• Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza

Jester A.I: Unexpected FAC(A) in DCS World

Updated: Sep 22



Forward Air Controller (Airborne) (FAC-A) is one of the most complex roles a modern-day military pilot could engage in. Forward air control with two feet planted firmly on the ground is challenging, but doing it while managing a high-performance aircraft in hostile airspace is on an entirely different level. While single-seat aircraft with targeting pods are perfectly capable of fulfilling this role in Digital Combat Simulator, having a second aircrew member that could take over a few tasks would ease the burden. Thanks to the Jester LANTIRN update, solo pilots of the Heatblur Simulations F-14B can efficiently conduct FAC(A) operations.


Weeks of fulfilling this role in PVE and PVPVE multiplayer missions with friends and random people have solidified my opinion that the F-14B is becoming one of the finest FAC(A) platforms in DCS.

 
A summary of FAC(A)

For those that do not know, in short, ground-based Forward Air Controllers identify hostile forces and guide fire support from friendly forces outside of the immediate area to strike those targets. Their tasks include managing the direction that support comes from, deconflicting assets, requesting specific weapons for the task, accounting for weather conditions and visibility, and safely guiding in fire away from friendly forces. Pilots that fly FAC(A) fulfill the same task as their ground-based counterparts but do so from an aircraft. This makes them a fast platform capable of finding hidden targets from high above while bringing their own weapons to bear if needed. They must do all of this while being competent enough to fly and fight in any condition effectively. An entire article on FAC(A) in Digital Combat Simulator could be written, but for now, let's leave it at this.


FAC(A) F-14B in transit to area of operations.
F-14B Design Benefits

Despite FAC(A) being an unusual role for this aircraft, the F-14B's capabilities and design are beneficial. Its pair of F110-GE-400 turbofan engines give it enough power to sprint at well over Mach 1 to the area of operations if needed and use that same speed to break away from unexpected threats. Its variable swing wings sweep to more easily fly at lower speeds when needed. Though it does not have a fly-by-wire flight control system, placing the Tomcat into an easy right-hand orbit with a mixture of stick, throttle, and trim. When an orbit is established, the pilot only needs very light inputs to change the height and shape of the orbit. The large fuel capacity can translate to extended FAC(A) loitering time, assuming the pilot flies the aircraft efficiently, without frequently selecting afterburner. Unlike aircraft that use wing-mounted fuel tanks, the fuel tanks on the Tomcat are unable to obscure the targeting pod because of their position beneath the engines. Most importantly, the second crew member can independently search for targets and manage radios while the pilot concentrates on flying and the surrounding airspace. The second crew member can make all the difference. This is where Jester LANTIRN comes in.


Restrictions

Whereas aircraft like the A-10C, JF-17, F-16C, and F/A-18C can employ their targeting pods easily, the F-14B Tomcat has been hindered. Since its release on March 13th, 2019, the Heatblur Simulations F-14B could only use its LANTIRN pod (Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night) if the aircraft had a human Radar Intercept Officer in the backseat. And, let's be honest, how many DCS World Tomcat drivers have a consistent human backseater for every sortie they fly? It's a low percentage.


This means that since its release, the most advanced air-to-ground capabilities for the aircraft have been locked away from a majority of its users. Players flying the F-14B alone could access their targeting pod by switching from the front seat and back seat manually or through the use of the Pilot LANTIRN Pod Control mod. With the Jester LANTIRN October 2021 update, all capabilities of the F-14B are universally accessible, which in turn made FAC-A a possibility for all that own it.


FAC(A) with Jester

Before attempting anything as a Forward Air Controller (Airborne), be competent enough to use Jester LANTIRN. As capable as Jester is as an automated RIO, he obviously isn't capable of passing information to other human players or searching for hostiles without player input. It's best to think of Jester as a semi-self-guided targeting system capable of sorting targets by certain categories while maintaining laser guidance and providing basic threat detection. The human pilot of the Tomcat will still be in charge of getting Jester looking into areas where targets may be, forwarding that information to allied forces, and coordinating attacks against the hostiles. There are multiple sections to this topic:


Visual example only not to recommended scale.

F10 Map Marker Placement


Placing map markers in the F10 map is essential for navigation and target acquisition in the F-14B Tomcat. These markers can be placed on the map both pre-mission (during the briefing) and mid-mission. The markers can be given custom labels typed out by the players. Short names are ideal, but the markers can have longer labels if needed. Make as many markers as needed for navigation, target areas, locations of nearby friendly forces, and other relevant marks. While the Tomcat does have a limited number of waypoints that can be stored within its systems, the map markers can still be used by Jester through LANTIRN Q Modes. Add as many target-related markers as needed.


As a side note, the marks on the map are also visible to other players looking at the F10 map, improving their situational awareness as well.


RIO Navigation Menu


The F-14B can store three navigation waypoints, one surface target waypoint (location of enemy units), hostile area waypoint, initial point (beginning of bombing run), and defended point (location of friendly units). Map marker coordinates can be input into these waypoints by using Jester's Navigation Menu to select Steer Point From Map and assign map markers to the waypoints desired.


