Learning to keep eyes on ground
Stars and Stripes June 27, 2003
SEMBACH AIR BASE, Germany — The Air Ground Operations School turns 50 next year.
Never heard of it? You’re not the only one.
“In peacetime, [what we teach] is neglected,” said Maj. Karl Gruner, one of the school’s instructors. “In war time, it’s of high interest.”
The Army trains for ground combat; the Air Force hones its people to fly well and hit targets. But in warfare, the soldiers and airmen need each other. AGOS tries to put them on the same page.
Gruner is in the Air Force and in 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, he served on the ground as a forward air-ground controller. His people got close to targets but didn’t want to become accidental targets themselves.
“In my unit, my biggest worry was to avoid fratricide [friendly-fire deaths],” Gruner said.
“There’s always a trade-off between the risk factor you’re willing to accept and the risk of the enemy killing you, and of your own fratricide.”
The school is not just for Americans. NATO countries have sent pilots and soldiers to AGOS to learn about close-air support.
The students getting instruction on close-air support Tuesday included Maj. Giancarlo Maragucci and Capt. Rocco Losito of the Italian Air Force.
“In our squadron, we don’t know what’s behind the process,” Maragucci said. “We need a lot of coordination to know how things work and how to make them work safely.”
AGOS instructors said warfare tactics that require close-air support, or CAS, are becoming more common because:
• They enable more weapons to be trained on specific targets.
• The combined air-ground assault confuses the enemy and forces it to defend against attacks from more directions.
• Ground forces can help jet and helicopter pilots by finding targets that are well hidden from the sky.
But according to a May 2003 report by the General Accounting Office, adequate CAS training is not available because:
• Ground and air forces have limited chances to train together.
• Training at home stations is limited by range restrictions.
• Different services train their aircraft controllers to different standards, limiting effectiveness in joint operations.
• Training for close-air support is often given lower priority than other missions.
The AGOS instructors said the recent success of CAS in Afghanistan and Iraq — operations that were deliberate and planned — has sparked interest in their classes.
Collaboration between services — particularly the Air Force and Army — has become mandatory, they say.
“When conflicts occur, we run dozens of CAS sorties per day,” said Maj. Lee J. Ash, an AGOS instructor. “With today’s technology, we can use CAS in all weather.
“In Iraq and Afghanistan, Special Forces on the ground controlling Air Force planes turned out to be a winning combination.”
Capt. Mike Boehm said one of AGOS’ top goals is to improve its simulator, which allows ground forces and pilots to talk to each other in simulated CAS operations.
If AGOS can get the simulator into more “warfighters’ hands, that will be a success for this year,” Boehm said.
The AGOS school opened in 1954 at Ramstein Air Base and moved in 1976 to Sembach, about 15 miles to the east.
Through 1963, AGOS offered just one course — for combat operations specialists. The next year it established training for forward air controllers — the people on the ground who direct the planes.
Five courses are now offered.
Boehm said artillery and other grounds troops as well as airplane and helicopter pilots make up most of the 400 to 1,000 students who use the school each year. Almost all come from bases in Europe.
Ash said the school gets $50,000 per year from USAFE for office supplies, computer upgrades, travel and training.
“This year it’s going to be tight,” Ash said, “because we have a lot more students than usual.
“But we’ll make it.”