Military News

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Tactical Air Control Party: Blending Blue and Green

by Dave Smith
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer


12/9/2015 - FORT CARSON, Colo.  -- The staccato rhythm of automatic weapons fire punctuated by the deep bass thumps and sharp explosions of artillery blasts fill the air. Sudden whooshes signal the launch of shoulder fired surface-to-air missiles, adding to the commotion. The bright ting of bullets ricocheting off armor plating join the other sounds orchestrating a freakish battlefield symphony.

Through it all the Joint Terminal Attack Controller maintains focus. He coordinates artillery to suppress the SAM fire long enough for a circling A-10 Thunderbolt he is directing to strafe an enemy tank, all without hitting any friendly elements. At the precise second the command is given, SAMs are suppressed, enemy tank is neutralized and the A-10 flies off into the distance and a successful mission is completed under the direction of the JTAC.

Even though the previous scenario was a simulation, it's all in a typical days work for members of a 13th Air Support Operations Squadron Tactical Air Control Party, whether training or deployed. The JTAC is one of the positions within the TACP. The Air Force squadron provides tactical command and control of close air support assets to U.S. Army ground commanders of the 4th Infantry Division during combat operations. The squads are normally located on Army posts working through a memorandum of agreement.

"We accomplish the ground commander's intent and keep people safe," said 1st Lt. Marc Buker, 13th ASOS chief of training at Fort Carson, Colorado.

The squadron's mission is straightforward; they are either in battle or preparing for battle. Unlike other Air Force squads the ASOS's do not supply ancillary services to the greater Air Force like security forces does, so when members are not deployed they are training in preparation for deployment.

"Our only mission is war," Buker said. Training for battle functions includes flag exercises at places like the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif., where brigade on brigade - comparable to an Air Force Wing - exercises take place. With no aircraft of its own, 13th ASOS chases aircraft Buker said. What he means is that TACPs frequently travel to where aircraft are participating in training to be able to work on live scenarios with real assets.

The focus on training as frequently as possible includes sending people to various Army schools such as the Ranger, Airborne, Air Assault and Pathfinder schools. Earning badges from these schools helps JTACs understand Army methods better. It also improves credibility with the soldiers with whom they serve, Buker said.

TACP Airmen are both "green" and "blue," having an Air Force chain of command but living and working with the Army for most of their careers. While they dress in Air Force uniforms, their squadron headquarters is more Army-like. Army combat vehicles and equipment are standard parts of the facility.

"This situation creates a unique, joint individual well postured to be a force multiplier for both services. This is demanding on our airman, as an (airman first class) might have dual responsibilities: briefing an Army commander on how best to use (close air support) and then going outside the wire that same day to control the CAS," he said.

Immersed in the Army, Buker admits 13th ASOS members lean a little to the green, or Army, side. But since they come to Peterson AFB for things like medical and financial services it helps keep them blue. The biggest blue influence is working with and communicating with Air Force pilots regularly.

"It keeps us a little blue," Buker said. "We get to be part of both organizations. We get the best of both worlds. Most of us are glad we are in the Air Force."

The 13th ASOS is somewhat spoiled being located so near to Peterson AFB. Many other squadrons are located at Army bases distant from Air Force bases where they go for services. Most of what the 13th ASOS needs is readily available to them at Fort Carson or on Peterson AFB with only a short trip to get what they need.

When the services work together there is a synergy that benefits both. Buker said TACP can't do its job without the Army and the same goes the other way. The mutual support brings together a level of expertise that allows the roughly 140 members of 13th ASOS to coordinate support for a 25,000 person strong Army division.

And it takes more than JTACs to provide the needed level of support. Many people usually associate the ASOS with JTACs because they are the tip of the spear Buker said. For example, the 13 ASOS has the 4th Infantry Division Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Officer, who is the principal Air Force expert on intelligence to the whole division. Expert radio maintainers are another integral position in the ASOS.

"JTACs use portable communication radios to coordinate and control the airpower we project and without them we are combat ineffective," Buker said. "Here at the 13th ASOS it takes the whole team to accomplish the mission."

Other members of the ASOS team include air liaison officers, radio maintainers, vehicle maintainers, power production, and intelligence personnel.

"Without any member of that team, we falter. When we work together as a resilient and lethal Gunslinger family, we thrive," he said.

The TACP career field is small, elite and in great demand. Because of the value of the TACP, personnel are constantly deployed and not just with 4th Infantry Division. TACP members deploy with Army units all over the world as needed. They may even deploy with special operations groups like Navy SEAL teams if the mission demands their expertise. The high operations tempo means there are many personnel deployed across the globe at any time.

The most important skills needed to be a TACP are intelligence, communication, physical prowess and character. Coordinating multiple fixed-wing and rotary aircraft as well as artillery all while moving, targeting and returning enemy fire requires a high level of intellect. Because the job relies almost entirely on communication the JTAC needs to be able to communicate clearly in the languages of both the Air Force and the Army keeping all involved on the same page. Physical ability is critical because the Airmen of the TACP need to move with their assigned Army units.

"A good measure of a physically fit TACP is the ability to ruck," Buker said. "No TACP can graduate our schoolhouse until they can greatly exceed all Army standards of rucking, running, and calisthenics. We cannot afford to be mentally tired when doing our jobs, so we have to do everything the Army is doing and still be fresher than they are in order to provide terminal attack control and communicate with the aircraft."

Because of the unique nature of the TACP career field, strong character is a prerequisite. Unlike other Airmen, Buker said a TACP is an example of character and professionalism not just to other Airmen, but to the Army. With the great responsibility TACPs are given, much is expected and character cannot be taken lightly.

Through performance in action the TACP has proven its worth time and again. The need to expand the availability of TACPs and JTACs throughout the globe is recognized. Buker said TACP was recently classified as a major weapons system. The classification brings with it more funding allowing for more, and more sophisticated, training.

"The last two conflicts shined the spotlight (on TACP) as a force multiplier," said Buker.

Increased training will only improve what the TACP is able to bring to bear in combat. For example, with increased threat of space warfare and the potential for satellite communications to be disabled, TACPs must be ready to handle a variety of situations and methods of calling in munitions to carry out the mission.

One thing is certain, when experts are needed to drop bombs close to friendly forces, there are none better than U.S. Air Force TACPs to accomplish it while keeping friendly forces in both the air and on the ground safe, Buker said.

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