In June 2021, Omega was among the first military conferences in the UK to break the Covid mould, eschew the Zoom option, take advantage of a lull between lockdowns and go live. This was a pretty gutsy move, given the risks at the time, and the organisers were rewarded by a good attendance, albeit travel from overseas was still very much restricted. This year, MS&T’s Dim Jones is happy to report, those constraints had been lifted, and the conference attracted well over 150 delegates from 14 nations.
The second Omega Air-Land Integration Conference (formerly the Close Air Support Conference) took place at Wroughton in Wiltshire in September.
Last year I reported the change in the conference title reflecting the end of the Afghanistan and Iraq Counter-Insurgency (COIN) era, and the rebranding of the sponsoring office from the Joint Air-Land Organisation to the Joint Air Liaison Organisation. If there was a recognition then that COIN was in the rear-view mirror, but also some uncertainty as to what came next, the events of 24 February 2022 and subsequent developments have served to demonstrate that what could come next is Large-Scale Combat Operations (LSCO). This realisation has lent a degree of urgency to doctrinal deliberation which perhaps was lacking and, in a few short months, provided enough lessons already learned to suggest that the paradigm shift needed to be accelerated and, in some cases, the objectives modified.
If it were needed, the necessary stimulus to conference debate was injected by Commander JALO, Colonel Bill Bolam, who did more than chair or moderate proceedings; rather, he infused them with direction and purpose. He did this firstly by making evident his own enthusiasm for the task and, secondly, by demonstrating an encyclopaedic grasp of his brief at all levels, as evidenced by his responses to questions directed at him, and by framing the discussion with other speakers.
In his opening remarks, Col Bolam acknowledged the conference’s former emphasis on Forward Air Control (FAC) and Joint Terminal Air Control (JTAC) operations and suggested that, while professional excellence in these areas should be, and was being, maintained, the focus should now shift to higher-level ALI functions, such as the Air Support Operations Centre (ASOC), Joint Air Ground Integration Centre (JAGIC) and the effective deployment of suitably manned Tactical Air Control Parties (TACP) at all tactical levels.
The transformation from COIN to LSCO requires cultural, doctrinal and organisational change, and the delegates were able to hear the views of some key commanders and executives at 1* and 2* level who are tasked with driving these changes: the Chief of Staff of the UK-based Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC), who is the UK lead on ALI; the Deputy Director Cyber and C4 from the US Joint Staffs; the Senior Responsible Officer (SRO) for Joint Effects at UK Army HQ; and the Air Officer Commanding 11 Group RAF, which incorporates the Air Battle Staff and the deployable Joint Force Air Component (JFAC). We also heard from the first commander of the UK’s recently formed Deep Recce Strike Brigade Combat Team (DRS BCT).
These gentlemen are united in their view that effective ALI is an essential ingredient of successful LSCO, and a prerequisite for multi-domain operations. They are focused on making ALI work, which is not as easy as it sounds; as the saying goes, ‘If ALI was easy, we’d have done it by now’. However, it would appear that certain elements of ALI are, if not easy, not impossible either, yet we still haven’t done it.
Chief among these is communication, both within and between tactical HQs, and between them and the front line. By 1942 and the war in the Western Desert – arguably the birthplace of ALI – communication between land forces and aircraft had at least progressed from the Morse code and signal lights of World War I to two-way radio comms, but thereafter development has been patchy. Much progress has been made in equipment – such as laser target marking, video downlink and accurate target coordinates – since my own FAC days in the late 60s, lugging my heavyweight radio, fluorescent marker panels and binos through muddy fields to some imagined high ground. The aircraft have also morphed from Spitfire to F-35, but the primary means of communication between JTAC and CAS aircraft remains voice.
