Room With a View

Aug. 1, 2007

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.

The CAOC resides on a coalition air base in an allied country (operational security rules bar identifying its location by name). Rows of uniformed personnel sit among computers, telephones, encryptors, and banks of command and control gear. Flashing data play across four massive video screens. Blue dots represent the many types of coalition aircraft, radar feed overviews, and current operations updates.

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.

Next to the satellite feed and radar readouts of southern Afghanistan, one section of the screen shows an update from Overlord 97—the mission of an armed Predator unmanned aerial vehicle monitoring a firefight in southern Afghanistan.

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.

Moments later, the vehicle stops not far from a cave entrance, and several men approach it. The Predator operator can see that the vehicle in question is packed with arms and explosives. Taliban fighters clearly are about to unload them and store them in a hiding place. CAOC officials give the all clear to the UAV operator to eliminate the target.

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.

This is one of many similar scenes that play out on any given day in Afghanistan and Iraq. For Air Commodore Ian L. Dugmore, the Royal Air Force officer who is CAOC director, the Predator strike shows how flexible and responsive air planners have to be in today’s fluid, quick-reaction fights.

“Once you get into the execution of it, then you just go with the events as they crop up,” Dugmore said.

The CAOC is the main theater command and control facility for air assets. Its staff and officers are continuously planning, directing, and monitoring sortie execution, time-sensitive targeting, battlefield coordination, and countless other tasks.

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.

Constant Updates

Army soldiers who staff the Battlefield Coordination Detachment element in the facility provide valuable assistance when it comes to converting field commander requests for air support into actual missions. Air planners at the facility are constantly updating and revising a 72-hour air tasking order—the sequence of airpower events across CENTCOM’s 6.5 million square miles.

Many rapid responses will also occur within a cycle of taskings. “We can be infinitely flexible with the assets we’ve got,” Dugmore said.

Upstairs in the CAOC sits Lt. Gen. Gary L. North, commander of US Central Command Air Forces and the combined force air component commander. He pulls back the blinds on the window overlooking the operations center floor from his office, offering a high-level view of the action below. Hundreds of sorties, thousands of tons of cargo, and millions of gallons of fuel would not get to where they are needed most without the actions swirling around the CAOC, according to North.

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.

The center is the “operational nerve center of the air war and how we control it,” North said.

Everything on display is releasable to coalition partners, North noted. Nearby is the “battle cab” on the floor, where commanders execute the air war.

On a typical day late this spring, the board is dominated by a large collection of blue dots crossing its map image of Iraq. These are symbols for Predator UAVs with call signs such as “Conan” and “Judge,” which intermittently display their video feeds to the personnel on the floor even as the UAV operators themselves converse via black box chat rooms about requirements, weather, mission progress, and so forth.

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.”

The current operations center is only a few years old, having started as a backup facility to a CAOC in Saudi Arabia during the months after the US launched its 2001 attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan. DOD officials later decided to close down the CAOC at the Saudi Prince Sultan Air Base after the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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.

Back on the floor, Maj. Brent Gillespie walks in between the rows of CAOC personnel, carefully explaining what each person is doing in relation to the huge concentration of information just a few feet away on the wall.

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.

“Each one of these officers is keeping track of their platform,” he nodded down one of the rows. “If someone develops a problem, that officer has to keep track of that aircraft—if we need to change it out or call it back.”

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.

Massive Jigsaw

“It’s nothing short of managing a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle,” said Dugmore. “It’s really quite incredible we make all this work every day.”

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.

Above combat plans is the strategy division—personnel who make advance plans for commanders. The strategy shop collaborates directly with the regional commanders to meet their battlefield needs. Eventually, the assembled plan winds up on the CAOC floor with the combat operations cell, which executes the daily strike force tasking order.

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.

“You can imagine how much equipment we move through here to sustain 150,000 people in combat operations,” North said.

Tracking missions are planned in the intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance division. It is the scene of much air and space detective work.

“We can stare, we can attack, we can hand off information to ground forces,” North observed. “We can literally follow people for days using several UAVs.” Each day, upward of 40 percent of all voice and data communications across CENTCOM passes through the facility.

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 Daily Coalition Brief

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.

Air Commodore Ian Dugmore strides in with his briefing folder, the crowd stands at attention, and then is seated. The daily coalition briefing is under way.

The weather across the theater is reported, from Iraq to NATO locations in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, and several other countries with coalition aircraft.

The operations report follows with a simple picture—the previous day was another deadly day in Iraq. There were 11 instances of troops in contact with the enemy, a number of coalition troops killed in firefights, and several more wounded.

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.

Across the theater, 42 close air support requests were filed in the previous day—with CAS strikes performed by A-10s, F/A-18s, and F-15Es in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The briefing winds down with an update on ISR efforts, U-2 rotations, and the movements of Global Hawk UAVs.

In less than 20 minutes, the briefing is over. In 24 hours, it will be on again.