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Combat Systems Officer eCourse

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Lesson 2 of 40
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The Kill Chain

He walks with a limp, the old wound from a 5.56mm round a constant ache. His brother sits on the tattered chair, a stream of smoke drifting from his nostrils and out the window, his mind filled with images of glory and vengeance. The day has been set – one week left. They will don the vests and walk calmly into the market, bringing the journey of their personal jihad to an end, shedding the blood of the less devout. Lying on his mat, he dozes some, but doesn’t truly sleep much these days. His frayed nerves keep him up. He has never admitted this to his brother.  

17,000 feet above, a U-28A banks in continuous circles, the CSO (Combat Systems Officer) keeping the unblinking eye of its high-fidelity sensor fixed on the insurgent below. The glow of the brother’s cigarette is picked up as a distinctive flash of infrared signature. lntel has provided reports and taskings for days, leveraging the power of the U.S. military to find this man, track his movements, and stalk him for the perfect time to strike. Miles away, an E-8 loiters, the ABM (Air Battle Manager) aboard directing tankers and coordinating Yo-Yo aerial refueling operations for a pair of F-15E Strike Eagles, callsign DUDE flight. A SOF (Special Operations Forces) team is on the ground, weapons at the ready, the chill of the low-illumination night a welcome relief to the sweltering heat of the day. They had been inserted two moonless nights earlier by an MC-130, its impressive mass hurling mere hundreds of feet above the jagged rocks of the canyon walls, guided by radar and protected from surface-to-air threats by a sophisticated electronics suite manipulated by the Navigator and EWO (Electronics Warfare Officer). The JTAC (Joint Terminal Air Controller) radios up to the AC-130J gunship, established now on a 10 Nautical Mile wheel around the insurgent’s position. The ingress/egress routes have been scanned and the gunship crew clarifies updates on the ground scheme of maneuver.

The radios chirp with encrypted preamble as each aircraft checks in, confirming their position and sensor assignment. The SOF team approaches – silent, steady, focused. Defensive scans from above show the team as glowing figures moving with lethal precision towards the squat house.

“Collapse the stack, collapse the stack, collapse the stack” flows through the headsets of the aviators. On the ground, the air suddenly fills with the buzzing thrum of propellers and the thunder of jet engines as the SOF team crashes through the door.  

“SQUIRTER, North, confirm SPOOKY tracking; second SQUIRTER, South, Vehicle – confirm DUDE flight tracking”

“SPOOKY, TALLY”

“DUDE, TALLY”

As the SOF Team clears the building, IR sensors track the fleeing insurgents. Approvals flow up and down the kill chain with rapid, rehearsed efficiency. A flurry of 30mm rounds rain down ahead of the runner, kicking up clouds of dust and stopping him dead in his tracks. His brother, hearing the staccato rumble of the gunship’s cannon, feels his heart pound as he revs the small diesel engine of the tattered pickup truck. An AKM clanks on the floorboard, 7.62mm rounds stacked in the magazine. A rock-strewn ditch stops the truck dead in its tracks and the fleeing man reaches for the weapon. As he swings the creaky, rust-stained door open, he hears a whistling whoosh and turns his head. It’s the last movement he makes as the laser guided munition, released by the crew of the F-15E, detonates, showering him with molten hot metal, explosive shock-waves and pieces of the truck he hoped would carry him to safety.  

Two down. But the hunt continues. A veritable beehive of activity continues, including a full stack of aircraft, multiple radio frequencies, engagement zones, precise TOTs (Time on Target), careful weapon selection and extensive logistical and Joint-Forces coordination to ensure weapons go precisely where they are supposed to go – and never where they shouldn’t. Each aircraft, in this case, has multiple members on board. Whether operating sensors, coordinating taskings, directing pilots via radar screens, or ensuring that no threats from ground-based surface-to-air missiles can take any of them down, the crews of these aircraft work together to go into harm’s way, execute the mission and, above all, support and protect the guys on the ground. 

An intricate and precise dance, a complex puzzle consisting of dozens of moving pieces and evolving circumstances is required to execute such a mission. As a prospective military aviator, you have the opportunity to take part in this. This course focuses on those who operate aboard these specialized and lethal military aircraft – specifically, Combat Systems Officers and Air Battle Managers. This course is intended to be an introduction to the roles these warriors play, and as a guide through a career as a non-pilot, USAF rated aviator.