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Data links give Airmen attack controllers 'big picture'

by Master Sgt. Tonya Keebaugh
99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

3/13/2007 - NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. (AFNEWS) -- A small group of Airmen are having a dramatic effect on the battlefield. They're in demand from everyone from Army squads and platoons to large defense contractors. Everyone wants a joint terminal attack controller on their team -- and with good reason. 

They are crucial to putting air force bombs on target by controlling the air strikes the ground commander needs.

With less than 1,100 of them to go around the Air Force, their career field has been forced to come up with better ideas for fighting the war on terrorism. One of those "good ideas" is being tested here at Nellis in the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron and the Joint Datalink Information Combat Execution or JDICE.

"We needed a better way of working in our air support operation centers," said Staff Sgt. Erik Roberts, 422nd JTAC. "In the past, we've marked the positions of friendly forces on a map using tacks and symbols or markers."

That way of tracking troops is archaic in today's information age. The ASOC has been using digital means to track the battlefield but haven't had the capabilities the new system will provide at their fingertips.

Sergeant Roberts is currently testing and developing training plans and tactics for the Ground Mobile Gateway. The GMG is a humvee with a shelter that contains the tactical battlefield command and control functions, in real time, which will be used at the ASOC level. The ASOC is the primary control agency component of the Theater Air Ground System for the execution of close-air support. The ASOC coordinates and directs air support for Army or joint force land component operations. The GMG is an upgrade to the existing ASOC capabilities which incorporates joint-range extension data -- making visible the blue force and the red force assets on the battlefield.

"In a nut shell, it takes all the different tactical data links into one system and spits them out to the right people," said Sergeant Roberts.

It does that by tapping the Link 16 on the F-16 Fighting Falcons, F-15EsStrike Eagles and F/A-18 Hornets and the situational awareness data link on the A-10/OA Thunderbolts. Those two data links provide the friendly aircraft information to the GMG live - combined with the blue force tracker information and GPS coordinates from the ground troops and JTACs -- it provides a live common operating picture of the battlefield.

"I can now see the ground picture and the air picture as it's moving," said the seven-year veteran. "We let the machines do the math and let the warfighters make the decisions."

The "math" the JTACs do could be anything from calculating distance from an IP (initial point of entry for aircraft) to a target to calculating the kill radius for weapons effectiveness.

That takes a lot off the shoulders of a JTAC in the middle of a battle - doing "math in public" is often a challenge for many -- imagine when mortars are raining down and you're under intense small-arms fire. The machines will help eliminate fratricide that human-error played into previously.

Because the math will be more exact, the target area will decrease in size also.
"Using DPSS (Army version of Precision Strike Suite-Special Operations Forces), we're able to sweeten the target," said Sergeant Roberts. "Instead of 'which building' will be targeted, we're talking 'which window' in that building now."

The GMG has been tested in the past three red flag exercises here and at the Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment, or JEFX. The GMG is using for tests is "on steroids," and the ASOCs will receive a toned-down version when they start fielding them, Sergeant Roberts said. But, some JTAC units passing through Nellis for training are already gaining valuable insight they can use in combat.

"We used it during the last Red Flag in February with the 5th (Air Support Operations Squadron) and we worked with them on their digital TTPs (training, tactics and procedures), which they will use in their upcoming deployment," said Sergeant Roberts.

As for future deployments, the ground and air communications is continually expanding capabilities. The 1,094 JTACs will only become more valuable to the ground war as advances in the way they do business increases. 

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