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Major exercise sees UK and NATO forces refine land-air coordination for Afghanistan

The role of the Forward Air Controller (FAC) in coordinating such precise integration between air and land forces is vital and requires intensive…

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The role of the Forward Air Controller (FAC) in coordinating such precise integration between air and land forces is vital and requires intensive training.

Such an impressive education starts in the classroom, but mastering the art of calling air power towards the enemy on the ground requires more practical experience.

Luckily for those learning their trade, the large scale Exercise Flying Rhino, held in - and over - the Czech Republic, is on hand. The three-week programme - the British Army’s largest land-air military exercise - is carried out by 1st (UK) Armoured Division and the Royal Air Force, using one-third of the NATO ally’s airspace.

Commander Royal Artillery 1st (UK) Armoured Division, Brigadier Richard Haldenby, overseeing this year’s exercise, said:

It’s the largest FAC training we have and we are here to prepare for Afghanistan, working on air-land integration.

Ten years ago air-land control was the sole preserve of a few special cases but now people are used to working with the air - it’s not an ‘us-and-them’ culture.

The fast-paced European deployment saw more than 2,000 UK troops linking up with military personnel from the Czech Republic, Denmark, Lithuania, Slovakia and the United States in an operational environment.

On one occasion three AS90 self-propelled guns sped into position ready to cause devastation anywhere within their 24.7km range, while the RAF’s supersonic Tornado GR4 fleet were on standby to fly into action.

The trainee FACs, operating with front line troops, were required to coordinate the assets safely.

Bombadier Craig Underwood from 17 Battery, 26 Regiment Royal Artillery (26 Regt RA), said:

I take fast air onto the targets. The exercise is geared towards getting people like me combat-ready and it’s a great opportunity to go live.

It gives me the skills to be ready for combat and without them I could not deploy in the role, so it’s a very good thing for my career.

A total of 96 FACs from the different nations were taught in the Jince military training area, with 29 from the UK set to deploy on Operation HERRICK in the near future.

With 1,077 radio commands delivered in just two weeks of the exercise, training was as intense as it will be in a war zone. Wing Commander Steve Reeves, Commanding Officer of 14 Squadron RAF, said:

A Tornado can fly at a speed of around 1,000mph [1,600km/h] and can fly in at 600mph [970km/h] at 100ft [30m].

So a FAC has to think pretty quickly and be able to deconflict the fire from the ground.

Explaining the nature of his role, Lieutenant James Well of 159 Battery, 26 Regt RA, said:

It can be quite high pressure but you practise so much before you’re allowed on operations that it is no more stressful than normal.

The entire focus of the training is to ensure there’s no extra pressure on us.

Mimicking the situation in Helmand province, a battle group HQ was set up at Namest Air Base, with operatives working at computers providing real-time information to soldiers on the ground.

Complex software and other digital technology was also used to provide intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) without actually launching unmanned aerial vehicles into the sky.

Speaking about the relationship between Army and RAF personnel within the battle group HQ, Major Matt Murphy, Royal Artillery, said:

The joint HQ really has been excellent and has been invaluable in learning a lot from each other - we have learnt to understand how the Tornado operates and the RAF now understand a lot more about the land environment we possess.

The language of the two forces is completely different so this has been an opportunity to learn what we are both talking about, which is obviously a good thing for everyone involved.

The goal at the heart of Exercise Flying Rhino was improving battlespace management, with slick communication and efficient partnership between the Army and RAF the ultimate aim.

Sergeant Major Col Ryan of 12 Regiment Royal Artillery, an expert in the field, was called in to advise 20 Brigade on using the different skills to maximum effect:

Everything we do in Afghanistan is to do with battlespace management,” he said. “Getting guns firing as things move through the airspace has to be watertight. It’s a moving beast and very complex.

In the past air may have been working separately to land but now the RAF and the Army have never worked as closely since World War Two.

Such a unified effort was imperative to the logistics of the exercise with 32 aircraft, 600 vehicles and thousands of servicemen and women being moved into the training area.

With FACs acting as the eyes and ears on the ground and seamless communication between all personnel, the exercise showed that the distance between land and sky is not that great after all.

This article by Joe Clapson was first published in the August 2010 issue of Soldier - magazine of the British Army.

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Published 20 August 2010