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Air-strike coordinators need lighter equipment: tac-air controllers on the ground are still burdened by heavy combat gear.

Putting bombs on target is, in large measure, the responsibility of U.S. Air Force specialists known as tactical air control parties. The TACPs typically are assigned to Army combat units to request and direct air strikes against enemy targets on the ground.

Armed with maps, compasses, grease pencils, radios, laser designators and rangefinders, the TACPs do a job that still remains, for the most part, dependent on their ability to make complex computations and deliver target information under high stress, in the fog of war.

That explains why only 40 TACPs, who wear black berets, are assigned to the U.S. Army Special Forces. When the war erupted in Afghanistan after 9/11, they were among the first to begin directing air strikes. Altogether, the U.S. Air Force has about 1,000 career TACP specialists. A TACP generally is a two-person team.

Among those TACPs attached to Army Special Forces in Afghanistan was Timothy A. Stamey, who called in scores of air strikes between October 2001 and January 2002. Now a retired Air Force master sergeant, Stamey received the Silver Star and Meritorious Service Medal for his efforts leading an 11-day bombing campaign during that conflict.

Even a minor mistake by a TACP can result in the bombing of friendly forces.

It is the TACP's duty to make sure that U.S. fighter jets attack the correct target. TACPs live, train and deploy with Army units.

An Air Force program called "TACP modernization" began more than two years ago, aimed at supplying the TACPs with new radios, laser rangefinders and rugged laptop computers for data processing, messaging and electronic-map display. The 10-year, $350 million project so far has delivered nearly 1,000 new multi-band portable radios and a couple of hundred high-performance laser rangefinders. But the rugged PC remains a work in process, plagued by excess weight and difficulties in developing software that can interface with innately incompatible radios, aircraft and munitions from different services.

TACPs read the target coordinates--via voice radio--to the pilot assigned to drop bombs. If the coordinates are off even by one digit, the outcome can be fratricide. But because TACPs are experienced and well trained, "human error happens infrequently, Stamey told National Defense.

While deployed in Afghanistan, Stamey said that some pieces of equipment fielded in recent years under the TACP modernization program turned out to be winners, such as the AN/PRC-117F radio--made by Harris RF Communications--and the Mark VII laser rangefinder, made by Northrop Grumman Corp.

But the equipment is only part of the equation. Remaining calm and collected is key to the success of the TACP. "Human error is nor a problem, as long as you double check yourself," he said. "With the fog of war and Murphy's law, that's where it happens."

During the war in Afghanistan, he said, "I didn't have a problem, because I double checked every single thing that I'd done." Experience helps a great deal too, said Stamey. "I've been doing this for a long time. Some of the younger guys get a little more excited. That is when you can get human error.

Stamey said he is optimistic that the TACP modernization program is moving in the right direction, even though he said that some of the equipment still is too heavy. Iris not unusual for TACPs to lug more than 150 pounds of gear to the battlefield. A lot of that weight is in the form of batteries that are needed to operate energy-hogging laser designators.

The PRC-117F radio was well received, he said, because it replaced three older radios. The Mark VII laser is ideal for TACPs, Stamey noted, because its beam can reach as far as 20 km.

The TACPs working with Special Forces in Afghanistan came up with novel techniques to pass data to higher command. In many instances, said Stamey, they used a digital camera to shoot pictures of electrical plants, hospitals and runways, "things that were too technical for us to write about." When commanders are trying to decide whether to bomb a facility, he said, "a picture is worth 1,000 words." The digital images were sent to the task-force headquarters via the PRC-117F satellite waveform.

The radio also operates the Army's ground-based Sincgars line-of-sight frequency and the Have Quick waveform, for line-of-sight communications with the aircraft conducting the air strikes.

To establish a target's location, the TACPs use the Mark VII--which obtains the range, azimuth and elevation--connected to a GPS satellite navigation receiver. The target must be in the operator's field of view. Previously, the TACPs had to estimate the range to a target. With the laser rangefinder, they look at a target and project a laser beam. The beam immediately bounces back and provides the exact coordinates of the target.

The TACP can relay those coordinates to the pilot by radio. But if the laser rangefinder is connected to a laptop computer, the system can generate the so-called nine-line brief. The brief includes the nine pieces of standard information used by all U.S. military services and NATO. It also tells the pilot the position of friendly forces in the area.

The TACP can transmit the nine-line brief to the aircraft, and the information appears on the pilot's cockpit display.

The B-52 bombers, unlike fighter jets, are equipped with special computers that automatically load target coordinates and program the weapons. "It eliminates human error of copying down coordinates," said Stamey.

