Looking for the enemy.

Co-ordinating close air support (CAS) operations or operations against small targets from medium altitudes are key roles for Airborne Forward Air Controllers. The A FAC specialises in finding small targets and guiding other jets to them — and the air war in Kosovo has shown, once again, how effective this role can be within the US armed forces.

From the cockpit of the fighter-bomber flying above the battlefield it is difficult for the crew to identify the warring factions and their intended targets. Scoring a direct hit is obviously the objective, but even with precision guided weapons this can be problematical.

In Kosovo the job was even more demanding because it was necessary to adhere to medium-altitude operations (mainly above 15,000ft [4,500m]) over the mountainous terrain. To make matters worse, contemporary warfare does not leave much margin for error, as television and the press have been quick to report. Blue-on-blue engagements (friendly fire) or collateral damage can change public opinion instantly, or may trigger armed or political responses from angry third parties. Not surprisingly, the Serbs tried to exploit NATO’s ‘errors’ to fuel their propaganda machine. Consequently, precise co-ordination of air-to-ground assets by specialised people and aircraft is of utmost importance and that iswhere the role of the Airborne FAC comes into its own.


The AFAC provides other fighter bombers with target location and identification, threat updates, and with an overall picture of the target area to increase situational awareness. Essentially, the term ‘Close Air Support’ was inappropriate to Operation allied force, as there were no friendly troops to be supported. Nevertheless, the targets were similar. The Serbian Army had to be hit hard, and instead of friendly troops, it was civilians and their property that had to be avoided. Early on in allied force, the USAF utilised A-10s and F-16CGs specialised in airborne AFAC and deployed EC-130Es to control the air-to-ground assets. In a further move to smash the Serb ground forces, the US Marines deployed 24 F/A-18Ds to Taszar AB, Hungary, at the end of May {Kosovo — Airpower Wins, July, p4). The F-16C Block 40s of the 31st Fighter Wing, along with A/OA-IO Thunderbolt Ms from regular USAF and ANG units, provided the main AFACs. The 31st is the pioneering USAF F-16 unit which was tasked with this mission in 1995. Up until then, the F-16 was only used occasionally in this role. The type was thought to be too fast to perform the mission with only one crew member, but the Gulf War showed that low and slow flying was dangerous, particularly in broad daylight.

Enter the F-16.

The Aviano Falcons have paved the way for the new generation of AFACs. As well as its higher speed, the type offers other advantages over the A-10. When the Falcons began AFAC operations they had just been equipped with the Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infra Red for Night (LANTIRN) system. This comprises fitment of the AAQ-14 Sharpshooter targeting pod on the forward starboard engine inlet hard point and the AAQ-13 FLIR navigation pod on the other side. Some time later, the pilots were also given Night Vision Goggles (NVGs) and a night vision compatible cockpit. The much improved navigation and computer systems have also given the Falcon the edge.

According to Capt Bryan Bearden, a former pilot of the 31st FW, the targeting pod works outstandingly well. «I have flown in Block 30s before which do not have a PGM capability. But I really do not want to fly without the targeting pod any more.» The targeting pod enables the pilot to identify the target from miles away, allowing him to save precious time, stay beyond the range of enemy air defences, and develop situational awareness of the target area much faster. And he can do it at night!»NVGs and the targeting pod provide us with 100% more flexibility because we can now also operate at night, flying in tactical formations without navigation lights.” As always, the wingman accompanying an AFAC, plays a very important role. “The AFAC communicates with the people on the ground. He is the battle manager. He makes sure he has the target visual and talks the other CAS aircraft to the target. His wingman is responsible for the communication with orbiting CAS aircraft and communicating with other aircraft such as the AWACS and EC-130E AirBorne Command and Control Center (ABCCC). He is also responsible for air-to-air cover and keeps an eye on the ground for any surface-to-air missiles that may come up.”

During ALLIED FORCE the wingman normally carried four 5001b (227kg) laser-guided bombs, while the leader had two LGBs and two pods with white phosphorous rockets for target marking. The wingman could also carry the AAQ-14 pod with which he could find the target his leader had selected. Both had two AIM-9 Sidewinders and two AIM-120 AMRAAMs for self-defence. Before allied force, the USAF only ever employed single-seaters on this mission, however F-16Ds were seen in operation, particularly at night, during this campaign (AFM’s Editor saw two F-16Ds launch on this mission during the evening of April 18).

