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Combat Drills Stress Air-Ground Coordination


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July 2007

Combat Drills Stress Air-Ground Coordination

By Grace Jean

Combat DrillsAVON PARK AIR FORCE RANGE, Fla. — Ground troops fighting in Iraq have learned that when they need to destroy targets or restrain unruly crowds, they can call for “close air support.” But the elaborate coordination required to synchronize events on the ground with air maneuvers often is not mastered until units are in actual combat.

In an effort to begin that integration before they deploy, some units voluntarily are participating in a weeklong training event here in central Florida.

On a recent sunny afternoon, a small, unmanned helicopter hums its way above a mock Iraqi town where role-playing villagers are congregating in the path of an incoming convoy of humvees. As the drone scans the ground with a video camera, a truck east of the concrete buildings permits soldiers to keep an eye on targets using a prototype laser rangefinder system. The convoy hangs back and minutes later, a simulated laser-guided bomb eliminates armed insurgents atop two of the tallest buildings.

In a war in which record numbers of drones and robots are surveying the ground to hunt down enemy fighters and roadside bombs, the importance of incorporating such technologies into tactics and training has become paramount. The information provides opportunities for ground troops to take preemptive actions, often by use of air power. In Iraq, units are relying on close air support to take out targets and to intimidate crowds with low-altitude “show of force” fly-bys.

All of these situations have been incorporated into this semi-annual pre-deployment exercise called Atlantic Strike, which is training 200 participants from all four services including the Canadian Forces.

“It’s intended to give them scenario-based training that they’ll experience in theater as best as we can replicate it here,” says Air Force Maj. Ray Brennan, director of the exercise.

The training event originated from a need to learn how technologies work in combat. When the remotely operated video enhanced receiver (ROVER) technology that allows ground forces to see data from airborne sensors was developed several years ago, operators needed a way to train on the system before deploying. The Air Force created Able Archer, later renamed Atlantic Strike, to allow operators to develop the tactics, techniques and procedures for the system, says Brennan.

With its focus on close air support, the event quickly evolved to the point where it now includes 24 teams of U.S. and foreign troops who rotate daily through four scenarios. Joint terminal attack controllers, or JTACs, run with the ground forces as they help guide aircrews onto targets.

Technologies on the brink of entering service have had opportunities to follow in the footsteps of ROVER at the event. The unmanned helicopter, Condor, is onsite to demonstrate its capabilities.

“It can hover and have eyes on target without turning the plane around,” says Andrea Facchinetti, president of Emmen Aerospace based in Charleston, S.C.

Weighing 11.5 pounds and powered by electric propulsion, the toy model-like drone is batted about in breezy conditions, but it feeds a bird’s eye view of the ground to ROVER-capable vehicles and operations centers.

“I think I like the Condor much better than Raven” — one of the Army’s hand-launched UAVs, says Benito Flores Jr., platoon sergeant with the 3rd Battalion, 67th Armored Regiment, of the 4th Infantry Division from Fort Hood, Texas.

The Condor’s small size allows it to hover 200 feet above the mock Iraqi town to keep constant watch over the role players. A bold insurgent actor tries to knock the drone out of the sky with simulated RPGs. He fires flares that fly within inches of the UAV, but he ultimately misses.

The Condor, says Facchinetti, is going to be delivered to deployed units later this year.

Another technology allows joint terminal attack controllers to operate a lightweight laser designator rangefinder under cover. JTACs typically stand outside a vehicle to scan for targets and generate coordinates for aircraft. But with the humvee-mounted “Venom” system — a laser rangefinder and a suite of sensors that sit on a telescoping mast — an operator can conduct his mission from inside the vehicle as it’s traveling. The sensors will stay locked on target, says Bob Raulerson, marketing manager of the system for Northrop Grumman Corp.

“I’m up above everything else, scanning the road ahead, anywhere from a 50 to 75 meter span,” says Raulerson. The sensors can sweep the area for insurgents hiding out with the triggers to improvised explosive devices, or for overturned earth with varying temperatures that may indicate a recent burial of bombs. The system can also act as a scout for troops about to enter an urban area.

