Tactical and Technical
Our Eye in the Sky: Integrating E-7A Wedgetail and the Combat BrigadeBy Pietro Ruggeri April 11, 2019
“Defend from Above” – 42 Wing motto
As Ground Liaison Officer to No 42 Wing I have had the opportunity to observe the E-7A Wedgetail operate in support of Forces Command (FORCOMD) exercises. This essay is intended to communicate the lessons learnt from these exercises to facilitate future integrated training.
The essay will first explain the context for discussion. It will then address airborne early warning, command and control, and targeting coordination in support of a combat brigade. Lastly, it will detail the lessons learnt from recent support to FORCOMD.
Context for Discussion
What do we, as a ground combat element, think we need from air platforms? Bombs, guns, cameras, thermal sensors, and imagery communication? Wedgetail doesn’t carry air-to-ground munitions, isn’t equipped with high-definition multi-spectrum cameras, and can’t determine ten figure grids to enemy dug-in positions. So what is the use of one orbiting ninety miles south of the battlespace?
E-7A Wedgetail is the RAAF’s airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) capability. It’s based on a Boeing 737 airframe and is equipped with a multi-role electronically scanned array (MESA) radar with an effective range in excess of 400 kilometres. Wedgetail’s role is to provide networked surveillance, information dissemination, and battlespace command and control to air warfare elements (RAAF Capability Guidebook, 22).
What is a combat brigade’s contribution to air warfare? Typically the Air Defence Battery (AD Bty); a mix of RBS-70 ground based air defence weapons, Giraffe Agile Multi Beam Radars (G-AMB), and a Battery Command Post (BCP), all from 16th Air Land Regiment. Together these provide a local air picture to the supported headquarters and a very short range, ground-based air defence capability.
Wedgetail can significantly improve the effectiveness of brigade air defence by forming the cornerstone of a Joint Task Force’s integrated air and missile defence system (IAMDS), from which the land component can leverage. As a command and control platform, Wedgetail is also better equipped to coordinate airspace, providing a higher authority to a Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) who may have strike, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and mobility platforms on station. This is also relevant to targeting coordination, with Wedgetail having the capability to efficiently communicate dynamic targets and execute target lists.
Despite operating with a ceiling altitude of 41,000 feet, the Wedgetail remains capable of communicating with land forces. Whether an Air Operations Centre, Brigade Headquarters, or Joint Terminal Attack Controller, the on board capability allows for communications by voice and data (RAAF Capability Guidebook, 22). This means that airborne Surveillance Control Officers can disseminate near real-time information to any organisation or force element via their array of communication networks.
This information would be primarily focused on the air picture; a visual representation of all friendly, hostile, and neutral aircraft flying within the area of operations. The RAAF has defined this as a recognised air picture (RAP), intending to share data and information collected from various ISR and air battle management capabilities with the ADF’s common operating picture (AAP 1001.3, 2-18). With a MESA radar capable of identifying aircraft out to 400 kilometres, Wedgetail becomes a primary deployable means of generating and communicating the RAP.
At the Brigade level a local air picture is a responsibility of the AD Bty, employing radars and communications equipment to disseminate near real-time information. By coordinating the efforts of G-AMB radars, the BCP can derive a local air picture for Brigade early warning against hostile aircraft. Given their Link 16 compatibility, however, Wedgetail can directly communicate its RAP to the Air-Land Integration Cell (ALIC), significantly improving the Land Force’s situational understanding of the air environment. The RAP would not only be limited to what Wedgetail can see with its MESA radar, but also the data it can relay from other RAAF and national strategic ground-based radars.
Wedgetail can also be integrated into the early warning control net, which is the link between a Joint Force Air Operations Centre and the AD Bty command post. This net is established to coordinate the overall air defence effort within the IAMDS. Wedgetail is capable of acting as a frontline conduit of information for the cueing of air and ground based air defence capabilities within a joint force area of operations. The impending acquisition of Norwegian Advanced Surface to Air Missile System (NASAMS) will extend the range in which Army GBAD systems operate, giving an IAMDS commander more reason to decentralise control and engagement authority. Although NASAMS and Wedgetail can improve a Brigade’s air defence capability, the IAMDS should be approached holistically within the Joint Force commander’s intent.
