JFACTSU, or Joint Forward Air Controller Training and Standards Unit, to give it its full title, is the only NATO and US Joint Services accredited schoolhouse in UK Defence to train Forward Air Controllers.
We are a small lodger unit of 24 personnel within RAF Leeming. Our policy direction and guidance comes from the Joint Air Land Organisation (JALO) based at RAF High Wycombe.
The school is commanded by an RAF Regiment Squadron Leader (OF-3), with a joint staff including RAF fast jet close air support aircrew, specialist qualified signallers and highly qualified ground-based Forward Air Controllers. All 3 Services are represented at JFACTSU as well as several Regiments across Army capabilities.
As a dual accredited school we must always strive to meet the highest possible standards and therefore ensure complete interoperability with all coalition partners by meeting the internationally agreed standards and training.
The Unit can trace its routes to the School of Land-Air Warfare based at RAF Old Sarum, under No 11 Group from 1st May 1947. This became the Joint Warfare Establishment in 1963, before moving to RAF Brawdy as part of No 38 Group and the Tactical Weapons Unit utilising the Hunter and Jet Provost aircraft for training, during this time the unit changed command once more to come under No 1 Group. The unit has moved several times over the years including a short stay at RAF Finningley from Nov 1993 before moving into RAF Leeming, the current home, in 1995. The Hawk TMk1 of 100 Squadron is currently the principle air platform used for training at JFACTSU.
History of the UK
Forward Air Controller
The Forward Air Controller (FAC) can trace his routes back to the First World War, where pilots experimented with using ground troops to guide them to specific targets from the trenches. This involved using flares, ground markers and flags; although positive results were gained, severe difficulties also existed due to lack of voice communications equipment until much later in the war. This meant up to the minute information was lost. With the advent of the small Morse code device being suitably fitted to the aircraft, the communication between ground observer and aircrew become much simpler, but still time consuming.
The move forward into a more modern method of controlling aircraft in close support of ground manoeuvre didn’t occur until the Africa campaign of World War 2 (WW2) in 1941. This campaign saw the wide use of man portable radios enabling voice briefing of the aircrew of available targets and saw the establishment of Forward Air Support Links (FASL) utilising personnel from the Army and the RAF Desert Air Force. They used a combination of light armoured reconnaissance vehicles and light spotter aircraft reporting enemy movement to the FASL who were then able to direct strike aircraft forward to engage these positions, further integration was achieved using a forward observer known as a Mobile Fighter Controller (MFC) who in essence is what today would be termed as and recognised as a FAC. These units whether airborne or ground based saw action across all theatres during WW2 and also lead to all air forces involved developing aircraft that had more specific mission oriented capabilities to achieve better support to ground manoeuvre units e.g. Typhoon.
After WW2, technology moved forward unabated and although many nations discarded their lessons learned from Air Land Integration (ALI) during this period the UK and the commonwealth continued to build on these experiences with the implementation in 1947 of the School of Land-Air Warfare (SLAW) which taught the formal Forward Air Controller course from RAF Sarum in Wiltshire. From here FACs were deployed throughout the 1950s and 1960s to theatres of conflict including; the Korean War, Malayan emergency, the Suez crisis, the Indonesian confrontation and operations in Aden and Oman. During these heady days the school changed names and command affiliation to become the Joint Warfare Establishment (JWE) in 1963. With the disbandment of flying activity at RAF Sarum in 1971 the school now known as JFACTSU moved to RAF Brawdy and used Hunter Fighter Ground Attack Aircraft from the Tactical Weapons Unit based there.
After a relative calm period of the late 1970s the Argentineans invaded the Falkland Islands and once again the UK sought to deploy its FAC capability in support of its ground troops. These had a mixed success due to poor weather, inhospitable terrain and relying solely on the use of the Harrier GR3 force with limited precision ground attack weapons, relatively poor navigational equipment and short time on station capability compared to today’s ground attack aircraft.
More modern conflicts and wars have seen FACs being deployed to support Operation GRANBY, AGRICOLA, TELIC and, most recently, HERRICK.
The Modern Day Curriculum
JFACTSU currently trains around 100 FACs per year for employment across Defence. These students are from all 3 Services (Army, Royal Marines and RAF Regiment). They include pilots from the UK Attack Helicopter units flying Apache, who will become what is termed as FAC(A) where the A stands for Airborne.
