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Soldiers and airmen train at a British Ministry of Defence facility outside of Brandon on how to "talk on" a fighter pilot during a close-air support training mission.
Soldiers and airmen train at a British Ministry of Defence facility outside of Brandon on how to "talk on" a fighter pilot during a close-air support training mission. (Courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

RAF LAKENHEATH — Tech. Sgt. Rob Zaniewski has been there before, pinned down in an Iraqi battle and having to call in airstrikes.

He knows that someone in his position can’t lose his cool when calling in precision missile strikes during an ambush.

That’s why the Germany-based airman was at Lakenheath recently, working with a multinational group of airmen and soldiers, training them on how to communicate with pilots and weapons system operators.

“I think it’s an innate thing,” the 37-year-old Massachusetts native said of the characteristics needed to succeed as a joint terminal attack controller.

“It’s the fight-or-flight thing. If their mentality is to flee, you really can’t train that out of them. But if their mentality is to fight, you can train them to fight as smart as possible.”

Zaniewski is part of the Joint Fires Center of Excellence, located at Spangdahlem Air Base. The center opened in October 2005 to train American forces and their European military partners on close air support.

Much of the center’s training occurs in Germany, but instructors such as Zaniewski often travel to RAF Lakenheath to work with the 48th Fighter Wing’s three F-15 fighter jet squadrons. The contingent also trained alongside Britain’s new Eurofighter Typhoon during its recent deployment.

“We go where the aircraft is,” he said. “And we don’t care what aircraft it is, as long as it can drop bombs.”

During the most recent trip to the East of England, the joint terminal attack controllers worked with the 494th Fighter Squadron, which is training for its scheduled deployment to Afghanistan next year.

“Joint forces integration helps to develop the required skills for the close air support mission. Practicing CAS basics like communication from the fighter to the JTAC and JTAC to fighter help in setting the baseline for building a strong understanding of each side’s limitations and capabilities,” 494th Capt. Cody Goetz wrote in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes following the exercise.

The exercise occurred against the backdrop of an evolving mission for fighter jets.

Lacking traditional air-based adversaries in Iraq or Afghanistan, the fighters are increasingly being called upon to provide close air support, which often means supporting coalition ground troops by dropping 500-pound satellite- and laser-guided bombs.

The 492nd Fighter Squadron, the sister unit to the 494th, recently returned from Afghanistan. There, the 492nd engaged in almost daily close air support missions, dropping approximately 1,000 munitions over a four-month deployment.

“We are the new artillery,” Zaniewski said. “And the JTAC is the link. We’re all about combat air power, but we bring it to the fight in a different way.”

The troops on the ground and the airmen in the sky strive to deliver this “new artillery” with to-the-meter precision that diminishes the possibility of fratricide or civilian casualties.

“The JTAC’s role in understanding the capabilities of the fighter, and his equipment, can help to ensure the timely success of any close air support mission,” Goetz wrote. “Having a JTAC on the ground is absolutely essential in safely employing weapons in close proximity to friendly forces.”

During the exercise, Zaniewski and his contingent of JTACs and forward observers trained at a British Ministry of Defense mock Iraqi village in the English countryside, at a range not far from the North Sea and on RAF Lakenheath, where they called in airstrikes from the roof of the hospital.

“Obviously it’s much different in the heat of battle, but we are trying to expose our guys to different settings — rural, urban and otherwise — that they might find downrange,” Zaniewski said. “We want them to make their mistakes here so we can fix the mistakes before they deploy.”

By the numbers

Close air support exercise in the U.K.

36 494th airmen participated

18 sorties flown

Two jets by day

Two jets by night

Source: 494th Fighter Squadron

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