The exercises of Polish and American fighters were controlled from the ground by navigators at Balice airport and from the air by the crew of a NATO AWACS aircraft.
“The F-16 multirole fighters carried out challenging missions in the air. The pilots took part in offensive and defensive operations, fought in various configurations; and everything that happened within the designated area was supervised by our personnel and the AWACS aircraft crew,” says Col (Pil) Piotr Kurzyk, Commander of the 1st Regional Center of Command and Air Guidance (RODN) in Kraków. “Exercises in this form are organized very rarely, which is a pity, as they are priceless lessons to us,” says the Colonel.
They Never Sleep
One of the main tasks of the 1st RODN, which is a part of the Polish Air Defense System and the NATO Integrated Air Defense System (NATINADS), is to ensure inviolability of air borders in the assigned sector of responsibility and to secure training and operational activity of the Polish Air Force. Specialists from Balice near Kraków prepare the operational picture, identify all aircraft and helicopters in the air, and check if they operate according to the earlier submitted documentation.
“Our unit never sleeps. 24-hour-long combat duties are performed by various experts, specializing in navigation, air traffic, radiolocation, reconnaissance, anti-aircraft defense and communications. Our task is to ensure that the pilots can safely execute their tasks, e.g. during missions such as Air Policing,” emphasizes Col Kurzyk. The officer also points out the Center is the only unit in Poland where the NATO Air Command and Control System (ACCS) is to be introduced. “If only for that reason, we really need to train in an international environment. I want my staff to constantly master their skills and learn from the best. Hence the idea to engage the Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) system navigators in the training in Łask. The AWACS crew is made up of soldiers of various nationalities, trained according to the same, high standards. They are incredibly experienced people, who not only take part in large-scale international exercises, but also have experience in combat operations, gained, e.g. in Afghanistan,” emphasizes Col Kurzyk.
One of the NATO components equipped with AWACS, stationed in Geilenkirchen, North Rhine-Westphalia, responded to the expectations of the navigators from Kraków. “A joint training is always a good idea, as each of the sides benefits from it,” says Maj (Nav) Krzysztof Chwistek, who commanded the redeployment of the AWACS component to Balice. The officer, who in the past was a soldier of the 1st RODN, has served in Geilenkirchen for the last three years. Currently, he is a Tactical Director and an instructor on the E-3A. The arrival of an AEW&C aircraft in Poland was adjusted to the program of the Aviation Detachment training of Polish and American pilots organized in Łask, which included 18 multirole F-16C aircraft of the 480th Squadron of the USAF 52nd Fighter Wing.
Second Pair of Eyes
The AWACS landed at the 8th Transport Aviation Base in Balice at the end of August. “All tasks executed by the navigators of the E-3A and RODN were closely connected to the fighters’ training program,” says Maj (Nav) Tomasz Mazur of RODN, adding that: “In order for the cooperation to run smoothly, we sent to Łask navigators from Kraków. Being liaison officers, they helped to plan air operations. It was very important, as there could be as many as 30 fighters in the air at the same time in the designated zone.”
The navigators explain that in order to command and control an air mission, they have to prepare for it just as much as the pilots do. For example, if the flights are planned for Tuesday morning, the briefings aimed at analyzing the planned mission were organized already on Monday. “More detailed planning took place on the day of the operation. The tasks needed to be distributed among the crew members and the aims of the operation explained. The next phase was a briefing with the RODN personnel,” says Maj Chwistek.
The most important briefing before the mission was held in the so-called combat room. “Step by step, we discussed the tasks awaiting us. Together with the AWACS personnel we determined the so-called contracts, i.e. rules of cooperation during the mission. We also presented different versions of conduct in case of emergency,” explains Maj Mazur. The last phase of preparations was a video conference briefing with all the navigators of the 1st RODN and AWACS, and all air vehicle crews taking part in the mission together with their mission commander. After about two hours everyone knew what they had to do. The personnel of the 1st RODN logged on at their positions, the AWACS crew prepared to take control from the air, and the first fighters were preparing to take off at the 32nd Tactical Air Base in Łask.
