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Home : News
NEWS | March 21, 2024

Connecticut Air Guard unit tests battle management system of the future.

By Sgt. Matthew Lucibello 103rd Air Control Squadron

Airmen from the 103rd Air Control Squadron, Connecticut Air National Guard, mounted their vehicles during the early morning hours of March 5 and braved the rainstorms as they convoyed from their home station in Orange, CT to Camp Nett in Niantic, to conduct Exercise Agile Panda.

The goal of Agile Panda, an exercise five months in the making, was to field test the Tactical Operations Center - Light, or TOC-L, the latest, most modular air battle management system currently undergoing evaluation within the U.S. Air Force for use by control and reporting centers, or CRCs, like those operated by the 103rd ACS.

Tactical Operations Centers, or TOCs, are command and control, or C2, nodes usually composed of multiple tents and or tactical vehicles, built to accommodate communications and data collection platforms for use by military commanders and their staffs to guide tactical units within areas of operations under their command.

TOC-L is an experimental system, which, if adopted, will replace legacy systems and their accompanying components, such as older versions of the AN/TYQ-23A Tactical Air Operations Module, currently in use throughout the Air Force.

“[The AN/TYQ-23A Tactical Air Operations Module, or 23 Alpha] is a mobile air control system. It uses something called the MSCT, which is a Multi-Source Correlator Tracker, which takes in radar feeds from any surrounding areas like the FAA or a local Tipsy 75 (AN/TPS-75) tactical radar,” said Connecticut Air National Guard Tech. Sgt. Brian Wilson, a computer maintainer with the 103rd ACS. “It takes all the tracks and correlates them into a singular picture that [flight controllers in air battle management] can use in order to perform missions like establishing a no-fly zone, mid-air refueling [orbits], surveillance operations, [coordinating] fighter strikes and [facilitating deep strike] bombing missions.”

The immediate need for a new TOC system comes as the Air Force better prepares itself to fight and win in large-scale combat operations, or LSCO, where units would have to rapidly deploy to and from contested, degraded environments against potential near-peer adversaries.

Currently, there are only 16 systems spread out amongst the force, two of which are being tested by Air National Guard units. These units are the 103rd ACS in Connecticut, which was the first Air Guard unit to receive TOC-L in December 2023, and the 128th Air Control Squadron out of Wisconsin.

Exercise Agile Panda marks the first time the 103rd ACS has tested the system outside of their normal base of operations and is the first time they have utilized it to perform the unit’s primary function, controlling live aircraft conducting aerial warfare training.

“The Maine Air National Guard is flying a KC-135, the New Hampshire Air National Guard, a KC-46, the [103rd Airlift] Wing a C-130, and the Massachusetts Air National Guard, the 104th Fighter Wing, is putting up eight F-15s,” said Connecticut Air National Guard Maj. J. Seth Bopp, Director of Operations for the 103rd Air Control Squadron. “All of these units are supporting the 103rd ACS and, more broadly, the testing of the TOC-L system by flying in the Whiskey 105 airspace (a warning area and military training airspace in the vicinity of Long Island, NY) and conducting a mission in order to showcase and prove the capabilities of the TOC-L.”

For the exercise, the 103rd ACS’ battle management team was split into two groups, the first stayed behind at the unit’s base in Orange to operate the legacy system, the AN/TYQ-23A Tactical Air Operations Module, while another small team of 11 airmen prepared to travel with the TOC-L system by air via a Connecticut Army National Guard CH-47 transport helicopter from the 2nd Battalion, 104th Aviation Regiment. Unfortunately, the airmen from the 103rd ACS had to adapt and overcome to accomplish their mission after a rainstorm blew in and grounded the helicopter. Due to the versatility of the TOC-L, and the expertise and quick thinking of the 103rd’s airmen, the team was able to load the system into a Light Medium Tactical Vehicle, or LMTV, and traveled by road to their proposed TOC location at Camp Nett in Niantic. Once on site, the team deployed their antenna systems and set up six of their scopes, specialized systems designed to receive radar data pulled in from the antennas, which is how aircraft are tracked when controlling an airspace, all within 65 minutes.

“We started the clock as soon as we started pulling the equipment cases off of the 5-ton,” explained Bopp. “That’s getting the equipment off the truck, into the building, out of the cases, set up, connections established and erecting a 60-foot antenna.”

