In an atmosphere redolent of a recently liberated prisoner-of-war camp, Dim Jones felt like a ‘lifer’ on day-release. He reports on the inaugural Omega Air-Land Integration (ALI) Conference.

“If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more”. US Army Chief of Staff, Gen Eric Shinseki, 2010.

Colonel Bill Bolam, recently appointed Commander of the Joint Air Liaison Organisation, used the Shinseki quotation to illustrate how the JALO function needs to change to meet the challenges of the future ‘with the Helmand River Valley firmly in the rear-view mirror’. The priority hitherto given to Counter-Insurgency (COIN) operations is now assumed by the prospect of peer- or near-peer conflict, with the attendant challenges of contested battlespace, significant EW and cyber threats, and ‘cab-rank’ air support giving way to 5th-gen platforms, much more capable but less immediately available. 

While the ‘nuts-and-bolts’ requirements for Forward Air Controllers (FAC) and Joint Terminal Air Controllers (JTAC) will still be required on the battlefield, the emphasis now will need to be on having suitably qualified ‘air-land practitioners’ at every level of command down to company/squadron group, able to advise their principals on the availability and optimal employment of the various elements of air support. The modern requirement is the ability to conduct ‘Multi-Domain Operations’; however, as Col Bolam pointed out, you can’t do multi-domain if you can’t do joint, and experience suggests that we have not yet perfected joint. 

Furthermore, today’s ALI trainees are being instructed by Afghanistan veterans, some of whom retain a ‘Helmand mindset’ and, lastly but certainly not leastly, the process of change is being driven by the UK Government’s recent ‘Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’, some details of which – and their implications for the armed forces – are not yet clear. 

Live in Wroughton

In the context of the ongoing pandemic, planning to hold a live conference at this time was itself something of a gamble, and Omega Conferences and its Director, Digby Williams, are to be congratulated on this leap of faith, rewarded by an attendance of over 100 at Wroughton in Wiltshire, almost exclusively military and industry, and all UK-based due to travel restrictions. Most of the attendees had, I suspect, spent most of the last 15 months working from home, and there was something slightly surreal in being in company once more; uniforms and formal attire seemed to have mysteriously altered in size since last year, and tying a tie definitely required more careful thought and dexterity than I remember.

This event was previously known as the Close Air Support (CAS) conference, and the title change is more than semantic. The last CAS conference was held at the end of 2019, and the intervening Covid-induced hiatus has, inter alia, allowed a re-evaluation of what is required to integrate land and air operations in the post-Afghanistan era. 

The day-and-a-half programme was slightly shorter than for previous CAS conferences, but a good balance was struck between content and the distance some attendees had to travel. The agenda was evenly split between higher-level presentations, addressing new ALI requirements and developments, industry ‘pitches’, and coverage of the practical aspects of training JTACs, FACs and Joint Fires Officers (JFO), including presentations, necessarily virtual rather than face-to-face, from Jordan, Poland and the USA. 

The event was sponsored by industry, and several companies demonstrated their equipment and capabilities in a parallel exhibition. Understandably, these companies wished to showcase their latest products but, as Col Bolam pointed out, the military delegates here were not in a position to buy anything, and the current emphasis is as much on connectivity and enabling the various elements of an ALI system to interoperate as on shiny new hardware. Col Bolam underlined the utility of conferences such as this in bringing together the customer and the vendor and, through them, establishing dialogue and working relationships, possibly involving third parties. Where this could have utility is in the field of experimentation and the funding available for it through various sources, and he agreed that having those who held the purse-strings of such programmes in attendance at future events would be useful. The procurement process could also be improved by cultivating more of a partnership than a customer/vendor relationship between the MoD and industry, and – since almost all programmes involve more than one company – more collaboration rather than competition. 

The ponderous nature of the procurement process itself inevitably came under fire, and it was suggested that, if advances in dynamic targeting could reduce CAS responsiveness from hours down to minutes, a similar approach might be taken to procurement. It was acknowledged, however, that most of the constraints which adversely affected the time taken to get equipment into service were imposed by the MoD or Treasury, not by industry. 

Notwithstanding the broadening of the ALI remit, there remains the practical issue of training JTACs and FACs, against a backdrop of shrinking budgets, and increasing difficulty in securing representative live air support for both initial and continuation training. The fidelity of synthetic training devices is constantly improving, and the debate over the live/synthetic balance is ongoing. Furthermore, the shift from expeditionary operations in a permissive air environment to peer or near-peer confrontation in contested battlespace is accentuated by a commensurate shift away from traditional 3rd- and 4th-generation close support aircraft to 5th-generation platforms which eschew the ‘up-close and personal’ approach in favour of long-range stand-off precision weapons. 

The Royal Jordanian Air Force are in the ‘start-up’ phase of their training programme, and making encouraging progress, as outlined by the 2ic, Jordanian Air Force Air Ground Operations School, Maj Alomour. The Polish Air Force presentation by Maj Adam Skubida covered how they are making their live and synthetic training more realistic, and Maj Thomas Nell, a USMC officer on an exchange posting with the UK’s Commando Helicopter Force, covered Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) and CHF plans to capitalise on the capabilities of the new Wildcat aircraft to enhance the effectiveness of airborne FACs (FAC(A)). Lastly, Lt Col James Meyer, representing the USMC, an organisation which commands assets most defence forces can only dream of, outlined their Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) programme, which places ALI-focused and -trained personnel at every level of operational command. 

The JTAC or FAC, meanwhile, still needs to have the ability to get within visual range of the enemy, and now faces the increased threat of emissions (comms or laser) being used to pinpoint his or her position, with the attendant prospect of attracting unwelcome direct or indirect fire. GPS denial is almost a given, rapid acquisition and dynamic targeting is essential, and the development of Digitally Aided CAS (DACAS) of critical importance. New and improved equipment therefore remains desirable, but the emphasis is now just as much on interoperability and networking to maximise the effectiveness of the JTAC’s kit. 

Highlighting the need for innovating integration and C2 in a multi-domain environment, the Head of RAF Experimental (RAFX), Gp Capt Blythe Crawford, outlined the design principles of a ‘combat cloud’ and briefed on the aims and progress of Project Touchable, which will exploit the capabilities of Raven, the communications infrastructure for the next-generation RAF.

This live conference not only represented a refreshing ‘break for freedom’ and an opportunity for face-to-face interaction, but provided the participants with a balanced and interesting programme which highlighted the paradigm shift from CAS to ALI.