Information Warfare: Getting a Bead On Those Rascally Rabbits

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March 31, 2007: The U.S. Air Force is, like all the other services, hustling to develop a battlefield Internet capability. To that end, the air force has pioneered digital communications with, and between, its war planes. Called Link 16, this system enables pilots to share digital information, including pictures, video and radar data. The air force now has a system that combines the data from its aircraft, with the army's Blue Force Tracker (which tracks the location of army troops via GPS) data, to produce JDICE (Joint Datalink Information Combat Execution). This provides a real time picture of where the aircraft and ground forces are, and what the aircraft targeting pods know about enemy activity. Blue Force Tracker also shows information on where friendly ground troops believe enemy forces are, so JDICE gives the most complete picture of the combat zone.

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This is great stuff, at least for giving the guy running the battle (usually an army officer) a more accurate picture of who is where. But the big problem for the air force is still the guy who talks to the bomber pilots, and tells then when, and where, to drop smart bombs. The smart bombs have been very popular with the ground troops, but the increased demand for close air support has been difficult to meet. The air force has increased (to about 1,100) the number of JTAC (Joint Tactical Air Controller) teams, the specialized ground troops that talk to the aircraft and "call in" the smart bombs. To be JTAC qualified, you have to be able to call in JDAMS, AC-130s, helicopters, artillery, and so on. This is in line with the new army doctrine of having people out there with the combat units who can call in all flavors of what is now being called "fires."

The army wants their own people to be able to call in smart bombs, but the air force has been resisting that. In response, the army is relying more on its own GPS guided weapons (227mm MLRS rockets and 155mm artillery shells). This provides the kind of competition that forces the air force to be more responsive, and more imaginative. But the air force is particularly resistant to giving up control, via the JTAC teams.

The air force suspects, that the army wants to reduce bombers to the status of sky trucks, just circling above, and releasing smart bombs whenever the army commander below needs one. The air force has long resented the army attitude that the air force simply supports ground combat, and, aside from ICBMs delivering nukes, has no independent purpose of its own. The air force hopes to educate the army with systems like JDICE, and demonstrate how air power can become an independent partner on the battlefield. The current generation of targeting pods, which enable pilots to make out what kind of weapons individuals on the ground are carrying, seems to give the air force the kind of eyes on the ground they have long needed.. Coupled with more reconnaissance UAVs and spy satellite data, the air force believes it can take apart an enemy force before the army ever encounters them. The army has heard it all before, and will believe it when it actually happens. The soldiers and pilots disagree on how well you can really understand what's happening on the ground, from 20,000 feet up. The army knows, and the air force tries to ignore, the fact that, for the last 70 years, the pilots have been continually deceived by the enemy on the ground. But, the feeling is, with enough information, those rascals down their will be truly revealed, and finally undone.

 


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