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ATO 101: What every Airman should know about an Air Tasking Order

Master Sgt. Bohdan Pywowarczuk, Lt. Cdr. William Nink, (top) Sgt. Christopher Generette and SrA Sean Tinsley perform a quality check on an Air Tasking Order prior to publication, Aug. 24. during Ulchi Freedom Guardian 2011 exercise on Osan Air Base, Rupublic of Korea. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Kimberly Spinner)

Master Sgt. Bohdan Pywowarczuk, Lt. Cdr. William Nink, (top) Sgt. Christopher Generette and SrA Sean Tinsley perform a quality check on an Air Tasking Order prior to publication, Aug. 24. during Ulchi Freedom Guardian 2011 exercise on Osan Air Base, Rupublic of Korea. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Kimberly Spinner)

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- In the Air Force, our mission is to fly, fight and win. The Air Tasking Order is how we do it -- it puts the "how to" in fly, fight and win. And for thousands of U.S. and ROK participants here for Ulchi Freedom Guardian 2011, that practice in ATO planning and execution helped sharpen those skills -- especially for senior leaders, commanders and their staffs.

"Whether you are a one striper fuel specialist, a fighter pilot at the front end of a jet that's about to deliver a bomb onto a target, the supply team back where that aircraft launched, a cook at a mess hall at a C-130 base that does airlift to recover wounded warriors off the battlefield, or anybody who wears the United States Air Force uniform, we should care about the Air Tasking Order because it is the embodiment of what we do," said Col. James McGovern, 607th Air & Space Operations Center Commander, here.

An Air Tasking Order (ATO) is a powerful tool that aids the Combined Air Component Commander to efficiently and effectively plan, organize and direct air operations through centralized planning.

"The ATO provides a breakdown of missions for a 24-hour period that includes the aircraft, call signs, times and other information needed for the Air Operations Center members to track and monitor missions," said Lt CMDR William Nink, Chief, Air Tasking Order Production Team.

There are five ATOs in the works at all times here during UFG '11; they are today's, tomorrow's and the following days' plans. Participants worked the process thoroughly during the entire exercise, time and again.

"It is an execution schedule for everyone that is flying during the next 24-hour period," said Col. Gordon Anderson, Chief, Combat Operations Division. "That is how the Air Component Commander is able to talk to those under his command."

The development of the ATO is divided into six major phases which are: commander's objectives and guidance, target development, weapons assessment, force application, execution planning and combat assessment, per Joint Publication 3-56--'Command and Control For Joint Air Operations'.

During the first phase, the Combined Forces Commander, with guidance from the Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance Division (ISRD), establishes objectives by allocating air effort by priority or percentage of effort against specific targets or mission areas. This info is then passed to the Strategy Division.

"The Strategy Division is made up of four major teams," said Col. Peter Dahlin, Chief, Strategy Division. "They are the strategy plans team, strategy guidance team, operations assessment team, and information operations team. We have smaller teams that go along with the major teams; they are the space integration and strategy integration teams."

Objectives from phase one are then turned into a prioritized list of targets called the Joint Integrated Prioritized Target List (JIPTL).

The JIPTL contains estimates on the quantity of a specific type of weapon required to achieve a specific level of damage to a given target while considering such factors but not limited to target vulnerability, weapon effects, munitions delivery errors, probability of kill and weapon reliability.

Much of this information comes from the ISRD; they continually conduct intelligence analysis of enemy courses of action in support of the Combat Plans division.

"The Combat Plans Division is directly responsible for developing the execution plan for air and space operations," said Lt. Cdr. William Nink, Combat Plans Division, Air Tasking Order (ATO) Production Team Chief. The Air Refueling Control Team, part of the Air Mobility Division, works hand-in-hand with Combat Plans Division MAAP cell to pair available tanker assets to requested receivers, according to Lt. Col. Marvin Fisher, Chief, Air Mobility Division, here.

The final targets are then included into the Master Air Attack Plan (MAAP) which assigns available weapons delivery platforms to targets. Using the MAAP as a guide, the Combat Plans Division develops the joint ATO.

The force deployment or execution phase comes next, which is primarily the Combat Operations Division's priority.

"We, (in the Combat Operations Division) are responsible for execution of the ATO," said Col Anderson. "If we find any issues or problems during execution, we push that information back through our Plans section to make sure we update the following day's ATO to overcome the challenges we may have seen."

Changes can be made during the execution. The Air Operations Center, as a whole, make changes to the ATO during this phase in response to initial battle damage assessments provided
by ISRD.

"The Intelligence Surveillance, Reconnaissance Division assesses how well we are doing in support of the CFACC guidance, said Col. Kirk Kimmitt," Chief, Intelligence, Surveillance, Recognition Division.


During the combat assessment phase, the ISRD gauges the effectiveness of the combat results with the mission objectives and commander's intentions.

Once this phase is complete, the process starts all over again with prioritizing missions, using information gathered during the current and previous ATO periods.

Col. McGovern put it very simply when he said, "everything, that every one of us does, is affected by the Air Tasking Order."

In short, no one flies or fights without direction -- and expects to win.