April 18, 2011: The U.S. Air Force is automating its air controllers with wearable computers, and eyeglasses with built-in computer screens. The air controllers are JTACs (Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, who call in air strikes) and operate as part of TACPs (Tactical Air Control Party). While JTACs are officers, and the only ones authorized to bring attack aircraft in low, most of the personnel in the TACPs are air force NCOs trained to do just about everything else (especially calling in smart bomb strikes). To help TACPs (as the NCOs are called) do their work better and faster, the air force has developed a one kilogram (two pound) wearable computer, to replace the 3.6 kg (8 pound) laptop currently used. The wearable computer (called SWC, for Small Wearable Computer) fits into a pouch on the front of the protective vest, and folds out when needed, so the TACP can see the small screen, use the small keyboard and simultaneously talk to pilots and ground troops. New software for the SWC gives both pilots and TACPs a common view of where ground and air units are. The SWC can also share video with aircraft overhead. So with the SWC, the TACPs have to haul less, and can do their job more quickly and easily.
To replace the small screen on the SWC, the air force is introducing Vuzix augmented reality eyeglasses. When powered on, the Vuzix eyeglasses act like a HUD (Head Up Display) with pertinent information displayed. In addition, that information can be transmitted to aircraft overhead, to assist in making sure the right target gets identified and hit. Thus the JTAC/TACP collects a lot of essential information on the target by just looking at it with the Vuzix glasses on. When the Vuzix glasses are turned off, they act just like a pair of non-prescription eyeglasses (you can see right through them).
This new gear may help with another problem. While the air force has no shortage of TACPs, it is having a hard time holding on to their JTACs. Some 40 percent of them leave the air force as soon as they can, choosing not to make it a career. This despite being offered bonuses of up to $90,000 to stay in. JTACs are difficult to recruit and train. The work is exacting and dangerous. For example, JTACs currently spend most of their time overseas with army units. The combat duty is stressful, and many JTACs complain that they joined the air force, but spend most of their time with the army. The persistent shortage has made the overseas tours longer and more numerous, and hurt JTAC morale still further. Last year, the air force solution was to try and increase the number of JTACs to nearly 1,100 over the next three years. That is not going to be easy, although the sharp drop in demand for JTACs in Iraq helps.
Not much of a shortage for the TACPs, however. The NCO TACPs make the job a career, and know that if they get too banged up to handle being out with the infantry all the time, the air force will re-train them for something less strenuous. The SWC and Vuzix glasses will make the job easier, and contribute to more experienced JTACs and TACPs staying in, despite frequent duty in combat zones.