Infantry: Controlling The Air From Down There


October 21, 2009: The U.S. Air Force is having a hard time holding on to their JTACs (Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, who call in air strikes). Some 40 percent of them leave the air force, choosing not to make it a career. This despite being offered bonuses of up to $90,000 to stay in. JTACs are difficult to recruit and train. The work is exacting and dangerous. The main reasons are there are not enough of them, is that they currently spend most of their time overseas with army units. The combat duty is stressful, and many JTACs complain that they joined the air force, but spend most of their time with the army. But the persistent shortage has made the overseas tours longer and more numerous, and hurt JTAC morale still further. The air force solution is to try and increase the number of JTACs from under 800, to nearly 1,100 over the next three years. That is not going to be easy, although the sharp drop in demand for JTACs in Iraq helps. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army has a solution for this; train army artillery observers (who call in artillery and helicopter strikes) to call in air force bombing missions.

This is not a new concept. Last year, France reorganized its approach to forward observers (the specialists at the front who call in artillery fire and air strikes.) Their new "fire support specialists" will now call in artillery strikes as well as air power. In most nations, the air force insists on having its own controllers for air strikes, leaving to army "forward observers" the task of calling in artillery fire. But the French generals recognize that this approach is counterproductive. Thus the current French force of 500 fire support specialists will be increased to 900, and all will be trained to handle artillery and air strikes.

The U.S. Army is still having a hard time making that switch, mainly because the U.S. Air Force refuses to give up control over air strikes. For decades, the air force has resisted, and insisted that only air force personnel, trained and equipped to be "air controllers," perform this task. Then came smart bombs, like JDAM, and targeting pods, like LANTIRN and Sniper, which proved enormously popular with the troops on the ground. That's because the smart bombs and targeting pods made friendly fire from the air much less likely. It's a dirty little secret in the air force, but in the last half century, more U.S. troops have been killed by American warplanes, than by enemy ones. But U.S. warplanes are now much less of a threat to American troops, and the ground troops can't get enough air support.

Now the air force has become a victim of its own success, and cursed with an inability to provide enough air controllers to fill the demand. There's a war on, and there are many emergency situations where a smart bomb could save the day. But without an air force air controller on the scene, it takes longer, if ever, to get the air force involved. Often pilots in the air get linked up with some desperate ground troops who don't have an air controller handy, and witness the impact of the air controller shortage first hand. Over the last eight years, hundreds of air force pilots have personally experienced this shortage of air controllers, and are coming over to the army concept of training a lot more people to handle calling in air strikes.

The air force is still mesmerized with the idea that the air controller job is one that can only be done by air force personnel, preferably an officer. But the army points out that they have had NCOs calling in firepower from mortars, artillery and attack helicopters for years, and that this works. The navy and marines have also had forward observers that can call in anything. Moreover, the army has developed a concept of "joint fires", where their "artillery controllers" would handle air strikes and naval gunfire, and thus become "joint fires" controllers. Moreover, the army believes that better tools make it possible to quickly train enough people, most of the them sergeants, to provide at least one controller for every 30 or so troops.

The air force does have one good argument against army JTACs. SOCOM did train a lot of Special Forces and Ranger NCOs to be "JTAC Lite." These guys were good, but often they would go years without using their skills, but still maintained their rating as a JTAC. The air force insists that their JTACs maintain their skills. One suggestion has been to transfer the JTAC jobs to the army, but leave the air force in charge of training and supervision (insuring that all JTACs maintain their skills, especially the ability to also act as a local air controller, to prevent collisions up there). That one is still being debated.

Technology makes a big difference. The army has a binoculars type system, which incorporates a laser range finder and a GPS. This unit produces the GPS coordinates of whatever the user is looking at, and zaps, with the laser rangefinder. If the binoculars are hooked up to a digital military radio, the controller can send those GPS coordinates to a warplane overhead, discuss the type of attack (bomb size, strafing) required, and order it to proceed.

As much as the air force dislikes having its pilots taking orders from army sergeants, equipped only with some high-tech binoculars, the growing demand from the ground, and pilots urgent for a solution, has compelled the air force to compromise. The current arrangement allows the army to train its joint fires controllers to call in air strikes, but only as a last resort. Otherwise, the joint fires controllers must work through the nearest air controller. Failing that, the soldier controller can do what they know how to do. It's a workable compromise, and the soldiers like and respect the air controllers (who are fighter pilots doing a tour of duty on the ground.)




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