The airspace over Iraqi cities has become a traffic controller’s nightmare. And it could get much worse, officials predict.
The multitude of surveillance and cargo aircraft flying in war zones there continues to get larger — as it becomes more dangerous to move by ground. Air traffic congestion just adds another complication for U.S. commanders planning missions in Iraq.
The Army general in charge of air-missile-defense forces, Maj. Gen. Robert P. Lennox, says that managing the complex airspace in Iraq is a major piece of the planning that goes into every mission.
“The air picture is more important and more complicated than it’s ever been before,” says Lennox, who commands the Army Air Defense Artillery Center in Fort Bliss, Texas.
U.S. forces so far have not contended with any significant threats from enemy aircraft or drones, but have been subject to insurgents’ mortar attacks, and do not discount the possibility of 9/11-like suicide missions. Sorting out friendly unmanned aircraft, helicopters, fixed wing airplanes, artillery and mortar rounds increasingly requires sophisticated technologies that fuse data and provide tactical commanders with a consolidated picture of every friendly and enemy aircraft and missile in the area of operations.
The airborne threats in Iraq or Afghanistan are non-traditional, and range from rockets, artillery and mortars, to kamikaze planes, Lennox says. “Depending on the time, we have provided air defense of areas in and around Baghdad because of 9/11 type threats, for example. Air defense soldiers have been doing that job off and on for the past couple of years.”
Embedded in every Army brigade in Iraq is an “air defense airspace management cell,” whose job is to keep the brigade commander aware of what’s going on in the airspace.
While Air Force controllers keep track of fixed-wing aviation, the Army must monitor the flight paths of hundreds of helicopters, artillery projectiles and surveillance drones.
Although there are no indications that insurgents operate UAVs in Iraq, that could change, and the Army would be responsible for locating them and, if necessary, destroying them, says Lennox. “In the future, if bad guys have UAVs, our job will be to sort out bad guys’ UAVs from friendly ones. You don’t want a bad guy’s UAV hovering over your head. You have to know who it is and what they are doing. If necessary, you have to shoot them down.”
Lennox is working with other senior Army officials to secure funding for technologies that help commanders create a cohesive picture of the airspace. One existing technology, called the “advanced warfare environment,” started out as experimental software designed to link the sensors and weapons in Patriot (anti-missile) and Avenger (anti-aircraft) air-defense units. With this software, the Army Space and Missile Defense Command created a “fire coordination cell” that allows air-defense battalions to merge the radar feeds from the Patriot and the Sentinel into a single picture. Although the technology is still experimental, the results have been promising, Lennox says.
In a broader sense, technologies that assist in air traffic management and air defense change the dynamics of how the Army organizes and deploys forces, he says.
An air-defense battalion commander now holds a much more relevant role, because he can provide “situational awareness” and can contribute more effectively to planning and executing missions, he says. In the past, air-defense units have not been involved in the “joint network” where the actual battle planning occurs, and that is now changing. “This new software allows the battalion command leadership to provide oversight of the battlefield that we didn’t have before.”
The goal is to give the commander the flexibility to choose the best weapon to destroy a target, regardless of which radar detected that target, he explains. “Currently, if I see something with a Patriot radar, I can’t shoot an Avenger from that information. I can’t use the Patriot radar to feed the Avenger. I can’t fire another system other than Patriot from the Patriot radar.
“What we are hoping to do is tie these systems together and match the best shooter with the best target,” says Lennox. The intent is to avoid having to shoot down a low-tech UAV with a $3 million Patriot missile. “I have to be able to share the fire-control data from every radar to every shooter. That allows me to make optimum use of the ammunition.”
The Army’s air-defense force currently is going through a major reorganization. Whereas the force previously was divided into air-defense and missile-defense battalions, it will now have “composite” air-missile defense units. Six battalions are expected to be fielded. So far, three are in place: one at Fort Bliss, another in South Korea and a third at Fort Hood, Texas.
The Space and Missile Defense Command, meanwhile, is seeking to expand the uses for the networking software that it developed for the Army’s air-missile defense force.
The advanced warfare environment has been in development since the late 1990’s. The Air Force adopted the technology when it deployed air-defense command centers in the Washington, D.C., area, shortly after 9/11, says Larry Burger, director of the future warfare center at the Space and Missile Defense Command.
The Air Force is adapting the software for its UAV hub at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., and the Marine Corps has deployed this technology at a UAV operations center in Iraq.
The technology, Burger says, also is being applied in intelligence centers to fuse data from space, including navigation, commercial and military imagery.
The Space and Missile Defense Command, however, has had a tough time securing funding for this technology. “We are working with the Department of the Army to get all the approvals and [long-term] funding,” Burger says. “We are in the middle of it, and I think we are making progress.”
Linda Beach, an engineer who oversees the advanced warfare environment project, says she is hopeful that the technology soon can be “rolled into a real program.” As is the case with many projects coming from small organizations, she says, lack of resources slows things down. “It’s not the technology. Everything here is a financial problem.”