AIR COMBAT SYSTEMS OFFICER
IN THE CANADIAN FORCES
THORBERGSON: I’m Captain Tyler Thorbergson from Dawson Creek, British Columbia. I’m an Air Combat Systems Officer with 405 Squadron in Greenwood, Nova Scotia.
LAWSON: And I’m Captain Ben Lawson from Ottawa, Ontario -- I’m an Air Combat Systems Officer based at 414 Electronic Warfare Squadron, in my home town.
THORBERGSON: Air Combat Systems Officers, or ACSOs, serve in a leadership role on Canadian military aircraft all over the world. We have tactical responsibility for every mission – directing our pilots where to fly and operating communications, sonar, radar and other digital and weapons systems on missions that range from anti-submarine warfare to drug interdiction and anti-piracy operations.
LAWSON: We also serve as the tactical leaders and communications coordinators for search and rescue missions.
The Air Combat Systems Officer role is a wide range of things. The pilot’s main job is to fly the aircraft; the ACSO – as a suite manager, as a weapons suite manager, as a communications suite manager will actually have the tactical control of the aircraft.
THORBERGSON: For my aircraft, I work on the CP-140 Aurora, there’s actually 4 ACSOs on board. So our job can be from listening to sonobuoys to directing the aircraft to conducting communications.
LAWSON: On board a Sea King helicopter, much of the same thing. Kind of looking, hunting for submarines and anticipating the submarine’s next move, planning where you think it’s going to be and developing your tactics.
THORBERGSON: What would the submarine be doing; how can I outsmart him. It definitely is a chess match. It’s always better to be on the winning end of that, that’s for sure.
LAWSON: At 414 Electronic Warfare Squadron where I work, we research the way that enemy aircraft fly, then we’ll try to replicate their manoeuvers, and the weapons they employ when we fly training missions against our CF-18s.
The coolest part of this job is pulling G’s and going fast, man… flying in a fighter jet, I’m going to say is awesome!
And there are ACSOs on the C-130 Hercules aircraft that fly long-range search-and-rescue missions and provide transport for our soldiers stationed from Kandahar to the North Pole.
On every mission, you’re managing the information flow into and out of your aircraft. Every day – every hour – brings a different challenge -- and best of all, you’re flying.
LAWSON: It’s an exciting time to be an ACSO right now as we expand our role to include a lot more overland operations and using sophisticated electronic warfare tools to help train our fighter pilots.
THORBERGSON: Over water we can do department of fisheries and ocean patrols, sovereignty patrols up north is becoming more and more important. We can do search and rescue which is another secondary role that we are always playing.
ACSOs also fly the Forces’ new Heron Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. In Afghanistan, these UAVs are being used to keep tabs on the enemy and help keep our soldiers safe. In addition to the Heron, there’s an incredible array of new and updated airframes coming on line, like our new Cyclone maritime helicopters.
THORBERGSON: Whether you joined through the Regular Officer Training Plan or as a Direct Entry Officer, once you complete your basic officer qualification, your first introduction to the ACSO trade will be in Winnipeg. You’ll spend 8 to 10 months in the classroom, in the simulator, and in the air, flying in the CT-142 - a specialized Dash-8 aircraft – the most modern and sophisticated Air Navigation trainer in the world.
You’ll leave Winnipeg as a Lieutenant, then be posted to your first operational squadron, assigned to either the Hercules, the Aurora, or the maritime helicopter. Your next year will be spent training on the specific aircraft and mastering the specialized on-board systems you’ll be working with at the squadron.
Every airframe demands a different role from the ACSO. If you’re assigned to maritime helicopters, you’ll work shoulder-to-shoulder with the two pilots and a sensor operator. You’ll be the officer responsible for all tactical decisions affecting your mission.
My role on the Aurora is kind of along the same lines. I do a navigator / communicator job or what’s called a NAVCOM. You’re planning where the aircraft is going to fly to and you’re also conducting the communications for the aircraft – if you’re talking to a surface fleet of ships or to a shore based station.
LAWSON: On a Herc, the ACSO is right up on the flight deck – providing tactical navigation for a wide range of long-range missions ranging from Search and Rescue to supplying our soldiers on deployments around the world.
THORBERGSON: No matter which airframe you fly on, the Air Combat Systems Officer shares equal status on the aircraft with the pilots. In fact, being an ACSO is one of the fastest routes to advancement in the Air Force, with promotion to Captain only two years after getting your wings.
THORBERGSON: The experiences that I’ve had, flying in hectic situations all over the world has been so much fun that it’s definitely become part of who I am. My career has been a lot of fun ever since day 1.
LAWSON: You get to be in charge of a lot of high-tech equipment, you get to do a job that is very important to both the security of your country and the security of your friends and family as a whole, and that’s something that I think, in my opinion, just can’t be beaten. The stories that you gain from the jobs you do, to tell back home to your friends while they stare at you wide-eyed and just want to hear more, it’s a really good feeling. It’s something I wouldn’t trade for the world.
And you know, a sense of accomplishment, coming this far and being actually able to do a job like this that I dreamed of from the time I was a kid – it’s a great feeling and it’s a lot of fun.
AIR COMBAT SYSTEMS OFFICER
IN THE CANADIAN FORCES