Best Supporting Actors

This is an article published in our June/July 2017 Issue.

Elbit Systems has carved a niche as a supplier of upgrades to Soviet/Russian and Warsaw Pact era aircraft, such as the L-39, to enable them to be compatible with Western avionics and weapons. (Danie van der Merwe)

The nature of modern day operations means that air strikes are often the primary form of attack used against targets, and traditional battlefields, which generally only involve the two opposing sides but that are away from civilians, reside for now in the history books.

Insurgents today, as they have been throughout history, are integrated into everyday societies: “The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea,” noted Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China. Practitioners of political violence have the advantage of being indistinguishable from civilians, and relatively safe from large scale bombardments, because opposing forces, notable the US and its allies, want to keep collateral damage to a minimum, to avoid adverse publicity in the global court of public opinion. Close Air Support (CAS) is therefore utilised to ensure that when an air strike has to be made near civilians, the enemy is the only target that is hit. While aircraft now have an array of sensors available to them that allow for a near-perfect situational awareness in the air, pilots do not always know exactly what is going on, on the ground, despite the detail of the intelligence picture they have available to them.

The missing pieces of this intelligence jigsaw can be found by having personnel on the ground whom can provide the information that is missing to the pilot, offering a picture of what is happening on the ground and feeding this up to the aircraft. Typically these personnel are referred to as Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) that are highly trained, and responsible for directing air power to the right target. JTACs use a range of different technologies, which incorporate a number of different communications feeds that allows JTACs to communicate the information they have received to a commander, or directly to a pilot.

AMX-A11A fighters
The Italian Air Force has used is AMX-A11A fighters for CAS missions in Afghanistan, with Italian industry examining further CAS technological developments. (US DOD)

The US was the first to give the appellation to the CAS/JTAC mission, and the technology used is often US-built. Nevertheless, this does not mean that other nations are not carrying out this type of mission, nor that non-US industry is not also developing similar technology. Italy is one of the few nations outside of the US that has been recognised for its CAS effort, having flown AMX International AMX-A11A fighter in support of this mission type throughout Italy’s operations in Afghanistan supporting the US-led multinational effort against the Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgent organisation there. Information regarding what ground-based technology is used by Italy is limited, but it is likely to incorporate systems developed by domestic industry, while Italian aircraft such as the Eurofighter Typhoon-F2000A fighters have been touted for use in this role. Italy is keen to integrate its Typhoons-F2000As in the CAS role, and the aircraft has been used to demonstrate a new key technology that could support this mission set.

Reverse IFF

To this end, Leonardo has developed an air-to-ground version of its Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) technology, which is a Radio Frequency (RF) transponder-based capability that in the air domain typically allows a pilot to transmit and receive identification data. IFF allows operators to determine if another aircraft is friendly or hostile by verifying the signal it receives as a response to an initial RF interrogation. The so-called ‘reverse IFF’ approach being employed by Leonardo will now allow an aircraft to communicate with ground-based platforms and formations, in order to verify where friendly forces on the ground are located. Although the company could not provide any further detail at this time, it told Armada that one of the system’s key applications is in support of the CAS mission, and applying it to the Typhoon fighter family supports a desire by both the operators and industry behind the aircraft to adapt it further to this type of operation: “A reverse-IFF system uses the same concept to interrogate ground forces (as the air-to-air one), allowing a pilot to understand where surface-level friendly forces are located before deciding whether to use weaponry,” Leonardo added in a written statement: “The system is called ‘reverse’ IFF because the aircraft uses its transponder, usually used to reply to interrogations from other aircraft or from the ground, to scan (for RF transmissions from) ground vehicles.”

In April 2016, Leonardo announced that it had demonstrated the successful integration of a Mode-5 reverse-IFF system onto a Typhoon family aircraft, providing air-to-ground IFF capabilities. Mode-5 refers to the new IFF protocol that will be expected to be used by NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) nations from circa 2020. All IFF systems, if they are to be used during NATO operations or exercises, will need to be integrated with Mode 5 compatible IFF systems by then, and the reverse IFF system could be another option for this: “To demonstrate the solution, an Italian air force Typhoon simulated a close air support mission over Pratica di Mare (Rome) airbase in Italy, flying toward and interrogating a number of Italian Army armoured vehicles with its reverse-IFF system. As the vehicles returned ‘friendly’ signals, the Typhoon held off from providing air-to-ground support that might otherwise have caused collateral damage to the friendly forces,” Leonardo continued in the statement. It added that NATO is considering the Mode-5 Reverse-IFF system as one of the possible short-to-mid-term solutions for air-to-surface identification, which will help it avoid friendly fire when cooperating with coalition forces: “The integration solution … has shown that it is possible to introduce such a significant capability in a simple, low-impact fashion using the aircraft’s existing (IFF) transponder,” it added.