“In the beginning, the workload was high because F-16s fly at high speeds”, says Bearden. «Compared to the A-10, our turn radius is bigger and we have less time for target identification. Initially, we knew nothing about this task, but since its commencement, we have had plenty of time to train in Bosnia. After deny flight our tasking went almost exclusively to FAC. We have become very, very pspficient and the workload has reduced.”

Imagery exchange in the beginning saw pilots of the 31st using binoculars to find the targets! It was not very sophisticated, but there was nothing else available at the time. In a bid to improve efficiency, the USAF developed Project GOLD STRIKE allowing a Tactical Air Control Party (TACP, also called Ground FAC) and AFAC to exchange target imagery. It is no secret that NATO employed special forces in Kosovo — from, among others, the UK, Holland and America — for reconnaissance and FAC. gold strike contained the Improved Data Modem (IDM — low-cost datalink), software modifications and a laptop computer with IDM for the TACR gold strike is the successor to sure strike, a system that only allowed text data to be exchanged. Now images can be transferred from video footage, targeting pod infra-red sensor and/or maps.

The concept is simple. The TACP ‘shoots’ the target with his laser ranger to acquire accurate GPS co-ordinates. His equipment is modified to mark the target on a digital map. He then sends this map with target co-ordinates to the Multi Functional Display in the cockpit. The AFAC now has a clear picture of the target area. The only thing the pilot has to do, is select the steering point and the targeting pod sensor, which immediately slaves to the designated target. According to Bearden, this method shortens the time needed to acquire the target by 30%. «This means that our vulnerability in the target area is equally reduced. More importantly, gold strike also enables the pilot to ‘freeze’ the picture of the target on the targeting pod which he can send to fellow 31st FW CAS aircraft orbiting at safe distances.»

There are other applications as well. “We can send the targeting pod picture to the TACP and ask if this is really the target he wants to have destroyed. So collateral damage is zero, and that is the ultimate goal.”

The computer can store over five images. «I can also ‘freeze’ the picture of the target after impact so that I immediately have a Battle Damage Assessment, which I can send to the TACP or the CAOC.» Following the success of the Aviano F-16s, the USAF is now going to modify more than 400 Block 40 F-16s to include the same capabilities (software tape 40T5).

Rugged Thunderbolt.

The old A/OA-10A ‘Warthog’ was also heavily involved in Kosovo. The 81st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron initially operated out of Aviano, but soon after the start of allied force,moved to Gioia del Colie in southern Italy.

The A-10 is a tried and trusted CAS aircraft. It is exceptionally robust, which is very important when flying low over the battlefield -as was highlighted when one made an emergency landing at Skopje, Macedonia, after being badly hit by air defences. It is also very effective thanks to its notorious internally-mounted 30mm cannon. Externally, its hard points are normally loaded with an ALQ-131 ECM pod, AGM-65 Maverick missiles, white phosphorous rockets for target marking, Mk 82 gravity bombs and AIM-9 Sidewinders for self-defence. The OA-10 pilot can also use high-explosive 30mm shells for target marking. Unlike on the F-16, the OA-IO pilot does not have the latest equipment at his disposal, yet the fully-armed A-10A is a lethal weapons platform. Some years ago it received the Low Altitude Safety and Targeting Enhancement (LASTE) modifications, which comprised, among other things, a terrain avoidance system. Probably more important, is the Continuously Computed Impact (CCIP), which is also available in the F-16. This has doubled the level of accuracy. The pilot uses the sensor of his most prominent weapon the AGM-65G Maverick for his FLIR requirements.

The Hog Drivers, as OA-10 pilots are called, also use NVGs. . Other facilities available to them during night operations include flares, infra-red pointers and lasers employed by TACPs. The ASS-35 Pave Penny pod will receive and follow laser emissions. This system sends accurate direction data to the pilot’s Head-up Display (HUD) which helps him to deliver dumb and guided munitions.

Early on in the campaign, the 81st EFS was reinforced by six A-IOs from the 23rd FG, at Pope AFB, North Carolina, while another 18 from three Air National Guards units arrived at Trapani AB, Sicily. The Warthogs were particularly active in what became known as the Hog Pen, an area in southwest Kosovo where Serbian artillery, tanks, trucks and armoured cars had accumulated. The A-10s successfully wreaked havoc among them.

