Book Review: Eagles Overhead: The History of US Air Force Forward Air Controllers, from the Meuse-Argonne to Mosul


by Matt Dietz

Denton, Tx.: University of North Texas Press, 2023. Pp. viii, 335+. Illus., maps, gloss., notes, biblio., index. $40.00. ISBN: 1574418904

The Evolution of Front Line Direction of Close Air Support in the U.S. Air Force

A few years ago, I was in the audience for a briefing, by a senior Air Force officer, about “mosaic warfare”, a war-fighting future capable of linking sensors, shooters and decision-makers across service and domain lines, as elegantly as different colored tiles made up a classical mosaic. Unfortunately, the briefer’s laptop proved to be incompatible with the projector that had been provided.

A forward air controller (FAC, pronounced “fack”), is an airborne director of close air support (CAS, pronounced “cass”) air-to-ground missions. This book provides an expert’s perspective on the FAC’s story in the US Air Force (and its predecessors), covering decades that include – as the title suggests – multiple conflicts and many changes in doctrine, which forms a cyclic narrative of capabilities improvised, abandoned because there was no further need for them, then re-created when the shooting starts again. This history shows the interaction of urgent operational requirements, technological development, alternating resource constraints and abundance, institutional priorities, bureaucratic politics and the long-standing background of Air Force aversion to restraints on the use of airpower or the diversion of resources into what is perceived as peripheral mission areas outside the service’s preferred bureaucratic repertoire.

The author wants to start the Air Force FAC story in 1918, which is, to say the least, something of a stretch. Reconnaissance, CAS and artillery observation were among the missions carried out on a daily basis in 1918, but FAC-like capabilities were more likely to be found in coastal patrols than on the Western Front. The Air Force FAC story really begins in the Mediterranean Theatre O of Operations in 1943, with radio-equipped pilots accompanying ground forces to direct air attacks. By 1945, the US Army Air Force – like its Marine Corps, British and Australian counterparts– had become proficient at CAS. When the threat environment permitted, an airplane was a better platform for a pilot with a radio to direct CAS than a tank or a jeep. Despite this success, the US Air Force divested its proto-FAC capability after 1945. When the Korean War started in 1950, they had to improvise its replacement, including using trainer aircraft reclaimed from the South Korean air force.

The Air Force again discarded FACs after Korea; in the 1950s any future war was assumed to be a nuclear spasm. The 1960s conflicts in southeast Asia forced the Air Force to reverse policy again to make effective use of FACs in Southeast Asia, both over South Vietnam and in the more hazardous air war over Laos and North Vietnam. After Vietnam, FAC capability and the CAS mission in general had to struggle for resources. This resulted in the need to – again -- improvise capabilities for Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and, since then, air campaigns in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

The Air Force has shifted its emphasis towards tighter centralized control of air-to-ground operations. This has been enabled by the increased number of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) and improved air-ground communications in a permissive air defense environment. This included a reliance -- at all levels of command -- not on on-scene FACs, but rather on what became known as “Predator porn”, the real-time streaming video transmitted from UAVs. The author points out that improvised non-doctrinal solutions that work in combat did not shift to being used as “lessons learned” but were usually forgotten. Forgotten, that is, until there was a need to revisit past lessons and core competencies that reflected institutional preferences that were found to be inadequate to meet operational realities. The author presents the setbacks of Operation Anaconda, in Afghanistan during 2002, in detail as an example of how the absence of FACs and the non-doctrinal use of airpower resulted in frustration on the battlefield.

It is a complex story, yet the author is exceptionally qualified: an Air Force colonel and fighter pilot, he chairs the history department at Colorado Springs. The author’s extensive research effort is apparent. This book is thoroughly sourced and documented, with its 222 pages of text supplemented by 51 pages of endnotes and a 44-page bibliography. This book is based on the author’s dissertation. The transition to published book, especially one like this, priced and distributed to sell to a broader market, is often a fraught one.

