Digitally Aided Close Air Support

Digitally Aided Close Air Support

Senior Airman Nathan Dupler, 113th Air Support Operations Squadron, Terre Haute, Ind., conducts a close air support training mission with an F-16 Fighting Falcon, July 29, 2015, at Grayling Air Gunnery Range, Grayling, Mich., during Northern Strike 15. NS 15 is an annual training exercise on CGJMTC that assesses joint air-to-ground capability and involves hundreds of military personnel from 20 different states as well as Canada, Latvia, Poland and Australia. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Scott Thompson/released)

Coupling legacy techniques with current technology to make Joint Terminal Attack Controllers faster, more lethal and more situationally aware on the battlefield.

By Technical Sergeant Jimmy Eggleston and Staff Sergeant David Brown


Since before the inception of the Air Force in 1947, close air support—lethal effects from airborne assets in close proximity to friendly ground forces—has been controlled by forward air controllers, combat controllers, tactical air control party airmen and air liaison officers, all of whom have been certified to control air and ground precision strikes as joint terminal attack controllers (JTACs). The fundamental tools of map, compass and radio remained largely unchanged from World War II through the 1991 Gulf War. Even during the initial stages of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, while Global Positioning System receivers had largely replaced the map and compass, critical information was still being passed between the controller and aircrew via voice and recorded manually by grease pencil.


A fratricide incident in 2001 sparked the interest of then-Secretary of the Air Force James Roche, who subsequently directed the establishment of the Battlefield Air Operations (BAO) Kit program office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which now serves as Air Force Special Operations Command’s (AFSOC) only program of record to develop and field a digitally aided close air support (DACAS) capability for special tactics airmen who are JTAC-qualified (now known as combat controllers and tactical air control party airmen). Special tactics airmen are U.S. Special Operations Command’s primary air-to-ground integration force, enabling air power in special operations mission sets, including close air support. Now formally defined in the Joint Publication, DACAS is “the machine-to-machine exchange of required CAS mission data between JTAC and CAS platform (or C2 node) for the purpose of attacking a surface target.

Under that charter, the BAO program set forth to develop a DACAS capability that was comprehensive from mission planning through execution. On the mission planning side, the goal was to automate JTAC duties to shorten kill chain timelines and reduce user workload. However, BAO saw challenges ranging from interoperability issues with supported ground units, inability to access classified networks with tactical computers and lack of standardized products across the air request and control systems. Moreover, hardware was unsuitable due to size, weight and performance; non-existent software; multiple dissimilar and incompatible datalinks fielded within and across the services’ fighter fleets and a lack of standardized tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP).

Faced with these challenges, like the other DACAS programs across DoD, the BAO office jumped in and aggressively tried to tackle every challenge as a number-one priority. Progress was most noticeably made at first on the software side, building upon the successful FalconView mapping engine of the DoD’s Portable Flight Planning Software (PFPS) suite with JTAC-specific applications that allowed for 9-line generation, friendly position tracking, situational awareness cues, aircraft sensor point of interest displays and free text messaging. With the flyers and air planners using PFPS or at least FalconView, pre-mission coordination and interoperability was natively achieved. Most ground special operations forces were also using FalconView as their mission planning mapping engine to develop target-specific gridded reference graphics and conduct route planning—interoperability existed there as well. Where DACAS lagged was on the execution side.

The multiple stovepiped datalinks and networks hindered both training and mission execution. Air Force Applications Program Development was limited to a few USAF aircraft and NATO partners, Air National Guard fighters equipped with Situational Awareness Data Link (SADL), and the AV-8B unique Marine targeting system. The Variable Message Format (VMF) was fielded with incompatible implementations across identical mission design series aircraft in different services, and had to rely on beyond-line-of-sight communications with a third party to relay for Link 16. Some of these networks required unique hardware or crypto to even operate, further complicating JTAC operations with multiple unique message formats. For years, the DACAS landscape was populated with heavy and underpowered computing devices and unfriendly user software.


BAO Kit Today

BAO Kit’s future began to change in 2005 and 2006 when a few special tactics JTACs leveraged the use of SADL in the tactical environment. Lessons were learned and new TTPs were developed. This proved to be critical a few years later as technology improved and viable hardware solutions became available. In 2012, the BAO office took a hard look at the state of their software efforts and determined a drastic change was in order to better support the JTAC operator. The primary goal became to simplify the programming approach and reduce the processing steps for the operator.

The first dramatic change to hardware for special tactics JTACs was the Black Diamond MTS system. This was the first purpose-built hardware solution to address JTAC needs for both ruggedized and patrol-portable computing with integrated cable management to peripheral devices. Although the computing power was insufficient for the software needs at the time, this critical step led to Black Diamond’s development of their APEX system, which recently won a competitive source selection in July 2015. The APEX system, which received a fielding recommendation from AFSOC, will serve as the primary hardware solution for special tactics JTACs, Air Combat Command (ACC) Guardian Angel, and ACC TACP communities. With these advances in human factors, user simplification and robust hardware, the BAO Kit of today is a leap ahead in the evolution of AFSOC DACAS capability.

