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Digitizing the call: The interim steps to more accurate air and artillery strikes

Calling in fire support has always been subject to the frailties of human error. The deaths of five U.S. special operations forces members engaged in a fire fight in the Arghandab district of southern Zabul province in Afghanistan this month was a tragic reminder that even the best can make mistakes when calling for or delivering air strikes.

The deaths from friendly fire, which occurred during a joint operation of Afghan and NATO forces, reinforce once again the multitude of challenges associated with accurately transmitting and receiving that vital 10-digit target grid.

Major Jason Vaughan is all too familiar with the pressures of such situations. He served in Afghanistan in 2008 as a forward observation officer and forward air controller and speaks with a palpable passion about the role they play and the effort required to ensure mistakes are avoided or at least minimized.

“One of the big lessons we got out of Afghanistan was the strong desire to have machine-to-machine interface,” he says. “Human error is a given, it is going to happen. People make mistakes when they are tired, when they are under pressure. Training will help. Operational experience helps. But lessons learned and incidents with our allies have taught us that even the best of us can make mistakes under pressure. These are our brothers and sisters. We have to be able to look somebody’s wife or husband in the eye and, hand on heart, say we did everything possible, we did our best.”

Vaughan is leading a Canadian Army initiative to modernize the Forward Observation Officer/Forward Air Controller (FOO/FAC) capability, a 10- to 12-year project that will not only help minimize the chance of human error, but also make air and artillery strikes more surgical.

“We want to use the right tool in the tool box. And to do that in today’s complex battlefield we want to ensure we have crossed the T’s and dotted the I’s as much as possible to ensure the effect is the minimal effect required for that target. That is really what the next step for the FOO/FAC on the battlefield is. Instead of making us a hammer, we are going to make us more like a scalpel at times.”

FOOs and FACs (also known as joint terminal attack controllers) – the former controls terminal effects of artillery while the latter controls munitions from airborne platforms – advise and provide solutions on fires support to combat arms commanders. Vaughan says that while Canadian capability was very effective in Afghanistan – the DAGR, or defence advanced GPS receiver, and laser range finder worked well together to provide a soldier’s grid, orientation and accurate target location – the digital architecture now unfolding across the army offers the opportunity to create a much more effective system.

“The problem inherent at the time was the human factor. We needed to take that grid out and verbally communicate it to the platform. But when you are on operations and you haven’t slept for 72 hours, trying to give a 10-figure grid can be difficult. Worse, if you haven’t slept for 72 hours and you are in a real gunfight, and you’ve got five different target locations that you need to pass, that is where the issues of potential fratricide and collateral damage come into play. As the Canadian Forces continue their digital transformation, the project can leverage that existing architecture and ensure a machine-to-machine interface throughout the kill chain.”

The building blocks
The FOO/FAC modernization project is on the army’s Horizon 3 capability plan, with an eventual delivery date slated for 2024-25. But it is leveraging three significant building blocks already well underway that will strengthen a growing digital backbone across the army: the Light Armoured Vehicle 6.0 upgrade (LAV), the Integrated Soldier System Project (ISSP) and the Airspace Coordination Centre Modernization program (ASCCM).

With the delivery of 47 LAV upgraded Observation Post Vehicles, the army will have a well protected, highly networked computer hub featuring sophisticated software from which to receive, plot, refine and send very accurate grid references. The ISSP will go a step further, extending that networked architecture to the dismounted soldier, a hardware investment the FOO/FAC project aims to leverage as it explores the best way to link in laser range finders, laser designators and targeting software. Lastly, the ASCCM will serve as a vital data translator, taking a K-series messages from the FOO and FAC in one format and translating it into a J-series message via a Link-16 terminal that is understandable to an incoming pilot up to 200 nautical miles away.

“The ASCCM is going to give us range extension and that ability to translate what we are doing on the ground,” Vaughan explained. “[The pilot] will have all the information on the target, the battlefield, the current situation. He’s not arriving blind. He knows the terrain, where other jets are stacked up, where the artillery and mortars are, where attack helicopters are, where the closest friendly forces are, and most importantly, where the enemy is. It will give pilots the time to better understand a complex situation.”

The LAV OPV is currently being upgraded by General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada while the first phase of ISSP is undergoing evaluation as part of a procurement competition. The ASCCM project will be seeking ministerial sign-off later this month, with delivery expected between 2016-2020.

“We are leveraging the current work that the army is doing for the network infrastructure,” Vaughan said. “We are leveraging current projects and future projects, because whether it is C4ISR, ISSP, LAV UP or simulation projects, we are really tied into the whole battlefield.”

While each program will provide a key interim piece for FOO/FAC modernization, the project itself is focused on three lanes of capability: the dismounted soldier, the mounted network within the LAV OPV, and new training capability through simulation. That dismounted piece, Vaughan says, will be the toughest nut to crack.

“When you are mounted you have more time. People don’t give the LAV enough credit. It is an incredible vehicle. Being in that vehicle in Afghanistan, I was very comfortable taking the time required to do it properly. You have a larger screen, much better fidelity, a mouse and a keyboard. For a complex mission, it is much easier to facilitate for human factors in a LAV.

“When you are dismounted, you need a simplistic human form factor – three clicks. We need a capability that is 80 percent of your common fire missions when mounted, and then when you get into something more complex you go back to the basics: get out your map, do the math and send it through the radio. We are not trying to create a complete digital environment – it will be digital voice augmented. The final clearance should always be through voice.”

