Hardpoint: Cloud Obscured Air-to-Ground Tips for DCS World
Updated: Sep 22
How many times have I watched wingmen and flight leads die because of cloud-fueled impatience? When a thick cloud deck throws off an entire strike mission, the annoyance is palpable. It's almost like the constant circling above the combat area hoping to find a way to break through drives people mad. Before you know it, even an experienced Digital Combat Simulator World (DCS) pilot can be driven to risk it all and dive into the unknown to get their ordinance on target before hitting bingo fuel. More often than not, this results in them crashing into terrain or blindly descending into enemy air defense with expected consequences.
The implementation of the clouds into this simulator on April 14th, 2021 truly changed DCS World. As mentioned in a speculative article written two weeks before the addition of clouds, the presence of clouds can completely change air-to-ground operations. The complications clouds can bring to what were once very straightforward strike missions could eventually annoy people to the point where bad decisions may be made in an attempt to rush the mission to get it done. But flying in unprepared or blindly can result in a fast and frustrating death.
Here are a few suggestions on dealing with these understandable frustrations after being in these situations a few times myself:
EXTENDED MISSION PLANNING
It's one thing to see a map, but it's another thing to read a map. Extended mission planning that factors in terrain, altitude restrictions, waypoints, and attack vectors can help counter potential cloud cover problems.
Identifying Altitudes: Using the Map layer of the mission briefing or F10 view, identify the terrain in the combat area. Identify the altitude of your target area and take note of the altitudes of the highest and lowest terrain around it. Knowing the height of dangerous terrain and the lowest point you can fly helps navigate cloud-covered areas and IFR conditions.
Landmarks and Reference Points: Having a general idea of the landmarks that are around the target is helpful with identification. Knowing where a specific town, river, mountain, or road is can help when peeking through breaks in the clouds or visually scanning the obscured area.
Altitude Restriction: Either through internal aircraft systems or making a mental note, set an altitude restriction for yourself when in the target area. Make the altitude restriction the highest known terrain altitude. Remaining above that altitude can prevent crashing into the ground even in low visibility conditions.
Air Defenses: Related to altitude restrictions, knowing what type of air defense is in the area is a must in general, but factoring in what type of unknown air defenses may exist in the target area is also a factor in altitude restrictions. Sure, there may be no known surface-to-air missile (SAM) site in the area, but a hidden anti-aircraft gun, thermally guided SAM, optically guided SAM, or MANPADs could be waiting. Add the known engagement range and altitude of certain air defense systems to terrain altitude restrictions. Adhere to altitude restrictions as much as possible.
Navigation Waypoints: Use waypoints for more than just marking the target area—set up waypoints for ingress, the target area, and egress. Having a quick reference for entry and exit in combat can be life-saving in IFR conditions. Any other navigation waypoints that can be added will further enhance survivability. Make sure that ingress, egress, and navigation waypoints are set at altitudes that are higher than the lowest altitude in the area, otherwise flying yourself into the ground without realizing it is a possibility.
Attack Vector: Related to waypoints. Set one or more waypoints over the lowest area(s) of ground to the target. Program Attack Vector waypoints to have safe altitudes over the low terrain; never set attack vector waypoints to be the same altitude as the ground you are flying over. Only the Target waypoint should have the exact altitude of the target you are attacking. Visualize attack vector waypoints as a digital path you can follow to reach the target. At first, maintain the original high altitude restriction while overflying the attack vector waypoints. If the target area is obscured or you have weapons that require visual confirmation of the target to employ, and you are forced to try lower altitudes to bring weapons onto the target, flying the attack vector waypoints will act as a guide while flying "in the soup" with minimal visibility. If advanced navigation systems are not available, using landmark reference points and remembering the altitudes of terrain in and around the target area will still suffice.
UTILIZING MODERN ATTACK CAPABILITIES
Pre-Planned Attack: It's not the type of legendary dive-bombing, and flak dodging that gets the heart-thumping, but utilizing known target coordinates is the easiest way to deal with all-weather and visibility limitations. If target coordinates are available for one or more targets before the mission, take the time to input them into weapons and aircraft systems to make the sortie successful under any condition. This is especially true for GPS-capable air-to-ground weapons, which ignore visibility conditions and are guaranteed to strike the exact spot on the planet you've selected, assuming it doesn't hit terrain while in flight and correct weapons release conditions are met. Furthermore, be prepared to input coordinates for a pre-planned attack while airborne if necessary. It's not glamorous, but it's effective. Unguided weapons can also be dropped through the clouds, as long as the target's coordinates are known and input into the aircraft's navigation systems.
Targeting Pods: When able, use the advanced optics and positioning information provided by targeting pods (TGP). Their optics allow for better identification at a more extended range, and forward-looking infrared (FLIR) can somewhat penetrate the cloud layer to assist with target identification. Furthermore, location coordinates from these pods can be used for guided and unguided munitions attacks through the cloud layer later. After a target's position has been "locked" by a TGP, assuming the target is not in motion, the attacking aircraft can return to a safer altitude with the target location displayed in its weapon systems for easier attack through the clouds or by other methods.
The most enticing opportunities a pilot will see in these situations are cloud breaks. These gaps in the cloud layer seem to offer fast solutions to obscured target areas, but rather than diving straight in, many things should be considered.
