If you are into DCS or similar games, chances are you enjoy torturing yourself with complex tasks, because mastering something that, at first, seems unattainable is just so much more rewarding. After all, don´t we all “love it when a plan comes together”? Even more so if you not only manage to get a few buddies into the virtual air, but also manage to put a few warheads on foreheads together without blowing each other up by accident.
On your way through DCS you will find various tutorials and videos on topics like aircraft systems, flying procedures, how to work together with a wingman and weapons employment. Something you will not find a lot on is on what follows after.
What do you do when you have several flights to coordinate?
How do you approach a mission with different flights each having their own tasks?
How to work through the chaos of frequencies and calls, when you have several flights working together?
How do I maintain my picture and prevent “helmet fires” not only in my own cockpit, but for my buddies as well?
In order to answer those questions and help you coordinate a large number of people without giving yourself a heart attack, I am going to draw from real world concepts and experiences and break them down to a level that is appropriate for the flight sim enthusiast.
You can of course default to all the real-world procedures and organisation, but good luck getting more than a handful of people together who are trained up to that standard and willing to sit through 3 hours of power-point presentations before taking it to the virtual sky.
Instead I will try to give you the tools you need to get any group organised no matter the skill level and the complexity of the mission.
One basic principle I want to start out with is KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid. The more moving parts you have the more can go wrong. Especially now that we are trying to work towards the most complex tasks and missions. Having more possibilities for error than absolutely necessary will lead to disaster.
“Carrying Mk82air instead of Mk82 even though you plan a level bombing in order to give you the option of retarded delivery?” One wrong fuse setting will spoil the whole operation.
“Giving the SEAD flights some bombs so they can do some additional damage with the Strike flights?” You just gave yourself the extra task of de-conflicting two attacks.
“Planning an elaborate manoeuvre with three flights to get the ideal run in on the target?” A less than ideal run in that is simpler and therefore guaranteed to work on the first try might save you a second run in and a lot of chaos, when it matters most.
It might seem trivial to dumb everything down as much as possible, but even with only a 1% chance of a single moving piece going wrong, if you have a hundred moving pieces, failure of any one suddenly becomes very likely.
Keep in mind, we are trying to work up to the most complex of tasks, it is going to be complex enough without us making it unnecessarily hard for ourselves.
This goes contrary to the notion of optimizing towards optimum efficiency, but there is no way around it. The more people you are trying to coordinate, the less efficiently each one is going to contribute. Each member in a well-run outfit is still going to be a net gain, up until the point where it is too much for you to manage.
Your Picture, your Control
Being at the helm of a mission means success and failure hinges on you maintaining control of the situation, but in order to control a situation we first need information. Information that comes together to form the overall picture, which you use to make decisions in the field. Based on those decisions you will exert tactical control to shape the battlefield to your advantage. You will only be able to do this is when you compartmentalize and make leading your main task. If you are busy flying your kite, checking your sensors, employing weapons and trying to not die, you are not doing what you are there to do, which is lead. “Leading from the front” is an often-misunderstood phrase, because if you are in the very front, in the thick of it, you are too busy with other tasks to be able to control the mission tactically.
Applying this to DCS, when we are putting together a package, the package commander will be one of the planes in the package and therefore already be leading from the front in the true meaning of the phrase, yet do not put yourself into a spearhead position. You should not be Sweep or Wild-Weasel and Package Commander at the same time, but Strike and Escort positions give you some head space to full-fill your main task.
Once you are where you need to be you will need to concentrate on your main task, which will be building a picture and constantly updating said picture to be able to make decisions. Then reaching a decision and using your assets to achieve your goal. If you are flying alone this is easy; your sensors help you built the picture, make decisions, and press the right buttons to use your assets, which are your aircraft and the weapon systems attached to it. When leading packages, however, we need to apply this to multiple aircraft, while you are also busy flying your own plane, but all the other planes have their own pilots and therefore a mind of their own.
So, once you get overwhelmed (and you will get overwhelmed) the easiest thing to do is to just concentrate on your own plane and let everybody fight their own fight. “To stop leading” is the easiest and also the most fatal thing one can do, but it is the normal human reaction to sensory overload, and you see it every single time an inexperienced leader is pushed over their limits. Same thing happens when you are sitting in the safety of your home, in front of the computer. Suddenly there is too much stuff going through your headset for you to comprehend. The skill is to realize you are getting close to your limit, taking a few deep breaths and working through it. Like with all problems in aviation, there is a checklist to work through. This checklist is not unique to aviation and if you make it the heart of your thinking you will make any leadership task a lot easier for yourself. If you have watched any of our big package flights on YouTube you will maybe have noticed once things get really hectic and the radios gets really busy I will go quiet for a few seconds, taking my time to work through this checklist before giving instructions to the people who need them. The checklist items are:
Situation, Mission, Execution, Command, Control
These items should be the basis of your thought process, your briefings, and your orders.