Hornet specialists.

The air arm of the United States Marine Corps (USMC) has a number of F/A-18D squadrons available for AFAC duties. These two-seaters are specially equipped for AFAC and are flown by specialist crews. The USMC provided a squadron of 12 F/A-18D Hornets for operations over Bosnia from 1995 until mid-1997 on a rotational basis. They were stationed at Aviano. Many wondered why it took so long for them to be ordered back to the theatre. But it was probably because the Italian air bases, including Aviano, were already crowded and it took time before NATO could accommodate them at Taszar in Hungary.

The F/A-18D has a significant advantage over the F-16 and A-10. «For the AFAC mission, a two-men crew is an advantage,» explained Captain Tray ‘Conto’ Ardese, who flew from Aviano during operations over Bosnia with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron, (All-Weather) 224 ‘Bengals’ (VMFA[AW]-224). «It allows you to perform more complex missions because you have a dedicated man in the back seat who is the mission commander. In a high-tasking environment, the pilot controls the air-to-air radar to clear our flight path, he is also the look-out for other aircraft and possible enemy surface-to-air missiles being fired. The backseater localises the CAS aircraft and talks their eyes to the target. So you have two pair of eyes looking in different directions. The pilot in a single-seater might have his eyes in the cockpit when a SAM is fired and it could hit him before he even knows what is going on.” The Hornet crew members have two radios at their disposal, allowing simultaneous communication with two different agencies. Sometimes they also carry the Extended Range Datalink (ERDL, AWW-13) under the fuselage, although only a few are available. This allows the Hornet to receive target data, such as its co-ordinates, from the ground-based Tactical Air Control Party (comprising specially trained military staff or pilots). The ERDL is also used for the guidance of the AGM-62 Walleye glide bomb. The Hornet crew cannot use the ERDL to transmit messages to the TACR however, for locating and identifying the target, the F/A-18 is equipped with the AAS-38 Nite Hawk Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR)/laser targeting pod attached to the port engine nacelle. With the ASQ-173 laser spot tracker/strike camera on the other engine nacelle the pilot can see what the laser has designated. The F/A-18D is fully compatible for Night Vision Goggle (NVG) operations.

The USMC regards its air force colleagues as ‘terminal controllers’. Captain John Eans explained: «They throw weapons on the target, handle other CAS aircraft and provide cover for these aircraft. We, on the other hand, also coordinate other fire support such as mortars, [ship] artillery, and support of, for instance, helicopters.”

Captain Ardese added: “In case the target is ‘too hot’, and we do not have any defence suppression assets, we can observe the target from a safe altitude and call in other means to mark it. But we are still able to guide and correct other CAS aircraft.”

The USMC aviation department has always been more tightly integrated with ground forces than the air force, since CAS is the primary task of its fighters. “All USMC officers follow the same ground school, so that we all speak the same ‘language’. This school lasts for six months. We also do other training, such as the course for amphibious warfare,” said Capt Ardese. Capt Eans then added: “We also do tours as TACP To be able to do this we go to TACP school that lasts for three and a half weeks and is fully focused on FAC issues.”

AB-triple С.

Before entering Kosovo, the allied aircraft first refuelled over the Adriatic, Bosnia, Macedonia or Albania. They then contacted AWACS, and were subsequently transferred to the EC-130E Airborne Command, Control and Communications (ABCCC) Hercules. The AB-triple-C is a key asset, although lesser known in air-to-ground warfare. It is assigned to the 42nd Expeditionary Airborne Command and Control Squadron (42nd EACCS) deployed from Davis Monthan to Aviano.

Usually three aircraft are detached to Aviano, but during times of heightened tension, additional planes deploy — as was the case during Allied Force. The ABCCC is to air-to-ground warfare what the AWACS is to air-to-air. The AWACS takes care of the fighter control of the airspace, the ABCCC does the same for the battlefield and air-to-ground battle management. The battle staff numbers 12 operators — the other three are communication system operators and an airborne maintenance technician. The dozen operators have various duties and among them is an intelligence officer assisted by an NCO. They monitor the electronic intelligence (ELINT) of air defences and enemy fighters provided by special ELINT platforms. They also communicate with Intelligence stations on the ground. These distribute vital intelligence to the battle staff and then the operators pass it on to the fighters. There is also an Airborne Aircraft Controller.

