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After talking about concepts and principles, we are finally going to get to something practical:
The actual planning phase of your mission. Of course, no plan can account for everything, but if we approach planning carefully and allow for reserves, we dramatically increase our chances for success.
Some of you will already be familiar with the seven Papas. They stand for:
Proper Pre-Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance
…when your instructor starts slowly writing those Papas down on their notepad, you know you just fucked up.
Everything you can take care of ahead of time should be taken care of, and you do not have to juggle it in your head in the heat of the moment. During planning there is no shame in asking people for advice, putting things up for debate, or even delegating parts of it. As long as once briefing time arrives, you have it all figured out and it is rock solid.
In games like DCS we also have to compensate for the fact that it is just fun and games and not a job. You are going to have buddies who role in five minutes after briefing time, because they got held up at work and are now looking to unwind going head-to-head with some SU-27s, and that is fine – it is just a game after all – but as long as one person puts in the work and provides everybody with a solid game plan, we can still make complex operations work.
Before we jump into decision making, we need information about what we are facing. The Situation, Mission, Execution, Command, Control cycle starts for the first time. Starting with the situation, you will rely on whatever intelligence information the mission maker is giving you. If he is letting you run into enemy territory completely blind, you should maybe have a word with him first. Also looking at it from the other perspective, if you are a mission maker these are the minimum points you should address in your briefing.
The key points you should have a clear understanding of are:
-Flights in my package
-Allied Flights operating in the same AOO and their taskings
-Tankers and AWACS, their times on station and tracks
-Any other allied or neutral air movement we might encounter
-Allied ground forces and their possible movements
-Allied Naval assets and their boxes/transits
-Available Aircraft, weapon types and airbases
-Known Air-Defense positions and possible unknown reserves
-Ground and Naval assets in the AOO
-Anything more elaborate you can get your hands-on, like doctrine, support assets, or the typical response time of who you are facing
-Weather forecast including brightness on night missions
-Lay of the land in the AOO
Before we get into the fine details of planning, we need an overall idea of how we want to approach a situation. There is more than one way to deal with every problem and you will be weighing risk versus reward each time. Doing this, you should be able to come up with a list of viable solutions and the pros and cons of each.
Once you have collated the pros and cons of your potential solutions, it is advantageous to gather your Flight-Leads and share your ideas, highlighting the pros and cons of each, which approach you favour and finally put it up for discussion. It is one of the most valuable parts of your planning process for a number of reasons.
You are getting a lot of valuable tactical input. More people will simply have more ideas than one person on their own, and more eyes can spot more flaws. Some solutions will be dead ends for reasons you did not even think about. Some completely new ideas will present themselves. Having several people providing input will dramatically increase the quality of your list of solutions.
You will not be able to know the exact skill level and capabilities of every single person in your package, but your Flight-Leads will have a pretty good idea of what their flights are capable of. The success of the package always relies on every Flight being able to complete their tasking, and the Flight-Leads will be the ones to tell you what they can provide. For example, if the SEAD flight is training two new wingman and the SWEEP is running with 8 veteran players, fighting your way the long way around the air-defense might be a viable option.
3. Command Intent
It is very important for the Flight-Leads to not only understand the overall mission and their individual taskings, but also the command intent. They do not only need to know where they are supposed to be and what they are supposed to do, but also why. This enables them to improvise and anticipate how you are going to change the plan, being one step ahead of you and able to take a huge load of your shoulders once it gets stressful.
4. Getting to know your Flight-Leads
Running big packages means it is not just you and your best buddies, but a bunch of people you do not necessarily talk to on a daily basis. Like any big group there are going to be people who disagree with you. This first discussion is a great place to find out who your Flight-Leads really are, and to better understand their approach and viewpoint. Who is easy to work with? Who always needs to have the last word? Who is good at looking at the larger picture?
5. Being heard
In the end you want to know which overall plan is the best option to implement. Of course, you can put this up for a vote with your Flight-Leads or you can just decide it yourself after hearing their input. Either way, they will know that they have been heard and they had a chance to shape the decision-making process, which is always motivating and helps lead to people feeling engaged.
Now with the overall plan in place we can look at who needs to do what. You should not be the one to plan every flights’ flight down to the last detail, but you should give them a tasking that pinpoints who needs to achieve what to guarantee success. This tasking should consist of the overall mission, specific task of the flight and crucial parameters you want met.
Mission: Destroy buildings at 54°12,3´N 017°23,4´E
Task: NICKEL escort PANTHER (Strike)
Maintain position South of PANTHER between FL320 and FL360 to meet expected threats from the South, while KITTY (Sweep) focuses on threats from the West.
