FORT POLK, La. -- An Airman from the 3rd Air Support Operations Squadron stands inside the Stryker armored vehicle added to the Air Force inventory during a May 5 ceremony at Fort Polk, La., where Airmen will train with the Stryker alongside Soldiers from the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team in preparation for an upcoming deployment to Southwest Asia. (Photo courtesy of Rosana Weaver, The Leesville Daily Leader)
FORT POLK, La. -- Airmen from the 3rd Air Support Operations Squadron stand in front of the Stryker armored vehicle added to the Air Force inventory during a May 5 ceremony at Fort Polk, La., where Airmen will train with the Stryker alongside Soldiers from the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team in preparation for an upcoming deployment to Southwest Asia. (Photo courtesy of Rosana Weaver, The Leesville Daily Leader)
by Master Sgt. Andrew Gates
354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
5/5/2005 - EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska (AFPN) -- With a handshake and the roar of a jet engine at Fort Polk, La., an Eielson unit became the first in the Air Force to own the latest addition to the service’s inventory – the Stryker armored vehicle.
In a May 5 ceremony at Fort Polk, 3rd Air Support Operations Squadron officials obtained five of the Army’s high-tech armored vehicles. The squadron is assigned to the 354th Operations Group at Eielson, but its primary customer is the Army’s 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team at Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
“This is an unbelievable joint victory,” said Lt. Col. Russell Smith of the Stryker addition that furthers jointness between Air Force and Army.
This joint effort between the two services will help serve the Army better by protecting Airmen who guide reconnaissance and attack aircraft during combat operations, said Colonel Smith, 3rd ASOS commander. As a liaison between ground forces and aerial units, the squadron’s Airmen can help the ground-bound Solders “see” what is over the next hill or building.
“We are the Air Force experts at the ground commander’s right hand,” Colonel Smith said. “Without airpower expertise on the battlefield, we leave the great American Soldier on the ground ‘naked.’ The Army has transformed into an agile and light fighting force, but in doing so, it has become far more reliant upon air power.”
To control that air power and fully implement its use in combat, the 3rd ASOS provides two types of specialized teams, Colonel Smith said. Tactical Air Control Parties perform the majority of the missions. They manage the air space above the ground troops, guiding in reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft such as unmanned aerial vehicles, and pointing out enemy forces to pilots performing close air support missions. The control parties also communicate with higher headquarters officials and plan and direct theater airlift by bringing in transport aircraft as needed.
The control parties are make up of Joint Terminal Attack Controllers and Radio Operators, Maintainers and Drivers. The ROMADs, as they are called, are junior Airmen of the control parties, while the JTACs are more seasoned Airmen specially trained to give weapons delivery clearance to close-air support aircraft. On a day-to-day level, these two specialties work side-by-side with Soldiers.
“I provide close air-support, or CAS, for the Army,” said Tech. Sgt. Dale Ellis, a controller and 3rd ASOS noncommissioned officer in charge of operations. “I help them plan how best to use aircraft, such as the A-10 (Thunderbolt II) for those missions protecting the ground troops. Then, I control the air strike (if it is necessary) -- I direct the employment of ordnance onto target.”
They give the pilot “eyes” on the ground -- especially during a very fluid combat situation, said Airman 1st Class Joseph Aton, a ROMAD.
“We provide the Air Force pilots with what the ground situation is – where the threats are, where the targets are and where the friendly forces are,” Airman Aton said. “We are also able to improve understanding, since we know what information the pilots need to perform their mission.”
“We are a force multiplier for the Soldiers,” Sergeant Ellis said. “We have the strongest Army in the world, but sometimes the bad guys need to be softened up (by attacking from the air) – that’s where we come into play.”
The other specialized team, the combat weather team, provides weather assessments to the commander.
“They don’t just report the weather,” Colonel Smith said. “We have to tell the ground commander how the weather will impact the ongoing battle plan. The current or anticipated weather may significantly affect what types of aerial support we can provide, and how effective that support will be.”
