En route to the target for a Close Air Support (CAS) mission, the fighters will check in with the Air Support Operations Center (ASOC). The ASOC will give information about the tasking and unit the fighters are supporting, as well as any situation updates. The ASOC can also give preliminary holding or altitude stack information for the fighters to deconflict with other assets that are either on station or leaving the area.
As they near the objective, the fighters will push to the JTAC/FAC frequency and check in. Once comms are established, the JTAC will give the fighters holding instructions and an altitude block to maintain. On a busier CAS scenario, there could be several different platforms orbiting overhead in a “stack”, from MQ-9 Reapers to AC-130s to helos, to B-52s. Once deconfliction is set, the JTAC will clear the fighters to give a “FIGHTER to FAC brief.”
The Fighter to FAC brief is a quick canned briefing in which the fighter sends his mission number, number and type of aircraft, position and current altitude, ordnance available, time on station (playtime), what sensors he has on board (targeting pod), and, if applicable, the ABORT CODE.
The ABORT code is important and it is critical that each player knows it. Aborts can either be “in the clear,” that is, to abort an attack, any player can say “ABORT, ABORT, ABORT,” to tell the employing fighter to discontinue the attack. If there’s a code in lieu of “in the clear” then each fighter should agree on that code. This is often spelled out in the pre-mission Special Instructions (SPINS).
Once the FTR-FAC brief is acknowledged, the FAC will give the FAC-FTR brief. This brief gives fighters the general situation update, the type of target or objective the ground force is fighting, the threat types and general locations (usually MANPADS and small arms, but could be mobile SAMs), the friendly position, whether there’s any artillery and what the max altitude and line of fire is, what type of clearance the JTACs will use, and any general restrictions.
The most important piece of information in all of this is the FRIENDLY POSITION. If there’s time, I want a visual talk-on to the friendly position so that I can put eyes on them and ensure that I’m nowhere near them when employing. At night, Night Vision Goggles make this a bit easier, especially if the friendlies are using infrared strobes to mark their position.
If a visual talk on is not possible, fighters will at least get the friendly coordinates and mark it on their maps (digital or otherwise) and get a visual using onboard sensors (targeting pod).
In a high threat CAS scenario and in some low-threat scenarios, fighters will be given holding points away from the target. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll discuss a low threat scenario in which the fighters fly a “wheel” over the target. This accounts for the majority of today’s theater operations.
A “wheel” is an orbit over the objective. It can be either left or right-hand turns, depending on the aircraft and where the targeting pod is mounted (due to masking). In the F-16, we did a right hand wheel since the Litening/Sniper pod is on the right chin mount. In the Hornet, a left-hand wheel is used for the ATFLIR. This distance can be anywhere from a mile to five plus miles depending on the aircraft and speeds.
The assigned altitude depends largely on the “stack” and what other aircraft are in the area. One of the big myths of CAS is that fighters need to be low and slow to be effective. With the latest generation targeting pods, this is not the case. Fighters can be higher and farther away from the objective and still be effective. You can easily find yourself at medium altitude with Predators, Helicopters, and Surveillance assets orbiting beneath you.
The increased altitude comes with its own advantages. Above ten thousand feet, the fighters can stay out of the Weapons Engagement Zone (WEZ) of most older MANPADs and avoid small arms fire. They’re also less likely to draw attention to the ground forces on SOF missions requiring stealth.
Once established in the wheel, the flight lead and wingman will either separate “across the circle” to allow the wingman to focus on the ground objective without worrying about station keeping, or they’ll separate into different altitude blocks and use datalink to deconflict.
When it’s time to attack, the JTAC will pass the fighters their first 9-Line. This is a standardized format in which the JTAC gives the targeting information to the fighters. The JTAC will start off by telling the fighters the Type of control and targeting that will be used for the attack.
There are three types of control. Type 1 requires the JTAC to see both the fighter and target throughout the attack to ensure the fighter is attacking the right target. Type 2 only requires the JTAC to see either the target or fighter. After the fighter calls “in”, a JTAC will give a “Cleared Hot” call for either of these scenarios.
In Type 3 control, the JTAC doesn’t have to see either the target or fighter. This is usually used when there’s a target array well away from friendlies, such as a convoy or troop position that requires multiple reattacks. A JTAC will give fighters a “Cleared to Engage” call.
Before the 9-line is passed, a JTAC will usually state whether it’s Bombs on Coordinate (BOC) or Bombs on Target (BOT). The difference between the two is that in BOC, the JTAC will pass precise coordinates to the fighter. The fighter will enter that directly into the system and drop precision weapons on those coordinates. This is useful if there’s an undercast layer. In BOT, a JTAC may give coordinates, but they are usually not precise and a talk-on is required using either eyeballs or sensors.
The first three lines of the 9-Line involve the desired Ingress Point (IP), run in heading, and distance. For example, based on troop movements or the enemy position, a JTAC could direct the fighters to run in from North to South in a ten mile leg. In today’s low-threat CAS, however, lines 1-3 are mostly N/A.
Lines 4-6 deal with target information. JTACs will pass the target elevation, target description, and the coordinates in either Lat/Long or the Military Grid Reference System (MGRS). The coordinates can also be replaced by “per talk on” or “per system” if the JTAC talked the pilot’s eyes/sensors onto the target prior to the 9-line and doesn’t have the target coordinates.
Lines 7-9 are Marks, Friendlies, and Egress. The controller will tell the fighters how the target is marked, if it all. This could be in the form of smoke, IR strobes, or an IR marker/laser. Friendly position is, again, the most important thing to know. This tells the fighters how far the friendly position is from the target. This can also drive the type of weapon used, and the level of risk acceptable. (i.e. – Danger Close requires ground commander acknowledgement that he understands that fighters will be dropping in close proximity to friendlies). Egress just tells the fighter where the JTAC wants him after the attack. It could be back to the holding point (if away from the target) or back to the overhead “wheel.”
