Combat controllers play key role in war on terror

  • Published
  • By Donna Miles
  • American Forces Press Service
The largest class of future combat controllers is training at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., to provide critical skills required in the war on terrorism.

The current class of 32 students will help bolster the cadre of 360 combat controllers -- special-operations forces who deploy quickly into restricted, often hostile territory, set up landing strips, and guide in helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

The new combat controllers will provide a wide range of support during combat operations, including controlling air traffic, setting up drop zones and calling in air strikes, said Master Sgt. Tim Tennant, director of operations for the Combat Control School.

"We're the air-to-ground link," said Tech. Sgt. Robert Boulanger, noncommissioned officer in charge of the course. "We talk Air Force language to (Navy) SEALS and to the (Soldiers) on the ground. It allows us to get more airpower into a theater of operations in a (shorter) amount of time."

Like most of his fellow combat controllers, Sergeant Boulanger has deployed frequently to support the war on terrorism -- three times to Afghanistan and once to Iraq. He said he was the 13th person to jump from the first U.S. aircraft into Afghanistan in October 2001, just one month after terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. "I was still angry," he said.

During Sergeant Boulanger’s first four-month mission to Afghanistan, he established an airhead to support combat operations and identified where the enemy was to direct U.S. military ordnance onto key Taliban and al-Qaida targets.

"It was a combination of precision-guided munitions and a guy on the ground telling them where they need to go," Sergeant Boulanger said.

During his deployment to Iraq for the first three months of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Sergeant Boulanger was attached to a Navy SEAL team providing a liaison between the air and ground forces.

Well-versed on the real-life demands on combat controllers, Sergeant Boulanger said he strives to instill in his students the physical and mental skills needed to do the job.

Before starting the 13-week school here, students complete the 15-week Air Force Air Traffic Control School at Keesler AFB, Miss. They also attend the three-week Army Airborne School at Fort Benning, Ga., and the three-week Air Force Basic Survival School at Fairchild AFB, Wash.

The students' training here focuses on field training, demolitions, battlefield communications, land navigation and small-unit tactics. It culminates with a field exercise that requires them to set up drop zones and landing zones, establish a runway and direct in an aircraft, all within strict timeframes.

Physical fitness gets stressed throughout the training and remains paramount after students don their distinctive scarlet berets upon graduation.

"Having a high level of physical fitness allows you to think clearly under stress," Sergeant Boulanger said.

He said the school's intensive fitness standards ensure that combat controllers can carry communications equipment and other gear in rucksacks that often exceed 100 pounds. They frequently move long distances with other special-operations forces.

"You have to be in great shape to keep up and not be a liability," Sergeant Boulanger said.

Attention to detail is also vital for combat controllers, as well as ability to work as a team, he said.

"In our role as combat controllers, sometimes you're leading and sometimes you're following," Sergeant Boulanger said. "You have to be able to do both."

But even more important is mental toughness, Sergeant Tennant said.

"You have to be stubborn and have a nonquit attitude," he said. "It takes an extraordinary level of dedication."

“(Dedication) is not something you can teach," Sergeant Boulanger said. "But you can teach all the things that lead up to it."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld praised combat controllers' dedication during a visit to the school in December. He said, "[it] produces some of the finest warriors in the Air Force and the armed services."

Secretary Rumsfeld said that "some 85 percent of the air strikes in Operation Enduring Freedom were called in by Air Force combat controllers" -- a testament, he said, to the quality of the training they receive and the Airmen's courage and skills.

Today's combat controllers carry out far more diverse missions than envisioned when they were established as Army Pathfinders during World War II. These parachute infantrymen, trained in air traffic control, first earned their stripes in 1943 when they used radios, smoke pots and flares to mark the way for 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers jumping into Salerno, Italy.

Since then, Army Pathfinders -- which became Air Force combat controllers after the Air Force was established in 1947 -- expanded their missions to include navigation aid and air traffic control. Now they are an integral part of a huge percentage of U.S. military combat, humanitarian assistance and other missions.