Digital close air support improvements on the way
By Chuck Paone, 66th Air Base Group Public Affairs
/ Published November 30, 2010
HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. --
Airmen on the ground whose mission is to help deliver close air support will soon receive a set of tools that will help them do their jobs better while lightening the loads they're required to carry.
Tactical Air Control Party Airmen are assigned with Army units who engage in all levels of operations, ranging from dismounted patrols to convoy escort duty, and to command elements at operations centers. The TACP is the vital link between the ground commander and the combat aircraft, whose job is to deliver close air support to troops in contact with the enemy.
Among upgrades headed for the field: a small wearable computer that fits into a pouch in a TACP member's body armor. The ruggedized small wearable computer replaces the ruggedized laptop TACPs possess now, but is much more compact, weighing 2 pounds rather than 8. This allows them to carry and use the computers for digital CAS communications on dismounted "foot" patrols in the rough terrain of Afghanistan.
"Perhaps as much as any program in the Electronic Systems Center's Aerial Networking Division, the Tactical Air Control Party-Modernization program exemplifies our vision of joint air-land operations by providing advanced information exchange capabilities to the tactical edge of the battlefield," said Col. Cordell DeLaPena, the division's director.
Referred to as a SWC, the wearable computer will be fielded as soon as TACP Close Air Support System, or CASS, software version 1.4.2 comes online, said Capt. Sean Carlson, program manager for the CASS software.
The new CASS software greatly improves the operating picture viewed by close air support aircraft and the one viewed by the TACPs themselves.
"The previous CASS software had a limited digital capability, where the new software paints a more complete picture of the engagement area: friendlies, threats, targets, attack headings, etc.," Captain Carlson said.
According to Master Sgt. Chris Spann, a TACP assigned to the program office here, this helps build the pilot's situational awareness prior to entering the engagement area.
"In a troops-in-contact situation, this enables the pilot to more rapidly identify and engage ground targets," he said. "And the TACP on the ground can now see that same operating picture on his computer."
"Version 1.4.2 allows our TACPs to operate on foot and retain the situation awareness that our guys in the tactical operations centers have," Sergeant Spann added. "SA is critical to safe and effective CAS missions and ensures bombs are on target, while reducing collateral damage."
The new software also increases interoperability with Army units by making it easier for TACPs to augment close air support strikes with Army artillery fire against enemy forces or other sensitive or mobile targets.
Version 1.4.2 of the software is now being used for training and will be released to the field in the coming months. While the SWC computers are being fielded, Version 1.4.2 will also be installed on computers used in tactical operations centers and the air support operations center, or ASOC.
In addition to providing the commanders in the operations centers the same tactical picture as the TACPs and pilots, the new software will also go on ASOC Gateways.
The Electronic Systems Center team managing TACP modernization began fielding mobile ASOC Gateways in Iraq and Afghanistan two years ago. Using beyond-line-of-sight satellite communication radios, TACPs transmit close air support targeting messages to the ASOC Gateway that then forwards the messages to Link 16- and SADL-equipped CAS platforms, including F-15E, F-16C, and A-10 aircraft.
The ASOC Gateway equipped with CASS 1.4.2 is the first fully certified and accredited version of the Gateway system. By meeting these certification requirements, ASOC units will now be able to connect ASOC Gateways to joint networks and support realistic digitally aided CAS training exercises before TACP and ASOC personnel deploy for combat.
Each active duty and Air National Guard ASOC will eventually be equipped with ASOC Gateways that can support both major pre-deployment exercises and local digitally aided CAS training.
"Version 1.4.2 streamlines the entire CAS request, coordination and control process," said Rob Bubello, program manager for TACP Modernization. "It helps TACPs get aircraft on target faster and reduces the probability of human error."
The ESC team is developing a fielding plan now, and mobile training teams are already starting to deploy around the globe to bring users up to speed on the new software and its advantages. The 25th Air Support Operations Squadron out of Hickam AFB, Hawaii, will be first up, getting its training in early December.
"Getting all of this out to the TACPs in the field and to the ASOCs will improve interoperability, effectiveness and safety," said Mr. Bubello. "We're definitely taking some big steps in the right direction."