The seventeenth annual Omega Close Air Support (CAS) conference took place at the Hilton Hotel, Reading – west of London, UK – on 20th and 21st November 2019. MS&T’s Dim Jones went along to see and hear.
In continuance of the very successful arrangement established over the past couple of years, this event was a joint venture between Omega Conferences and the UK’s Joint Air-Land Organisation (JALO), whose responsibility is oversight and promotion of the UK’s Air-Land and Air-Maritime Integration (ALI and AMI) capability. The conference was ably and energetically chaired by the newly-appointed Commander JALO, Colonel Chris Gent.
The format was the customary two-day agenda of presentations, with ample opportunity for networking between delegates, and interaction with representatives of the many companies who have an interest in CAS, several of whom were sponsors of the event. The venue and administrative arrangements were good and, although it was ‘standing room only’ for the first session, more seating was rapidly acquired. There were 150+ delegates, of whom a third were from outside the UK, representing 15 nations so it was impractical to learn of the background of all the participants.
Quality in Depth
At first glance, the programme might have seemed, to those who had attended previous events, a bit ‘samey’ and, to a certain extent, that would have been a fair observation. However, CAS is a fairly specialised business and, in order to keep it relevant for the ALI/AMI practitioners – and in this “I” include the Joint Terminal Air Controllers (JTAC) and associated ‘boots on the ground’ (or in the air), their chains of command and control, and those who train them and provide their equipment – there is only a finite breadth of subject matter which is relevant. In any event, this is such a close-knit fraternity that all that is really required to generate healthy discussion is some vehicle by which to bring them together. That said, this programme – and particularly the quality of the presenters – did far more than that.
Front Line Keynote
The tone was set by the opening Keynote Speaker, Air Commodore Justin Reuter, very recently returned from Al Udeid, where, for the previous 12 months, he had been the commander of the UK’s Air Component, comprising 83 Expeditionary Air Group, whose area of operations embraced the entire Middle Eastern theatre, from Cyprus in the west to Afghanistan in the east. 83 EAG, coincidentally, was formed in 1944, and played a pivotal role in post D-Day air operations, particularly in the Falaise pocket; equally coincidentally, its pilots flew the Hawker Typhoon, whereas their 2019 counterparts were operating the Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4.
Air Cdre Reuter provided a fascinating insight into the challenges facing multi-national operations in such a complex air and ground environment, such as prosecuting an effective air campaign while complying with coalition and national Rules of Engagement, and ensuring an absolute minimum of collateral damage. This was amply illustrated by events in Baghuz, the last pocket of ISIL occupation in the Euphrates Valley, where a UAV feed was able to detect children playing freely in the midst of active defensive firing positions. No less complex was the politico-military situation where fragile alliances formed by common – but perhaps transitory – interests meant that your ally’s ally was not necessarily unequivocally your friend, leading to the dilemma of “how far can I trust my ‘partner forces’?”
One point of particular note was the first operational engagement of UK F-35Bs, thus laying to rest the argument that 5th-gen aircraft would never be employed in high-risk CAS operations. Not only were they committed to a potentially hostile air environment, where mid-air collision was not the least of the hazards, but their capability was illustrated by detection and passive identification of a hitherto unknown surface-to-air threat, which could then have been summarily engaged, had that been deemed appropriate.
Simulation Critical to Operations
A glimpse of the other side of the coin was provided by the Keynote Speaker on the second day, Air Commodore Mark Chappell, Commander of the UK Typhoon Force, who gave an overview of the capabilities of platform and weapons, and also highlighted some of the problem areas in operating single-seat aircraft in a data- and sensor-rich environment, including cockpit communications in a multi-agency setting. The live-synthetic training mix was a recurrent theme throughout the conference, and was brought into sharp focus by Air Cdre Chappell’s disclosure that the tempo of operations in the Syrian/Iraqi theatre resulted in many inexperienced pilots’ first employment of live weapons being on operational sorties; realistic simulated mission rehearsal thus became of crucial importance.
A large proportion of the programme was devoted to updates on the various aspects of JTAC training and organisation, from the host nation and international partners, notably Estonia, which really does sit on the front line. There were also progress and platform reports from two major and complementary UK Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) – the Army’s Watchkeeper and Protector which will take over the role of Reaper in the RAF; these were delivered by the Watchkeeper Force Commander and the Protector Programme Manager respectively. In both cases, the future capability far exceeds what is currently in service, although this enhancement may be more noticeable to those charged with their operation and employment than to the JTAC in the field.
The conference was once again treated to an irreverent review, from JALO’s Wing Commander Jason Wells, of the development of ALI since its inception in its current form in the Western Desert in 1942 – and I regret to admit that my initial qualification as a Forward Air Controller was a lot closer to that date than this one! Notwithstanding advances in JTAC equipment, and lamenting dilatory progress in the effective employment of Digitally-Aided CAS (DACAS), Wg Cdr Wells judged overall advancement to be ‘limited’ as, indeed, he regarded the future of CAS itself, in that the drive towards precision fires, both air and land, would eventually render the role obsolete, the main practitioners in the future being SF. Furthermore, increased capability – such as F-35 versus Tornado GR4 - would drive down aircraft numbers, while stealth would eliminate the need for escort fighters and SEAD, and long-range strike aircraft such as B-2 the need for tankers. Jason’s final thought for the purists was ‘In contested operations, the priority is to win the contest’.
Joining Customers and Suppliers
Given the close relationship between the user and the supplier of JTAC gear, due prominence was given in the programme to representatives of industry, and there were presentations from QuantaDyn, Safran Vectronix, Teleplan Globe, Collins Aerospace, and Close Air Solutions. They and other interested companies also took part in a small exhibition adjacent to the conference hall. Both presentations and exhibits generated much interest and discussion, a recurring theme being some bemusement on the part of industry that they needed an event such as this to find out from the users what they wanted, but also appreciation of the opportunity to do so.
In sum, and notwithstanding the slightly scattergun nature of my report, this was another successful event in this series, centred on a full, coherent and interesting programme, with plenty of opportunity for networking and close-range equipment inspection. Omega CAS 2019 lived up to its generally accepted billing as the premier ALI/AMI event on this side of the Atlantic.