We have been talking about Digitally Assisted CAS (DACAS) for as long as I have been attending these conferences, but we still aren’t fully embracing it. Not only is voice easily jammable, but it is far too slow – and this criticism is not confined to CAS. One of the principal lessons to come out of Ukraine is that tactical agility is critical; the Ukrainians have developed it, and the numerically superior Russian forces have not demonstrated the flexibility to counter it – but they will learn. Accuracy and safety – the reasons why voice comms have survived so long – are still required, but speed has assumed much greater significance.
In a fast-moving battle, and in order to get inside the opponent’s decision cycle, rapid dissemination and sharing of data is essential, and that means digital. This applies equally to rapid tactical reaction – ‘whack-a-mole’ warfare, as exemplified by counter-battery operations – but also to more intelligent operations designed to disrupt the enemy’s medium- and longer-term plans to support the contact battle. The transition from CAS to ALI is further rendered critical by changes in the nature of air and land operations: specialist CAS and Battlefield Air Interdiction (BAI) aircraft have (with the exception of the US’s A-10s) largely disappeared from NATO inventories, to be replaced by more sophisticated crewed and uncrewed platforms employing long-range Precision Guided Munitions (PGM); the range and accuracy of artillery equipment have increased, and the depth battle could be prosecuted anywhere from one to one hundred km from the Forward Line of Own Troops (FLOT); and reconnaissance and target identification are increasingly being carried out by remotely piloted or autonomous systems, rather than the human eyeball, whether airborne or ground-bound. It is in this environment that the concept of the DRS BCT has evolved.
This conference audience was the usual mix of military and industry, although I sensed that the balance of employment for the military attendees has shifted from the front line (JTAC and FAC) towards ALI practitioners in higher formations. There was a commensurate change of emphasis in the wares being promoted by industry from individual equipment to higher-level communications and services. This is not to say, however, that advances in JTAC/FAC equipment are not important, particularly when they enable DACAS. The view of at least one former serviceman, now in industry, was that the military already has, or has been offered, much equipment which would enable better ALI, but some of it is being used badly, and some not at all. This reinforces the need for continued three-way conversation between provider, customer and user.
Just as JTAC/FAC equipment remains key, so does training, both individual and collective, and both synthetic and live. We heard how the UK Army’s Collective Training Transformation Programme (CTTP) and the RAF’s Gladiator Programme, part of Defence Operational Training Capability (DOTC) (Land) and (Air) respectively, will enable higher-level training, while simulators are assuming an increased role in both initial qualification and continuation individual training. The recent declaration of FOC for the Army’s Interim Combined Arms Virtual Simulator (Deployable) (ICAVS(D), part of CTTP, is a significant milestone, as is the installation of the Joint Fires Synthetic Trainer (JFST) at the Joint Forward Air Control Training and Support Unit (JFACTSU), both products of Elbit Systems UK. However, the retirement this year of the RAF and RN’s Hawk T1 aircraft has temporarily deprived the JTAC community of dedicated live air support, and my own experience of flying the Hawk in support of JFACTSU as a ‘guest act’ persuades me that this is not a role one can perform well without constant practice.
In this regard, the conference was entertained and informed by a presentation from Blue Air Training, a US-based company who do nothing but JTAC training, both on the ground and in the air. Their experienced ex-military aviators use A-90 Raider, Pilatus PC-9 and OV-10 Bronco aircraft and, by practised and skilful use of profiles and communications, emulate multiple operators in almost any type of support aircraft you care to name. As their CEO remarked: “You don’t have to be a duck; you just have to quack”. Happily, the UK will not have to do its own quacking; following a tender and open competition process, the UK JALO / JFACTSU is now on contract with Blue Air Training, and will conduct the live element of JTAC initial training using Contract CAS in the US, through an FMS arrangement with the USAF.
In sum, this well-attended and organised conference was both informative and enjoyable, not just for practitioners of the ALI art, but also for those on the fringes. Not much good has come out of the war in Ukraine, but if it concentrates the minds of those who are driving this capability forward, it will have served a useful purpose. It is encouraging that the key players in this endeavour appear to know and respect each other; their concerted efforts will be required to drive this essential capability forward.