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Lack of common technology still a problem in air combat.

Although NATO leaders have expressed interest in acquiring interoperable technologies for tactical aircraft, the alliance is far from having a common information backbone, according to Gen. Robert Foglesong, the commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe.

Until NATO members begin to standardize systems such as "blue-force tracking" and other technologies that provide a common picture of the battlefield, the only way to stay "hooked up" with other NATO members is by employing common tactics, techniques and procedures, he said.

A blue-force tracking system for NATO aircraft came up as a topic of discussion at the Air Chiefs' meeting at Ramstein Air Force Base, Germany, late last year, Foglesong told defense reporters in Washington, D.C.

"As a fighter pilot, what's really important when you roll in on a target [is] to have little designators on your hood that say 'don't bomb here. There good guys here,'" he said.

NATO aviators fighting in joint operations today lack access to the same level of information, he said.

"We've got a lot of different wave forms and radios in NATO," he said. Additionally, NATO countries fly different types of aircraft, such as the Eurofighter, the Grippen or the Tornado.

As the United States continues the development of the Joint Strike Fighter, it's important for the JSF sensors and communications systems to be compatible with other aircraft, said Foglesong. "It's really important that the backbone be common."

Despite concerns about releasing military intelligence to foreign countries, the United States needs to do a better job sharing the information needed to enhance joint operations, he said.

"To me, there may be a black box that we can't release, but the information that comes from that black box we ought to be able to link to them," he said. "If we've got a common backbone that we can get them the information, they don't need to know where the information comes from."

A common information backbone is imperative for air patrols over Europe, where national borders are close to one another, he said. "If there's a renegade airplane over there that could be devious, then how do you make sure that everybody is aware of where that renegade airplane is."

As NATO prepares for the second phase of its International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, Foglesong said he expects to see more air force involvement. The first phase focused mainly on the contribution of the ground forces.

The U.S. Air Force is making a significant effort to ensure it is "hooked up" with other air forces and that all of these elements are working closely together on tactics, training and procedures. "It's a good thing when we all know how to fly with the same tactics and we're on the same play-book, so to speak, procedurally. We're spending a reasonable amount of time to ensure that we're hooked up the right way."

The most recent demonstration of joint capabilities was held last fall in Poland, as part of Air Meet 2003. It was the largest Air Meet NATO has ever held, said Foglesong. The exercise focused on practicing and evaluating tactics for air operations, with emphasis on the suppression of enemy air defenses and electronic warfare.

The exercise involved about 100 aircraft, including tanker and airborne early warning aircraft and ground-based air defense systems.

While NATO is working on common communications, tactics and procedures, the U.S. Air Force is in the process of linking its air operations centers around the world, according to Foglesong.

Interoperability has been a top priority for the chief of staff, Gen. John Jumper. "What we have discovered is that movements across different combatant commanders' boundaries don't mean a hoot to the bad guys. It's just like borders of nations," Foglesong said.

Therefore, it's "desirable for Central Command to know what is going on in the designated areas of responsibility (AOR), and vice versa." For that reason, the Air Force is making sure all air operations centers are connected with one another. "There's a lot of energy going into making sure we're hooked up in a more global fashion."

Traditionally each combatant commander was operating more independently. The Defense Department is trying to make sure "that we don't have a lily pad here and then not another one for 600,000 miles, because this AOR hadn't talked to this AOR."

If the United States is to pull forces from a certain area and regroup somewhere else, "it has to make sure that it does not pull forces back from the area right adjacent to it and end up with a vacuum there," Foglesong said.

Another priority for the Air Force is to work more closely with the U.S. Army on close-air support, he said.

"We had let ourselves believe we were doing close air support for a decade, and we really hadn't," he said.

Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan, during Operation Enduring Freedom, exposed a cultural rift between the services.

Previously, close air support was defined "as hearing or seeing an airplane," Foglesong explained. "It made you comfortable if you were a forward air controller on the ground, because you could see the airplane. You could tell him my smoke's over there, go two clicks to this direction and that's where the target is."

But the war in Afghanistan changed things. "Now we had a new form of close air support that was being delivered from 30,000 feet," he said. "It depended upon somebody on the ground who could get you a very finite set of coordinates, and somebody in the airplane who could fat-finger them in a very precise way to make sure you didn't make a mistake there."

This change was "uncomfortable" for the ground forces, he said.

The new way of doing business requires a different mode of "hook up," between the two services, something that should have happened over the past three decades. "This is not being critical; it just happened that way," he said.

Even though the two services have "remarried" in close air support there still is a lot of work to be done "to make sure that we don't have the iron majors in our different services going off in different directions.... It's a constant challenge for us to make sure that we're staying on the right frequency as far as equipment and procedures."
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Author:Tiron, Roxana
Publication:National Defense
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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