Soldiers train with Air Force on attack coordination
January 16, 2009
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Army Sgt. 1st Class Virgil Allen relaxed his grip on the joystick controlling his sighting scope, eased back in his chair and surveyed the damage.
Five enemy tanks destroyed in a hail of bullets and missiles. No collateral damage. The pair of Air Force A-10s that he helped guide to the targets soared away unscathed.
The close air support mission took place Wednesday during a computer simulation at U.S. Air Forces in Europe Air Ground Operations School at the Warrior Preparation Center near Kaiserslautern.
Allen is one of 36 soldiers from the North Carolina-based 82nd Airborne Division training until mid-February to become qualified joint fires observers before deploying.
"We’re an extra pair of eyes on the ground and help in getting effective fires on target," he said. "Instead of guys trying to fight their way to a target, we can coordinate getting A-10s or Apaches to go in, light up the target and then send the guys in."
The training to become joint fires observers is part of an intense military effort to give one soldier per maneuver platoon the ability to call in airstrikes with the help of a joint terminal attack controller. The ongoing effort comes as the Air Force is experiencing a shortage of attack controllers, who serve on the ground and communicate with pilots to direct close-air support.
Normally downrange, each battalion has only one JTAC attached to it, said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Nicholas Picoc, chief JTAC instructor at the USAFE Air Ground Operations School. The Air Force is increasing its number of JTACs from 622 in fiscal 2005 to 1,019 in fiscal 2012, which equates to only 70 a year, according to an Army slideshow on the issue.
In late 2005, a memorandum of agreement among the Army, Air Force and U.S. Special Operations Command established the joint fires observer program to give troops the skills to request, adjust and control surface-to-surface fire and provide targeting information in support of close air support — among other related skills.
"The intent of a [joint fires observer] is to add joint warfighting capability, not to circumvent the need for qualified [joint terminal attack controllers]," according to the memo.
In comparison, joint fires observers undergo two weeks of training, while it can take more than two to three years to become a full-fledged joint terminal attack controller.
The high demand for joint fires observer training has U.S.-based soldiers traveling to Germany for the two-week course because sessions at the JFO course at Fort Sill, Okla., are full. Typically, only four soldiers are in each two-week class, but to meet the need of the 82nd Airborne soldiers, each of the three two-week classes is comprised of 12 soldiers, said Maj. James Egan, senior Army instructor at the USAFE Air Ground Operations School. The total number of JFO students the school would normally see in a year is coming through in just six weeks.
A joint fires observer extends the area that a joint terminal attack controller is able to cover downrange, Egan said. In theory, joint fires observers with platoons would contact the joint terminal attack controller attached to their battalion to relay pertinent information for close air support. The two would work together to ensure the pilot strikes the target with no collateral damage.
"Now we have people who can speak blue, who can speak in a language that the Air Force can understand," Egan said.