AOCs: Orchestrating Air Campaigns in Perfect Harmony

  • Published
  • By Katherine C. Gandara
  • Headquarters Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center Chief of Public Affairs
Since the end of the Cold War, Air Force planners have been transforming airpower to stay ahead of complex and ever-evolving threats throughout the world.

The Air Force continues to develop new air and space technologies and operational concepts, while advancing current assets, in order to be ready to fight and win current and future wars. One step toward this objective is the Air and Space Operations Center as a Weapon System, or simply an AOC.

An AOC is the command and control center that plans, executes and assesses aerospace operations during a contingency or conflict. A combined air operations center, or CAOC, is an AOC that supports joint, allied and coalition warfare. A CAOC is the primary theater command and control, or C2, facility responsible for orchestrating an air campaign for unilateral, multilateral, or coalition combat effort.

"In today's world, the Air Force doesn't fight battles alone but as a coalition of partners," said Capt. Terry Simonton, test director for the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center's Detachment 3 AOC Weapon System test program based at Langley AFB, Va.

A CAOC is the "brain" and "nerve center" of the theater air and space forces prosecuting the air war.

"The CAOC is the key to the powerful command and control advantage our military forces have over all potential opponents," said Captain Simonton. "It receives and processes immense amounts of information instantaneously across its complex communication nodes and allows us to employ forces from land bases which are thousands of miles apart, from the Continental United States, from carrier decks, from space, and across service and coalition lines with coordinated, orchestrated, focused, and devastatingly precise effects."

AOCs have been around in one form or another since the days of the Army Air Corps and World War II. Early AOCs were often ad hoc centers consisting of nothing more than phones, radios, maps and grease boards where the theater air commander and his team planned and observed the air campaign.

Over time, each theater developed its own techniques, processes, procedures and software to conduct an effective air campaign.

However, this tradition of "independent development" for each AOC gradually led to non-standardized configurations of AOCs.

Non-standardization brought many difficulties such as a need for warfighters to learn a different concept of operations, different tactics, techniques and procedures, and the need for the Air Force and its sister services to interface with different software and systems. This further led to difficulties in maintaining and developing different software packages and inefficiencies in cost effectiveness in the logistics of maintaining different baselines.

In the mid 1990s, the Air Force instituted a program to baseline the key, but non-integrated "stove-piped" systems used in AOCs into one standard system. That program was the Theater Battle Management Core Systems, or TBMCS.

In late 1999, the Air Force took the next step and further consolidated other AOC-related systems into a single program. At the same time, the Air Force declared the AOC a weapon system in order to establish configuration standardization throughout the globe.

It was further decided to advance the use of evolutionary acquisition to quickly acquire enhancements to the AOC WS. This resulted in the establishment of a CAOC-experimental, known as CAOC-X, at Langley under the Air Force Command, Control, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Center.

CAOC-X missions included standardizing AOCs throughout the world; serving as a hub for bringing in new ideas and systems for AOC operations; helping operators, acquisition professionals, testers and industry experts quickly deliver the newest technologies and processes to AOCs through a process called spiral development; and serving as a test bed. It included standing up a Combined Test Force at the CAOC-X to address the challenges brought about by the spiral acquisition concepts of the mid 1990's. The team, consisting of collocated members from the user communities, development test communities, and AFOTEC's Detachment 3, brought an interdisciplinary approach to testing but still kept the core missions intact. The CAOC-X was a key tool in standardizing air and space operations centers across the Air Force. In 2001, the Air Force designated the AOC as a single, integrated weapon system.

AOC testing grew directly out of TBMCS, the core of the AOC WS, and has benefited from TBMCS testing lessons learned.

An important lesson learned during the first operational test event of a combined TBMCS and AOC WS was to put full stress loads on the system during the developmental testing phase.

"Testing the functionality of each process during developmental testing, though beneficial, still required a full operational load," said Lt. Col. Ken Young, Chief of AFOTEC Detachment 3's Operating Location at Langley AFB, Va. "During developmental testing, a small cadre of testers and operators demonstrated critical processes worked independently as expected.

"But during operational testing, we put a full cadre of warfighters on the system and simulated a full-scale joint air planning process. By doing this, we identified a small number, but very significant weaknesses to the development and operational communities," said the Colonel Young.

"When conducting operational testing of a major weapon system with joint interest, it is critical to have a common, integrated test construct and set of measures to address all the needs of the sister services as well as the U.S. Air Force," said Col. Denise Kloeppel, AFOTEC Detachment 3 Commander. "We must also ensure we develop an evaluation strategy that can be uniformly applied by each service. Building an effective test construct requires a thorough understanding of warfighter concepts of operation, how various services integrate into that concept, and a good understanding of how we will evaluate the system performing the operational mission."

TBMCS and AOC WS test measures, operational characteristics, and critical operational issues were developed using task-based methodology thoroughly grounded in Air Force, multiservice, and joint publications and doctrine, versus an operational requirements document-based methodology.

"There were minimal operational requirements documents available when we began developing our concepts. But using task-based methodology proved to be a very efficient way for the test team to quickly plan, execute and report on the numerous incremental tests first conducted on TBMCS and later on AOC WS," said Colonel Young. "As the operational requirements have matured, we have modified our approach to get the best plan assembled for upcoming operational test events."

The lessons learned from operational testing were augmented by information gathered during Operation Iraqi Freedom by the operational community and have proved useful toward the further development of the test program.

"AOC WS was the nerve center for all Central Command aerospace missions in support of OIF," said Colonel Young.

The AOC WS, also known as "Falconers", have five Falconer AOCs worldwide. Additionally, throughout the world there are a larger number of functional AOCs through which the Commander, Air Force Forces supports functional Unified Commands. Though varied in size, the functional AOCs tend to be smaller, and have less functionality, than Falconers and are precisely focused on the specific command mission.

The AOC is manned by a dedicated cadre of trained professionals and enables the Joint Forces Air Component Commander to exercise command and control of aerospace forces in support of the Joint Force Commander's campaign plan. The JFACC will employ the AOC to maneuver and mass overwhelming aerospace power through centralized control and decentralized execution to produce desired operational and strategic effects in support of the JFC's campaign.

"The AOC WS is critically important to our nation. We cannot take air supremacy for granted and the AOC WS goes a long way for the right effect to be applied at the right time and place to ultimately help win our nation's wars," said Colonel Kloeppel. "Ensuring the AOC WS works as advertised is one of AFOTEC Detachment 3's contributions toward winning those wars."