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Javelin Thrust “Airspace Coordination – 07 July” Guest Blog by Dr. Paul T. Mitchell

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The Commanding Officer of the Artillery (CO Guns) is worried.  She is the officer responsible for developing the plan on how the Brigade’s artillery guns will be firing in the coming battle.  She is also responsible for identifying critical targets that are outside the range of the formation’s artillery but still crucial for the conduct of the coming battle.  For these targets, she will have to request support from the 17th Fires Brigade, an American long range artillery unit far to the rear of 33 CBG.  Their guns and missiles are going to be absolutely crucial for the coming battle given how few Canadian troops are defending the area that has been assigned to them.  If the Canadians are to be successful, it will be necessary to significantly reduce the strength of the Camenian forces as they approach the Brigade’s front lines, both through air attacks and long range artillery strikes.

At the previous day’s war game, it became clear that she had two separate but ultimately related problems.  First, requests for air and gunfire support from coalition units outside the control of the Brigade must be made 72 hours in advance.  This is because there will be many such requests from all the units controlled by the CFLCC and resources will be inevitably outstripped by the requests.  Targets have to be prioritized and the resources to service them must be identified well in advance so that no one is left without support.  Unfortunately for her, in order to get her targets into the coalition’s fire support plan, she has had to work well into the night developing not just the areas needed to be hit, but also the times they will have to be hit.

Her second problem is also one of coordination.  There is a potential weak zone in the Brigade’s front where “Route Fort Irwin” and a power line clearing pierces the Brigade’s front.  The staff has made the assumption that these routes will not offer the necessary speed to permit a major armoured incursion into their area, and thus have devoted few assets to defend them.  In the war game, however, the Cameno 35th Air Assault Division landed a battalion sized unit near this area in order to gain control of the route into the Brigade’s area.  In the initial plan, she had relied on a UAV to be flying over this area, providing visual oversight for her guns.  However, the “ISTAR” officer had moved the UAV flight tracks earlier in the day as he had determined that other assets would be sufficient to provide sensor coverage of this piece of territory.  Now there is a gap in coverage between the two ScanEagle UAVs through which these weak areas run. The CO Guns knows that there are a number of sensors available to cover this gap, but wants the sensor plan to have sufficient contingencies built into it to cover off any unforeseen events.

The two officers discuss the problem, and it is clear that he wants to help her resolve this problem.  He is willing to look over his plan for the use of the Brigade’s UAVs to move a ScanEagle over the area.  However, this UAV is flying its observation routes in front of the Brigade’s assigned boundaries.  If the flight path is going to be moved, it will need to be coordinated with the Coalition commanders.  This brings in the Brigade’s “Airspace Control Coordinator”, who is, if that’s possible, even more overworked than the artillery officer.

In a headquarters, there would normally be a whole team of RCAF officers working with it in three related areas.  The “G3 Aviation” officer is responsible for developing the plans for and controlling the use of the helicopters that the RCAF has delegated to the Brigade.  The “G3 Air” is like the Brigade’s air traffic controller for the movement of fighter jets and air transportation assets into the air space above the Brigade.  Finally, the Airspace Control Coordinator oversees this whole effort (the “air picture” as it is known) which involves not just tracking and controlling the many air assets flying above the Brigade’s area, but also the myriad routes in the sky that are established to do this safely.  As this is only an exercise, however, all three of these roles have been loaded onto a single individual.  Worse, not all of the Brigade’s staff is entirely familiar with the intricacies of air operations and movements planning.  The pilot is overworked and tired, and his normally good nature breaks down occasionally into bouts of understandable crankiness.

The airspace over the Brigade has to be understood as a series of layers through which both aircraft and gun fire transits.  Long range artillery reaches up high into the atmosphere and thus has to be carefully coordinated with the movement of aircraft.  An important lesson for the Brigade staff is the realization that they do not “own” the airspace above them; that is controlled by the Coalition Force Air Control Commander (CFACC or “See-Fack”).  The CFACC, a commander on the same level as the Brigade’s boss, the CFLCC, is running the air operation for this exercise.  He has hundreds of aircraft under his control.  To give a quick run-down,  some of these are 96 F-15s, 48 F-16s, 78 A-10s, and 50 F-18s.  There are specialized assets like AWACS radar planes, Rivet Joint intelligence collectors, and EC-130s which conduct psychological operations by taking over the enemy’s television and radio stations.  There are hundreds of transportation planes and helicopters flying into and out of the Coalition’s area of operations, as well as within it.  In addition, there are probably thousands of UAVs flitting about; some are controlled by the CFACC, many are controlled by the various ground units.  All of these must be “de-conflicted” so that they do not run into each other, or are shot down by their own side.   Compared to controlling the airspace over a busy international airport like Pearson International in Toronto, this is a relative nightmare.

The ISTAR officer is beginning to realize this problem as he attempts to move the ScanEagle to assist the artillery officer.  The tired Airspace Control Coordination officer explains that if everyone simply calls up the CFACC to announce they were launching their UAV without having first coordinated their flight plans through the “Air Tasking Order” (ATO), the likely response is probably not going to be polite and their plan will be denied.  There are simply too many aircraft charging about the airspace over the Brigade, many of them on missions that have little to do with the Brigade’s fight.  Like the Fire Support plan, flight plans must  be forwarded to the CFACC 72 hours in advance.

The problem also extends back to the CO Guns’ initial problem of target designation.  Shells from the guns will fly up into the atmosphere, so there is a real risk they will hit a transiting aircraft in the sky rather than the intended target, a tank on the ground.  In the modern digital environment, the computer systems controlling the guns will have the plans from the ATO fed into them.  As a fire support mission arrives at an artillery battery, they will take this into account, adjusting the angle of the gun and the size of the charge propelling the shell so that aircraft and explosive round do not intersect.

This map clearly shows an LCSS screen shot of the ISTAR UAV coordination problem discussed in that blog

There is still time to amend the plan and the changes are made successfully, but for the Brigade HQ staff it is an important lesson on the increasingly inter-related nature of modern warfare.  More than anything else, this is the real “software” which makes Western military forces so deadly on the modern battlefield.  It is also one of the most difficult skills to master.

Dr. Paul T. Mitchell is a Professor of Defence Studies at the Canadian Forces College and an alumnus of Wilfrid Laurier University. This is part 3 of 5 in the series.



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