The sixteenth annual Omega Close Air Support (CAS) Conference took place at the Reading Hilton, west of London, in November. Europe Editor Dim Jones joined the event.

The Reading Hilton is a venue that is ideal for the event, although the ever-expanding attendance – 160 delegates-filled the meeting facilities to capacity. The Air-Land Integration/Air Maritime Integration/Joint Terminal Air Controller (ALI/AMI/JTAC) fraternity is a close-knit one, and this conference is one of the principal events of its calendar. For the second year, Omega Conferences teamed with the UK’s Joint Air Land Organisation (JALO) to produce it, and it was ably chaired by Commander JALO, Group Capt. Mark Manwaring.

The delegates included representatives of most of the signatory nations to the two main accreditation agreements – the NATO Standardization Agreement (STANAG) and the US Memorandum of Agreement (MOA). The agenda was full and varied, concentrating for the first day on the Command and Control (C2) aspects of ALI/AMI, and for the second on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of JTAC equipment and procedures.

For once, I am delighted to report, the host nation was properly represented, not least by the keynote speaker, Air Vice-Marshal Harvey Smyth, who – in terms of CAS, and in the light of a career progressing from Harrier pilot and Squadron Commander, through the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, to Director of the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) for Operation SHADER/Inherent Resolve (Allied operations against ISIL in the Middle East) and his current appointment as Air Officer Commanding the RAF’s No 1 Group – has been there, seen it, done it and has the t-shirt.

For a community that lives and breathes ALI and CAS, the downgrading of the Commander JALO post from one star to OF-5, and the ‘rustication’ of the organisation from a joint command to a single-service headquarters (HQ 1 Gp), sends some mixed signals about the priority accorded to these disciplines by the UK’s senior military commanders. Indeed, AVM Smyth pointed out that, in this regard, the 100-year history of the RAF has represented a ‘sine-wave’ of attributed importance, from a high in 1918, through relative disinterest during the inter-war ‘strategic bombing is the answer’ years (although it didn’t turn out to be the only answer in North Africa, or in Europe post-D-Day), to another relative high during the Afghanistan campaign. However, it seems that the UK had to relearn the lesson of attaching insufficient weight to CAS/ALI in every conflict in between, while the same is not, apparently, true in the US.

Notwithstanding the lessons of the past, it is critically important to ensure that we do not now make the same mistakes again, as years of operating in a counter-insurgency (COIN) environment with effective air supremacy give way to the prospect of operations against near-peer adversaries in degraded and contested airspace. It seems that the principal lessons to come out of SHADER/Inherent Resolve are that your ‘allies’ are not necessarily your friends, that your enemies are probably sharp enough to exploit any weakness which this might throw up, and that, if you don’t believe you could ever end up operating in a certain way, you almost certainly will. As regards C2, it seems amazing that, after all this time, we apparently still do not have a totally effective structure, and that, although those at the CAS/ALI coalface have a good understanding of each other’s roles and needs, the same is by no means the case at all command levels, and there remains more than an element of ‘single-service stove-piping.’

The subject of equipment, as ever, is close to the JTAC’s heart – will it work, do I want to carry it, how badly do I need it? There was no lack of advice and practical demonstration from those companies who specialise in both live and synthetic JTAC training, including from the conference main sponsors, QuantaDyn (JTAC simulators) and Vricon (targeting imagery), both of whom presented. Once again, JALO’s resident equipment guru challenged conventional thinking, suggesting that, despite quantum leaps in equipment capability, we haven’t progressed that far from the 1942 North Africa scenario (in which forward air control as we know it today had its origins) but that, if we get the technology right in the next 25 years, any infantryman should be able to call up the correct weapons effect in the right place at the right time, and there will be no need for JTACs at all. Once again, he escaped with his life, demonstrating that JTACs – the roughest and toughest of their breed, and characterised by the guru as ‘Red Stormtroopers’ – have a sense of humour.

Until the dawn of that happy day, there is certainly a need for JTAC ab-initio and currency training, although the variation in scale across the NATO nations is marked; the US Marine Corps presenter estimated that the USMC alone must produce approximately 220 JTACs and FACs annually to meet their Table of Organization requirements, currently totalling 597 (of which 450 are Active Duty and 147 Reserve). This is in addition to 114 Airborne FACs (FAC(A)), of whom 48 are fixed wing and 70 rotary wing. The annual live training control certification requirement for TACPs (JTAC and FAC) is 3582 control runs. The proportion of the total control run requirement which can be achieved in a simulator has been steadily rising, as a result of the increasing fidelity of simulators, the decreasing availability of live air support, and the difficulty and expense involved in creating the complex threat and operational scenarios in which the JTAC of the future may have to work. In this regard, LVC – and especially virtual and augmented reality – will have an important role to play.

Some good news was available, in the form of a briefing from a senior member of the UK’s first F-35 squadron – necessarily at an unclassified level in this forum, but informative nonetheless – on the formidable CAS capabilities of that platform, not only in its ability to operate in high-threat environments, and comfort while so doing, but in its capacity, through its superior sensors and dissemination of data, to build situational awareness, thus enhancing the ability of older aircraft (and Generation-4 and -4+ aircraft will be with us for a long time) to survive in such environments. This good news, however, must be tempered by consideration of whether there would be the political and military will to send such high-value assets into harm’s way, and the readiness to invest in the technology required to ensure that 5th and 4th-generation aircraft can operate effectively together. 

In sum, the 2018 Omega CAS Conference provided a full, varied and informative forum for those involved in the practice and support of this specialised aspect of joint military activity, particularly relevant in the light of current reappraisal of future operational scenarios, and the part which JTACs and CAS might be required to play in them. 

Originally published in Issue 1, 2019 of MS&T Magazine.