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ESC officials make digital air support possible

by Chuck Paone
66th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

3/6/2008 - HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. (AFPN) -- Electronic Systems Center officials here are giving Air Force tactical air control party Airmen on the ground and in the fight every available advantage to help win the war on terrorism.

Tactical air control party Airmen, known as TACPs, must be able to communicate precise coordinates to pilots overhead, and that is where ESC members help bridge the gap.

TACPS provide close-air support to troops by guiding strike aircraft to opposition forces or other sensitive or mobile targets. In some cases, the controllers accomplish their mission primarily through voice transmissions.

In recent years communications have been aided by digital technology. However, the complex web of communication systems used across different aircraft and ground fire control systems created some lingering challenges that left digital close air support incomplete.

The "missing pieces" resulted in a digital capability that was less than ideal, said Maj. Brian Huether, the program manager for TACP modernization. The major works within ESC's 653rd Electronic Systems Group here, which oversees the work.

"The upgrades we've provided recently have made a huge difference," Major Huether said. "We're now at a point where our current digital system is part of standardized TACP training, which means TACPs train the same way they fight."

Teamwork with operators and those charged with developing requirements made all the difference, he said.

"Getting to where we are today is the result of an extremely close working relationship between Air Combat Command and ESC," said Master Sgt. Ted Nugent, the TACP Modernization requirements manager at ACC. "We are essentially one team, and that mentality has enabled us to procure a system that is fine-tuned to warfighter requirements."

Integrating the situational awareness data link, referred to as SADL, and Link 16 provides TACPs the much needed digital interoperability with nearly every strike aircraft platform in the U.S. and coalition inventories, Major Huether said.

The remote operated video enhanced receiver, or ROVER, capability is another feature that's been added to the new system. ROVER provides front line forces the capability to receive streaming video directly from unmanned and manned aircraft; a big help in getting eyes on the right target.

A major evolution of the system came with adding the Falcon View graphical mapping interface, which is the mapping format widely used throughout the battlefield. It displays aeronautical charts, satellite images and elevation maps. Falcon View allows the digital close-air-support system to integrate Global Positioning System technology and laser targeting for quick and precise target prosecution. This machine-to-machine interface eliminates human error and thereby greatly reduces the risk of fratricide.

Adding the digital precision strike suite, or DPSS, was another significant advancement. DPSS eliminates the need for constant refinements, generally achieved in the past by repeated voice transmissions between the TACP and the pilot. It also greatly reduces the likelihood of error.

ESC officials point out that these enhancements are critical because the consequences of a mistake could be a friendly fire incident.

"They're not dropping flowers out there," said Master Sgt. Dave Howard, a TACP serving as the TACP modernization fielding and training lead at ESC. "Bringing in lethal, overwhelming firepower against our enemies is an extraordinary responsibility placed on an exclusively enlisted Air Force specialty code."

Integrating the system with the joint advanced field artillery tactical data system, known as AFATDS, also helps reduce fratricide. Joint terminal attack controller positions are now reported on the AFATDS system, which prevents artillery fires in JTAC-occupied areas.

Opening the gateway

TACPs often carry out their missions on foot and therefore can only carry a minimal amount of equipment, which reduces their communications reach. The ESC team has now acquired and fielded a mobile air support operations center gateway that greatly extends the TACPs' reach on the digitized battlefield without forcing them to carry additional equipment.

The gateway provides beyond-line-of-sight capability to TACPs, allowing them to communicate with SADL- and Link 16-capable aircraft via a satellite communication link that reaches back to the gateway.

"This shortens the kill chain, reduces human error and improves situational awareness for pilots, aircrew and TACPs," Sergeant Howard said.

The TACP modernization team has also responded rapidly to several urgent operational need requests, including a recent wartime materiel support tasking to procure tactical radio systems for integration into the Air Force's mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, better known as MRAPS.

The Navy-led MRAP Joint Program Office out of Quantico, Va., and its Air Force counterparts in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for acquisition turned to ESC officials for help.

"ESC was more than willing to step up to support the lifesaving MRAP program," Major Huether said.

The team proceeded to scramble around the clock to undertake a two-week, $46 million procurement of about 1,000 radios. The effort equipped 558 MRAPS -- 114 devoted to TACPs -- with mission-essential high frequency and multi-band capabilities.

The radios are meeting the collective needs of not only TACPs, but also security forces, Office of Special Investigations members, combat controllers and explosive ordnance disposal specialists.

Going forward

Looking toward the future, the team is working to replace 900 aging GRC 206 communication pallets with a modernized vehicle communication system, or VCS. A request for proposals is already out, and the team expects to make an initial award this summer, worth about $14 million, with options for another $200 million in purchases through 2013.

"The TACP modernization team has done so much to connect tactical users into the global information grid, allowing them to take advantage of rapid, precise information exchange," said Col. Anita Latin, the 653rd ELSG commander. "Their efforts make our operators on the ground vastly more effective while at the same time making them safer."

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