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Air Warfare Tactics Refined in Afghanistan 


by Sandra I. Erwin 

Air Force pilots chasing Taliban and al Qaeda forces on the move in Afghanistan during the past several months often have been in position to strike within just 10 minutes of identifying the target.

But in most instances they could not drop bombs that quickly. They had to wait for approval from higher command.

This way of doing business in the Air Force could change, however, in an effort to improve the effectiveness of combat sorties against “time-critical targets,” said a senior Air Force official. The changes largely would apply to rules of engagement, said the official, who requested that he not be quoted by name.

The intelligence available to air war planners and combat pilots in Operation Enduring Freedom makes it possible to identify a target and launch precision-guided munitions against that target within 10 minutes. “That doesn’t mean we attack it in 10 minutes,” the official said, because “we still have to have a command-and-control decision to attack that target.” Such decisions could take hours or days.

Delays experienced in the command-and-control “kill loop” are driving Air Force leaders to develop “more refined rules of engagement,” he said.

Getting approval to hit a target is “situation dependent.” Even if a target is clearly identified, it may be located in a “politically sensitive area … close to a mosque or residential area,” so pilots are not allowed to hit it, the official explained. “You have to ask before you shoot.”

As the conflict progresses, the rules of engagement are “evolving,” he said. “We are learning things.”

This happens in every war. Rules of engagement provide a “middle ground.” In the current conflict, he added, “We are getting better.”

In one particular air strike mission conducted last November, a B-52 bomber was able to identify and get approval to hit a target within 20 minutes. A Northern Alliance commander, accompanied by U.S. special operations forces, needed to cross through a valley occupied by a large Taliban garrison and troop concentration. Special Forces soldiers used satellite communications to radio a request for an air strike to the Combined Air Operations Center, the Air Force war-planning hub, located in Saudi Arabia. The CAOC received the request and directed an on-station B-52 to contact the Special Forces operator on the ground for target coordinates.

The Special Forces team used a so-called Viper device—a small, portable system comprised of a laser range finder, digital map display, and GPS receiver—to derive target coordinates of the Taliban garrison. The Special Forces operator radioed these coordinates by voice to the B-52 crew.

Less than 20 minutes after the Special Forces operator was contacted, the B-52 crew passed over the target area and dropped a series of munitions on the Taliban forces. According to U.S. officials, the air strike resulted in heavy Taliban casualties and significant damage to a command bunker.

The B-52s were flying out of Diego Garcia, an island located in the heart of the Indian Ocean. During the long flight to Afghanistan, the B-52 crews were able to change targets or upload entire new missions en route with a data-link system called Combat Track II. This technology could be described as an e-mail connection between mission planners and the air crews, to relay up-to-date satellite-generated information on the target area. Mission planners thus helped steer the crew to the right target.

The Combat Track II is an interim system used instead of the more advanced Link 16, but it proved to be popular among pilots in Afghanistan, said the Air Force official.

The Link 16 capability is “evolving in Afghanistan, but not as robustly as we’d like to,” he said. “We don’t have all the capability, but we are beginning to share information.”

To share the air picture, aircraft that operate on Link 16 each has a Joint Tactical Information Display System (JTIDS) terminal. “In theory, I could have my radar turned off and still see things on my radar, because you are sharing the information,” the official said. But air crews typically would not do that, because the Link 16 picture could miss certain spots and leave a pilot blind to an incoming threat.

The Air Force official noted that this conflict is helping combat aviators refine their techniques in precision strike. The availability of persistent surveillance overhead sensors, such as the unmanned Predator aircraft, increases the chances of hitting fleeting targets. But the hard part is figuring out how to hit them, he said.

Even satellite-guided munitions, such as the JDAM, need geo-coordinates. With moving targets, the process gets complicated. If a tank moves just seconds after the JDAM is programmed, the coordinates will be off. “That is when you need tactical savvy,” the official said. “You need to be able to predict where he is going and put a big hole in the road before the tank gets there.”

Another lesson learned during Operation Enduring Freedom, he said, is that you can never train too much. In every conflict, the Air Force validates the importance of “realistic training,” he said. Going into the air war in Serbia, in 1999, “many of the units had not had a decent chance to train with night vision goggles.” That caused many problems for U.S. war planners, he said. In Afghanistan, “success had a lot to do with realistic night training.” Every pilot, he added, always should experience the first 10 days of combat in a realistic environment.

