Afghans rush training of air controllers to regain battlefield edge
By E.B. BOYD | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 18, 2017
KABUL, Afghanistan — “What do you have for your final attack headings?” a U.S. Army trainer asked an Afghan soldier getting ready to call in a practice airstrike at a live-fire range south of Kabul one recent morning.
The soldier offered up his calculations, preparing to radio the information to a waiting attack helicopter buzzing overhead. The trainer stopped the student and told him he had calculated the attack incorrectly. “That’s reciprocal; that’s coming towards us.”
The Afghan military doesn’t have enough tactical air coordinators to direct strikes to support troops on the ground, and it’s working hard to train more. This live-fire exercise was part of a course designed by the NATO coalition to get more coordinators ready for this year’s fighting season.
Ground-based forward air controllers are considered essential in a guerrilla war in which government troops frequently have to deal with surprise attacks or ambushes and often require quick air action to avoid being overrun. When NATO ground forces were still on the front lines, strikes from U.S. and other coalition aircraft often made the difference in combat operations. But when NATO drew down its forces at the end of 2014, coalition aircraft were pulled back, and the Afghan military was forced to rely on its own nascent air force to deliver badly needed air support.
In the two years since, the Taliban have taken back more territory than they’ve ever held since 2001. The situation became so dire that last summer President Barack Obama reversed U.S. policy and again authorized American aircraft to provide offensive support to Afghan troops.
NATO officials believe that strengthening the Afghan air force, including deploying more tactical air coordinators on the ground, will help the government troops seize the initiative in the 16-year war.
It “will give the Afghan security forces an offensive punch that they don’t have right now,” Gen. John Nicholson, commander of the U.S.-led NATO coalition in Afghanistan, said at a press briefing in December.
Before last fall, about 200 Afghan soldiers had been taught tactical air coordination skills. But the training program, like other NATO mentoring efforts, has experienced hiccups.
In the U.S., being a tactical air controller is a discrete occupation. But the first sets of Afghan students were just regular soldiers whose superiors viewed tactical air coordination as an add-on duty.
When those graduates returned to their units, their new skills weren’t necessarily put to use. Instead, the soldiers were often given more immediate operational tasks, such as manning checkpoints, according to a Pentagon report released last month.
“The program wasn’t progressing,” U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Andrew Janssen said. Janssen is the chief air-to-ground integration adviser for NATO’s Train, Advise Assist Command–Air.
TAAC-Air drafted a new curriculum last year, and students graduating this year will do the work fulltime.
The job is complicated. Tactical Air Coordinators must be able to calculate the coordinates of enemy positions and communicate with aircraft in the middle of combat, making sure pilots know where friendly forces are and warning them about any hazards.
Early ATAC courses took place only in the classroom. Now the training includes live-fire exercises like this one.
“In the classroom, they learn blocks of information,” said one of the U.S. trainers, an Army staff sergeant who could not be identified because he belongs to a special operations unit. “Putting it together in the field can be confusing.”
At this exercise, Afghan mortar teams first fired off several rounds into the hills in the distance so that their explosions and smoke could be used to simulate enemy positions.
An Afghan student stood on the roof of a two-story building, preparing to direct a strike as U.S. advisers stood by. An Afghan Air Force MD-530 helicopter circled overhead.
The mortar team fired another shell. An adviser, noticing the student wasn’t communicating with the helicopter, quickly yelled at him.
“Tell them there’s a mortar in the air!” the adviser barked.
The Afghan air service currently has 95 ATAC slots, but only about 60 graduates will be ready by spring, Janssen said.
As the morning wore on, the students succeeded in guiding the helicopters’ volleys to their marks. Loud staccatos from the MD-530s were followed by strings of smoke puffs rising off the ground in the distance.
Aaron, a civilian contractor who had served as a joint tactical air controller in the Marine Corps and who agreed to identified by first name only, conceded that the ATAC program is only in its infancy. But he said he was optimistic.
“The fact that [the Afghan military] has air power and the Taliban don’t is huge,” he said. “That’s going to be the key to victory.”