A senior air force officer serving with NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan has challenged the defense industry to produce lighter and more capable equipment for troops calling in air strikes on Taleban positions. Speaking at the Closec Air Support Conference organized by Defence IQ in London recently, Air Cdre Mike Jenkins, RAF, director of the ISAF Air Coordination Element, called for the development of a rifle-like targeting device for Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTACs), also known as Forward Air Controllers (FACs). He also called for a common data link algorithm, to improve air-ground communications under combat conditions.
ISAF is under pressure to reduce the number of friendly fire and civilian casualties, as NATO and Afghan troops battle to prevent the Taleban from regaining territory and influence. Ten weeks ago, for instance, three British soldiers were killed and two more injured in Helmand Province by a bomb dropped from a US F-15. Late last month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai called for air strikes to be curtailed, because they are killing too many civilians.
But, as Air Cdre Jenkins noted, airpower provides a key advantage in this asymmetric conflict and has become ‘flying artillery’ in Afghanistan, “with the JTACs making all the calls.” Ground troops are sometimes unable to carry a large number of mortars or large-caliber weapons across rugged terrain in hot and high conditions, he explained.
By the same token, he added, JTACs cannot easily haul bulky laser target markers, radios, and ROVER terminals. (The latter are ruggedized laptop PCs that can receive target imagery direct from a strike aircraft, manufactured by L-3 Communications (Stand E632)).
The ‘targeting rifle’ envisaged by Air Cdre Jenkins would be the personal rifle of the JTAC. It would additionally have FLIR and well as laser waveband 'pointers'; would provide night vision; and be capable of feeding GPS/laser range and azimuth data on enemy positions into a notebook-size laptop, for transmission and overlay on charts or imagery. A common data link could eliminate the need for radio communications. Industry currently provides only some of these capabilities, and they are not integrated into a lightweight package, he said. "The kit we have is good, but technology is leaping forward and we could do better," he added.
Despite the shortcomings that Air Cdre Jenkins identified, close air support missions are succeeding in Afghanistan, he said. British, Dutch, French and American aircraft are being guided onto targets by well-trained JTACS from various NATO nations, including Estonia and Poland, he noted. But the collateral damage issues are “complex”, he admitted, in a battlefield that is “fluid and dispersed”, and where the enemy can be difficult to identify. And the Taliban has a media advantage: “they can make ridiculous claims (of civilian casualties) which we cannot validate,” the ISAF officer noted.
"We are professional, identifiable and above all accountable, to governments and the public. They – the insurgents – are not," he added.