During the conflict, the Air Force has fine-tuned the “integration of the air picture” from the AWACS radar plane, the Joint STARS surveillance aircraft and F-15E fighters, said the official. “Each one has its own perspective on the battlefield, none of which is complete.” In Afghanistan, planners and intelligence experts found ways to “overlay every picture together,” he added. “This is an ongoing evolution.”

In December, for example, human intelligence sources strongly suspected an abandoned aqueduct and power plant near Kandahar were occupied by Taliban and al Qaeda leaders. In order to verify this information, various intelligence-gathering aircraft were tasked to survey the area. The Global Hawk high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicle confirmed the presence of enemy forces in the area. The information provided by Global Hawk was correlated with data taken several days before, and corroborated enemy activity at this previously unoccupied site.

With the target validated, the power plant and aqueduct were placed on the air tasking order for strike within two days. Ten aircraft, including Navy F-14s and Air Force F-15s, and F-16s, bombed the facilities.

Immediately following the strike, several sensor platforms were employed to assess the post-strike damage. Due to poor view angles, the damage to the aqueduct did not initially appear to be significant. But the integration of information from non-traditional strike sensors helped determine the damage more accurately, according to U.S. officials.

For all the enthusiastic endorsements of UAVs operating in Afghanistan, these aircraft are limited in what they can do by themselves, said the Air Force source. “The UAV has its place [but] you need to integrate all the pictures.” The Predator, for example, is persistent, but it can only see a narrow picture, as if it were looking through a soda straw. Joint STARS sees a much wider picture. That is why it makes sense to use Predator and Joint STARS in concert, he said. “The Joint STARS can see a potential target and can cue the Predator to go and take a closer look at the convoy.”

Integration of Sensors
The integration of sensor platforms in the Air Force is the subject of intense debate within the service. The chief of staff, Gen. John Jumper, recently endorsed the concept of an “Internet in the sky,” that would connect platforms even if they operate different data links. The next generation of tankers, for example, would be in a “perfect position to create for us an Internet in the sky,” Jumper said during a conference of the Air Force Association, in Orlando, Fla. “All we have to do is put on the tanker a pallet of equipment that translates one data link message to another in a seamless way.” The idea is to be able to send and receive data from systems using Link 11, Link 16, the Cooperative Engagement Capability and the Army’s EPLRS position-location radios, he said.

“For years, we’ve had a fight in the data link community that said, if you are not on Link 16, you are out of the game. … We resisted those who found other ways to get that job done,” Jumper said. “That makes no sense.”

The translator between data links will come with the next generation of tankers—called smart tankers—which will have the antennae and electronic scanning arrays needed to

pick up signals and communicate back to the Rivet Joint intelligence-gathering aircraft, for example, said Jumper. The multi-sensor constellation envisioned by Jumper would include manned and unmanned aircraft. “We need to figure out how far we want to go to merge those capabilities.”

The breakthrough technology that will help make Jumper’s “Internet in the sky” a reality is software-defined radio, said Neil Kacena, director of advanced development programs at Lockheed Martin’s technology division known as Skunk Works.

The connectivity needed for different platforms to share information is available today in Link 16, but it’s the software-defined radio that will help move the integration forward, Kacena said during an interview in Orlando. One challenge for the Air Force will be the integration of low-observable antennae and apertures, because aircraft need to be stealthy, he explained.

The development of intelligent agents—software programs that mine databases and filter useful information—will help air war planners in the decision making process, Kacena noted. With intelligent agents, “You take the man out of the loop, you present a solution that a pilot can accept or reject.” With this technology, “multiple alternatives can be assessed in multiple platforms in a collaborative environment of manned and unmanned platforms.” Today, for example, “if you lose AWACS, you lose air coverage.” With a system of systems, “you would only have a slight degradation.”

In electronically scanned antennas, each transmit/receive module operates like a little radar, said Kacena. “If you lose 5-10 percent you have no degradation in the overall system. That is the same kind of approach when you take it to the next level in a system of systems.”

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