Air Force increases airstrike training for allies
October 4, 2010
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Faced with a critical shortage of joint terminal attack controllers, the Air Force has ramped up efforts to train more from allied nations, many of whom could deploy to Afghanistan to call in NATO airstrikes.
JTACs, as they are called, are airmen trained to call in airstrikes on enemy targets. Typically assigned to an Army ground unit, it is the JTAC’s job to choose the right bomb to be dropped and to help guide the pilot to the target if the unit comes under attack. The JTAC position is vital to reducing the number of civilians killed in airstrikes in Afghanistan, an issue that Army leaders have said is key to turning around the war there.
“If you bomb the wrong house, the wrong point, the wrong enemy … you’re going to be responsible for it, not the pilot,” said Daniel Marin, 29, a first lieutenant with the Romanian Army.
About 28 NATO nations are contributing troops to the war in Afghanistan, as are about 14-non NATO nations. Many of those countries have never had a JTAC capability before.
The U.S. concern over the backlash from civilian deaths, whether by airstrikes or other uses of force in Afghanistan, is well-founded, according to a study released Aug. 3 by the New America Foundation in Washington. It found “a typical incident that caused two Afghan civilian deaths provoked six revenge attacks in the district by the Taliban and other militants,” The Los Angeles Times reported.
Last year, Gen. David Petraeus, then the U.S. Central Command commander, highlighted in a memo to the Army and Air Force chiefs of staff the need for more JTACs, according to military officials. There’s a “big shortage” of JTACs that regularly serve with platoon-sized security teams and special forces’ units, Petraeus said.
That shortage is being driven by what the Army says it needs, and that’s one JTAC per Army company – a unit that typically consists of 75 to 200 soldiers.
“If we’re going to have a JTAC at each company, then that’s a lot of JTACs overall, which we’re not even close to having,” said Capt. Jon Chango, JTAC course director at the USAFE Air Ground Operations School in Einsiedlerhof, Germany.
Current active-duty Air Force JTAC inventory stands at about 526, said Master Sgt. Jay Lemley, USAFE chief of standardization and evaluation for all tactical air control party airmen in Europe. That number, he said, is in constant flux and does not include JTAC-qualified personnel from the Air National Guard and in the Air Force Special Operations Command. The plan is to increase the JTAC pool to 1,036 over the next four years, Lemley said.
The Air Force trains its JTACs at two schools, Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., and at the USAFE school in Germany.
USAFE Commander Gen. Roger Brady has directed the Europe-based school to double its training capacity, from 72 to 144 graduates a year, said the school’s commander, Air Force Lt. Col. Al Roberts. At least 50 percent of those students are expected to come from countries other than the United States, he said.
In the current five-week initial qualification class of 14 students, for example, only three are from the U.S. Air Force. The rest come from Romania, Latvia, Estonia, Belgium, Norway, Slovenia, Croatia and Poland.
While the expansion of training in Europe won’t immediately boost the number of American JTACs, it has led to increases of controllers from other countries working in Afghanistan, which will help shrink the gap.
“We have seen a great increase in the number of JTACs that are deploying,” Lemley said. “The primary intent is for them to support their own forces. However, in the current fight that we have down there, there are times we will look to other nations and other nations will look to us for support.”
With help from USAFE, Romanian forces in Afghanistan now have their own JTACs; the previous six years they did not, Lemley said, and the U.S. military provided Romania with a U.S. Air Force JTAC.
“We create the capacity for them and it also takes the burden off our cadre of JTACs,” he said.
Communication is vital to being a JTAC, Roberts said. It’s not just about the English language, but getting used to the JTAC terminology that goes along with close-air support, he said. “After we teach them what to say, they get to practice saying it,” he said. “Then we take them out in the field to talk to airplanes.”
The JTAC students train with a variety of pilots and their aircraft, from German Tornados and PC-9s to U.S. and Belgian F-16s.
“Everybody gets to talk to everybody, which is exactly what they’re going to be doing downrange,” Roberts said.
The school also employs several Army personnel to “teach JTACs how to talk to the Army,” Roberts said.
Because there aren’t enough JTACs for every Army company on the battlefield, the military is increasingly using Army joint fires observers to be the “eyes and ears” of the JTAC, said Tech. Sgt. Matthew Muse, a JTAC and chief of standardization and evaluation at the USAFE Air Ground Operations School. A JTAC may stay back with the battalion commander and rely on a JFO to provide him the information he needs to give an aircraft clearance to drop ordnance, he said.
After going through the initial qualification class at USAFE, JTACs undergo more training with their unit, and then when arriving in theater, they’re tested on their JTAC skills and knowledge of rules of engagement.
Maj. Andreas Olssen, 35, a JTAC student and commander of Norway’s Air Ground Operations School, said his country has a robust JTAC training program but also sends students to the USAFE school and to the United Kingdom.
The U.S., he said, “sets the standard for what’s to be done in theater” since it owns a majority of the air assets there.
“Normally a JTAC is assigned to its own country unit,” he said. “It’s a national responsibility.” But if U.S. troops without a JTAC are under fire and a Norweigan JTAC is in the vicinity, “we always try to help each other out because we’re in it together.”