Visual Inspection: Before doing a split-s into the unknown, flying above and around a cloud break will allow time for this break to be inspected. Is it high enough from terrain to safely fly-through? Can the target be seen through the cloud break? How far is the target from the cloud break? Will flying through this break lead to higher visibility at lower altitudes?
Shoot Through the Breaks: While inspecting a cloud break, if the target can be identified by looking through the break from higher altitudes, launching weapons through the break is the preferred attack method. If diving to lower altitudes into potentially high amounts of air defense can be avoided, do so. Even if this means lowering altitude a bit to shoot through the break at a 45-degree to 10-degree angle, this is preferable to diving through the break completely.
In and Out: If descending through a cloud break is necessary, keep time at lower altitudes to a bare minimum. Vector yourself in the direction of the target before descending through the break. Climb back to the safe altitude as soon as weapons are released and prepare for bomb damage assessment (BDA) after the attack.
Descend at a Distance: Descending directly above the target area is not a great idea. This type of approach exposes the pilot and aircraft to maximum risk. The aircraft will be carefully descending while within range of air defenses that the pilot cannot visually detect. The safer approach is descending through the cloud deck away from the target area to gain a visual before moving in to attack. This allows for a controlled descent away from threats while maintaining enough distance to establish a visual confirmation onto the target area.
Setting aside weapons, systems and planning, everything comes down to the pilot flying the aircraft.
Patience: As mentioned in the introduction of this article, patience can be the deciding factor in a successful attack in these situations. Maintain a calm and analytical mindset to solve the problem rather than add to the problem by hurrying the process. It could take anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour to figure out whether or not the strike can be safely carried out or if the sortie has to be canceled.
When to Attack and When to Come Back: If conditions are not right to hit the target in question, remember that there is a safety limit. Aggressively diving into the situation to force the attack without a clear plan or good attack parameters could result in the heavy damage to the aircraft or the loss of the attacking aircraft. If after an extended time it is evident that the target cannot be hit during that sortie, plan on returning to base and prepare for a second sortie. Use the first sortie as a reconnaissance flight to gather weather data, cloud coverage information, target location information, and potential attack vectors to make the second sortie as effective as possible. There is nothing wrong with living to fight another day.
Utilizing many of the points discussed above, a quick example of a strike mission has been assembled. Utilizing the Altitude, Map and Satellite layers available in the F10 view, six waypoints have been assembled:
Scroll using the arrow to the right to look at all the map modes.
Waypoint 01 - AO Assessment: Observing the area of operations from a distance to assess the condition of the target. If no clouds are present, proceeding directly to the Target Waypoint is a viable option.
Waypoint 02 - Ingress: If the target has any degree of cloud coverage, proceed to the ingress while maintaining the self imposed altitude restriction. Continue to observe the target area looking for cloud breaks and trying to spot the target area.
Waypoint 03 - Attack Vector: The attack vector waypoint should be set to an altitude that is at least 500 feet above the minimum altitude of the target area. On the first pass, maintain a safer high altitude and overfly the Attack Vector waypoint(s). If it is possible to attack the Target Waypoint from high altitude, do so. However, if the target is still obscured by clouds and a visual confirmation of the target is needed to bring weapons onto target, gradually descend to the attack vector altitude while assessing if a lower altitude gives more visibility over the target.
Waypoint 04 - Target: A waypoint that marks the general target area or exact target, depending on how many units need to be destroyed. Remember that the Target Waypoint is the only waypoint that needs the exact altitude of the units that need to be destroyed. While flying from waypoint 03 to waypoint 04 search for targets and threats. Assess if the target(s) can be attacked. If they can be attacked, do so. If not, proceed to the next waypoint regardless.
Waypoint 05 - Egress: Set the egress altitude back to the safer high altitude that was used in waypoints 01 and 02. Remember that if the aircraft is at low altitude after flying through waypoints 03 and 04, the egress waypoint needs to be directed away from high terrain to prevent any potential collisions with terrain. The use of afterburner to zoom climb away from the target area is highly recommended, remember to use your countermeasures (chaff, flare and ECM) to protect yourself form any counter attack.
Waypoint 06 - BDA: It's not the type of legendary dive-bombing, and flak dodging that gets the heart-thumping, but utilizing known target coordinates is the easiest way to deal with all-weather and visibility limitations. If target coordinates are available for one or more targets before the mission, take the time to input them into weapons and aircraft systems to make the sortie successful under any condition.
This is especially true GPS-capable air-to-ground weapons, which ignore visibility conditions and are guaranteed to strike the exact spot on the planet you've selected, assuming it doesn't hit terrain while in flight and correct weapons release conditions are met. Furthermore, be prepared to input coordinates for a pre-planned attack while airborne if necessary. It's not glamorous, but it's effective. Unguided weapons can also be dropped through the clouds, as long as the target's coordinates are known and input into the aircraft's navigation systems.
About the Writer
Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
Co-founder of Skyward Flight Media. After founding Electrosphere.info, the first English Ace Combat database, he has been involved in creating flight game-related websites, communities, and events since 2005. He explores past and present flight games and simulators with his extensive collection of game consoles and computers. Read Staff Profile.