I Saw the Sign

The New York Times touts the “changed way of war” by setting up this dramatic narrative. An American infantry unit is in an Afghan canyon in the probable presence of the enemy. The call goes out for air support, resulting in the launch of 3 F/A-18s. Here’s what happens next.


Now a ground controller wanted the three strike fighters circling overhead to send a sign — both to the grunts and to any Taliban fighters shadowing them as they walked.

Commander McDowell banked and aligned his jet’s nose with the canyon’s northeastern end. Then he followed his wingmen’s lead. He dived, pulled level at 5,000 feet and accelerated down the canyon’s axis at 620 miles per hour, broadcasting his proximity with an extended engine roar.

In the lexicon of close air support, his maneuver was a “show of presence” — a mid-altitude, nonlethal display intended to reassure ground troops and signal to the Taliban that the soldiers were not alone. It reflected a sharp shift in the application of American air power, de-emphasizing overpowering violence in favor of sorties that often end without munitions being dropped.

The NYT says “the use of air power has changed markedly during the long Afghan conflict, reflecting the political costs and sensitivities of civilian casualties caused by errant or indiscriminate strikes and the increasing use of aerial drones, which can watch over potential targets for extended periods with no risk to pilots or more expensive aircraft.”

As ever, the quest for greater political control over “kinetic military events” goes on unabated.  To many politicians and diplomats, military action is all about sending a message, ‘a sign’, a ‘show of presence’.  To people actually walking around in the canyon, it might be about staying alive.


The question of who gets to call the shots manifests itself in the inner war; about who gets to control assets and take command over the means to defeat the enemy.  Historically, inter-service rivalry and bureaucratic infighting was often as fierce, though usually less bloody, than contact with the enemy.

For example, the Strategy Page says that UAVs have sparked an unnoticed revolution in airpower. These small, slow and aerodynamically unimpressive aircraft have the operational capabilities of the Spads and Sopwith Camels of World War 1.

But they have two attributes that manned airplanes lack. They are so cheap as to be ubiquitous and control over them is often exercised at the field level.  There are now 6,000 UAVs in use by the US military. One of them is the Raven, of which 5,000 are operational with the Army. Many of the 20,000 units produced have been lost, either due to loss of communcation, accident or enemy actions. But they are considered expendable. The Army likes them because they are controlled by the troops on the ground.

If they represent a gain to the ground troops they also constitute a loss of control to the people on top. It is not as if the ground troops when left to themselves go on a rampage. They too decide whether to use the Raven to control strikes or simply keep an eye on things.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the enemy did not want to confront U.S. troops directly (this tends to get you killed). So there was an unceasing effort to set up ambushes, plant mines and roadside bombs, and fire rockets or mortars at American bases. All of these activities can be messed with by using Raven. U.S. troops know to think like the enemy, and quickly figured out the best ambush positions, or places to plant mines or fire rockets. By sending Ravens over these spots periodically the enemy is put in danger of being spotted. The enemy knows that usually leads to a prompt attack from American mortars or helicopter gunships. These mind games, of sneaking around trying to get a shot off at the Americans, is more stressful and dangerous if the U.S. troops have Ravens. And most of them do …

Combat troops use it for finding and tracking the enemy, while non-combat troops use it for security (guarding bases or convoys). In both cases, troops have come to use the Raven for more than just getting a look over the hill or around the corner. The distinctive noise of Raven overhead is very unpopular with the enemy below and is often used to scare the enemy away, or make him move to where he can be spotted.


But the message sent by little UAVs is drafted at a far more subsidiary level than the messages dispatched by high performance strike aircraft launched from carriers. During the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson often bragged, ‘those boys can’t hit an outhouse without my permission.’

That was because he, as President, believed that military operations were in part about sending a message to Hanoi about American resolve. But that message had to be very carefully modulated so that it was neither too strident nor too soft. So Johnson was adamant about controlling the signal and would let nobody else mess with it.

An article at History Net described how this desire to craft the signal reflected itself in rules of engagement.

Among the individuals affected by that type of bureaucratic thinking were a pair of Jacks, Air Force Colonel Jacksel ‘Jack’ Broughton (who 20 years later would serve on the original editorial review board for Vietnam Magazine) and Air Force General John D. ‘Jack’ Lavelle.

Jack Broughton’s story is well-known. While he was serving as vice commander of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base in 1967, he destroyed gun camera film to save his pilots from certain conviction at a court-martial. Two of his ‘Thud’ (Republic F-105D Thunderchief) fighter jocks had been sent out to bomb a rail line near Cam Pha Harbor in North Vietnam. The harbor itself was designated as one of McNamara’s’sanctuaries,’ areas that were supposed to be off-limits for American missions. When AAA (anti-aircraft artillery) opened up on his aircraft, the pilot of the lead Thud, Major Ted Tolman, quickly decided that he did not want to become a POW resident of the Hanoi Hilton. When shot at, he decided to shoot back. In bringing his Vulcan 20mm cannon to bear on the AAA gun emplacements on the shore, Tolman’s gun camera caught the Soviet cargo ship Turkestan dead center in his sights.

There is no evidence to this day–no real proof–that any 20mm rounds hit Turkestan. But it was widely understood that such a violation of McNamara’s sanctuary policy would lead to an automatic court-martial for Major Tolman and his wingman, Major Lonnie Ferguson. For Jack Broughton, then acting as commander of the 355th TFW in the temporary absence of its commander, the answer to the problem was obvious: destroy the only incriminating evidence, the gun camera film, thus ensuring that the ‘wheels’–the Air Force military bureaucrats in Honolulu, the Philippines and Guam–would not see it.

Pacific Air Force (PACAF) commander General John D. Ryan, who would later become Air Force chief of staff, initiated court-martial proceedings against Broughton, Tolman and Ferguson for conspiracy against the U.S. government. By accepting responsibility for his pilots, Broughton ensured a ‘not guilty’ finding for them, but he was convicted on the much lesser charge of destruction of government property–i.e., the gun camera cassette, which was worth $5.


Unfortunately for Lyndon Johnson, despite his best efforts, Hanoi never got to “see the sign”. So one of the real and as a yet unresolved problems with giving every infantry unit its own mini-airforce is that it multiplies the chances that someone will sing from a different hymnbook and mix up the messages.

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