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

  • Published
  • By Matt Dietz

Eagles Overhead: The History of US Air Force Forward Air Controllers, from the Meuse-Argonne to Mosul by Matt Dietz. University of North Texas Press, 2023, 368 pp.

Eagles Overhead is a history book that offers a timely perspective on the US employment of airpower through the story of the forward air controller (FAC) program’s scrappy formation on the battlefields of World War I through to its equally scrappy positioning within the US Air Force today. Author Matt Dietz, a career US Air Force officer and aviator currently serving as head of the history department at the US Air Force Academy, informs his prose with a warfighter’s credibility in a manner that can be easily understood by a general reader.

In forming his thesis, Dietz posits that foundational US Army Air Corps and US Air Force thinkers and advocates articulated a philosophical preference for air superiority and strategic bombing-oriented airpower operations that permeate through to the service leadership’s thinking today. Subsequently, he argues FACs—and the close air support (CAS) mission they have duly upheld for decades—have been continuously under-resourced, underrepresented in historical studies, and largely ignored doctrinally. Ultimately, Dietz is writing to commit the FAC program’s contributions to the record through this academic work while examining if its treatment and organizational standing reflect the natural evolution of warfare or inherent organizational bias.

Through an introduction, seven chronological chapters, and a conclusion, Dietz wrestles with these questions from a place of respect for his subjects. He does a particularly good job conveying their culture through personality sketches of notable individuals, recognition of significant units, and a sharing of stories, symbols, and songs developed over decades of service on battlefields as diverse as Italy and Iraq. In addition to these qualitative inputs, Dietz effectively employs quantitative data and thorough primary and secondary sources to contextualize the program’s contributions within the wider view of the conflicts and eras being supported.

For example, examining the opening operational stages of the Global War on Terror, Dietz notes the parallels between Vietnam—arguably the FAC’s heyday—and Afghanistan insomuch as both conflicts “featured light infantry units and special forces teams, supported by air power, engaged in close combat with insurgent forces distributed among civilian populations,” in a manner that should have served as the ideal conditions for a FAC capability. But he then observes that “tightly constrained resources and extreme flight distances effectively left Forward Air Controllers off the battlefield,” resulting in only eight FAC missions flown between October and December 2001 out of more than 2,300 close air support sorties in total (178).

Ever the Airman, Dietz excels at threading in how continual technological innovations—various airframes, advanced guided munitions, and increasingly sophisticated communication capabilities—also shaped how the US Air Force approached and supported CAS, both through and ultimately beyond the FAC program.  This even-handed approach lends credibility to Dietz when he describes battles like 2002’s Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan and concludes that “the battlefield desperately needed the Forward Air Controllers’ skills,” while also noting that the last deliberately planned FAC mission in Iraq or Afghanistan was flown by a pair of A-10s long before combat ended in either place on April 16, 2003 (185).

That mid-2000 era marks a turning point in the FAC program and Eagles Overhead. Prior to this, the “triad” relationship between the ground-based embedded tactical air controller and tactical air control party to/from the air-based FAC was presented as having evolved—with steps backward in peacetime and forward during conflict—since its ad hoc creation on a European battlefield in April 1944. Subsequently, Dietz explains how the triad became obsolete as advancements in networked communication capabilities and unmanned aerial platforms allowed senior commanders the ability to bypass both joint terminal attack controllers and FACs for an eye-in-the-sky view of the battlefield accurate enough to allow them the ability to centralize command and control of operations from a distant strike cell or air operations center.

This answers one of Dietz’s primary research questions: Yes, the nature of at least the American way of conducting war has changed to the extent that the concept of an airborne FAC is now as anachronistic as the grease pencils those pilots used on their glass cockpits. As a result, Dietz notes that despite a review and brief resurrection of CAS training for F-16 fighter pilots by Air Combat Command between 2018 to 2020, the prestige of and institutional support for FAC training is dormant outside of the A-10 community. This answers Dietz’s second primary research question: Yes, the US Air Force continues to value and resource air superiority and strategic bombing operations over other mission-sets like CAS.

In his conclusion, Dietz places his thumb on the scale with a valiant argument for the continuation of some form of a FAC program, potentially using the F-35. This seems fantastical given current technologies on hand, likely future battles, and historic trends as laid out by Dietz in the preceding chapters. And it also takes space from a more interesting discussion on the US Air Force’s continued preference to centralize command and control of operations, a topic Dietz is well-qualified to engage on given his recent deployment as director of operations for Ninth Air Force (Air Forces Central). That Dietz leaves the reader desiring more and not less of his perspective is a generous critique.

In conclusion, Eagles Overhead excels as a complete but approachable history that pays proper homage to but also transcends its topic. It is worthwhile reading for anyone interested in how a program or capability survives—and sometimes thrived—within a larger bureaucratic system that invests in what it perceives as higher priorities. And it offers an informed view of the application of airpower past, present, and potentially into the future.  

Lieutenant Colonel Phil Ventura, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."