This air traffic controller communicates with airlifters and AFACs and advises of restricted areas. The mission crew is accommodated in the long USC-48 capsule in the cargo bay. This roll-on/roll-off capsule offers seats for 15 operators, weighs 20,0001b (9,000kg), is 42ft (13m) long and costs US$18 million. If required, the container can be used as a ground system in, or separated from, the aircraft. The 15 specialist operators each have a computer console and no less than 23 secure HF/UHF/VHF radios, a telex and a JTIDS datalink. The computer provides everything the operator needs, including digital maps, scaled to between 1:50,000 and 1:250,000. The so-called vector map is more interesting -a declassified map showing the Adriatic, Bosnia and a small part of Yugoslavia. An assortment of symbols, lines and text provides various information. Blue lines are air routes for commercial and airlift air traffic; Air Traffic Control zones are also indicated. Political and national boundaries are also shown, as are, of course, the positions and nature of enemy air defences. In the air, the ABCCC is linked to the AWACS by a JTIDS datalink. This allows radar pictures from the AWACS to be laid over the ABCCC screen so that the operator can see the position of other air traffic. The ABCCC Hercules is difficult to recognise from the normal airlifter. Only the two large air intakes at both sides of the fuselage — just in front of the wings — actually betray its real identity. The intakes serve as inlets for the air conditioning necessary when operating such extensive communication and computer equipment. The ABCCC has been at Aviano since July 1993, the squadron is among the heaviest tasked unit in the USAF.

Target assignment.

When ground forces need air support they contact an ABCCC operator. He passes the

TACP request, via a satellite communication system, to the commander in the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in Vicenza. This person then returns the tasking against that target through the ABCCC. The console shows the TACP callsign, target location, target type, AFAC callsign and the required communication frequencies. The daily air tasking order is also available and provides a list of all assets for that day. The employment of these assets is dependent on aircraft type, the armament carried and how long it takes to get to the target. The ABCCC battle staff operator then briefs the jet pilots about the situation. He explains where the target is and, as events require, gives a detailed description of the target, the location of friendly troops or civilians, and any other essential information. When they arrive in the target area, the operators transfer them to the AFAC or TACP The TACP or AFAC immediately gives them a situation report of the target area. He indicates in detail the friendly and hostile troop positions and which targets are to be hit, such as a certain bridge or tank. The AFAC determines which weapon is to be used against what target.

New kid.

The newest kid on the block was an old fighter recently converted to a fighter bomber and, like the F/A-18D, blessed with a two-man crew. The F-14 Tomcat has proved to be a capable attack aircraft in the twilight of its career and is currently being equipped with imagery exchange equipment.

The decision to equip the Tomcat with the Sharpshooter targeting pods a few years ago was a very smart one. This system enables the twin-jet to deliver laser guided bombs and provide laser targeting for other aircraft.

The Sharpshooter allows the crew to get accurate GPS co-ordinates of a target and relay them to other strike aircraft. Previously the crew did this by radio or datalink lines, but apparently during Operation Allied Force the two Tomcat squadrons embarked on the Roosevelt (VF-14 and 41), as well as those operating in the Gulf, were equipped with the Fast Tactical Imagery (FTI) system. With FTI, the crew can transmit imagery from the onboard video camera, the HUD camera and Sharpshooter to other aircraft although its original objective was to relay imagery to the command section on the ship.

F-14s played a very active role in Kosovo. In the future they will receive modification to employ GPS-guided bombs and LGBs equipped with a GPS guidance kit allowing bombing to take place in all weathers. Only the В and D models will be so fitted.


Working at medium altitudes presents certain challenges. The man on the ground was therefore a welcome asset in Kosovo. During allied force, NATO pilots were only allowed to drop bombs when absolutely certain they are attacking a military target. The TACPs in KFOR can provide a quicker target identification than an airman at more than 10,000ft (3,000m) altitude. Even after the Serbs withdrew from Kosovo, the international forces still required an air umbrella to deal with any opposition, such as paramilitary groups. The AFACs look set to fly their combat air patrols over the region for a considerable time to come.

Like this post? Please share to your friends: