The RCAF Theatre Air Control System: Considerations for the Employment of Air Power in Joint Operations (RCAF Journal - SUMMER 2014 - Volume 3, Issue 3)

Article #3 in a series on command and control and the Royal Canadian Air Force[1]

By Major Pux Barnes, CD, MA

Into the clear blue. As the landing gear retracts after take-off, the two Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) CF188 Hornets commence a climb into a clear blue sky from a deployed operating base to fly their assigned missions. Canada has deployed a Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) joint task force (JTF) to be part of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) operation somewhere in the world, and a major part of the CAF JTF is an RCAF air task force (ATF) comprised of a number of personnel, equipment and capabilities. Throughout the coming five-hour mission, the fighter pilots will come into contact with a complex and interconnected series of command and control (C2) organizations that will perform a number of functions, all dedicated to helping them accomplish one thing—the mission. This network of people, organizations and sensors is known as the theatre air control system (TACS).[3]

Since they arrived for mission planning that morning, the pilots began working with elements of the TACS, a continuous coordination that would not end until post-mission reporting was completed, later that day. After the details of the mission were wrapped up at the squadron operations centre (SQOC), the pilots coordinated with the CC150(T) Polaris crew who would be launching before the Hornets, in order to provide the air-to-air refuelling (AAR) necessary to get the ordnance-laden fighters to their assigned combat air patrol (CAP) locations for the three-hour on-station time and then home again. The coordination continued with military air traffic control (ATC) as the aircraft started their engines, taxied and took-off.

Once airborne, they are handed off to the en route ATC who takes them to the area of operations (AO). The air tasking order (ATO) published by the NATO combined air operations centre (CAOC) directs them to then contact their tactical controller, a NATO E-3A airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft orbiting off the coast at 30,000 feet [9,144 metres] on a relatively “short” 14-hour mission. The AWACS crew coordinates the AAR between the RCAF aircraft, and after topping up with 7,000 pounds [3,175 kilograms] more fuel each, the fighters go “feet dry” as they cross the coast to take up their CAP positions, flying a racetrack orbit as they wait to be called. The Hornets are carrying an array of weapons and sensors to assist troops on the ground who come into contact with the enemy, specified by the acronym “TIC,” meaning “troops in contact.” The goal is to respond within seconds when they get that call.

Pushing south. Receiving periodic updates from their tactical controller (the AWACS), the Hornet pilots settle in for a potentially long three hours. As the mission progresses, the pilots are given a change to their planned mission. It seems that the combat operations desk at the CAOC has received credible intelligence that a threat might be emerging in another part of the AO where friendly ground troops are operating. The combined joint force air component commander (CJFACC) has decided to push the CAP another 30 kilometres inland to ensure the Hornets are better positioned to help, if need be. Since this airspace belongs to another tactical controller, the Hornets switch frequencies and contact the tactical control radar (TCR) controllers on the ground. The AWACS crew keeps radar contact and monitors the radio transmissions of the Hornets as they move further south, for the E-3A is responsible for maintaining the AO’s recognized air picture (RAP) that feeds the CJFACC’s common operating picture, which, in turn, provides critical situational awareness of the constantly changing battlespace.[4]

The TCR controllers advise the Hornet pilots of the unfolding situation on the ground. A Canadian Army brigade is preparing to operate in a valley where the enemy has recently been seen. The brigade is supported by an RCAF aviation brigade comprised of CH146 Griffon and CH147 Chinook helicopters, who will be flying below 300 metres above ground level (AGL). The controller reminds the fighter pilots of the presence of the helicopters working the low-level airspace and that each one can be positively identified by their ATO information, including call sign and transponder codes. Since the enemy also has helicopters, it’s vital to be able to distinguish friend from foe. Besides these RCAF helicopters, there is a CP140 Aurora flying a surveillance mission somewhere in the area, and two CC130J Hercules are expected to resupply the brigade within the next hour. Since these aircraft will be under tactical control (TACON)[5] of someone within the TACS, things will go well.

