News: Army, Marines train for joint air support
Story by Staff Sgt. Bryan Lewis
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan - Aviators from Task Force Tigershark and Marines from the 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company finished conducting the first iteration of joint communications training that lasted the month of June.
The multiphase training involved AH-64E Apache helicopter and OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter pilots from TF Tigershark and a Marine Corps fire support team, who are liaisons with the Georgian 10 Special Mountain Battalion at Kandahar Airfield, to focus on the interoperability of joint forces in a mission to call for air support in various scenarios.
“On the Tigershark side, there is a gap in the understanding between what we’re normally used to doing, which has worked with supporting the ground force commander, and utilizing the close-combat attack format, which anybody can do,” said Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Robert J. Teague, TF Tigershark master gunner and Apache pilot.
“It was a collaborative training effort. We contacted them [TF Tigershark], deciding it would behoove them to receive some training from us, and we would benefit from more integrated training with them,” added Marine Corps Capt. William Brown, fire power control team leader.
The first portion of the training focused on the understanding of the joint doctrine and terminology for calling in air support.
“We started with the academics of the difference between Marine JTAC [joint terminal attack controllers] and other services that maintain that same capability, which includes the Air Force and special operations,” Brown said.
The variations in close-air-support reports allow aviation units to modify standard operation procedures to complement their branch -internal missions.
“As a community, we are required to know the five-line close air support format and the nine-line close air support format. But the process that revolves around those two formats is something that we weren’t really familiar with prior to this training exercise,” Teague explained.
What we’re looking at is the transition out of the counter-insurgency fight into the next fight, which could be a combination of conventional and counter-insurgency operations. Once we come out of here, we need to be proficient with operating in a joint environment.”
The 12-step CAS process is a standard within the Marine Corps fire power control teams, which is indoctrinated at their expeditionary warfare training centers.
“It is the template that we utilize for aircraft and controllers on the ground when interacting with each other. Within there, includes a step-by-step process that informs each individual of their role in the process. That way everyone has an understanding of the flow of information prior to showing up for the live-fire portion of the training,” Brown explained.
The first priority of a mission involving various units from multiple branches operating in the same battle space is clarifying language and terminology.
“The more difficult part of the classes is the language that we use … the brevity terms,” Brown explained. “One of the shortfalls that we identified is that the brevity that they [Army pilots] utilize and the brevity that we utilize are not typically the same. There are many small differences that we [JTAC] can adjust to, being the ground force that is requesting support. There are other things that are habits that are ingrained in us as well as joint forces for control in terminal phases."
With a fire support unit coordinating aerial assets in order to engage targets, attack operations become complex. The usage of extended reports clears up the scenario and allows for cross-communication between pilots.
“We’re finding out in a lot of ways it’s very controlled, but there is a reason it’s very controlled,” Teague said. “Depending on the situation, there may be an attack-weapons team, a scout-weapons team … there may be UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicle] on station or there may be fixed-wing aircraft. Everyone could be very stacked up.”
Test outside the wire
With the pilots and the fire support team synchronized under the same doctrine and communication lingo, the next phase in the training was the complex exercise of testing joint close air support in the field. The live-fire exercise involved multiple branches from different countries to employ different helicopter airframes, using a variation of attack methods.
“The goal of the operations was to insert a [U.S.] Marine and Georgian team to an OP [observation point] in the vicinity of a location that has previously been approved for aviation ordnance,” Brown said. “Then we contacted aircraft during their normal flight times and provided them a targeting brief, where they check in with us. We give them an update on the ground situation and then we provide them a targeting coordinates on an identified hostile target.”
Located at a firing range several kilometers outside of Kandahar Airfield, pilots engaged notional targets based off of a scenario given by the JTAC on site. Brown and his team changed the situation and target type each round to give pilots the ability to adjust to parameters per the nine-line report and execute the mission.
“When we [pilots] check in, we are told to go over here. We are told this is going to be this type of engagement, using this type of weapon system,” Teague said. “In this situation, they [fire support team] are familiar enough with our weapons systems and they are familiar enough with whatever target they want to engage.”
Another tool that the Marine JTAC incorporated into the live-fire scenarios was the use of a ground-based laser targeting system, which differs from Army pilots’ normal protocol.
“That is something extra to practice in the sense that we are going outside of something we are comfortable with,” Teague added. “If we’re engaging an air defense artillery system and there’s a JTAC on the ground that has the capability to laze that system, you can launch a missile without ever really seeing the target.”
Two daytime live-fire iterations allowed for a proper, in-depth assessment of the training from the classroom to the field and from the ground to the sky.
“There were some bumps in the road but the aviators, whether it be the Kiowa Warrior pilots or the Apache pilots, began to really understand the process after a few iterations. The success was a combination of the academics, how the training was set up and the debrief of the aircrews when they got back.”
“It was very good to see the progress. It was substantial in actual measure from the amount of comprehension and interaction we had with the pilots,” Brown added. “The degree to which they were able to take on the new tactics, the new verbiage the new process … discuss it among themselves and then employ it is very commendable.”
TF Tigershark plans to continue with the joint training while in theater to build their proficiency for their next assignment.
“We want to walk out of theater familiar to where you could put the 1-229th [Attack Helicopter Battalion] on a carrier, send us into the Pacific somewhere, tie us in with a JTAC and we’ll be able to function,” Teague concluded.