JTACs deliver airpower for ground forces in Afghanistan

  • Published
  • By Capt. Erick Saks
  • 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Perched on a mountaintop in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains, an Airman hunkers down in the frigid, sodden darkness, monitoring the Soldiers in the valley below, as he speaks with the pilots above.

"Wow, I can hear the hail coming down over the radio," exclaims the B-1B Lancer pilot flying overwatch for the 2,200 coalition and Afghan ground forces clearing two valleys in the isolated southwestern region of the province.

Tech. Sgt. Jonathan Oliver and Staff Sgt. Neil Taylor, members of Bagram Airfield's 817th Expeditionary Air Support Operations Squadron, braved Afghanistan's extreme environment while participating in Operation Bull Whip, the 101st Airborne Division's largest air assault operation in the country.

During the operation, which ran from late March into early April, these battlefield Airmen controlled air assets ranging from F-15E Strike Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons to UH-60 Blackhawks and C-130 Hercules, while the Soldiers in the valleys below searched for insurgents and weapons caches, and built relationships with Afghan community leaders.

Coalition forces were able to clear the valleys during Operation Bull Whip without having to call in close-air support. This resulted in mixed emotions for the joint terminal attack controllers who are glad that they were able to accomplish the mission without loss of life, but generally welcome the opportunity to practice their craft during combat.

"You want to do your job because it's what the training you've done prepares you for, but you also realize there is a bigger picture," said Sergeant Taylor, an East Peoria, Ill., native. "A lot of times, if we're dropping bombs, it's because something bad is going on. The mission was successful and that's the important thing."

Army Col. Benjamin J. Corell, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division commander, emphasized the critical role JTACs provide to ground commanders in operations such as this.

"In this environment, JTACs are an invaluable member of the combined arms team," said Colonel Corell, who led Operation Bull Whip. "The skills they bring to the fight are absolutely critical in enabling us to accomplish our mission."

One of the biggest challenges JTACs face is hostile environmental conditions, according to Sergeant Taylor. The conditions in Laghman province during the operation demonstrated the extremes they must endure.

"At one time I was thinking this is just crazy; it's one of the few places where within the same 24-hour period we could have (medical evacuation flights) coming in for people with hypothermia and medevacs coming in for people with heat exhaustion," he said.

Due to the unique nature of their mission, Lt. Col. Brian Filler, an 817th EASOS air liaison officer, said that they are specific characteristics necessary to be a JTAC.

"When I recruit JTACs, I look for several qualities ... intelligence, physical fitness, initiative and the willingness to go the extra mile," Colonel Filler said. "They also need to have a sense of independence since they will operate in situations where time and space don't allow for direction from higher. I need an individual who can air assault onto a hilltop in the middle of the night and start controlling close-air support immediately."

Before these battlefield Airmen begin calling in air support, they undergo an intense training program to give them the technical expertise and confidence to meet their mission.

"Our initial (technical) school is about five months at Hulbert Field, Fla.," Sergeant Oliver said. "While the guys are there, they learn how to speak and live 'Army.' There's a lot of field training, and it's pretty physical. Afterward, they'll go to survival school at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., for resistance training and more training in the field. After that, they'll go to their home station to begin about a year of on-the-job training. And finally, they'll go into the JTAC school at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.

"The fastest I've ever seen anyone complete all of the training and get their JTAC qualification is about two and a half years," he said.

Few Airmen who begin JTAC training finish the course, according to Sergeants Oliver and Taylor, who are deployed from the Illinois Air National Guard.

When Sergeant Oliver went through training, only 17 of the 30 Airmen who began the program were able to complete it, and only three of the 14 who began training with Sergeant Taylor successfully finished the program.

The reason for the high attrition is the need to produce battlefield Airmen capable of meeting the demands placed upon them when they make it to the field, Colonel Filler said.

"The JTAC is the crucial link that will bring airpower to the Army precisely when and where they need it," Colonel Filler said. "There will be times when JTACs will be forced to operate under harsh conditions for days or sometimes even weeks on end. Quitting or letting up under pressure is simply not an option, not when there are Soldiers' lives at stake."

Training doesn't end with qualification, however.

Sergeant Taylor added that there are a number of additional courses and training programs JTACs undergo to prepare them for worldwide operations.

"There's airborne school, pathfinder training and quite a few other schools we can attend to better us and make us more rounded in our career field," he added. "Some of the training is unit specific. If someone were going to the ASOS at Fort Bragg, N.C., he would go to jump school and get his wings before he got there. To prepare us for this mission we would face in Afghanistan, we attended air assault training."

Colonel Corell commented on the professionalism and skill of the JTACs he's worked with during his current rotation.

"Protecting the population is an essential part of our job," he said. "JTACs allow us to use close air support in a safe and effective manner. The JTACs we've worked with are true professionals and it has been an honor to serve side by side with them here in Afghanistan."

While not exactly the life most Airmen joining the service would expect, Sergeants Oliver and Taylor take pride in embedding with Army units to deliver airpower for ground forces in Afghanistan.

"I don't think I could do a different job in the military," Sergeant Oliver said. "It's the best of everything. You get to work with the Army, but at the end of the day, you're Air Force."