois University and is a graduate of the Armor Officer Basic Course, Flight School, the Aviation Officer Advanced Course, and the Army Command and General Staff College.

The Aviation Support Battalion—
Workhorse of Army Aviation
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