In the descent. Before long, the TIC call comes, and the Hornets are directed to leave their CAP and descend towards the troops making the call. The Hornets’ mission has just changed from CAP to close air support (CAS).[6] The TCR controllers “push” the pilots to another radio frequency to contact their new tactical controller, the tactical air control party (TACP), a joint Air Force–Army organization that coordinates all air activity in the airspace around the ground forces. The TACP controller updates the pilots on the location of the TIC and advises of other target-area details. As the pilots rapidly descend below 3,000 metres, they are advised of the location of other aircraft in the vicinity, both manned and unmanned. The TACP controller pushes the fighter pilots to their next tactical controller, the forward air controller (FAC) who is with the ground unit taking fire from the enemy.

The FAC’s relief is apparent over the radio. The need for CAS is immediate as each time the FAC transmits, the pilots hear the distinct “plink-plink” sound of enemy fire bouncing off the hull of the armoured vehicle the FAC is kneeling behind. The FAC provides exacting directions to the pilots about what is required—a high-speed pass down the valley at low altitude with afterburners on as a show of force to scare the enemy off the ridge above the valley floor. But this “show of force” requires CJFACC approval before the lead fighter pilot can descend that low, due to the potential risks from the enemy and airspace conflicts with friendly forces. Remember … the helicopters are still down there somewhere. How does a FAC who is 1,000 miles [1,609 kilometres] away from the CJFACC get approval for this show of force? More importantly, how can that approval happen within seconds, not minutes?

Sector Operations Centre Middle Wallop with (L to R) command staff, communications staff, map board staff and fighter squadron status boards

Enter the TACS. Critical to the success of any military operation is the understanding of both the chain of command and the function of commanders and organizations at various levels. It is through this structure that commanders exercise the command and control of complex air-power activities, effectively integrating air effects into joint operations. The modern TACS has its origins in the Second World War during the Battle of Britain, where the Royal Air Force (RAF) Fighter Command utilized a complex system of radars, radios and control centres (see Figure 1) to direct Spitfires and Hurricanes against raids by the German Luftwaffe. Once scrambled, fighter squadrons could be directed towards the incoming enemy. Once a dogfight was over, the fighters could be immediately reassigned to intercept new targets using the same imagery as viewed on the ground-based controllers’ radar screens. Agility on the part of the fighters was critical as flight time was limited by fuel. In the face of overwhelming odds, this coordination between radar and fighter pilot served to effectively multiply the effect of the RAF’s defences and gain ultimate victory. The raison d’être of the TACS has remained essentially the same since then—making air power as agile, versatile and flexible as possible.

Figure 1. The RAF’s Fighter Command air defence system in 1940

Good news—the RCAF has a TACS. RCAF operations are also controlled through an overarching TACS. The TACS is centred on the CAOC and includes the organizations, units, personnel, equipment and procedures necessary to plan, direct and control air operations as well as to coordinate air operations with other components in the joint environment. The RCAF TACS includes the following elements of the air C2 chain that provides operational and tactical C2 of forces executing air power missions:[7]

a. Combined Air Operations Centre. Located in Winnipeg, it is the principal centre from which air operations are planned, directed, monitored, controlled and coordinated with the other components. It is structured to operate as a fully integrated facility and includes the personnel and equipment necessary to accomplish theatre-wide air operations. The CAOC provides the RCAF’s joint force air component commander (JFACC) with the situational awareness (SA) required to execute domestic and global air operations.