The challenge for the dismounted observer goes beyond the simplicity of the display. Technology has decreased the size and weight of GPS, laser range finders and other tools of the trade, but Vaughan would like to see those reduced even further. “Your transportation is the human body, so you can only put so much weight on the individual and have them show up combat ready,” he says. “Today a guy may carry a laser range finder; tomorrow’s guy may be able to carry a laser range finder, a laser target marker, a laser designator and a thermal, all in one box, that is within a similar weight to that one ranger finder.”

And where once only a few of those boxes could talk to one another, Vaughan envisions a true networked system of systems. “I know that is a word that people throw around a lot, but it truly is here. In Afghanistan you had your laser range finder and your DAGR and that was a system of systems, that was your dismounted fire solution system. Today we can incorporate all of those additional accessories – range finders, markers, designators – into an overall fire solution and you can just plug and play. It gives you more flexibility in how you conduct fires. If you want a precise mission, you’ve got some tools that will add precision. If you want to mass your firepower for effects, you have a different tool for that. It gives the ground commander more flexibility to complete his mission.”

Combine that with the Canadian Army’s Digital Precision Strike Suite (DPSS), software that features applications known as the Precision Strike Software Special Operations Force (PSS-SOF) toolkit and the DPSS Collateral Damage Estimator (DiCDE), and an operator can generate an accurate grid to within centimetres from the target, while minimizing any potential fratricide.

In most case, DPSS is able to overcome the inherent inaccuracies of GPS and the orientation of the digital magnetic compass in a laser range finder by allowing an operator through the use of a tablet-like display to drag the generated target location directly over the actual intended target. Rather than calling for a centre mass strike on a building, for example, a controller can now bring down precision ordnance directly on top of a specific room to remove a sniper.

In addition, current Digital Close Air Support software suites allow a controller to see not only which aircraft are available but also exactly what weapons each carries – he can even tap the screen to select the appropriate weapon. “You are dragging and dropping,” Vaughan explained. “It takes that guess factor out. We have a very accurate grid, if we have a plane that shows up with a whole bunch of different missiles and bombs – 2000 pounders, 1000 pounders, 500 pounders, 75 pound Hellfire, small diameter 250 pound bombs – we can now use the right munition with the minimum amount of force necessary to remove a threat.”

The DiCDE software provides the added assurance of a “frag envelop” showing the likely impact of the ordnance selected.

Vaughan says that exchange of data with pilots will go a long way to minimizing the inevitable language barriers of coalition operations – even if the language is English. “The first pilot I spoke to in Afghanistan was a Scottish pilot. I had to get him to start enunciating his words,” he said. “The NATO standard for Forward Air Controllers is English, but you have Italian, German, French, Dutch pilots, and lessons learned have shown us that machine-to-machine interface gets that key information directly to the pilot and all we have to do is get him to read back those 10 numbers and a couple of key pieces of information to make sure he understands where the target is in relation to the friendlies.”

While that software will help refine a grid, it is not without its limitations. Even with updated mapping software, terrain features can change or, in a desert, may be few and far between to help refine a grid. Vaughan said the army is looking to introduce an additional interim capability through an RFP this fiscal year called DAMS (Digital Angulation Measuring System) that would overcome a problem with the digital magnetic compass when it is affected by nearby metal, especially that of a vehicle like a LAV. That interference can create an orientation error that usually translates to 10-100 metres for every kilometre to target, he explained. “If you have the limitation of the terrain that doesn’t show you where your grid really is because you have nothing to reference it to, you have to look at the problem of how do I minimize my orientation error. DAMS uses a technology to orient itself extremely accurately and it has gotten small enough and light enough that we are able to leverage it in the dismounted role.”

Into the simulator
Equally important as the introduction of new operational capability is the training component. With budget reality affecting the availability of planes and munitions for live training exercises, the army is looking for more options in simulators. One of results of the 2010 Joint Close Air Support Accreditation Program Memorandum of Agreement is the acceptance of more certification for joint terminal attack controllers in a simulator.

Vaughan said that a modest investment into an interim FOO/FAC simulator has quickly paid for itself just by reducing aircraft hours and operations and maintenance costs. But he wants to ensure that the project delivers a training solution that retains as much of the live, pressured-filled experience as possible. His preparation for Afghanistan was far more stressful than anything he encountered in theatre. “My instructors brought me to the edge with how hard and complex they made the environment – we trained for the worst of the worst scenarios and they wouldn’t certify you as combat ready until you demonstrated that you truly understood.

“Nothing replaces real training with real ammunition, but this is an excellent way to augment it. We now have 270-degree domes in which you can sit in middle and see the terrain, look up and see the jet coming over your shoulder. And you have all of the same tools inside the simulator that you would in an operational environment.”

The more immersive the environment, where light, sound, odor and temperature can all be controlled, the better, he added.

The longer-term plan involves the integration of a FOO/FAC simulator with the army’s networked Land Vehicle Crew Training System, which will enhance simulation training for LAV crews, among other vehicles, and with the air force’s F-18 and future fighter jet training solutions.

Although Vaughan’s team is making the most of other army projects to develop the components for a modernized FOO/FAC approach, he is monitoring industry closely for new developments in tools “for the toolbox,” especially for the dismounted soldier who requires “lighter and smaller form factors, and more digitally capable.” But he says industry’s greatest contribution at this stage would be help in bringing all of the various pieces together.

“The biggest part from industry, I think, is the integration of all these systems, actually making them work together so that they are not lone pieces of equipment, that they are a system of systems, and that they are plug-and-play. As we go forward, instead of having to modernize the whole thing, we’d just have to modernize pieces as technology or requirements progress to reflect the modern battlespace.”

A new digital architecture for Forward Observation Officers and Forward Air Controllers will not eliminate friendly fire and collateral damage incidents but it will help ensure that everyone shares a common and readily understandable digital language, which will do much to reduce the frequency of such incidents.

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