If it were up to him, he said, TACPs would have "better and lighter lasers for marking targets" for laser-guided bombs. The existing device is called SOFLAM (Special Operations Forces Laser Marker). It places a spot over a target at a range of 5 km.

The problem with SOFLAM is that it's nor integrated with a GPS receiver, said Stamey. "What I would like to have is the Mark VII and the SOFLAM combined in the same device. ... The SOFLAM can laser range-find but cannot hook up to a GPS, like the Mark VII." Conversely, the Mark VII is a laser rangefinder but doesn't have the designation capability.

During his career, Stamey said, "I've gotten in a few hairy situations. If I didn't have time to send a nine-line, I would hand designate, give them the spot."

For the mission in Afghanistan, the Mark VII worked "really well," said Stamey. A shorter-range binocular laser rangefinder, the Leica Viper, "did not work for us," he said. "We tried it. We ended up leaving it behind in the safehouse. ... Off a tank paint, we weren't getting enough splash. It was OK for mountains but not for trucks and tanks," said Stamey.

Experts noted that, in general, rusty non-reflective surfaces do nor make good laser reflectors.

Morris Peterson, a Leica representative, said that the Viper should not be compared to the Mark VII, because each was conceived for different users and combat environments. The Viper was not designed for TACPs, but for light infantry and artillery units conducting close-in fire missions.

A Viper does short-range lasing (up to 4 kin) and costs about $10,000. A Mark VII is worth anywhere between $45,000 and $75,000.

The Defense Department so far has bought 1,000 Vipers and plans to order another thousand in 2003, said Peterson. The company recently introduced an advanced laser rangefinder, called Vector Night, which has comparable features to the Mark VII.

Program Schedule

By 2004, the Air Force TACP modernization program office will have upgraded the equipment for all dismounted controllers. A separate program to improve the vehicle-mounted TACP technology also is underway, said Air Force Maj. Susan M. Miller, the program manager.

"We anticipate all dismounted equipment will be fielded by the end of fiscal year 2004," she said. The vehicular phase is part of the Army's JTRS (joint tactical radio system) Cluster 1 contract awarded to Boeing in June 2002. The vehicular systems could be delivered as early as 2006. "For the vehicular solution, we are developing a six-channel JTRS radio," Miller said.

The primary customers for the new dismounted TACP equipment, she said, are the 1st Air Support Operation Group, in Fort Lewis, Wash.; the 3rd ASOG, in Fort Hood, Texas; the 18th ASOG, at Pope Air Force Base, N.C.; the 4th ASOG, in Heidelberg, Germany; the 607th ASOG, at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea and the Air National Guard.

Most of the PRC-117F radios planned for the TACP modernization project already have been purchased. In 2000, Harris received a contract for 221 radios. In 2001, the company got an additional order for 561 radios.

The Mark VIIs also have been in the field for some time. The Air Force recently awarded Northrop Grumman a $12.9 million contract for 290 systems, to be shipped beginning in March 2003. Delivery is nearly complete for a previous Air Force order for 186 units.

The missing piece in the TACP modernization effort is the ruggedized laptop computer with a customized display, called the "joint moving map tactical information display system," as well as an advanced messaging system, Miller explained.

"We are trying to get that fielded in 2003," she said. Besides the map display, the computer software provides mapping and navigation and graphics for situational awareness--which allow the operator to view the locations of friendly forces. The software also provides interface controls for the laser rangefinder and radios and a mission planning function. The messaging capability--called Rosetta--was originally designed to forward Navy data link messages between Link 16, Link 11 and Link 4.

The communications and messaging capabilities will be upgraded over time, to accommodate data links from all the services, she noted.

Until the TACPs receive the new computers, they will continue to use grease pencils and maps, which are still "very good tools," said Miller.

The computer suppliers have run into technical roadblocks, as they try to meet the Air Force's strict requirements for ruggedness and weight.

"We are still looking" for the right technology, Miller said.

The TACP program office has tested heavy-duty laptops such as the Tadiran Tacter-31 and the Panasonic Toughbook. "The current computer we will use for initial fielding is the Tadiran Tacrer-31A. ... It meets all the requirements with the exception of weight, which is extremely important to the dismounted TACP."

It's hard to predict which computer will be picked, because the technology "changes so rapidly," she said. "We are planning a different computer solution for the vehicle, because the weight requirement isn't as critical." Meanwhile, Miller said, "we are trying to stay as flexible as possible, so we can quickly upgrade both computers as technology changes. The computer we have now may not be the one we have in 2005."

