According to Wing Commander TK Singha, never has the cliché – man behind the machine, in aviation banter, been as significant and diverse as it is today. With the advent of the AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) in aerial-battle management scenarios, this aspect has undergone a paradigm shift with the incorporation of the hitherto unseen catalyst – Fighter Controllers (FC), manning work stations on board the AWACS.
The fighter pilots of the yore were often deemed ‘flying aces’ depending upon the number of enemy aircraft that they downed single-handedly or at best, in pairs in the ‘dog-fights’ that ensued. The manifestation of modern day air combats with multitudes of fighter aircraft in an era of ‘beyond-visual range’ (BVR) missiles today are a scenario, far removed from that.
Comprehensive situational awareness is the buzzword for survivability for any modern-day fighter pilot. To achieve that it is mandatory to match the inputs from the AWACS and ground radars to help make the entire airspace transparent. It is here that the fighter controller’s role assumes significance as they play a decisive role in the outcome of aerial battles.
Integration of fighter controllers actively into IAF operations goes back in history where they played a significant role in all our wars. With the advent of all-aspect IR missiles and BVRs in the mid-80s, the pilot-controller synergy reached a new level. Together they became a lethal team and the IAF began conducting joint courses for them since 1989 at TACDE (Tactics and Combat Development Establishment) where Fighter Combat Leaders (FCL), Fighter Strike Leaders (FSL) and Master Fighter Controllers (MFC) are trained alongside. This lethal team has now got a lot meaner with the FC now being available inside the airborne platform.
The IAF started training its FCs for AWACS operations as early as August 2005 during ‘Cope India’ exercise with US Air Force. In other bilateral international exercises of ‘Indradhanush’ and ‘Garuda’, with Royal Air Force and French Air Force in succeeding years, IAF fighter controllers matched skills with their more experienced counterparts adapting to the new environment with panache. At the multilateral international air exercise of Red Flag at Nellis USAF base in 2003 and 2008, IAF pilots and FCs made their presence count in every encounter.
A batch of IAF FCs underwent training in Israel to operate the latest AWACS that is being inducted today. Other controllers to follow will be trained at the Air Defence College, Lucknow – the country’s only centre imparting advance training to fighter controllers of the Air Force. With a preeminent role to guide the fighter pilots for a kill, the job of IAF’s fighter controller now is set to transcend from the realm of ‘control of interceptors and air surveillance’ to that of management of the entire ‘Air Battle’ as a whole.