A typical CAOC

b. Air component headquarters (ACHQ) is a scalable, operational-level headquarters (HQ) that supports an air component commander (ACC) who is not physically located at the CAOC. An ACHQ consists of a combination of A-staff and operations personnel who provide the deployed ACC with SA and perform the planning and coordination between the ACHQ, the JTF HQ and the CAOC, employing reachback. The ACHQ is a critical requirement that permits the ACC to integrate air effects into joint operations not controlled by the RCAF CAOC.

c. Air component coordination element (ACCE)[8] is a scalable, planning and coordination team assigned by the JFACC to support various operational-level commanders. An ACCE is responsible for conducting operational-level planning and coordination to facilitate the integration of air effects into joint operations. Whenever possible, an ACCE will leverage the capabilities of the CAOC by employing reachback. Deploying an ACCE is an option when the Canadian JFACC is physically separated from the JTF HQ or a Canadian JTF is part of an allied/coalition operation possessing its own CJFACC. The RCAF possesses a deployable ACCE at 2 Wing. An ACCE is normally deployed to the following locations:

1. Canadian Joint Operations Command (CJOC) HQ. Normally, a standing ACCE is permanently located at CJOC HQ;

2. Regional Joint Task Force (RJTF) HQ. Normally, standing ACCEs are permanently located at each CAF RJTF HQ;

3. JTF HQ. When a JTF commander—other than an RJTF commander—is designated to command an operation, an ACCE is employed at the JTF HQ;

4. ACHQ. An ACCE is employed at an ACHQ to support a deployed ACC; and

5. Allied/coalition CAOC and national command element (NCE). During allied/coalition operations, the Canadian national commander (CNC) employs an ACCE at both the allied/coalition CAOC and the Canadian NCE HQ.

d. Control and reporting centre (CRC) is a ground-based, integrated C2 unit that may be static, mobile or deployable. Subordinate to the CAOC, the CRC is responsible for the decentralized execution of all defensive air, offensive air and airspace management activities within an assigned area. This is accomplished through surveillance, identification, weapons control, positive and procedural airspace control as well as datalink management. The CRC produces a recognized air picture that contributes to the overall common operating picture. The RCAF employs 22 Wing as a CRC on a daily basis and can deploy TCR squadrons from 3 and 4 Wings as CRCs.

e. Wing operations centre (WOC) performs continuous coordination between the CAOC, wing and subordinate squadrons. The feasibility of CAOC-assigned missions and tasks are verified by the WOC. The WOC monitors mission progress, ensures mission result reporting and provides continuous near real-time status of information to the CAOC. WOCs can be found at most RCAF wings, including the deployable air expeditionary wing (AEW), 2 Wing.

f. Squadron operations centre coordinates with the WOC and is responsible for preparing assigned missions and tasks, their timely execution and reporting mission results via the WOC to the CAOC.

g. Combat operations centre (COC) performs the role of C2 link between the CRC and Alert Force Commander for North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) operations. The C O C provides the CRC with continuous reporting and the status of NORAD-assigned resources while providing the Alert Force Commander with SA updates. The COC represents a vital link in the C2 chain between the JFACC and NORAD-assigned aircraft captains. 3 and 4 Wings each employ COCs.

h. Tactical air control party is the principal liaison and control element aligned with land force manoeuvre units from battalion to corps. The primary mission of a TACP is to advise the respective ground commanders on the capabilities and limitations of air power and to assist the ground commander in planning, requesting, coordinating and controlling air effects. RCAF personnel are assigned the TACP role.

i. Forward air controller is “[a] qualified individual who, from a forward position on the ground or in the air, directs the action of combat aircraft engaged in close air support of land forces.”[9] A FAC operating from an airborne platform is known as a FAC(A). RCAF personnel are assigned the FAC role.

FACs call in a “show of force” from an A-10 Thunderbolt

Once the components and overall purpose of the TACS are understood, one can appreciate how it actually goes about collectively enhancing air power’s agility. This process is particularly important when seen through the lens of asymmetric warfare, where the need exists to respond to mission changes in order to take advantage of fleeting, dynamic targeting opportunities. Commanders at all levels rely upon the TACS to action the rapid changes required of air power. Aircraft have retuned to base many times after having flown a mission that, as a result of significant changes while en route, looked nothing like the mission originally assigned in the ATO. The fast-moving nature of joint warfare demands that aircraft be flexible, sometimes to the extreme. A well-coordinated TACS manages these changes, even ensuring that a FAC can get a mission change approved on “the fly.” It is by ensuring there are no breaks in the tactical control of aircraft during the entire length of the mission that the TACS can best serve the dynamic needs of the battlespace.