A-10C ground attack aircraft
A US Air Force A-10C ground attack aircraft performs a CAS strike during a training exercise. (US DOD)

Commander Fire

Thales, on the other hand, is developing technology within Europe for the ground-based operator specifically, namely the Commander Fire CAS Edition, which derived from other intelligence systems that the company has already developed. Commander Fire is a fully digitised artillery Command and Control (C2) system. In 2012, it became apparent that as a result of the French Army’s experience of using the Commander Fire system, that it wanted a specific forward observer system in order to help optimise the sensor-to-shooter loop: “in order to (accelerate) the call for fire tempo and guarantee long-range precision strikes with smart ammunition,” Matthias Abouothman, product line manager for artillery and intelligence systems at Thales, told Armada. Mr. Abouothman added that recent military operations involving the French armed forces in Afghanistan, Libya, Mali and Iraq underlined specific needs for more air-land integration, which is the “criticality of joint coordination” when it comes to CAS missions: “Thus, Thales launched in 2014 the first version of its Commander Fire CAS Edition; a customised hardware integrated on a combat vest integrating full connectivity and offering a dedicated Digitally Aided Close Air Support (DACAS) software suite,” he said. Commander Fire systems are operationally deployed in France, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates, although when it comes to the Commander Fire CAS Edition: “our export customers are very keen to stay discrete mainly because of the on-going operations of the international coalition air strikes against ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” Mr. Abouothman added: “The target market is worldwide, as fire support missions include new (weapons), joint coordination, legacy integration,” he said, adding that the DACAS market is platform driven, and is also being bolstered by sales of new aircraft that could be used in this role, notably the recent sales of the Dassault Rafale family fighter to Egypt, India and Qatar,” he added.

The Commander Fire CAS Edition can connect with existing tactical radio systems to allow its information to be shared across the battlefield. It enables the JTAC to carry out voice and data exchanges with the air operations headquarters, army combat units within the area of interest, as well as fixed and rotary wing aircraft directly: “The latest version of Commander Fire CAS Edition, (and) new hardware and software configurations enabling call for fire in three clicks, will be tested in real conditions (in 2017),” Mr. Abouothman noted.

In the Brazilian market, Embraer and Rockwell Collins announced in April that they had teamed with Savis and Bradar to work on a number of key defence technologies, including close air support. While the agreement is designed to develop a number of different technologies, the first focus is on radar integration into Rockwell Collins’ FireStorm product, which is a wearable targeting system for JTACs that connects different battlefield elements together into one unit. The agreement will see Bradar’s radar incorporated into the system, which will increase situational awareness and be able to be used alongside CAS aircraft such as Embraer’s EMB-314/A-29 Super Tucano turboprop trainer/light attack aircraft: “This integrated solution provides an option to augment the capability to offer both close air support and troops’ call for fire, being able in the future to operate integrated with attack aircraft, such as the A-29 Super Tucano,” a joint statement released on 4th April said. While there is a domestic application to this work, the Força Aérea Brasileira (Brazilian Air Force) notably operates the A-29A/B, the team hopes that together export of different technology including the radar-upgraded CAS system will be more appealing to potential customers.

CAS technological development is focusing on methods by which forward air controllers and counter-insurgency aircraft such as the EMB-314 pictured here can work together. (USAF)

That work being carried out with less traditional CAS aircraft in mind, such as the Super Tucano and Typhoon families, also illustrates how certain nations want to have control over both the land and air element of close air support operations. Elbit Systems is seemingly taking a lead on modifying older aircraft to be adapted to modern CAS missions, including for the Royal Thai Air Force that has received an upgraded Aero Vodochody L-39 turbofan trainer that supports close air support roles. The Philippines could be another customer for a modified L-39, as the island nation seeks a new CAS aircraft, and Aero Vodochody’s systems could be an option, including its new L-39NG, which includes new avionics and a new engine. Elbit installed a new avionics suite onto the L-39 for Thailand, including an advanced cockpit, a debriefing system, and the capability to deploy Western weapons. It added that the system was tailored to be as close as possible to the General Dynamics/Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter family operational concept, to enable the L-39 to perform as a lead-In trainer for the F-16. Elbit also offers the Serpent, which is a portable and lightweight laser designator and rangefinder for laser-guided munitions. This provides forward observers and close air support operators with diode-pumped laser technology, which Elbit says in its literature enables accurate laser designation with low lifecycle costs and reduced battery consumption. The system is also lightweight with a mass of 4.63 kilograms (10.1 pounds) it is optimal for dismounted soldiers, Elbit noted.

Elbit Systems has carved a niche as a supplier of upgrades to Soviet/Russian and Warsaw Pact era aircraft, such as the L-39, to enable them to be compatible with Western avionics and weapons. (Danie van der Merwe)

Another success of Elbit is the upgrade of the Sukhoi Su-25 family ground attack aircraft which, with its modifications, is designed to provide CAS and engage low-speed air targets: “It features a versatile arsenal of both Western and Eastern weapons, mountable (across) ten pylons,” Elbit says. The new Su-25 is equipped with an advanced avionics system, including a weapon delivery and navigation system, and is fully NATO-compliant: “The fully modernised cockpit features two multi-function colour liquid crystal displays, and a head-up display,” the company said: “The upgraded aircraft is fitted with protective features, assuring increased survivability even in the harshest scenarios.”

These different aircraft offer alternatives to US-built systems such as the Fairchild/Lockheed Martin A-10C Thunderbolt-II ground attack aircraft operated by the US Air Force, which has now become synonymous with CAS aircraft, and ground-based systems are being developed accordingly to complement these alternative aircraft. The US arguably takes a lead in a lot of operations worldwide, so it makes sense that it also takes the lead in integral operations such as CAS execution. However, there are still theatres where the US is not present, and other nations must then take responsibility directing air power to the correct target during these operations. To this end, nations in Europe and further afield are incorporating CAS technology, of which there are many different varieties, and offering a different types of system to export nations.

by Beth Stevenson