“I can zoom into the village and see what’s going on as they’re approaching. And the guys with the ROVERs, they can look at what I’m looking at,” says Raulerson.

The Venom prototype will be shipped to the war zone next month, says Raulerson.

Under cloudy skies, a small convoy of humvees and trucks progresses slowly along a dirt road toward the mock Iraqi town, where role-playing insurgents have laid an ambush. The vehicles pause for lengthy periods on the outskirts of the town as the Condor and Venom survey the scene. The JTAC calls in an A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft to destroy machine gun stashes and potential snipers in the tallest structure.

For the soldiers riding in the vehicles, moving at a snail’s pace en route to a mission usually is not part of their protocol, but it allows them to begin their mission with fewer threats.

“They’re seeing how the air assets can help them with the fight. Even though we have to move a little bit slower, they’re actually seeing now what that can do for us,” says 1st Lt. Daniel Zimmer, platoon leader and scout leader with the 3rd Battalion, 67th Armored Regiment from Fort Hood.

For JTACs, however, it’s some of the best training they can get, operators tell National Defense.

Exercise director Brennan says for each event, he designates a lead air support operations squadron that ideally has just returned from combat. Joint terminal attack controllers from the 20th Air Support Operations Squadron developed the current scenarios and are executing them on the range.

“This is so structured around what we do day in and day out in Afghanistan — in fact, the scenarios are identical — and to have something like that is amazing,” says Capt. Patrick Howell of the Canadian Forces’ 1st Brigade. Last year, he spent nine months in Afghanistan and now works as an air force liaison officer for the Canadian Forces Army.

The Canadians are participating in the exercise for the first time, says Brennan.

For many participants, the training is an eye-opening experience, especially for soldiers who rarely have opportunities to collaborate with joint terminal attack controllers.

“I never really worked with them this closely before. I understand what they bring to the fight now,” says Zimmer. “It really is amazing to have the power they have flying up above.”

Earlier in the day, his platoon had come through the urban scenario with Marine JTACs. They were hit by a simulated IED as they closed in on the town, but they proceeded onward through the smoke and chose to circumvent the main route between the buildings. On a high rooftop, enemy fighters opened fire with machine guns and

bombarded the troops with mock rocket-propelled grenades.

“We were taking fire from that building and RPGs, left and right, so we decided it’d be a good idea to pull back and drop ordnance on it,” says Zimmer. The Marines targeted the insurgents and called in jet fighters, which dropped a Paveway laser-guided bomb on the building. With the threats eliminated, the unit moved into town on foot.

Besides training troops on the ground, the exercise also is an opportunity to train those flying in the skies.

The Navy’s E-2 Hawkeye crews typically fly off a carrier over the oceans to detect enemy aircraft in the skies. But more and more, they are using their airborne early warning radar systems to support ground troops in Iraq.

“It uses some of the same principles, but it’s a very different environment because we can’t see what the guys on the ground are looking at,” says Cmdr. Ken Cowder, an E-2 pilot with Carrier Air Wing Eight.

When the squadron was last deployed, its missions did not include convoy support, he says. But other squadrons have since picked up that role in Iraq.

“We have a lot of young guys in the squadron. We thought this would be a great opportunity to come see what this was about,” he says.

The squadron deploys in the late fall.

Brennan says he wants to incorporate more coalition play into the training but he doesn’t want to expand the structure of the exercise.

“I think we’ve found our niche,” he says. “This is an event that is very focused on JTAC air-ground requirements. They’re our primary customers. If we expand it much, we could lose that focus and get away from the tactical level of command and control. That’s similar to what’s being done elsewhere, and we don’t really need to function in that capacity.”

While he doesn’t see the size of the training event growing, he says there is interest in holding the exercise more than twice a year.

“But the way we’re staffed, we can’t do that,” says Brennan.

The next event is scheduled for October.