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Software Paints Clearer Tactical Picture

January 18, 2011
By Jordan Garegnani, SIGNAL Connections

The Air Force Tactical Air Control Party is upgrading its Close Air Support System software and installing it on a wearable computer that is 75 percent lighter than the previous computers TACP teams used. The GoBook MR-1 with software version 1.4.2 improves communication between airmen on the ground and their counterparts in the sky.

Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) airmen are assigned to U.S. Army units as liaisons for close air support (CAS) between the ground commander and the combat aircraft pilots. The new computer, called a small wearable computer (SWC), enables the TACP to stay with the Army units on foot patrols in Afghanistan while carrying the computer and using digital CAS communication.

The Close Air Support System (CASS) software on the SWC greatly improves situational awareness for airmen and units involved on the ground, says Master Sgt. Christopher Spann, USAF, a TACP subject matter expert. “The software gives the operating joint terminal attack controller [JTAC] on the ground the ability to interface with software on [his] computer, designate points on the ground onto a map on the computerwhether they are neutral or friendlyand transmit those positions to the aircraft,” he explains.

According to Rob Bubello, program manager for TACP Modernization, previous CAS communication was via voice transmissions. Now, the software enables the TACP to put out one message to multiple destinations through a digital map. “It eliminates the possibility of error and speeds things up because it allows us to go line of sight with some aircraft,” Bubello says. “It gives us expanded ability to talk to the rest of the air forces and systems in the regions as well.”

Air fighters used to receive only a few critical messages, but Capt. Sean Carlson, USAF, program manager for the CASS software, says that now the TACP can paint the full picture and publish it to everyonenot just the pilotsfor improved situational awareness. “Now we can see the complete picture before ever dropping a bomb,” he explains.

Information also can be passed back and forth between the TACP and the pilots. While the pilots can receive information such as friendly troops, threats, targets and attack headings, the control party can receive information about the aircraft and its capabilities. This knowledge allows for the best decisions to be made efficiently in changing combat situations, Capt. Carlson adds.

Another new feature of version 1.4.2 is a variable message format (VMF). This format allows the TACP to bypass the gateway, which requires line of sight, and communicate directly with the pilot. Bubello relates that this provides flexibility in times when a line of sight to the gateway is unavailable. “VMF is a backup and another situational tool for the JTAC if he needs it,” he adds.

The implementation of this software modernization is in the preparation stages. Capt. Carlson explains that currently the service is ensuring that training occurs before switching from version 1.4.1 to 1.4.2. The training schedule is prioritized so that units that are deploying will be trained first. Only one National Guard unit has been trained so far, as most training will be this year, the captain says. Air Combat Command will make the final decision as to when teams will start using the new version.

During 2010, CASS 1.4.2 has been used only in training exercises, but it has received good reviews. Master Sgt. Spann explains that the TACP teams can be out with dismounted or mounted patrol with SWC computers, target enemies and react without having to use a support center. “This gives our guys tremendous capability. We’ve received nothing but positive reactions,” he adds.