Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ground TACS (mobile radar)

Everyone probably remembers Top Gun and the final air-to-air battle were “Maverick” goes against the Soviet fighters one last time. The guy looking at the radar scope (which was way too bright for real use) and says to the “Air Boss”, “Maverick is re-engaging” was a radar controller. I wasn’t in the Navy but did the exact same job in the USAF (minus the theme music and Hollywood sets). I referenced to Top Gun only because the majority of people have seen it and helps you to understand a little bit about what a radar controller (or as the USAF calls now refers to the career field, air battle managers) does for a living.

I got thinking about my old line of work today corresponding with 5schw4r7z. Seems his father was a radar maintainer, a career field indispensable to being able to do my old job. Radar maintainers were the lifeblood of radar units. If the radar “bent” (malfunctioned), we couldn’t direct aircraft during intercepts and refueling missions. We were then worthless to the pilots flying the missions. Guys like 5schw4r7z father kept us in business and kept the pilots safe.

So what exactly is an air battle manager? The term is new, when I was first in the radar business the title was air weapons controller (sometimes referred to as “scope dope”). Air battle managers in effect direct fighter and attack aircraft around the battlefield. Air battle managers may also work with Army air defense artillery (ADA) and short range air defense (SHORAD) units. Total quality management infected the USAF in the early 90’s and the title was thought “too directive” and we became air weapons directors since we lowly ground controllers could never truly tell fighter pilot what to do.

Allow me to use my old nomenclature as it applies to the timeframe. I came into the USAF during the mid 1980s at the height of the Reagan build-up and the final throws of the Cold War. The radar system used to direct fighter aircraft during intercepts of enemy aircraft was referred to as the Tactical Air Control Systems or simply “TACS”. The TACS provided the Tactical Air Forces (TAF) Commander the capability to direct and control tactical air assets (fighters and attack aircraft). The system was highly flexible and was employed in support of a unified command, Joint Task Force (JTF), as an augmentation resource or as an independent element. The TACS provided both control of aircraft during intercept and refueling missions as well as air surveillance of the airspace adjacent to hostile nations (East Germany and the Warsaw Bloc in the case of USAFE TACS).

The elements of the ground TACS were: Control and Reporting Center (CRC), Control and Reporting Post (CRP), Message Processing Center (MPC), and Forward Air Control Post (FACP). The Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) was also part of the TACS. The MPC would allow ground units to link their radar picture to AWACS and vice versus.

Ground TACS domain was Korea, the Philippines, and Germany. Mobile radar units were housed in-garrison on air bases providing day-to-day air surveillance and direction of fighter intercepts. In the event of hostilities, the mobile units would “crash out” and deploy to forward locations near the border (either with North Korea or Eastern Germany). Ground TACS had to be self-sufficient under those circumstances so we all were qualified on M-16s as well as M-9s and M-60s. We had our own medics and could sustain operations in the field for extended periods of time. Illuminating the battlefield with 100,000 watts of energy wasn’t without peril, an anti-radiation missile could track down our main lobe (radar signal) and terminate the entire site.

The radar system used was a semi-automatic system called the 407L. A semi-automatic system had limited computer abilities to generate symbology (flight data) requiring a controller to constantly update the symbology on the radar track. (Modern systems automatically updated the flight data with the radar track.) As cumbersome as the system was, there still was manual systems which had no flight data capability and only a “raw” radar blip for the controller to work with.

The TACS began to change in the early 90’s when the Chief of Staff, Gen McPeak, decided to eliminate the terms “tactical” and “strategic”. The “T” in TACS became theater instead of tactical. From there the 407L was slowly phased out for the new Modular Control Element (MCE) replacing the old TPS-43 radar with the new TPS-75 phased array radar. The MCE wasn’t new, the US Marine Corps had actually developed it but it work perfectly for the TACS. Computer technology has advanced even further to the point were TACS units (now called air control units) were being phased out in the late 90s. Then 9-11 brought the units back to the forefront when everyone was looking for Flight 93. Air defense radars and FAA radars were not equipped to look IN the US for targets. The ground TACS units of the Air National Guard were called upon to fill in the gap in radar coverage. These same units were some of the first over during IRAQI FREEDOM to provide radar coverage during the initial attacks.

Alas, ground TACS has pretty much come to the end with the advent of stand-off precision bombers and unmanned aerial vehicles. These systems don’ require the skills of the ground TACS controllers to executer their mission. It amazes me how many were involved with TACS yet the majority of USAF memorabilia fails to recognize the contributions of these men and women. Here is a link to USAFE units.


JApple said...

Stumbled on your blog. I served in USAFE TACS 1980-1985. Was in FACP at Bad Kreuznach (622nd, FACP at Bremerhaven (636th), and at 601st staff at Sembach. Enjoyed your summary of the TACS and "scope dopes".

Al D said...

Served with the 102 TCS (formally the 102 AC&W) with the Air National Guard from 1983 through 1998. Many deployments and good memories. Stumbled unto your site looking for info regarding 407L system, specifically the power equipment used to keep the "Bubble" up, (inflated), cool and lit. Still on the hunt for that equipment. I'll be back to check out what seems a very good and detailed description of the mission. Thanks a bunch.

Bob Baylor said...

The power systems that I remember were the "dash 40" diesel generators. When I was in the 601st, we only used the hard-top and not the bubble. I will see if any of my buddies may remember what was used to inflate the bubble.

JDW said...

Nice post, I get to see how this stuff fits in history. I served with the 1912 CSGP at Langley AFB in the late 80s. Our section worked with 407L software revisions. MCE was still in development. I worked with the System Trainer and Exercise Module (STEM) to train operators on the 407L

Flipper said...

dash 8 s powered the bubble