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Fundamentals: The Art of the Intercept

  by Steve 'Wildcat' Wilson


  F22:ADF brought a new dimension to air combat simulation, and soon Total Air War will expand the concept. Instead of merely being a jet jockey, you'll be able to participate in the grander scheme of things through the AWACS interface. This means that you'll be sitting in the seat of what's known to the USAF personnel weenies as AFSC 1744G, Air Weapons Controller, (AWC, or WC).

As a former 'scope dope,' I can tell you you're in for a treat. It was my privilege to serve in that capacity through much of my military career. To be sure, you don't get to yank and bank with the fast-movers, but you do get to direct their activity. You aren't the General, but you are one step closer to The Man in the hierarchy of things.

Yes, that's power, and a grave responsibility as well. When you commit any aircraft under your control to a specific task, that's when those men and their machines rely on you to keep them out of harms way, and harm out of their way! You've got the God's eye view, all too frequently known as the 'Big Picture.' This gives you the ability to see trouble coming from a good deal further out - your radar has a better than 200 nautical mile range.

Aboard the E-3A Sentry AWACS aircraft, you will be a member of a combat crew that consists of yourself, other WC's, Weapons Assignment Officers, a Senior Director and a Battle Commander (The Man). This group is augmented aboard the aircraft by an Air Surveillance Officer, whose section is tasked with maintenance of the radar 'picture.' There are numerous enlisted support personnel as well. AWACS manning is based on the same hierarchy of air battle management whose roots extend back to the earliest days of the Air Force and the use of radar to control the activity of air interception.

In my opinion, the most significant of the earlier forms of this hierarchy was the SAGE system, which stood for Semi-Automatic Ground Environment. This was the first use of computers to direct the air defense air combat environment. I was proud to have been one of the last WC's to control intercepts from the 21st NORAD region before it closed its doors in 1983.

The computer was an awesome, vacuum tube affair that took up one whole floor of the huge SAGE blockhouse. The PC you are using to view this article likely has more computational power than that big brute had. AWACS is an airborne version of that environment, applying the very best and very latest electronic battlefield management techniques to air to air offense and defense, as well as tactical operations.

When I first watched WARGEN adjust the air and ground order of battle for an EF2000 campaign scenario, advancing to my selected takeoff time, I was struck by its resemblance to the SAGE 'big picture.' All the missions going hither and yon, striking their targets, and, if lucky, returning to base, evoked a strong memory of SAGE, as well as the AWACS computerized environment.

With software code like this already in existence, it was a natural leap to give the flight sim enthusiast a more direct element of participation in the environment. Then it struck me that all you virtual fighter pilots might find some background on air operations from the WC side of the scope a bit enlightening, and considering the imminent release of F22: TAW, also timely!

Before we go too far, however, I know there are a lot of real world fighter pilots out there who know very well the capabilities of their systems. The F-15, for example, is as large as it is because of the power of its onboard radar, and that power equates to range. In most cases, a vector from a WC towards a bogey is followed in short order by a 'JUDY' call, meaning that the pilot sees his target, and is assuming control of the intercept. This can happen upwards of 40 to 50 miles from the target.

This isn't a bad thing, as it frees the WC to control numerous aircraft simultaneously and efficiently. Nevertheless, there are situations where a WC has to assume a much more closer management responsibility for the intercept, and that brings us to some fundamentals.


The first thing any WC learned back when I went to school at Tyndall AFB, Florida, was that your job, unlike those fine boys at Air Traffic Control, is to bring two or more aircraft together in the sky, as opposed to keeping them apart. More correctly defined, your mission is to provide vectors to the offensive aircraft under your control sufficient to bring said aircraft into close quarters with the hostile aircraft, or suspected hostile aircraft, so that the pilot can employ the air to air weapons at his disposal. There are two primary forms of intercept: the 'cutoff' and the 'stern.'

The cutoff intercept is defined as the combination of heading and speed that keeps the bearing to the target constant as range decreases. It is the most direct and rapid intercept, but can be applied practically only from a front aspect, usually well ahead of the 3 - 9 line. That's the imaginary line between the 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock positions relative to your aircraft. Think of it as the line that bisects your fuselage from wingtip to wingtip. Got it?