TOC-L is designed to enhance the combat capabilities of command and control units and aims to be extremely versatile, scalable up or down to meet mission needs and the constraints of the operational environment. One goal of the system is to better enable the Air Force to minimize their footprint in the field, thus making units harder to detect and target. TOC-L accomplishes this by condensing the amount of equipment previously needed to meet operational requirements. Additionally, TOC-L enables units to create multiple smaller TOCs that can be spread out and decentralized if necessary, further minimizing their footprint on the battlefield.

“It’s a new, slimmer, agile version of the tactical operations module, the 23 Alpha,” explained Wilson. “It’s a similar system with an MSCT on it and instead of a large, deployable shelter, it’s encased in small Pelican cases that can be transported by a small man team via any vehicle like a helicopter, five ton [truck] or even a small truck as opposed to the 23 Alpha which requires a military truck or [other form of military transport] in order to arrive at location. [Additionally, these legacy systems] require heavy support equipment. [TOC-L] makes very little heat, so it doesn’t require a lot of cooling and uses very little power compared to [the] tactical systems that we currently use. We don’t have to have a large spot in the field, we can put it in any commercial building and use commercial power as opposed to [legacy systems] which require a tactical generator.”

TOC-L also comes with an entire new suite of antennas and communications equipment as part of the system, including an integrated Starlink system, which is used for long haul communications. Additionally, TOC-L provides the ability for controllers to pull radar data from the cloud, rather than through the traditional use of cables. Cables can be cumbersome, are detectable by enemy sensors and have the potential to be damaged in transport, during setup, or possibly by the enemy through acts of sabotage or in-direct fire.

“From a radio perspective, it is cool because we have the newest, latest and greatest radio equipment, the PRC-167’s bring a very modern communications capability as opposed to some of our legacy radios,” explained Connecticut Air National Guard Master Sgt. Jesse Barna, the radio superintendent of the 103rd ACS. “We’re supposed to be getting a newer version of our larger TOC radio suite within the next year or two, and it’s supposed to be a fully upgraded radio suite with newer [surface-to-air] radios, but this kit has a lot of the Special Operations Command radio systems. It came with a whole suite of antennas, including this new OCP tube roll antenna, which is neat. We’re going to be testing its range in relation to our more standard antennas. We actually brought one of our own antennas that’s not part of the system to see how this mobile gear stacks up against [the new communications equipment]. Our airspace is pretty far away, so we’re really pushing what this equipment is capable of. We’re getting some good data and we’re going to report all this and hopefully it goes into the development of the system.”

Currently, the 103rd ACS is implementing Increment One, the first step in a series of testing phases the TOC-L will undergo to test its capabilities and feasibility. Down the line, the 103rd ACS will also field the system at larger training exercises such as Sentry Savannah, the Air National Guard’s premier defensive counter-air exercise that has previously involved more than 1,000 personnel and 50 airframes.

“The 103rd ACS will be going to Exercise Sentry Savannah, in Georgia, later this year,” said Bopp. “We plan to move TOC-L using Georgia Army National Guard Chinooks (CH-47 transport helicopters) from Hunter Army Airfield and employing the TOC-L in different military training complexes and ranges around Georgia to conduct command and control operations with minimum crew compliments. During Sentry Savannah, the 103rd ACS will also be [experimenting with] dislocated radio and data link packages. The idea being that TOC-L will be in one location with the radios completely separate from it, in order to cut down on EMCON (Emissions Control) procedures.”

Airmen from the 103rd ACS are excited to be a part of the Air Force’s modernization and are eager to see how their efforts will affect the control and recording centers of the future.

“It feels good. It’s a first for us,” said Wilson. “We’re the first in the Air Force for a lot of achievements that we’ve made, like hooking up the [Cloud-Based Command and Control, or CBC2] system, deploying it in the field, getting the okay to hook up a Tipsy 75 to it. So, being that tip of the spear as far as fielding it, given our unit's history with the [Battlespace Command and Control Center-Theater, or BC3T], and multiple years of high tempo deployers, all that experience came into pretty good effect for fielding this piece of equipment. It feels really good to be out here and see it working.”