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Finally, after all the hard work and preparations it is time to get going and have some fun.
During the execution we are of course following the framework already built during planning and briefing, therefore we are now going to focus on some helpful concepts and guidelines as in part I, instead of chronologically following the execution step by step.
Ye old circle of leadership
You are probably already sick of it, but of course we are going to return to Situation, Mission, Execution to help us structure ourselves.
However this time it will slightly changed to:
Our biggest enemy is getting overwhelmed, not knowing what to do and ceasing to lead would leave your package dead in the water. The one big thing you can do to prevent helmet fires is structure your thoughts. Go through this structure every minute or every time you receive new information. The individual items should include:
Where are our own forces, how are their situations?
Where are known enemy forces, how do they impact my task?
Where are suspected enemy forces, how likely is their presence and how could they impact my task?
What is the one goal my package has to achieve during this phase of the mission?
For example: “Regroup holding point Alpha 0735A” or “Bomb target at GG634702 and therefore keep threats away from PANTHER (Strike)”
How do I have to change the Situation in order to achieve my task? If you actually manage to do the whole cycle every minute or so, you will often come to the conclusion: “Everyone in formation, on time, no threats, therefore we just continue” and the cycle stops here.
But as we all know every plan only holds up until enemy contact and at some point you will need to either divert the package from it´s route, dispatch a flight to deal with an air threat or dispatch your SEAD flight to deal with an AA threat.
Of course there are more options in your inventory when dealing with changing Situations, like changing altitude, speed or formation of your package, but the aforementioned three are the ones you will need to use most commonly.
Instead of rambling on and on on frequency about what you think is going on and how you think the package ought to react, you need to give short and concise orders. Address each flight individually and tell them quickly, but precisely what they need to do.
“Nickel close formation to 5nm”
“Bull free to maneuver, target Group A”
Just as crucial as actually telling each flight what to do is checking that they are actually doing it. If you are doing this for the first time you will be surprised how often people are not doing what they have been told even if they had every intention of following the overall plan. It is usually for one of three reasons:
Being overwhelmed, Flight-leads can have helmet fires too and be overwhelmed with what is going on in their little world and be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Misunderstandings, we all know comms are never perfect and even if you give out commands perfectly and they are read back correctly, there will be misunderstandings from time to time. However if this happens all the time you should consider some self reflection and maybe improve how you communicate.
Initiative, a lot of virtual pilots like to show a lot of personal initiative and sometimes need to be reminded that “it is nice of you to want to kill all the enemies by yourselves, but you are leaving the rest of us undefended”.
All of these can of course be easily remedied by simply reminding the flights where they need to do what at this point in time. Crucially you as package commander actually need to check on them and remind them of their responsibilities if necessary.
As you know by now, all this always starts with “Situation” and therefore with information.
And as the old saying goes AssUMe makes an ass of u and me. Our decision making needs to be based in facts not assumptions. With data-link capable aircraft you have a wealth of information right there, but for everything additional and in any non data-link aircraft you will need to convey information verbally.
This of course means continuously communicating with your GCI, if you have one, and always asking your flight-leads for more information.
You are not sure your Sweep is still 20nm in front, because you lost radar contact? Ask!
You have not had an update on the bogeys to the north for 2 minutes? Ask!
You are not sure your SEAD flight has the fuel to cover you for a second approach? Ask!
It might seem annoying pestering your flight-leads for all kinds of random information all the time, but everything is lost and won on the information front. So ask all the time and about everything you need to know. If they are not responding ask again until they are.
Questions can also be broader using the expertise of your flight-leads to make decisions.
“Escort are you able to hold off Group B for 6min?”
“SEAD are you able to suppress new AA threats at the secondary target?”
“Sweep are you able to proceed direct HB without AAR?”
Building a picture
Now of course this will not eliminate the fog of war entirely. All sensors at your disposal will gather more information about the enemy than your aircraft´s sensors alone, but they will not make you omnipotent.
Before you take off you should have carefully studied your intel, so you know which threats to expect from where. For example if you have two enemy airbases in the north, enemy fighters attacking you from the south is not the most likely scenario. If you have a mountain range with an IADS, it is highly likely enemy CAP will take station within this area.
By take-off you should have a pretty good idea which threats you can expect from which direction. You should never rely on this estimate, since it is only an estimate, but you can already pre-plan some actions in case they do come true.
CAP in IADS cover? Divert flight 50nm west
CAP from enemy airbase 1 in the NW? Dispatch Sweep when they are at 60nm
CAP from enemy airbase 2 in the E? Dispatch Escort when they are at 40nm
Maybe these things are not going to happen, but if they do, you now do not even need to think about it and can go with your pre-planned solution.
While the mission is progressing and you are receiving more and more information, you can now check the information against what your estimation was. Two radar contacts from a direction you were expecting Hostiles from might warrant more attention than a random Bogey.
The wrong picture
At the same time you need to test your estimation with every new information you get. As soon as something does not add up, abandon your picture and built a new one. Confirm information if necessary.
Worst thing that can happen, and I am guilty of this myself from time to time, is sticking to a false picture.
It is all too easy to dismiss information that does not fit with your estimate as false and stick to the more comfortable version of events, where everything is still going as planned.
Take comfort in knowing nothing ever goes as planned and we are all just managing one crisis at a time.
As soon as one piece of the puzzle does not fit, your alarm bells should ring and your current estimate should be jettisoned immediately.
Once you turn your back to the target and head home, suddenly there are no sensors pointed towards your most likely threat direction.
There is a safety in heading home with sufficient speed, but it is preferable to have a flight at the back of the package occasionally checking behind and covering the retreat.
Right hand man
With all this thinking and administration going on mid flight, a capable wingman is worth his weight in gold. Not just for the normal fighter aircraft duties, but for leading the package as well.
Easiest way to lead a package is by always having everybody on package frequency, however due to AAR or just random mistakes flights will sometimes not be available on the frequency.
The wingman can then switch to the flights primary frequency to reestablish communication.
Same goes for any other bigger problem or miscommunication. The package frequency is not the place for extended talks and explanations. Should they be necessary, the wingman can simply conduct them on the flights primary frequency, while the package commander stays on the packages frequency and keeps leading the package.
In two seater aircraft like the F-14B the other crew-member can take workload off the package commander in a similar fashion.
For example with the RIO as package commander, the pilot can assume more of the typical flight-lead duties, like initiating Tac-turns, changing altitude and speed of the flight or pushing the flight out to combat spread.
The human factor
We have now talked about the role of package commander extensively, but of course this is not a one man show, it is a team effort. More importantly it is an after work/at the weekend lets have some fun kind of team effort. There will be fuck ups and there will be people bending or disobeying the rules and to a degree that is ok. It is of course the package commanders job to remind the people where they should be at this point and what they need to be doing right now and usually this will suffice in keeping the experience organized enough for everybody to enjoy it. But inadvertently you will run into people who will not fall into line after a simple reminder.
As much as I have harped on about structure and maintaining it, in such cases I can only recommend to just leave it be. Concentrate on everything else, maintain immersion for the sake of the rest of the package and try to fly a successful mission regardless.
“There are no battles to be won on the intercom” safe it for the debrief or a calm talk a day later.