Air tasking order

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An air tasking order (ATO) involves both a process of assigning military aircraft, long-range missiles, and relevant air defense and information operations resources to missions contributing to an overall air campaign plan, as well as the actual sets of orders to be followed by aircraft and units of aircraft.[1] Deconfliction is one of the major challenges of an ATO, to be sure that effects do not degrade performance: if a radar-guided air-to-surface missile is to hit a target in a given area, it is unwise to have airborne jammers, operating in the same frequency range, in the same area. Its complexity requires automated help to prepare it in time to react to changing events; the main U.S. software for producing the ATO and assisting in its execution is the Theater Battle Management Core System, part of the Global Information Grid.

The ATO needs to deconflict with surface-based weapons, so aircraft do not fly through the same airspace occupied by artillery shells and rockets, and that air defense forces do not mistake friendly for enemy forces.

Goals of a good ATO have various missions reinforcing one another. For example, at the start of the Gulf War, attack helicopters struck first at an Iraqi early warning radar, opening a corridor through which fixed-wing fighter-bombers could flow. Drone launches into the Baghdad area attracted fire control radars, which were then attacked by anti-radiation missiles. As stealth aircraft entered the target area, standoff jammers were drawing the attention of the integrated air defense system.

Phases of generating the ATO

There is a standard methodology for generating ATOs. In a Unified Combatant Command, the sequence has improved to 48 hour cycles from 72 hours, but there is a constant effort to make the process more efficient. Even within a tighly planned ATO, there must be contingency assets to deal with situations where the adversary did not act in the manner expected by the plan.[1]

Within the Global Information Grid, the major application that helps create ATOs is the Theater Battle Management Core System (TBMCS)

Phase 1: JFC/Component Coordination

The Joint Force Commander (JFC) consults often with component commanders to assess the results of the warfighting effort and to discuss the strategic direction and future OPLANs The JFC provides broad guidance, objectives, and, most importantly, vision of what constitutes military success. The JFC’s guidance and objectives will identify targeting priorities and will include the JFC’s air apportionment decision.

Air apportionment allows the JFC to ensure the priority of the joint air effort is consistent with campaign or operation phases and objectives. After consulting with other component commanders, the JFACC makes the air apportionment recommendation to the JFC. The methodology the JFACC uses to make the recommendation may include priority or percentage of effort against assigned mission-type orders and/or categories significant for the campaign or operation such as the JFC’s or JFACC’s objectives. The JFC is the approval authority for the air apportionment recommendation.

Phase 2: Target Development

Given a list of targets and priorities, Joint guidance, apportionment, and targeting (JCAT) team, which collects target nomination from all the combat components, selects those that meet the JFC's guidance, and then prioritizes the targets. The product of this effort, when approved and signed by the JFACC, is the JIPTL (joint integrated prioritized target list).

Phase 3: Weaponeering/Allocation

What combination of lethal and nonlethal weapons will produce the desired effects? Are the weapons, and their delivery mechanisms, available in sufficient quantity? If not, can available alternatives still carry out the mission, or does the shortfall need to be escalated up the chain of command?

The JIPTL provides the basis for weaponeering assessment activities. All approved targets are weaponeered to include recommended aim points, weapons systems and munitions, fuzing, target identification and description, target attack objectives, probability of destruction, and collateral damage concerns. The final prioritized targets developed during JGAT are then provided to a master air attack plan (MAAP) team.

Phase 4: ATO Production

From command guidance, target worksheets, the MAAP, and component requirements the appropriate staff finalizes the air tasking order (ATO), special instructions (SPINS) and air control order (ACO). The ATO will describe the actions to be taken, while the SPINS and ACO will impose constraints. An ACO, for example, might specify that the air defense artillery in a given area will assume any aircraft below 10,000 feet is hostile (e.g., air defense plans). The SPINS might include political considerations that require certain areas not to be overflown (e.g., airspace control).

Phase 5: Force Execution

The air compoinent commander will direct the execution of assets made available for joint action, understanding that some assets may remain under local control (e.g., close air support, carrier anti-air warfare). Inherent in that is the authority to redirect joint air assets, and coordinate the actions of forces not assigned to the joint mission.

The JAOC must be responsive to required changes during the execution of the ATO. changes that come from action reports, detection of new targes, and battle damage assessment.

Phase 6

CA is performed at all levels of the joint force; it involves more than BDA, such as changes in enemy patterns. The results of CA flow into the next ATO cycle, but also will help plan C3I-ISR

C3I-ISR Planning

The air component commander assigns his own ISR assets to accomplish and fulfill JFC tasks and requirements. If required, he will be aware, and possibly request, of additional resources that are present, even if they are national or not under his control. He must not interfere with properly assigned national-level missions.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Joint Publication JP 3-30: Command and Control for Joint Air Operations, 5 June 2003 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "JP3-30" defined multiple times with different content