Air missions were carried out in various configurations and according to complicated scenarios. At one time, there could be over a dozen, or even several dozen aircraft in the air. During the exercise, the fighters had been divided into own forces and enemy forces, and they were supervised interchangeably by the ground or airborne command and air guidance center. The air battles during the training took place mostly in the northern and north-eastern part of Poland. The machines operated on altitudes ranging from several hundred to even 14,000 meters above the ground. “The navigator is in constant contact with the pilot, he accompanies him in each and every second of the fight. He is the second pair of eyes. Using various space imaging systems, the navigator can warn the pilot about any approaching threat,” says Col Kurzyk, who flies the Su-22.
The F-16 pilots see the work of the navigators in the same way. “During each flight, we have contact with the navigators, which was also the case during the training in August. We communicated with those from Kraków or those on board of the AWACS aircraft. The navigators provided us with necessary information on all air vehicles present in the zone which we were to enter. On a daily basis, they warn us against anyone approaching our aircraft. They read their radars to check the territory which we are, for example, about to bomb, according to the objective of the mission,” says Michał, an experienced F-16 pilot. “We don’t often have a chance to participate in trainings where, let’s say, 30 aircraft meet in the air. In such cases the communication with the navigators must be quick and faultless,” he adds.
The pressure during air missions is felt not only by the pilots. Maj (Nav) Tomasz Mazur of the 1st RODN mentions that navigators also work with a deficit of time and must try to keep their cool. “There is an ongoing air fight. We have to monitor the situation second by second, and when we speak of the F-16, time goes by especially quickly. In combat aviation, a navigator’s delay of several seconds in properly guiding the pilot based on the overall air situation can seriously affect the outcome of the mission,” admits Maj Mazur.
Maj (Nav) Krzysztof Chwistek explains that the AWACS aircraft for early warning and control can be compared to a ground-based command and air guidance center. The structure is very similar, as well as the used ICT systems. A significant difference is the range of the radar on board of the E-3A. The machine is capable of scanning air space within the range of even several hundred kilometers.
The aircraft crew is made up of over a dozen people. Apart from the crew in the cockpit, i.e. two pilots and a flight engineer, who are responsible for the take-off, landing and communication with Air Traffic Control, there is also the tactical director who is in charge of several groups of specialists. The tasks in the air are carried out by the surveillance section and the so-called passive controller, who are responsible for reconnaissance, i.e. displaying the situation in the air, on land and on water. In their work, they use all sensors available onboard the E-3A, in particular the AN/APY-2 radar, which is a characteristic disc located in the upper part of the aircraft.
“On board, we also have the weapons controller section with specialists in charge of the air fights. These navigators are the ones who have control over the aircraft. We also have technicians responsible for the radars, communication and electronic systems,” explains Maj Chwistek. “At any given point, we use over a dozen radio stations and other communication systems. We can also communicate with pilots using, for example, the Link-16 system. The point is to be able to control all this commotion and information chaos,” adds the officer.
Several Minutes is Eternity
An air mission that lasts several hours is not the end of the pilots’ and navigators’ tasks. Each time, airmen would meet at debriefings and discuss every single detail of the operation. “We emphasized everything that was good and bad. We wanted to get the most of the AWACS personnel presence, to focus on flaws and differences in procedures,” says the commander of the 1st RODN. “It is not at all about pointing out mistakes. Sometimes the pilots have their buts as to our work, and vice versa. We are critical towards one another, but thanks to that we know what we can do better in the future,” adds Maj Chwistek.
The officer recalls one debriefing in Kraków, where it turned out that during the mission the pilots did not get timely information on the target they were supposed to destroy. The information was given only via the radio, and reached the pilot’s computer system only a few minutes later. “We thought about the reason this mistake was made, so that it wouldn’t happen again. We always have to keep in mind that in a real-life mission such a mistake could result in losing people or equipment. For the F-16 several minutes is eternity,” says a tactical director of the E-3A.
One of the AWACS crew commanders was an American officer, who on a daily basis trains USAF navigators. “In great detail, very methodically, he analyzed every minute of our work. It was a very valuable lesson,” admit the staff of the 1st RODN.
The navigators from Kraków hope that the training cooperation with the AWACS personnel will be continued. “I really want to work out common methods of operation, unify the procedures,” emphasizes Col Kurzyk. The command of the 1st Regional Center of Command and Air Guidance would like to organize a similar international training with the early warning and control aircraft and the F-16s next year. If the pandemic subsides, maybe the navigators from Balice will be able to board the E-3A and observe how the crew controls the training from the air.
autor zdjęć: NATO, Hubert Przybysz