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If you're familiar with EF2000, you already have a good mind set towards sitting in front of a radar scope. When you turn off the map function of the center MFD while in JTIDS/AWACS mode, you are seeing the same thing that an AWACS WC would see, the only difference being that in EF2000, the view is relative to your aircraft's position.

The AWACS presentation is not presented relative to the E-3A aircraft, rather, it remains as rock steady as a map hung on a wall. North is always 'up.' The presentation can be modified in the system's onboard computer to include geographical points of reference, navigational aids, cities and the like to help the WC further enhance his or her mental orientation to the local theater of operations.

Time for some fun. Let's spool up a little scenario here for illustration. I am projecting from a variety of experiences in various systems of weapons control, including the purely manual environment, the 407L tactical mobile system, as well as SAGE. I've monitored AWACS intercept training missions on numerous occasions and had the good fortune to fly with an AWACS crew on a Red Flag mission in 1981.


Imagine you're a WC in an AWACS orbiting lazily in the early morning sun off the coast of Norway. You arrived on station at 6am, which means you've been going through the mission pre-briefing and preflight with the rest of your fellow Combat Crew members since the well before dawn, not to mention your flight from a staging base in Great Britain, in this case RAF Lakenheath.

You've been tweaking your display, and drinking your share of black coffee, waiting for some action. The roar of four turbofans and the slipstream of air around the E-3A is muted by your headphones as you monitor a CAP of two F-22 Raptors also deployed to Lakenheath with your AWACS squadron.

These are some of the first active duty F-22's in the Air Force, normally based at Langley AFB, Virginia, designated by the subdued 'FF' on their angled twin vertical fins and the emblem of the First Tactical Fighter Squadron proudly displayed on the sides of the air intakes. This is Eddie Rickenbacher's former W.W.I unit - the famed 'Hat in the Ring' Squadron, first with the F-15, and now first with the F-22. The flight's callsign is 'Dagger.'

Your Raptors are orbiting at 40,000 feet off Orland and the coast of Norway at around .75 mach, sauntering to conserve fuel. Their 'gadgets' are strangled, which is pilotspeak for their radar is turned off. They are at their highest state of EMCON, or emissions control, so as to enhance their stealth posture. It doesn't make sense to have a stealthy airframe and then broadcast your presence to the world with your own radar emissions.

In fact, your AWACS search radar is having a bear of a time keeping your symbology for the flight updated due to the extremely small radar signature of the F-22's. The raw radar data from the E-3A's rotating dome is fed into the onboard computer, which then 'attaches' symbology and a descriptive text block to each airborne contact. This is done with the guidance of the Air Surveillance Officer's technicians.

The degree of accuracy of the symbology's association with the radar returns is important. It is what governs the accuracy of the vectors the computer guidance system will present you for communication to your F-22's. So you periodically 'update' that association, keeping your computer symbology right on top of the radar returns.

Shortly after 9:30, in the aft portion of the E-3, one of the Air Surveillance Officer's technicians has tagged a radar return that can't be matched with any known, filed flight plan, and it is not squawking an IFF transponder code. It is an 'unknown.' The Weapons Assignment Officer, your immediate boss, takes note of this, and directs you to engage the lone bogey, since it is in your area of responsibility. The bogey is in the general vicinity of Bodo, heading roughly towards Bergen. You key your mike....

Dagger 01 Flight

AWACS: "Dagger 0-1 flight, vector 0-7-0, cutoff, descend angels 2-2, mach point 9-3. 1 bogey, 0-3-0, fifty, heading 2-1-0, 2-4 thousand, 445 knots. Select weapons safe, state fuel."

Let's translate this. First off, of course, you're telling the Raptors to break from their CAP orbit and turn to a heading of 050 degrees, descend to an altitude of 22,000 feet above mean sea level, and to fly at a speed just below the transonic zone where their aircraft are fast and dangerous and can make a rapid, safe intercept without excessive use of fuel. They might need it later.

You also try to stay out of the transonic speed zone between mach .93 and mach 1, because that is the regime where the shock wave, or compressed air that makes up the 'bow wake,' begins to get very close to the airflow immediately around the aircraft. This can cause control difficulty and is avoided for safety reasons.

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