Its overall effectiveness is limited by the highly focused scope of the book – one service and one element of one mission -- looking at a part of the much larger subjects including airborne command control and communications and the overall CAS mission (and the aircraft, aircrew and organizations that carry it out) on another. The experience of other US services and allied air arms has value for history as well as doctrinal “lessons learned”.

The re-writing and editing does not appear to have been as thorough as the research. There are inconsistencies, mistakes, and omissions – usually merely annoying rather than undercutting – that should have fallen to the red pen. But even within its focus of the USAF use of FACs the author does not hit some of the more obvious questions.? How did the post-Vietnam reforms in Air Force training (such as Red Flag exercises) and readiness affect the use of FACs? How did the emergence of NATO-standard procedures (such as the nine-line format CAS message) and the widespread adoption of improved communications (such as the Link 16 datalink) affect the post-2001 FAC mission? Did high-profile CAS fratricide incidents in 1983 (Grenada) and 1991 (Iraq) without FACs overhead influence doctrine? How were these missions affected by the appearance of aircraft such as the E-8 Joint STARS with its sensors and communications suite and the B-1B bomber, often pressed into service as a CAS aircraft in recent years?

The lack of maps is a drawback, as is the fact that there are only a few connectivity diagrams to show how – and with what equipment – FACs carried out their mission (and who was monitoring this). A timeline, pulling together the dates of conflicts, doctrinal changes, introduction of key weapons and hardware would have been useful. More first-person accounts of FACs and how they operated would have been appreciated. Some FACs in Southeast Asia plugged cassette tape recorders into their radios; the results are dramatic and compelling listening.

The future of the FAC mission in the US Air Force will, in part, be linked to the capabilities of the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, which is planned to replace much of the current force. The author states there are no plans for operational F-35A squadrons to have a FAC capability. The FAC’s future will obviously be shaped by the rapid evolution of artificial intelligence (AI), already used in conjunction with streaming real time video collected by UAVs in combat during Operation Inherent Resolve over Syria as part of the Department of Defense’s Project Maven.

The FAC seems unlikely to thrive in an era of shrinking force structures. The author, however, suggests that having an experienced airman on the scene and able to direct aircraft when and where needed, is going to remain something worth investing in for the foreseeable future. He shows why multi-mission aircraft are more widespread than multi-mission pilots and why some aircraft that, at first glance, appear suited for the FAC mission, such as the two-seat long-range F-15E Eagle, are not used in that role. While aimed at a broader readership, specialists and professionals will be able to learn from this book. Until capabilities as envisioned by the mosaic warfare briefing are operationalized, then the FAC is going to be a critical element on future battlefields.


Our Reviewer: David Isby’s writings on current and historical airpower include The Decisive Duel: Spitfire vs. 109 (London: Little Brown, 2012) and Fighter Combat in the Jet Age (London: Harper Collins, 1997) and articles for Air International, Air Forces Monthly and other magazines. A veteran historian, defense analyst, and war game designer, Isby has quite a number of other books, articles, and games to his credit covering the Second World War, the military institutions of the Soviet Union, and military aviation in general. During the Soviet-Afghan War he observed the fighting on the front lines, and he is the author of Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires: A New History of the Borderland (New York: Pegasus, 2011). His previous reviews include A Military History of Afghanistan, The Elite: The A–Z of Modern Special Operations Forces, Taranto and Naval Air Warfare in the Mediterranean, Airpower in the War against ISIS, Korean Air War: Sabres, MiGs and Meteors, 1950–53, How the Army Made Britain a Global Power, Modern South Korean Air Power, Dirty Eddie's War, Air Battle for Moscow, 1941-1942, The Eastern Fleet and the Indian Ocean, A History of the Mediterranean Air War, 1940-45, Volume Five, From the Fall of Rome to the End of the War, 1944-1945, The Mighty Eighth, Under the Southern Cross: The South Pacific Air Campaign Against Rabaul, Rearming the RAF for the Second World War , Red Dragon 'Flankers': China's Prolific 'Flanker' Family, and The Cactus Air Force.




Note: Eagles Overhead is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David C. Isby   

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