YUMA, Ariz. -- Who would take action if enemy aircraft were spotted heading toward the station, and who would be responsible for controlling the counter attack? The answer is the Marines in the Tactical Air Operations Center.
TAOC is a small elite group of Marines tasked with aerial surveillance, combat identification, tactical air traffic control, data link coordination, air intercept control, missile control, deep air support and air battle management.
Cpl. Jade Pino, Marine Air Control Squadron 1 TAOC operator, initially joined the Corps to fight on the front lines and sleep in the dirt. When told he would not be able to, he faced the task of choosing another job. When it came to pick a job he recalled his old childhood passion for SR-71 Blackbird aircraft, and ended up enlisting for an air wing job field.
The 23-year-old native of Chicago, Ill., completed schooling and just three months after hitting the fleet, was sent to Afghanistan for seven months, where Pino performed several traffic functions and grew in knowledge.
“My primary mission while in Afghanistan was to learn as much as I could,” said Pino. “So having the gear available to me 24 hours a day, seven days a week was a huge contribution to letting me know what I know now.”
After his return, he completed follow-on training to become an air defense controller and now finds himself working as an operator. Operators read radar feed and interpret the feed to identify what aircraft are in the air.
Being in TAOC, Marines are expected to progress in their jobs based on the standards set forth in the TAOC Training and Readiness Manual. They do so through academic study and live or simulated training in garrison or field exercises. Training is commonly accomplished during regularly scheduled joint exercises such as the Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course here.
In order to receive training, TAOC members contact all squadrons within Yuma and Miramar to set up a simulated fight to practice ground control intercept.
In garrison, TAOC conducts air-to-air intercept simulations. During training, when encountering a simulated threat with hostile aircraft, they classify the aircraft with the surveillance section of TAOC. With the traffic section, they take them to the “battle arena,” and from there, the weapons section controls the aircraft in the intercept.
The relationship between the controller and pilot is very important. If they know each other well, they will work well and communicate well with each other resulting in better flights.
“With our radar we call the all seeing-eye, we can see everything,” said Pino. “So with a pilot traveling at 800 miles an hour at 27,000 feet in the air looking straight ahead of him, he sees nothing but clouds and space. Let’s say another aircraft is going just as fast toward him, that distance between them closes very quickly and gives them a fraction of a second to react. That’s why we are here to queue them in on what’s out there. We call the radar a passive weapon because we don’t kill anyone with the actual radar, but we do defend using it.”
The AN/TPS-59 radar can see more than 300 nautical miles with 360 degree radius capability. The Marines work in small cubicles filled with radar equipment, fitting only four people back to back. This leaves them with about three feet of walking space.
Stress levels can get high, and sometimes it may be too much to handle.
“When you are on the gear it looks like a video game, but what you don’t realize is that each one of those marks is millions of dollars in government assets,” said Pino. “If something goes down or something goes wrong, it’s your fault, and you don’t want that to happen. So with that stress on you, on top of the natural stress of trying to do your job correctly, it can be difficult. There are times that people walk off the systems and say they just can’t handle it.”
Pino is now qualified as a surveillance operator, assistant weapons controller and is currently working on receiving his qualification as an air intercept controller.
“Your main priority in this field is to keep your guys in the sky alive,” said Pino. “It is a self-propelled MOS. If you like it and want to become better, you will become better. The knowledge is here and the opportunities are here for you to get things done. You may not be down there pulling the trigger, but you control the aircraft that is dropping bombs on 20, 40, 50 bad guys, so you are hooking and jabbing in your own way.”