JDICE: A Common Picture for Tac-Air Controllers
“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…”
Given the coming size expansions of the US Army and Marines, the need for more JTACs is acknowledged. There’s also the nature of counterinsurgency campaigns, with dispersed units and the potential need for air support in unexpected places and times. If the USAF itself is acknowledging resource issues, one might think that the idea we’re about to cover refers to a way of using electronic assets like ROVER and other ‘sensor fusion simplifiers’ to make it easier for more people in the armed forces to become as effective as current JTACs. The idea described is indeed a form of sensor fusion simplification – but it will not help with the JTAC squeeze… yet.
According to USAF Air Force Link’s “Data links give Airmen attack controllers ‘big picture’,” the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis AFB is currently testing something caled the Joint Datalink Information Combat Execution or JDICE. It taps the Link 16 devices on the F-16 Falcons, F-15E Strike Eagles, F/A-18 Hornets, et. al., as well as the SADL link on upgraded A/OA-10C Thunderbolts (which includes Link 16 functionality). Those data links provide aircraft and sensed enemy positions. They are then combined with the ground units’ FBCB2 “blue force tracker” information, and GPS coordinates from the ground troops and the JTACs, to create a live common operating picture of the battlefield. The system can also make calculations regarding issues like expected “kill radius” for dropped weapons, which has potentially fatal consequences if wrong but is a most challenging task to compute when one is under mortar fire et. al.
The Ground Mobile Gateway is a Hummer with a shelter that contains real-time tactical battlefield command and control equipment, and can receive the synthesized JDICE datalink feeds. The GMG Hummer will be used at the ASOC (Air Support Operations Center) level, which directs close air support for Army or joint force land operations as part of the Theater Air Ground System.
“We needed a better way of working…” 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.”
The Ground Mobile Gateway has been tested in the past three red flag exercises here and at the Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment, or JEFX. Operational units will actually receive a toned-down version when they start fielding them on the 5th ASOC’s upcoming deployment.
The Air force Link article concludes with:
“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.”
Perhaps. Of course, increased value will also change demand.
There is certainly much more to coordinating close air support than technology, as the articles in our Additional Readings section show. Still, the existence of a resource bottleneck in an area so critical to battlefield performance should be a matter of concern rather than pride.
If JDICE & GMG can provide an integrated picture that lowers the bar, and opens the door for a wider group to perform JTAC roles effectively by making integration of their efforts easier, it could turn into a component of something that helps the US military address its looming constraints. Something that would also offer transformational leverage extending far beyond existing JTACs and ASOCs.
- USAF Air Force Link (March 13/07) – Data links give Airmen attack controllers ‘big picture’
- Air & Space Power Journal (Fall 2006) – Counterinsurgency Airpower: Air-Ground Integration for the Long War
- US Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute (2005-2006) – Army transformation’s impact on close air support terminal attack control
- Air Force Research Laboratory, Fight’s On Magazine (Fall 2005) – Revolution in Joint Tactical Air Controller training [PDF format]. They’re referring to steadily more realistic simulations.
- Air Force Magazine (April 2005) – The Echoes of Anaconda. Gen. Hagenbeck criticized air support performance. The Air Force’s opinion differs, naturally – and puts the blame squarely on the General himself. Gives a good indication of the depth of bitterness on both sides, and offers an interesting look at the fight at Tora Bora.
- Air & Space Power Journal (Winter 2003) – Direct Attack Enhancing Counterland Doctrine and Joint Air-Ground Operations. One of the authors is Lt. Gen. Deptula, currently in a higher position within the USAF.