The general contract between a flight lead and a wingman during all of this is that the flight lead copies the 9-line while the wingman follows along and flies formation and looks out for threats. If the wingman is more experienced, he can write it down as well. Once the 9-Line is passed, the flight lead (or fighter executing the attack) will read back lines 4 and 6. Theater ROE often, rightfully, requires fighters to read back line 8 so that everyone is on the same page on where the friendlies are in relation to where the weapons are going.
If it’s a BOC attack, the fighter will input the coordinates into their systems and read back directly from their system. It was usually my habit to write it down and then enter it into the system before reading it back (time permitting) for both BOC and BOT attacks. This helped to ensure that I was definitely using the correct coordinates.
After the readback is confirmed, the JTAC passes remarks and restrictions for the attack. This could be how he wants the fighter to call “in,” what release heading he wants (to ensure that the fighters aren’t dropping bombs over friendlies’ heads or shooting the gun toward them), what the expected Time Over Target (TOT) should be or when to expect clearance.
“Call in with direction, tally target, visual friendlies expect clearance on final,” would tell a fighter that he should call “In heading 240 tally target, visual friendlies,” and hear “Cleared Hot” shortly thereafter.
The coordination doesn’t stop there. Once the restrictions are read back, then it’s time for the JTAC to talk the fighter’s eyes onto the target (BOT). This is a “big to small” approach. For example, if the objective is an airfield, the JTAC might start by saying, “Call contact the runway.” Once that common point is established, it can be used as a unit of measure, or a common reference point for a visual talk on.
Sensor talk-ons are a bit easier. Once the coordinates are input into the system, the fighters can tell the JTAC what they’re seeing in the pod and slew the pod appropriately. IR markers and lasers can be used to ensure everyone is looking at the same thing in the pod. If equipped with ROVER, the fighter and JTAC can connect via datalink and the JTAC can see exactly what the fighter is looking at through her pod.
The comm for the talk-on is equally important. When talking about talk-on references, we say “CONTACT.” When the target is confirmed, that changes to “TALLY.” When talking about friendlies, the word is always “VISUAL.” This is to ensure that there’s no confusion between what’s a target and what’s a friendly position.
So we’re eyes on the target, now what? Well, at this point, the communications switch to interflight. The flight lead will make sure that the wingman also sees it (since he’s not talking during the talk-on) and give him a talk-on if necessary. Once all players are looking at the same thing, the flight lead will brief the gameplan – how are we going to prosecute this attack?
The flight lead will brief the wingman on what he expects. Will they both attack or will one fighter drop bombs while the other orbits above to “Cover”? What kind of ordnance will they use and what are the settings for the attack? If they’re attacking together, will they drop simultaneously or roll in with thirty second spacing? And finally, what’s the deconfliction plan and how will they avoid hitting each other coming off target?
It sounds like a laborious process, but as complicated as it sounds, all of this happens rather quickly. It requires a ton of training and practice, and it’s why communities like the A-10 and AC-130 are the best at it because it’s their primary missions. They do it constantly so that the coordination happens very smoothly.
Helmet-mounted cueing systems also make this process a lot easier. You can drop a mark on the friendly position and target and be able to look out the window to see exactly where the friendlies are in relation to the target. At night, marking with IR pointers and using Night Vision Goggles fulfills this requirement.
Once the coordination is complete, the roll-in depends on the type of attack. For example, a high angle strafing run would have the fighter roll in from the wheel and dive toward the target. The fighter would call, “RIVER 11 IN HEADING 180, TALLY TARGET, VISUAL FRIENDLIES (using the restrictions example from above).” The JTAC would respond either CONTINUE (if he’s not ready to issue release clearance) or “CLEARED HOT.”
This is where things happen fast. You’re hurtling toward the ground at 400+ knots in a 25 degree dive trying to nail the parameters for the run, while simultaneously listening for the clearance to release. Once the magic words are uttered, then you can strafe and recover the aircraft while trying to look out for threats and finding your wingman.
Sometimes the JTAC will make changes on the fly for the wingman, especially if it’s a sequenced attack. “From lead’s hits, move fifty meters North,” would tell a wingman to adjust his aim based on the smoke from where his flight lead just attacked.
As the wingman is coming off target, the flight lead is now watching his six to ensure no MANPADS are launched in his direction. They’re also assessing the hits, and the JTAC will radio as to whether an “immediate reattack” is necessary or the attacks were successful and it’s time to move on to the next 9-Line.
Dropping live MK-83 (1000 lb) during a simulated CAS mission.
This sequence repeats over and over until the fighters either run out of ordnance or on-station time. It can be both mentally and physically draining, especially if the ground forces are “Troops in Contact” (Taking fire from the enemy) and the sense of urgency is high. There is no worse feeling than hearing the JTAC key up and hearing the sound of gunfire in the background. The urge to do everything possible to stand down the threat is extremely high.
Once the support period is over, the JTAC will give the fighters a quick “debrief” of how things went, including how many targets were successfully destroyed and any intel to bring back to base. The fighters will RTB, knowing that they’re going back to base while their brothers in arms on the ground are going to stay and fight. It’s what drives them to want to get out there as much as possible to support the ground troops.
This was just a small taste of what goes on during a CAS mission. CAS is very dynamic and no two missions are the same. I’ve barely scratched the surface on the various scenarios and events. In Part Three, we’ll take a look at a few unique operations like Emergency CAS, armed escort, and non-kinetic events.