News: Death on call: Joint Terminal Attack Controllers act as translators
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska--“Kodiak, this is Scarface, in from the east.”
“Scarface, this is Kodiak … cleared hot.”
Hot lead from the U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet’s Vulcan 20-mm cannon strafe 200 feet away from friendly position; striking the enemy position dead on.
It’s death on call – wherever and whenever needed.
But the troops on the ground can’t exactly radio an F/A-18 pilot. There’s a “language” barrier and an entirely different view of the battlefield.
In that gap stands the joint terminal attack controllers, a subset of the tactical air control party community. After a rigorous qualification course, they can direct combat aircraft, calling in air strikes and close-air support.
The 3rd Air Support Operations Squadron is home to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson’s JTACs.
“We’re subject-matter experts who bring close-air support to the ground fight,” said Air Force Capt. Jack Fine, the 3rd ASOS assistant brigade air liaison. “We try to integrate our air support into the ground scheme of maneuver, to provide the air-ground support when organic fire units aren’t enough to win the fight.”
As the sole representative of air power to the ground commander, the best way to work with other services is to know each other’s capabilities and help the ground unit understand what JTAC can do.
“Regardless what uniform we wear, we want them to understand how we can contribute to the mission,” Fine said.
The JTAC personnel recently returned from Exercise Cobra Gold 2014 in Thailand, where they worked hand-in-hand with the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, as the brigade demonstrated their unique ability to rapidly deploy and conduct a forced-entry airborne assault.
Once on the ground, the 4-25th IBCT faced a fictional scenario in which they began taking enemy small-arms fire. The JTAC called in two Hornets to provide close-air support and eliminate the threat.
“We’re a big force-multiplier,” Fine said. “It’s not just dropping bombs. Having that eye in the sky directly overhead, to see what else is going on around the battlefield, is what we bring to the fight. That’s how we bring the joint picture.”
Army doctrine and Air Force guidelines can differ radically. Part of a JTAC’s job is to make those methodologies work seamlessly together.
“We’re the conduit between the [Air Force and] Army, or any other supported service,” said Tech. Sgt. Clayton Davis, TACP noncommissioned officer-in-charge. “We’re the middlemen, communicating with guys on the ground and the guys in the air. We have to be flexible enough to operate within the Air Force constraints and the Army constraints, and find that middle ground so we can do our job and execute.”
Joint basing helps with the job.
“A lot of our support is during Army exercises, so we tend to focus primarily on the Army,” Davis said. “At the end of the day, we’re still Air Force, but we can lean on the Army if we need something, and vice versa.”
It’s a team effort when the JTACS learn how their Army ground tactics work out on the battlefield.
“As a JTAC, your primary responsibility is to advise the ground commander on proper utilization of air power,” Davis said. “With that comes a lot of responsibility. When you speak, you need to know what you’re talking about, because you’re the Air Force representative to that commander. The impact of that for a lower-ranking person is pretty substantial.”
JTACs work to be “quiet professionals.”
“The reason a lot of people don’t know about us is because we typically don’t go around talking about ourselves,” Davis said. “Most importantly, we have to be approachable to outside people, and we have to say what we mean and mean what we say. We have to know what we’re talking about – the worst thing we could do is say the wrong thing and lose our credibility.”
Despite the need to be low-key and approachable, JTACs have a lethal job and must keep that in mind.
“We have to have an aggressive mindset,” Davis said. “Our job is different, and we need a certain level of aggressiveness to be able to do what we do.”