Command and Control
Wedgetail is, at a minimum, an operational level capability. Its capacity for command and control (C2) tasks is shaped by its communications suite, radar, and highly trained crew of Surveillance Control Officers. This enables Wedgetail’s role as a C2 node across the core air power roles: control of the air, strike, air mobility, and ISR (AAP 1000-D, 46). Control of the air is a standard AEW&C function, with Wedgetail crews gaining valuable experience in controlling coalition aircraft on exercise and operations. No 2 Squadron has participated in a number of high-end air combat exercises abroad, including the American Red Flag series. An AEW&C’s ability to replicate ground based operational airspace control with the inherent flexibility of an air platform makes it a primary choice for JTF operations. While ground combat units wouldn’t require dedicated Wedgetail support for airspace control, the TACP and ALIC could certainly leverage off an already airborne AEW&C for control within the AO and C2 of the aforementioned IAMDS.
AEW&C is also highly capable of coordinating all types of strike missions, particularly kinetic strikes against ground targets. The Joint Force Air Component Commander (JFACC) is able to delegate strike coordination authority, providing the AEW&C crew autonomy and promoting integration with other elements of the Theatre Air Control System. This includes acting as a higher authority to the brigade’s TACP. Wedgetail is capable of tasking aircraft from across the Joint AO to prosecute targets in support of brigade operations. As a result missions such as close air support and air interdiction can be planned and executed with greater flexibility outside of limited brigade airspace. Given that brigades often lack a higher level Air Operations Centre or Air Component Coordination Element when exercising at the formation level, a Wedgetail can replicate the strike control delegation process more rapidly, though with limited permanence.
Tactical Air Land and Air Mobile Operations can be a complex activity to coordinate for a ground combat headquarters. Often requiring detailed integration with aircrew and heavy input from the TACP, a Tactical Air Land or Air Mobile Operation must be executed with minimal ambiguity in intent. The most difficult process is communicating safe flying routes, insertion locations, and actions on, all common points of debate between aviators and staff planners. The Air Power Manual recognises this complexity, suggesting the requirement of integrated planning and organisation in such operations (AAP 1000-D, 67). Wedgetail can provide a means for integrated execution. By handing over air mobility C2 to an AEW&C platform a brigade can enable the Wedgetail aircrew to utilise common language for control and exploit their greater situational understanding. This does create conflict in mission C2, however the clear communication of intent will mitigate operational friction.
Wedgetail, with its communication and radar capability, is also expected to act as a critical node in the ADFs ISR network. It is a key enabler of situational understanding and decision superiority, providing real-time data and information to a JTFs integrated ISR system (AAP 1001.3, 2-5). For a Combat Brigade, Wedgetail can fulfil the roles of sensor and C2 platform within an AO. As an operational level asset Wedgetail is part of the vertical and horizontal integration of ISR. Although it is unlikely to be tasked in direct support of the land force, Wedgetail’s ISR data is accessible to a JTF, particularly while it is reconnoitring priority intelligence requirements common to the formation commander and their higher headquarters. Wedgetail could also communicate data it receives from other networked ISR platforms as a conduit of information; all the while maintaining control and coordination of airspace movement.
AEW&C is a platform capable of conducting air battle management, airspace control, surveillance, and coordination in support of lethal and non-lethal effects. Given Wedgetail’s flexibility of employment it can achieve tasks autonomously or integrated with other elements of the tactical air control system. Wedgetail is a vital asset in the coordination of air delivered fire support, acting as a forward deployed C2 node capable of deconflicting airspace and attacks within the joint force AO. Air-ground attack, whether close air support or air interdiction, requires close coordination between air and land elements. Wedgetail, with a direct link to brigade headquarters, would be able to rapidly clear attacks beyond the fire support coordination line without a requirement for liaison from the attacking aircraft, back to the air operations centre, and then forward again to the brigade. The required operating picture can be shared by Wedgetail through data communication with the ALIC, thereby relieving TACP and AOC liaison responsibility, expediting attack, and increasing the safety of friendly forces.
A ‘top-down planning, bottom-up refinement’ process works best for joint fires and effects planning. This occurs when the brigade’s Joint Effects Working Group determines targets and effects, after which battlegroup Joint Fires and Effects Coordination Centres refine how they intend to prosecute targets within their supported commander’s mission. Known as deliberate targeting, this process identifies known targets in the operational environment, categorising them as either scheduled or on-call. Targets will be allocated lethal or non-lethal effects and ultimately be collated in the Joint Integrated Prioritised Target List (JIPTL). Wedgetail, acting as a forward deployed airborne C2 node, can therefore enable the execution of deliberate targets in accordance with the JIPTL or task on station aircraft with prosecuting on-call targets. This means that the brigade’s target list, which is nested with the higher commander’s, can be executed by an AEW&C platform without constant involvement or communication from the JFECC and TACP to the AOC.