Figure 2. Employing the TACS: Closing the TACON loop

Closing the “TACON loop”[10] is the responsibility of the ACC, the operational-level commander who controls the TACS.[11] When a well-established TACS is able to respond quickly to change requests from the field, the request/approve/coordinate/execute (RACE) cycle speeds up, and air power increases its agility, flexibility and relevance to the joint force commander. When seen in terms of C2 relationships, the key is ensuring that elements of the TACS are able to provide sufficient TACON of aircraft during all phases of flight. As illustrated in Figure 2, an aircraft flies an “ATO mission path” that interconnects with elements of the TACS that exercise TACON over the mission. These TACON elements are interconnected with each other and with the ACC at the CAOC. When any one element of the TACS passes a request to change an ongoing mission, simultaneous activity occurs which provides expanding SA to all players, while the request is considered at the CAOC. Once approval is given, the TACS ensures the message is transmitted through all elements to the affected aircraft. In many cases, decision authority can be delegated to a TACON element to speed up the process.

The RCAF “TACON loop.” For the RCAF, the “ATO mission path” for any aircraft tasked in an ATO starts with the CAOC, the organization that issues the ATO (on behalf of the JFACC) to a wing’s or AEW’s WOC. The WOC ensures that squadrons are properly supported so that they can fly the ATO mission as “fragged.”[12] Because ATO production occurs in the days preceding the actual day of flying, mission changes can be transmitted from the CAOC to the WOC before the mission starts. Anytime the aircraft is in motion, even during taxi and departure, ATC or the WOC can pass mission changes.[13]

Once with a TACON unit, mission changes can be dealt with fairly quickly, as previously described. Aircraft on the outbound and return legs of their “ATO mission path” can also be reached for mission changes. If, for example, the aircraft replacing you becomes unserviceable or is otherwise dynamically retasked, your return to base (RTB) could be delayed. The TACS can redirect you to a tanker for more fuel and put you back into the fight. The TACON loop completes its cycle once the aircraft lands and mission reporting is complete.

RCAF CC150(T) Polaris refuels a pair of CF188 Hornets

It is a fact of modern conflict that the battlespace is becoming increasingly complex and fast paced. If air power is to remain sufficiently flexible to meet the evolving challenges of a busy airspace, employed at all altitudes by both manned and unmanned systems, it will need to rely upon a well-equipped and trained TACS. The RCAF has developed a TACS that can meet the needs of any domestic or deployed operation, all the while preparing our aircrews and C2 personnel to operate effectively within the air control systems of NORAD, NATO or potential coalition partners. It is imperative that exercise planners begin to incorporate elements of the TACS as they prepare the RCAF to meet its future deployment goals.

And just how did that FAC eventually receive last-minute approval for the “show of force” needed to solve the TIC situation in that valley? A well-organized TACS provided the conduit. In this particular scenario, the FAC coordinated the CAS with the fighter pilots, and that conversation was monitored by both the TACP and the AWACS. The AWACS requested the mission change from the CJFACC at the CAOC. Once approved, the message was sent via reverse route to the FAC, while that TACP coordinated a temporary clearance of the valley of helicopter traffic and all supporting artillery fire. The mission was successfully concluded, and the air effect worked. This “show of force” example is based on real occurrences during Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, representing a realistic illustration of the TACS in action. The length of time required for a round trip of requests of this nature during the operation was routinely under 30 seconds. While any TACS can be justifiably proud of actioning such a quick response, 30 seconds can be an eternity for the FAC in that valley.