The School runs 3 core course syllabi, these are; FAC (C) (the C stands for Certified and is the initial FAC qualification), SupFAC (Supervisory FAC, these are the unit level continuation training facilitators post graduation) and FAC(A).
The FAC (C) course is currently 8 weeks in length and takes a student with a back ground of limited or no air integration experience through 3 phases of learning. These are spread between classroom lectures, simulated controlling of aircraft using 1 of 2 in-house computer simulators and practical controlling experience using real fast jet aircraft. The successful candidate at conclusion of the course will have accrued basic knowledge on close air support platforms and their associated weapons across NATO; practical airspace management; integration of artillery and mortar fire with air support; and briefing and planning with a ground manoeuvre unit. The student will complete both practical assessment with a real aircraft and written exams to prove his/her knowledge base.
The SupFAC course is 4 weeks in length and is split into 2 core modules. The first module is 2 weeks long and is for the training of individuals destined to serve with a TACP, it involves management of airspace and procedures for booking and using land and airspace, both for training during peacetime and during operations. The second part of the course sees the departure of the TACP students and the senior FACs learning about the supervision of FAC training. They will gain a qualification in running UK Air Weapons Ranges (a military training area designated suitable for aircraft to drop bombs).
The final course is an even more specialised course. One per year is run, known as the FAC(A) course. The students will all be qualified aircrew of either rotary or fixed wing air platforms. It is 4 weeks in length following a similar concept to the FAC(C) course, but these students already know a lot of the air information by nature of being aircrew already, this facilitates a lot of the extra lessons taught on the (C) course to be removed and thus shortened.
The FAC on Operations
UK FAC’ must maintain a continual currency in accordance with UK defence policy. In addition to this they will have to complete a minimum of a 6 month work up package specific to the area of operations they will deploy to. This will involve several Mission Specific Training (MST) exercises of which many include the integration of real aircraft working around artillery fire and infantry small arms fire. Upon completion of this training the FAC will then be ready to deploy.
On arrival into the area of operations the FAC may be required to prove his/her competence by completing an in-theatre accreditation, thus proving his/her ability to work in a multi-national environment with close air support aircraft from other NATO nations.
From this point on the FAC will find him or herself deployed forward in 1 of 2 positions. The first position held by UK FAC is as a member of the TACP, a 4 man team located within manoeuvre unit headquarters. They are responsible for looking after the needs of the forward deployed FAC, booking aircraft to support up and coming operations, integration of all things airborne including artillery and mortar fire to ensure safe flight of manned aircraft and that stores and expensive equipment utilised by themselves and their forward FAC’ are serviceable and correctly maintained.
The 2nd role sees the FAC deployed forward as an individual who will be embedded in a small team known as an FST (Fire Support Team). Once embedded this team work for the forward group, whether company or platoon sized, from austere locations. They will work together to provide offensive and defensive fire support for this forward group, through integration of both air and surface assets, to achieve the commanders aims.
To allow the FAC to do this he has a large amount of highly technical and ultra modern equipment. Communications is provided in the form of 2 radios, both supplied by Harris and both being capable of providing VHF, UHF and satellite voice and data communications compatible across the coalition forces deployed. Secondly he will be equipped with a Laser Target Designator, a powerful laser capable of ‘painting’ an object of interest, allowing the aircraft overhead using its equipment to see the Laser point of aim. He/She will also carry a system provided through Rockwell Collins known as FIRESTORM, this is a box of tricks putting several vital bits of equipment in 1 package, allowing the FAC to view Full Motion Video beamed down from aircraft and UAS overhead as he patrols, it has the capability to allow viewing of highly detailed aerial pictures of the ground to provide accurate positional information to the aircraft supporting and has optical viewing devices that allows the FAC to work in all weathers and at night.
All UK Ground forces that deploy out side of a Main Operating Base will have the eyes and ears of the FAC and his/her supporting air assets over-watching them to ensure their safety, whether he/she is with them on the ground embedded or in a position where they will be able to maintain communications and situational awareness throughout the operation.
If things turn bad for the troops on the ground they can call upon their FAC at anytime of the day or night to use his satellite communications and call in air support in whatever way is appropriate for the task. The FAC will then be required to use his intensive training and knowledge base to safely acquire the target, interpret the ground commander’s intent and relay this to the platforms overhead. The FAC will be required to ensure minimum force is applied necessary to achieve this aim and must conduct a thorough assessment of collateral damage implications. All possibly at night and under fire.