GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — The rapid pace of Army transformation has resulted in a shortage of Joint Tactical Air Controllers, who coordinate close air support to ground units.

In three years the Army has formed eight new modular brigade combat teams and converted many more old-style brigades, moving from a total of 33 active-duty maneuver brigades in May, 2004 to 41 BCTs today. The ultimate plan calls for 46 active-duty BCTs by 2012.

USAFE Tactical Air Control Party manager Chief Master Sgt. Mark Villella said recently that there are not enough of the air controllers to support all of the Army’s new brigades.

“There is a shortage because Army transformation is increasing the amount of maneuver units. When the army converts cooks or field artillery units into maneuver brigades it is a quick process, but it takes three years to grow a JTAC,” Villella said.

Still, Villella said, the Air Force is meeting its targets for training JTACs and all units deployed to combat zones have the required number of JTACs with them.

According to Chief Master Sgt. David Devine, a TACP field manager based at the Pentagon, personnel must have at least a year’s operational experience in the fire support area before they can start JTAC training, which involves 15 months of studying basic skills and attending an accredited school that lasts six to eight weeks and involves 12 training missions.

The Air Force will not reveal exactly how many JTACs are needed. However, Devine said there are typically a two-man JTAC team attached to each brigade headquarters and two more teams attached to each battalion within the brigade. At that rate the eight brigades created in the last three years would require approximately 144 new JTACs.

The Air Force received $440 million in fiscal 2007 to support Army transformation with new equipment, facilities and other needs, Devine said.

“We are also adding personnel so we can increase the number of JTACs to support those BCTs (but) we don’t have the number of JTACs required to cover every BCT in the Army,” he said.

To make up for the shortfall the Air Force is moving JTACs to units before they head downrange, Devine said.

The Air Force created a new school for JTACs – the Joint Fires Center of Excellence — at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany last year. It is looking at ways to streamline training and increase the number of JTACs certified by existing schools. JTACs are also certified by schools operated by other services such as the Navy, Devine added.

Villella said the number of JTACs is growing in Europe to support the newly formed 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team at Vicenza, Italy, and the 2nd Cavalry (Stryker) Regiment at Vilseck, Germany.

In Italy and at Vilseck small JTAC detachments have been replaced by squadrons with added support personnel, he said.

Lt. Col. Lee Marsch, who commands 2nd Air Support Operations Squadron at Vilseck, said the number of JTACs there has increased because 2nd Cav is a different type of unit than the one it replaced, 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, which is an old-style brigade.

2nd Squadron JTAC Staff Sgt. Michael Huffman said his job involves patrolling with Army combat maneuver units and directing precision weapons from aircraft near friendly forces.

The shortage of JTACs has not affected Huffman’s job, he said, although he has deployed on four to six month rotations to Iraq (twice) and Afghanistan (twice) in the last four years.

“I have more deployments than your average soldier, but I can come home and enjoy garrison life a little more often,” he said.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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