Driving past US Central Command’s combined air and space operations center—the “CAOC”—a casual observer would never guess that this inconspicuous building in the middle of a Persian Gulf air base is the heart, brain, and nervous system of an air operation spanning three continents.
Yet that’s exactly what it is. Inside what looks like a generic warehouse, some 1,300 CAOC personnel bend to the task of tracking, planning, and executing the air war in real time.
On the right side of one screen is a display of activity in Afghanistan. The system highlights Helmand Province, home of both the Kajaki Dam complex and the Sangin Valley. In those areas, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force has conducted several recent operations against Taliban fighters.
The CAOC operators refer to this event as a TIC, denoting “troops in contact.” There were reports that some enemy fighters were fleeing the firefight. CAOC personnel confirmed that a departing truck was indeed filled with bad guys. The Predator keeps a bead on this truck, with CAOC personnel instructing the Predator operator to ready one of the UAV’s Hellfire missiles.
Seconds on the feed go by before a quick black burst blots out the space where the truck once stood. When the smoke clears away after a few seconds, the ISR cell gets visual confirmation that the Predator has scored a direct hit. Multiple secondary explosions rock the area as other munitions cook off.
“Once you get into the execution of it, then you just go with the events as they crop up,” Dugmore said.
Across the CAOC complex, personnel responsible for every imaginable aspect of the fight are arrayed in cubicles, offices, and open rows of equipment. They range from legal advisors and coalition liaison officers, to signals intelligence deconfliction cells and subject matter experts. They are housed in adjoining rooms configured to allow easy feedback and consultation among the battle directors on the floor—the officers who determine what type of aircraft or effect is needed in a particular situation.
Many rapid responses will also occur within a cycle of taskings. “We can be infinitely flexible with the assets we’ve got,” Dugmore said.
The CAOC personnel are guiding a massive movement of machinery, personnel, and cargo in combat. On any given day, more than 200 aircraft come under the CFACC’s authority. These aircraft may be hauling nearly three million pounds of fuel, 1,000 tons of freight, and 3,000 people, which can be delivered anywhere from Djibouti to Kyrgyzstan.
Everything on display is releasable to coalition partners, North noted. Nearby is the “battle cab” on the floor, where commanders execute the air war.
Officials can look at the entire globe or zoom in where needed. Occasionally, the displays zoom, switch, or disappear as activity peaks in one sector and dies down in another. “It’s kind of like ‘Hollywood Squares,’ ” quipped North. “You could have 16 large screens displaying whatever we want to see.”
About $60 million was spent on the new center, which qualifies as the most advanced operations center in history, in the estimation of CENTAF officials. It came online on Feb. 18, 2003, and, by late summer of that year, the facility was handling most of the air taskings for the theater.
Gillespie is deputy director of the combat operations division at the CAOC. Just six hours before the beginning of the 24-hour air tasking order, the daily plan is kicked down to the various cells on the floor to be examined and amended. With about 2,000 sorties running across the theater on any given day, the workload is daunting.
With about 200 air assets in flight every day, liaisons have a lot of iron to monitor. With unmanned assets operating in the same airspace as civilian traffic, helicopters, and strike missions, the task presented to the CAOC is challenging.
Lt. Col. Cloyce Adams, an F-15E weapons systems officer, serves as director of combat plans division. Adams’ staff plans sorties based on fuel capacity, facilities, and combat characteristics of a particular aircraft, among other things. He must also work with ground commanders to maintain squadrons on alert in places such as Balad AB, Iraq, and Bagram AB, Afghanistan—so that airpower is ready when troops need it.
The CAOC’s air mobility division oversees the movement of people, fuel, and equipment. This covers all kinds of missions—from refueling to aeromedical evacuations and two-pallet airdrops at remote Afghan firebases. “Just in time” supply delivery is the division’s stock in trade.
Tracking missions are planned in the intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance division. It is the scene of much air and space detective work.
Directing air operations from afar has come a long way just since Desert Storm in 1991. New tactics and methods are constantly used and evaluated in real time, with close coordination fostered by the CAOC.
“Since counterinsurgency is a changing game, we try to be inventive on how we use the airplanes,” Dugmore said. “You can bet your life that, if there’s a need, some captain or airman in the field has come up with some new way of getting it done.”
The results of the previous day’s air tasking order are gathered and coordinated by late afternoon. The next morning, the staff conducts two briefings for senior leadership—one top secret for the combined force air component commander and a second, later in the morning, for coalition officers.
At 11 a.m., the jam-packed conference room down the hall from Lt. Gen. Gary L. North’s offices has the feel of an end-of-day meeting. Arrayed around the long oval are representatives from most of the allied nations operating in Iraq or Afghanistan, including Qatar, Japan, Canada, Singapore, France, and Australia.
The weather across the theater is reported, from Iraq to NATO locations in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, and several other countries with coalition aircraft.
The NATO representative gives a quick report of the previous day’s events—seven improvised explosive device “events” in country, including an attack that wounded a US service member, and five battles including a rocket attack and firefight with enemy forces in the eastern portion of Afghanistan.
The briefing winds down with an update on ISR efforts, U-2 rotations, and the movements of Global Hawk UAVs.
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