AAR―air-to-air refuelling

ACC―air component commander

ACCE―air component coordination element

ACHQ―air component headquarters

ADS―air defence system

AEW―air expeditionary wing

AOCC (L)―air operations coordination centre (land)

AO―area of operations

ATC―air traffic control

ATO―air tasking order

AWACS―airborne warning and control system

B-GA-401―B-GA-401-000/FP-001, Canadian Forces Aerospace Command Doctrine

C2―command and control

CAF―Canadian Armed Forces

CAOC―combined air operations centre / Combined Aerospace Operations Centre

CAP―combat air patrol

CAS―close air support

CJFACC―combined joint force air component commander

CJOC―Canadian Joint Operations Command

C O C―combat operations centre

CRC―control and reporting centre

FAC―forward air controller


JFACC―joint force air component commander

JTF―joint task force

MISREP―mission report


NATO―North Atlantic Treaty Organization

NCE―national command element

NORAD―North American Aerospace Defence Command

RAF―Royal Air Force

RCAF―Royal Canadian Air Force

RJTF―regional joint task force

SA―situational awareness

TACOM―tactical command

TACON―tactical control

TACP―tactical air control party

TACS―theatre air control system

TCR―tactical control radar

TIC―troops in contact

WOC―wing operations centre

[1]. This is the third in a series of short articles on the subject of command and control in the RCAF. For more detailed information, consult B-GA-401-000/FP-001, Canadian Forces Aerospace Command Doctrine, found on the Internet at and the Defence Wide Area Network at, both sites accessed October 30, 2013. (return)

[2]. Although fictional, this scenario is based on the author’s experiences after more than 20 years working in C2 organizations within NORAD, NATO and RCAF at both the tactical and operational levels, including over 300 missions on NATO and United States Air Force E-3 AWACS in operations including NATO Stabilization Force, Operation ALLIED FORCE, Operation NOBLE EAGLE, Operation ENDURING FREEDOM and Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. (return)

[3]. In NATO doctrine, this system is known as the air command and control system (ACCS). (return)

[4]. The AWACS crew also monitors the pilots’ progress for another reason. Should the fighters have to operate at a lower altitude, supporting the ground troops for an extended period of time, they will burn fuel at a much higher rate, greatly shortening their availability, known as their “on-station” time. The AWACS mission crew commander (MCC) would direct the onboard controllers to quickly develop a plan with the CAOC and TCR to prioritize AAR assets should the Hornets call for gas in the middle of an engagement. In this case, the TACS as a whole coordinates to have a tanker aircraft close by and ready. (return)

[5]. TACON permits effective local direction and control of movements of manoeuvres necessary to accomplish missions or tasks assigned. In general, TACON is delegated when two or more units not under the same operational control (OPCON) are combined to form a cohesive tactical unit for a specified period of time. Department of National Defence, B-GA-401-000/FP-001, Canadian Forces Aerospace Command Doctrine (Trenton, ON: Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre, 2012), 7. Will be abbreviated as B-GA-401. (return)

[6]. The CAS mission is “air action against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces and which require detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces.” Defence Terminology Bank, record 23335. (return)

[7]. B-GA-401, 22–25. (return)

[8]. For a detailed description of the duties/responsibilities of an ACCE and ACCE director, see B-GA-401, 27–29. (return)

[9]. Defence Terminology Bank, record 552. (return)

[10]. “Closing the TACON loop” is a concept developed by the Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre during 2012–2013. (return)

[11]. See article #1 in this series for more information on the employment of C2 in air-power operations. Pux Barnes, “Command or Control? Considerations for the Employment of Air Power in Joint Operations,” Royal Canadian Air Force Journal 3, no. 2 (Spring 2014), (Internet) and (Defence Wide Area Network). (return)

[12]. “Fragged” is a term that dates back to the Vietnam War where complex flying orders were promulgated from a centralized location, being distributed to subordinate headquarters and flying units, expanding downward and outward in a fragmenting method. (return)

[13]. In the age of the paper ATO, the author spent up to 30 minutes on the ramp (on numerous occasions), with engines running, awaiting last-minute ATO changes to be delivered to the aircraft prior to taxi. Happily, ATO changes are now normally delivered via electronic means once aircraft are airborne. (return)

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