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,”
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.”