The most daunting hurdle, however, is not the actual PC but the software, now being developed under a contract with Multimax Inc., which has subcontracted with Anzus Inc. to modify the existing Rosetta software for the TACP mission. The current software enables target-location messages to be transmitted between the TACP on the ground and close air-support aircraft, said Miller. The current setup relies on a PC IDM card to transmit the target data to an F-16 Block 40 data modem. During the next two years, Miller said, "we want to be able to pass data to an F/A-18 Hornet, AV-8 Harrier and the Army tactical internet." The software development will continue through 2004.

As far as the laser rangefinders go, all 476 Mark VIIs will be fielded by 2004. Then, said Miller, "we would have to look at whether [we want] to refresh the technology."

The Air Force would consider replacing the Mark VII with a lighter system, only if it fulfills the specified performance for both day and night operations. "We are always doing market research, to see what's there," said Miller. "I am not aware of one [laser rangefinder] that can do the same thing [as the Mark VII] and is lighter."

Stamey said that for most missions, the ideal capability would be a combination of the SOFLAM and the Mark VII all integrated in a single lightweight package.

Such a system exists today, if only in the prototype stage. The U.S. Army has, for several years, sponsored a program called the lightweight laser designator rangefinder, which combines a laser target marker and locator into one system, along with a thermal imager.

The LLDR, made by Northrop Grumman, could begin full-rate production in 2003, said an Army project officer at the fire-support combat development office, in Fort Sill, Okla. The system performed poorly in earlier tests but the glitches were fixed, said the Army source.

"We are looking for full-rate production in 2003 so we can start fielding in 2004," he told National Defense.

Engineers at Fort Sill's Army Artillery School and at Northrop Grumman also are working to try to lower the weight of LLDR, which now stands at 35 pounds. That was the weight the Army specified when the program started more than five years ago. But the light infantry units--particularly the 82nd Airborne Division-recently complained that it was too heavy.

The Army project officer said that the weight is acceptable for mechanized units, but not for light infantry. He pointed out that, when the laser designator module is removed, the LLDR becomes 12 pounds lighter.

Steve Guch, Northrop Grumman's director of laser systems, said that the weight issue should be looked at in the proper context. "I can see how it might seem a little disingenuous to call LLDR 'lightweight' at 35 pounds, but it definitely is light when compared to its predecessors--the MULE and GLLD systems used by the Marines and Army."

LLDR has the same compass and vertical measurement device and laser rangefinder as the Mark VII, said Guch. It also has both an embedded GPS and the ability to communicate with an external GPS. The target designation function, not available with the Mark VII, paints a coded, pulsed laser spot on a target to designate for precision laser-guided munitions.

Northrop Grumman sees a growing demand for systems that combine the laser rangefinder and designator, said Guch.

"A number of customers have expressed interest in buying both the GLTD [a commercial version of the SOFLAM] and the Mark VII to use them together," he said. The GLTD portable laser target designator and rangefinder has been purchased by many countries for their militaty forces.

Peterson agreed that most forward air controllers today would like to have a combined laser target geo-locator and designator. But even if the devices can be slimmed down, batteries remain a problem.

Laser designators, specifically, are "battery monsters," he said, because they emit a great deal of continuous-wave laser energy. "You need lots of batteries. ... There is not a lot you can do about that. Every service is battling the same problem."

Sometimes a soldier is required to carry more weight in batteries than in water and ammunition, Peterson said.

The TACP community also must worry about the "interoperability" between its equipment and all the other services' systems, he added. As military operations become more "joint," a TACP is required to talk to multiple sensors, computers, radios aboard aircraft from different services.

"The issue of commonality makes it a difficult job for the TACPs," said Peterson. "They are trying to figure out ways to be everything to everybody. They are coordinating Air Force, Navy, Marine, SOCOM aircraft," all of which carry different types of munitions.

The Marines, for example, have developed successfully a close-air support system that allows forward air controllers to send coordinates, via a handheld radio, directly to the AV-8B Harrier mission computer.

The so-called target handoff system still is an early phase of development. A Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory spokesman said that the THS is expected to become a joint Defense Department program in the near future.

The TACP modernization program office, Miller said, is interested in sharing technology with the Marines, to avoid duplication of efforts.

Meanwhile, the Army's Communications and Electronics Command is working on an ultra-light wireless device for artillery units that combines the Leica Vector 21 laser rangefinder--outfitted with the Bluetooth wireless communications technology-and a rugged PDA-size computer. Peterson characterized it as a "forward-entry device for the artillery people." The forward observer lases a target, and, in a few seconds, the information is zapped into the PDA.
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Author:Erwin, Sandra I.
Publication:National Defense
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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