Both teams constantly communicate with the Soldiers in the field.
“We are responsible for augmenting the Army (commander’s ground) plan with Air Force assets and capabilities,” Colonel Smith said. “These assets will always include nonlethal effects as well as lethal. Today in Iraq, our Air Force mission is weighted heavily on our intelligence, surveillance and reporting capability and less so on the kinetic (weapon) effects we have come to associate with the Air Force.”
As more Army units move into the Stryker vehicle, Colonel Smith said it is crucial that the 3rd ASOS and similar units can use the same equipment. In the past, TACPs usually traveled outside installations in Humvees with additional armoring. Currently in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Strykers don’t normally travel with Humvees.
“The Stryker is faster than the traditional Humvee and much more survivable, especially in urban situations,” Colonel Smith said. “The armor provides protection against many traditional battlefield dangers. Since January 2004, that protection has been augmented with a cage of slat armor which offers protection against rocket-propelled grenades. The vehicle can also travel through less hospitable terrain than the Humvee and has a higher wheel clearance.”
“You want to be alongside in a Stryker. A Humvee can’t keep up,” Colonel Smith said.
Another advantage is the ability to better focus on their job. When using a Humvee, one of the Airmen drove, but the Stryker will be driven by one Soldier while another will be the vehicle commander.
While Soldiers maintain responsibility for the movement of the vehicle, Colonel Smith said the smoother ride allows TACPs and ROMADs to continue their jobs while the vehicle is moving. Communication was more limited in a Humvee while driving.
Besides speed and survivability, another important aspect of the vehicle is connectivity, Colonel Smith said. Since each vehicle possesses a ground-based tracking system, operators can quickly get a total picture of the battle space outside the vehicle. Crews can easily tell the “good guys” from the “bad guys,” he said. But without communication, he said even knowing where the enemy is isn’t necessarily enough.
“All that connectivity is useless without the proper communication channels,” Colonel Smith said. “That’s what’s really neat about having (these) dedicated vehicles. We have permanent mounts for our radios, antennae, tactical computer and our unmanned aerospace vehicle monitoring system. We can give the ground commander a complete picture of the area outside his Stryker -- both from the air and from the ground. This connectivity lets him make critical decisions in a fraction of the time it took before.”
From the standpoint of the users, the new Strykers will help the team do its job much better, Sergeant Ellis said.
“The new Strykers are definitely a lot safer than the up-armored Humvees,” he said. “They are top-notch and have all the equipment that we need to do the job.”
That realization, from the first air support and operations Airmen returning from Iraq, spurred the process to get the Strykers assigned to the unit, Colonel Smith said.
To prepare for the Stryker turnover, and an impending deployment later this summer, the 3rd ASOS Airmen have gone through extensive training, including Stryker driver training and emergency procedures.
That training culminates with a month-long, full-scale exercise this month at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk. This full-scale exercise is like the Air Force’s Red Flag exercises, Colonel Smith said.
“There are also some massive logistical challenges associated with this (summer’s) deployment,” the colonel said. “We had to ship our vehicles and tactical gear to Louisiana, unload it and conduct training. Then we’ll have to pack it up again and load our stuff for shipment overseas. This has been and will continue to be an enormous challenge to continue our ramped up training in spite of not having our full complement of fighting gear.”
As the team incorporates the TACP Stryker into day-to-day activities, Airmen continue to regularly train with the Soldiers they support.
“We try to train with the Army every week,” Airman Aton said. “We teach them about certain aspects of our job while we learn more about their job. If we are able to understand each other better, we can work better together.”
Part of the training is also to “grow” young troops, such as Airman Aton, into seasoned controllers, Sergeant Ellis said.
“When I started in this job, I liked the excitement of going to war and being on the pointy end of the spear. I knew that I was making a difference,” he said. “Now that I have done that a few times, I like knowing that the young guys find it exciting and want to learn so they, too, can make a difference.”