Where am I, where are my allies, where are the OpFor
These are the most fundamental points of the picture. Datalink makes a lot of this easier, but enemy positions and unit types especially are often unclear. Having a clear picture that is shared with the whole group is a never-ending task; if you are really working on this checklist once every minute or so, you will find yourself realizing things like:
“I don´t know if SPECTRE is in position he has not given me his ETA yet”,
“I do not know if BOAR is already off target” and
“I am not sure if FALCON still has radar contact with the Bogeys of the north group”.
Every time you are not 100% sure about what is going on around you, demand information. When you were flying one jet you were looking at your instruments, your radar and your datalink to build a picture. Now that your package is the asset, keep asking them for the information you need, tell them when to report back to you and keep them updated what the overall situation is.
This should really be just one sentence, and for our purpose it is enough to condense it to what our ultimate goal is:
“Destroy the buildings at MG604302”,
“Provide CAS along MSR Charlie from 1600Z till 1730Z”,
“Gain air superiority between line Zulu and Foxtrot”
In a package each flight will of course have a specific mission
“Conduct sweep ahead of strike Alpha”,
“Provide escort for strike Alpha” etc.
The important part is, to not loose sight of your ultimate objective. All actions should be aimed towards completing this goal.
This is where your plan goes. It can be as easy as “Shoot 20nm short skate” or the already mentioned three-hour power point. This is very much based on circumstances and we will get into more detail later.
After you have laid out your overall plan, you need to instruct individuals on what to do. At the beginning of a mission this will usually be “proceed with flight briefings and step at 1900Z”, and if you are going through this in your head every minute, it will usually result in realizing everything is going as planned, no need to give out new orders.
In the heat of battle, however, you will sometimes need to take a few seconds to rearrange your whole execution due to a change in the situation leading to you having to give out commands to every single participant.
After all nothing is as consistent as change itself.
First element of control is closed loop communication. You are already practising it with ATC anyway. “LK19 climb FL360”, “Climbing FL 360 LK19” you know what you are supposed to do, and ATC knows you understood them and are complying. Same should be applied within the package. Your orders should be short and concise, and the key points should be read back. Using “Affirm”, “Wilco” and “Roger” when appropriate is also key in clear communication. If you are not satisfied that you were understood correctly keep repeating yourself until you are sure you were understood and people are complying.
Next you need to monitor your package, to ensure that they are executing the tasks you assigned them according to how they were assigned. Remember that they all have a mind of their own and it is all too easy for them to slightly alter their task, get fixated on the wrong target, do something that endangers other flights, or simply execute it in a different way than you anticipated. Especially in DCS, where nobody’s well-being is on the line, it is all too tempting to go all Air Quake, but it is your job to keep people in line and make sure a few people going rogue doesn´t ruin the fun for everybody else. This of course depends on how strict or casual your group is, but if you are trying to lead a package against a well defended target you will need to ensure everybody is following the plan to the letter.
Fun should be the focus in any game, but having the strike flight get shot down, because the SEAD flight did not feel like hitting the assigned targets is not fun either.
This does not mean that you are supposed to micromanage everything. Delegation is key. Pick capable Flight Leads and give them as a broad mission as possible within your plan so they can take care of leading their flights and do the same for their flights as what you are doing for the package. Instead of telling the Sweep Flight lead to stay exactly 20nm in front of the strike and engage targets only on your command, give him the mission to clear the target airspace of enemy aircraft when the strike arrives (ETA of the strike 2030Z). Flight Leads are leaders as well, let them lead and take the weight off your shoulders. Not only in planning, but also during the mission. Instead of asking for every small detail from the flights during the mission, ask your flight leads if they can achieve a certain mission, let them check the details like fuel and weapons and let them figure out an answer for you. “Panther are you able to suppress Grumble Castle 110 at 20 15min?” is a lot quicker than trying to figure out all the parameters yourself.
This does not make you unaccountable for their mistakes, however. After all you are the person who put them there and you are the one who needs to reduce the number of moving parts (remember KISS?) to ensure everybody has a mission he can handle and they all fit together in a way that ensures ultimate success. In DCS we even have the luxury of the mission designer dictating the difficulty of what we are facing. Flying with two brand new flight leads against a heavily defended IADS will only cause helmet fires and is not fun for anybody. Mission designers and package commanders need to reach an equilibrium where everybody is being challenged, but nobody is being constantly overwhelmed.
Every mistake that happens in the mission is your mistake, everybody can play the blame game and say he was put in his position by somebody else, but “The Puck stops here” with you. You move the chess pieces and if the bishop falls, because he would not move sideways, the bishop is not the one to blame.