BAO Kit also started from the ground level to develop cutting-edge JTAC software with SRA International. The resulting Battlefield Airmen-Digital Air Strike Suite (BA-DASS) provides the JTAC with unparalleled situational awareness and machine-to-machine capability. With a software modem and native message translation integrated into the kit, BA-DASS gives the JTAC full SADL capability in air-air and gateway modes, auto-detect and auto-configure VMF capability with a simultaneous multi-stack capability, video datalink (VDL) metadata exploitation and cross-cueing and integrated Harris situational awareness. JTACs have the ability to pre-mission program individualized standards to support a “3-click 9-line” and customize fratricide graphical cues to personal preferences. Real-time airspace management is achieved via VDL metadata, SADL data and VMF aircraft position messages. Target mensuration is provided by a precision strike suite for special operations forces. FalconView overlays are generated by flying units or command and control units are natively displayed. These war-winning capabilities, delivered with BA-DASS, continue to ensure that the special tactics JTACs remain at the forefront of DACAS.


DACAS at Large Today

Simultaneous to BAO Kit’s remarkable innovations, the program office’s involvement with the Joint Staff J6 Joint Fire Support (JFS) office paved the way for further advances. The VMF configuration standards developed by the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center were briefed at a JFS conference in 2012 and was adopted by the BAO office that same year, two years before being formally established in the November 2014 release of the Joint Publication 3-09.3. Adoption of the JFS Coordinated Implementation message blocks has drastically increased interoperability on the battlefield. The JFS forum has been a critical foundation to resolve DoD DACAS stovepipe problems. The BAO Program Office has been an active participant in the JFS conferences, working groups and Bold Quest events as a collaborative partner with both JTAC and aircraft programs with a singular goal to push toward an interoperable DACAS enterprise. With policy, joint publications and TTP moving faster than updates to digital standards, these types of events and relationships are critical to developing solutions that ensure JTAC capability remains safe but lethal.


Where Are We Going: Interoperability, the Next Fight and Tools for Training

As the air-to-ground strike force, interoperability for a JTAC involves two critical areas: supporting aircraft and the supported ground force during the employment of aerial fires. With much of special operations ground forces moving toward small computing devices, the BAO Program Office is closely following these developments, particularly those in USSOCOM. AFSOC and BAO Kit continue to invest in, study and test the use of “smartphone” devices as a ground tactical computing tool, working closely with USSOCOM in this endeavor. Yet the lack of today’s mobile computing power and absence of a software modem continue to limit the utility for a JTAC conducting DACAS, thus forcing the JTAC to carry an additional computing device to conduct the DoD DACAS standard VMF. However, both AFSOC and the BAO Program Office plan to invest in further hardware and software development to improve this issue with utilizing a “smartphone” in 2016. Both offices remain hopeful that this effort will allow other mobile solutions to mirror the APEX tactical computer solution and software modem currently integrated within the BAO kit.

Regardless of the DACAS or other tactical computing tool chosen by any DoD/SOF community, it’s imperative that interoperability is maintained. AFSOC has not lost focus on this and the BAO kit program office continues to ensure that all AFSOC field systems are interoperable with all special operations community fielded solutions.

One of the most exciting areas for increased interoperability and capability is the handheld Link 16 effort. The BAO Program Office is a stakeholder in that joint technology capability demonstration effort, and has already demonstrated stand-alone Link 16 capability using a KOR-24 Small Tactical Terminal as a surrogate. This configuration will be demonstrated at the JFS Bold Quest 15-2 event in October 2015, with follow-on development using pre-production models scheduled for the following six to nine months. Closely related is Net Enabled Weapons (NEW) and the role they may play beyond CAS. The BAO Kit has been designated as one of two JTAC kits critical to the progress of NEW and for the last two years has been active in the development of the Small Diameter Bomb II.

Additionally, by using a Windows-based system for BA-DASS, the BAO Kit is able to leverage interoperable software tools that are considered non-traditional for JTACs. The BAO Kit includes the Joint Munitions Effectiveness Manual Weaponeering System. This weaponeering tool provides not only increased JTAC capability in emerging roles in near-peer and anti-access theaters of combat, but also is a trove of useful information for JTAC instructors in developing more in-depth lesson plans while on home station. Another critical tool is the U.S. Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command’s Recognition of Combat – Vehicles (ROC-V) software. This tool provides multi-aspect visual, night vision, infrared pictures of friendly and enemy vehicles and weapons systems in an existing professional training package. A final critical training piece is the Battlefield Airmen Digital Simulator, which allows a JTAC instructor to conduct “live” DACAS training in the classroom while acting as a DACAS-capable aircraft and sending the correct messages and aircraft/sensor information.

The BAO Kit history and development has mirrored that of many other transformative systems. Initial gains were at times sporadic and limited by outside influences. However, as the DACAS environment started to solidify around specific networks, messages and TTP, the BAO Kit Program Office has been able to capitalize and leverage technology advancements to produce unprecedented capabilities for the special tactics operator with JTAC qualification. As it stands today, the BAO Program Office is reaching the goals envisioned by then-Secretary of the Air Force Roche, and in collaboration with DoD partners, continues to be postured to advance JTAC capabilities in the future.

Technical Sergeant Jimmy Eggleston is the lead subject-matter expert, BAO Kit Program Office. Staff Sergeant David Brown is a subject-matter expert, BAO Kit Program Office.