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Capt. Pete Johnson used to spend part of his workday in the cockpit of an F-16, flying in the skies of northern Japan.

Now, he’s more likely to be holding a cup of coffee than a flight control stick while on the job. But his days are still long and arguably more intense.

Johnson, 27, is an air liaison officer in Iraq. His job is to advise Army brigade commanders on the use of close-air support, the kind provided to ground troops by F-16s deployed to Iraq from the 13th Fighter Squadron at Misawa Air Base, Japan, and other aircraft.

Johnson, who calls Fort Collins, Colo., home, is a former 13th Fighter Squadron “Panther” himself. He was assigned to Misawa from 2003 to 2006.

After he was medically grounded from flying, Johnson became an air liaison officer, an “easy selection” because it meant he was still deployable, Johnson said in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.

The job is one of the few options available to F-16 pilots or any rated fighter or bomber aircrew starting their first assignment out of the cockpit following their first or second operational tour, he said.

At one time, there were four former 35th Fighter Wing pilots from Misawa working in Iraq as air liaison officers, Johnson said.

“I am on the ground with the Army brigade headquarters, and I am on the brigade staff,” said Johnson, who supports the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, at Forward Operating Base Warhorse in Diyala province. “I live with them, work in their facilities, and even wear their uniform.”

Johnson said the brigade tells him what level of support it wants for a mission, and he drafts a request.

Part of the job involves making sure close-air support and ground artillery, rockets and mortars augment rather than impede each other, he said.

Flying experience has “given me the perspective of the CAS fighters,” said Johnson, who has been in Iraq for more than six months. “I have an idea about what an area looks like from 15,000 feet and what techniques work best for getting the pilots’ eyes and sensors onto a given target.”

He also said he is able to impress specifics about different airframes and their capabilities and limitations upon the joint terminal air controllers who work out on the line with the infantry.

The JTACS direct the actions of joint combat aircraft operating in close proximity to friendly forces. They often are forward-deployed with the units they support. Johnson, also qualified as a JTAC, supervises a team that includes seven JTACs who support four Stryker battalions, he said.

Generally, air liaison officers and pilots won’t interact directly unless the ALO is controlling a mission, Johnson said. However, it’s a little different since he knows the Misawa pilots who are supporting the missions.

“We talk to the Panthers a few days a week, sometimes more,” he said.

Lt. Col. Steve Williams, the 13th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander, deployed to Balad Air Base north of Baghdad with the other squadron personnel, said working with someone who knows the Panthers and the capabilities of the F-16 has been an asset.

Williams wrote in an e-mail to Stripes that Johnson “understands what our strengths and weaknesses are and can help us improve the weak areas, while focusing on our strengths. In the end, it makes us better at getting the mission accomplished.”

Misawa-based F-16s playing new role – air support in Iraq

The main mission of the F-16s from Misawa Air Base, Japan, historically has been the suppression of enemy air defenses. But in Iraq, the F-16s are being called on to provide close-air support to ground troops.

In the eyes of former 35th Fighter Wing pilot Capt. Pete Johnson, Misawa’s fighters are rising to the occasion.

“The Panthers and all the F-16s I’ve worked with from Balad have done an outstanding job of not only putting bombs where we want them, but providing overwatch of forces, and many of the other less exciting facets of flying in support of ground forces over here,” Johnson wrote in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.

Johnson is an air liaison officer with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, based out of Forward Operating Base Warhorse in the Diyala province. He advises the brigade commander on the use of air power.

The nature of close-air support in this war is no different from in previous wars, Johnson wrote. It still entails attack from the air in close proximity to friendly forces, requiring detailed integration with those forces.

But close-air support in Iraq isn’t dominated by a tactical air control party — enlisted airmen who help plan and control combat air resources — on a distant hilltop at the front lines anymore, Johnson wrote.

“What has changed is our capabilities we have to better perform this mission — precision munitions, unmanned aerial systems, our ability to battle track friendly forces,” Johnson wrote.

— Jennifer H. Svan

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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