Jester LANTIRN Q Modes


Use Jester LANTIRN Q modes to quickly begin the search for targets. Select either waypoint (QWP), which were set in the RIO Navigation Menu, or cue map markers (QMAP MARKER). Jester will immediately slew the LANTIRN onto the selected point. Unanticipated targets can be acquired quickly by using the menu's Head Control subsystem and using either QEYEBALLS to look out the canopy and tell Jester to look at a specific area or using Direct Head Control to make small adjustments to what the LANTIRN is currently looking at. Getting Jester's attention back onto areas of interest is as simple as reselecting a waypoint or map marker, letting Jester handle the process of returning the targeting pod onto those locations.


Example of pilot view of LANTRIN. Note target location information on bottom right of display.

Target Spotting and Guidance


After Jester finishes slewing the LANTIRN onto the desired location, immediately select SEARCH FOR TARGETS and begin searching either for units of a specific type (SAMs, Armored Vehicles, Aircraft, etc.). After the first target is located and automatically designated, new targets of that type can be found by using the Jester menu to search for Next Target or Previous Target. Once the desired target is selected, Jester will continue tracking the designated target but will begin giving steering cues to bring the F-14B onto an attack run. It is at this point Jester's steering cues should be ignored, and the pilot can settle into an orbit and begin guidance for other aircraft. These options include:

  • Begin generating Nine Lines or establish parameters for buddy lasing of a target.

  • Talking an allied aircraft onto the target using terrain landmarks and visual cues.

  • Using laser designation to guide other aircraft capable of laser spot search/laser spot tracking to get their targeting pods looking at the same target area.

  • Relaying coordinates of the designated target (bottom right of LANTIRN display while a target is designated) by radio or text for other pilots to input into their navigation systems.

  • When other aircraft are ready, having the FAC(A) Tomcat launch the initial attack, visually marking the area with a column of smoke from the first destroyed target. FAC(A) can then return to orbit.

  • Creation of further F10 map markers as needed.


LANTIRN Lasing Details


Normally Jester only lases a target while the F-14B is attacking a designated target. For FAC(A) and buddy lasing purposes, using the second page of the Jester LANTIRN menu is vital for these operations. Jester can be ordered to turn the laser from Automatic (for the F-14B's own attack runs) to Always On (laser on at all times). As friendly aircraft get the information they need or use the FAC(A) laser to get their weapons on target, once the task is complete, switching the laser back to Automatic shuts it off, preventing a potential overheat of the LANTIRN.


The laser code of the LANTIRN can be changed while in flight, but any laser-guided bombs on the F-14B can only have their laser codes changed while on the ground. This is the same for many other aircraft in Digital Combat Simulator. While coordinating laser codes and weapons pre-mission is ideal, in the event this is not possible, keeping the LANTIRN pod's default 1688 code is fine. Just keep in mind that multiple lasers using the same code in the same area could cause problems.


Threat Detection


While Jester's steering cues should be ignored, muting him is an unwise decision. He still gives callouts for non-laser designation-related events. These include the location of friendly aircraft close by, new radar warning receiver hits from air contacts and surface contacts, and warnings about incoming missiles. The missile warnings, in particular, are useful in the case of short-range surface-to-air missiles like MANPADs being fired at the aircraft.


"Armor captured." Jester spotting a target through a building.

Quirks and Bugs


As of the time this article is being published, there are a few known quirks and bugs of using Jester in this capacity. A voice glitch can occur where he constantly lets the pilot know a target has been lased or designated. Using the LANTIRN reset utility stops this but requires the target to be re-acquired through Q Modes.


Jester's ability to spot targets can underperform if the area of interest is too far from the aircraft (over 20nm, estimated) or overperform to the point where enemy units are spotted through solid objects like buildings. This could be a problem because though Jester sees the target through obstructions, the laser from the LANTIRN will designate the obstruction and not the target in question.


As stated in a comment from a Heatblur developer, Jester's target sorting is limited by the way DCS groups units. While the mission editor has sub-categories for unit types, these categories are not present while a mission is running. For example, anti-aircraft guns appear under "SAM" search, while armored personnel carriers, main battle tanks, and infantry fighting vehicles are classified as "Armor." Some units have an odd crossover, like some parts of the HY-1 Silkworm anti-ship cruise missile launch site appearing under the "SAM" designation. Normally this is where visual confirmation of the target is needed.


While Jester is able to change the LANTIRN's field of view to zoom the camera in and out, he seems to only do so momentarily. Jester has no issue seeing targets in this regard, but there is not a function that allows the pilot to adjust the field of view. While Jester may not need this, giving the pilot the option to have Jester adjust FOV would be beneficial to the pilot in certain situations.


Tomcat switching to FAC(A) role with Viper escort.

In the real world, the F-14B "Bombcat" has served as FAC(A) in actual combat despite it not being its primary role. The F-14B of Digital Combat Simulator certainly has more hurdles to leap and bugs to squash in relation to this role, but with further development, it's possible that Forward Air Controller (Airborne) in swing-wing fighters won't be a rarity in multiplayer servers.

 

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.

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