Wedgetail can also support the combat brigade in the prosecution of dynamic targets. Dynamic targets are typically immediate threats or targets of opportunity which are either unplanned or unanticipated. Despite being unplanned or unanticipated the target type should fall within the established target list, therefore having a metric for prosecution. Again, these targets should be nested within the brigade’s higher commander’s intent. If a Wedgetail is operating in the Joint Force AO, and has data communications with brigade, the ALIC or TACP can request support from the Mission Commander to prosecute dynamic targets. Wedgetail will receive the request and task aircraft outside of the brigade’s AO to provide support. AEW&C’s, with extended communications range and control authority, can also transmit a CAS brief provided by the ground combat element to the attacking aircraft prior to check in. Both deliberate and dynamic targeting has been common practice for Wedgetail crews on Operation OKRA, giving them valuable experience to practice with FORCOMD.
Targeting requests outside of the Air Tasking Order, specifically dynamic targets, typically require routing through liaison elements to the JFACC. Establishing data communications with a locally operating Wedgetail will enable rapid transmission of a tactical air strike request, a procedure practiced during Ex PREADTORS RUN in 2018. This would be particularly important for unexpected troops in contact situations when there are no available aircraft in the brigade’s AO.
The Way Ahead
The BALO. The Brigade Air Liaison Officer should be lent on for understanding and integrating Wedgetail into brigade operations. Their appreciation of airspace control will provide a base for further education and training on Wedgetail’s capability. This can be instigated by the BALO speaking directly with the Ground Liaison Officer in order to scope exercise support and capability briefs. The BALO will likely submit all platform support requests so should be fully informed of the brigade commander’s intent for air integration and joint training.
The GLO. No 42 Wing’s Ground Liaison Officer is Army’s conduit for integration with the Wedgetail. Working out of the Wing headquarters, they are given an intimate knowledge of AEW&C operations and exercises. They can be engaged directly or through 16th Air Land Regiment, though should have an established relationship with the BALO.
The Wing. No 42 Wing has a positive attitude towards joint integration. Often exercising in a coalition environment has generated an expectation of joint warfighting, with the Officer Commanding’s intent communicating joint integration as a high priority. Platform support requests receive genuine consideration though should be submitted as early as reasonably possible to facilitate effective planning.
The ALIC. The Air Land Integration Cells of 16 ALR provide FORCOMD’s Link 16 capability. The ALIC comprises personnel and equipment capable of relaying Wedgetail’s RAP, acting as the centre point for the dissemination of air-based information across the land force. The ALIC also has direct links to the GLO, so can therefore conduct support planning on behalf of the commander and in accordance with their intent.
Readying. Integration training should begin with Wedgetail at the beginning of the brigade’s readying cycle. Given 2 Squadron’s high operational and training tempo this period is when justification can best be made for 42 Wing resources to be allocated to brigade level exercises. Exercises during readying also present an opportunity for the TACP to receive more air support, therefore setting the conditions for Wedgetail’s participation. This will allow Wedgetail to conduct integrated training in early warning, command and control, and targeting before supporting the brigade during their ready assessment on Exercise TALISMAN SABRE or HAMEL.
Wedgetail has provided support to both 16 ALR and 1 Brigade exercises in 2018. This support has thus far demonstrated the versatility of AEW&C’s employment when integrated into FORCOMD exercises. Officer Commanding 42 Wing’s intent is to continue advocating joint training, increasing Army’s knowledge of Wedgetail’s capability, and improving Wedgetail’s interoperability with Army.
Understanding the platform and its role in the ADF is key to appreciating the tasks it can accomplish in support of a brigade. Airborne early warning improves the brigade’s situational understanding of the air environment, particularly beyond the local air picture provided by the AD Bty. This capability, when incorporated into the IAMDS, will significantly improve FORCOMD’s employment of GBAD. Giving Wedgetail greater command and control authority over brigade airspace will also facilitate joint integration at a level beyond what the JFECC and TACP are capable of. This can also link into targeting processes, with air-to-ground attack being a key enabler of brigade manoeuvre.
Although Wedgetail may not operate directly in support of land forces there are domestic training opportunities to practice detailed integration. Operationally AEW&C’s will be tasked by the AOC to provide battlespace C2 to air warfare elements. Prior experience with the platform, however, will allow combat brigade’s to leverage Wedgetail’s situational understanding and improve joint warfighting capability.
Australian Air Publication 1000-D – The Air Power Manual. 6th Edition. September 2013.
Australian Air Publication 1001.3 – The Air Force Approach to ISR. 1 October 2011.
Australian Defence Doctrine Publication 3.3 – Joint Airspace Control. 3rd Edition. 12 August 2012.
Royal Australian Air Force. RAAF Capability Guidebook. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2016.