With everybody aware of what they are supposed to do, all the flight-leads can jump into the actual business of planning their flights. Sadly, DCS offers very little support for this, as most modules lack even basic tables for weight, drag, speed, and consumption. So you can either rely on real documents, if you can get hold of them, or do some test runs. “Combat flite” is also a great tool for planning complex scenarios.
In the end all flight-leads need to check back with you with their flight plan and you need to know:
– Optimal cruise speed and altitude
– Max range
– Max endurance in the AOO
– Joker and Bingo
– How they aim to fulfill their taskings within your parameters
This is the last opportunity you will have to change important aspects of the mission before preparing the briefing, so take advantage of it if necessary.
Emission control and Electronic Warfare is not very sexy and therefore often forgotten about. In DCS even more so since very little of it has made it´s way into the simulation. The one thing we can apply, however, is emission control. Our radar emissions are seen a lot further than we can see. It is like a flashlight in the dark. We can see something 50nm away thanks to our flashlight, but somebody standing in the dark a kilometer away can clearly see our flashlight. With close AWACS support, the standard should be having your Radar turned off and you need to specify this in the briefing / planning, and communicate the parameters for the Radars to be turned on.
The other emission that needs to be controlled in DCS is jamming. The only kind of jamming simulated is good old ‘70s noise jamming so the tactical implications are not very complex. Usually it is enough establish two states: EmCon Sierra (Everything off) and EmCon Oscar (Radar/Jammer free).
To round it all off I want to offer you a list of hints, which might come in handy when planning your mission.
Take a look at your intel and think about how you would defend your objective. Looking at it from the enemy’s view point might reveal some weaknesses you can exploit, but will also highlight the biggest dangers to your attack. One great example are IADFs. Sometimes they are positioned in a way forcing you to run parallel to them. A great way to get ambushed by fighters using the SAMs as cover. Sometimes it is easier to go the long way around and push through a SAM, that otherwise would be of no concern, to take the enemy fighters by surprise.
Human factors can be especially hard in DCS, due to everybody having real life commitments, and therefore planning packages can take quite a bit of time before you even get to the fun part. The most experienced participants might also be the ones who have the least time for planning. You may get lucky and have pilots who are good at, and willing to do, the planning for a flight-lead who is willing to execute someone else´s plan, but in most cases you will have to compromise. Whatever you do, do not overburden new flight-leads. Try to build them up step by step, because somebody who is completely overwhelmed may not be motivated to try it again, and the whole thing will end up being frustrating for all players involved. There is no shame of doing an easy job well instead of barely making it through a tough one.
Always plan with reserves for everything. Fuel, weapons, people, time, you name it. Nothing ever goes 100% to plan. Give yourself 20% reserves on everything and it will be a lot easier to go through with your plans and you will gain more room for flexibility if the need arises.
If you have all the time in the world you can assault a target step by step. Let the Sweep take care of the fighters. Once they are done let SEAT clear the Air-Defense and then let the Strike roll in to do it´s thing… but waiting for each element to complete its tasks sequentially will give the enemy room and time to counter your offensive. In order to keep the enemy on the back foot, and to egress the AO before the enemy can counter-attack, you will have to run as tight a package as possible, by overlapping task timings where you can in order to keep the pressure on the enemy. Do not overdo it and adjust it to the skill level of your package, but the smaller the window is which your Sweep and SEAT flight have to open, the higher your chances of success.
Reserves are great, but do not go overboard in the weapons department. In DCS most of us have developed a habit of always bringing a WWIII doomsday load outs. When doing large coordinated strikes a lot of other factors are more important than the number of ordnance a single aircraft carries. The lighter you are the higher you cruise and therefore the quicker you cruise with less fuel needed. Every package is only as quick as its slowest aircraft and if defensive everybody needs to be able to maneuver efficiently. Check your flight-leads and make sure everybody brings the weapons they need + 20%.
There is no sense in bringing enough AMRAAM to defeat four waves of opponents if the drag and weight means you will not be able to get to the first.
The altitudes for best range and best speed are usually pretty high and under most weather conditions they are within the altitude band where flights will produce contrails.
Going into the medium altitude band means less speed, less range, and potentially in range of some SAM system you could otherwise overfly, but making it harder for the enemy to spot you visually.
Sticking low to the ground and going in at low altitudes or even NOE puts you in harms way of all AA systems including AAA and ManPads, but might make you completely invisible depending on the terrain.