TACP Airmen hone skills at joint exercise

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Matthew Bates
  • Defense Media Activity
Mention the term "air strike" these days and a lot of people will think you're talking about playing "Call of Duty," a popular combat-style video game franchise. In this game, players are able to "call in" virtual air strikes on their opponents as a reward for earning a certain amount of "kills."

But for Staff Sgt. Kenneth Walker, there's nothing pretend about it. Calling in air strikes is what he does for a living.

He's a tactical air control party member with the 116th Air Support Operations Squadron, an Air National Guard unit out of Camp Murray, Wash. TACP Airmen are specialists assigned to combat units and they advise ground forces on aircraft employment and capabilities and direct combat aircraft onto enemy targets.

"Basically, we're the liaison between ground forces and aircraft," he said. "We communicate with the infantry guys and the guys in the air to get bombs on target and where they're needed."

This might sound simple, but it's not. Being a TACP means being a highly trained, highly skilled Airman who is adaptive, quick on his feet and great at multi-tasking. Just to become a TACP and earn the coveted black beret, Airmen must pass an initial skills course, a combat survival course, a basic parachutist course and an advanced special tactics course. In all, this is 32 weeks of rigorous, down-and-dirty training.

"It's definitely a lot," Sergeant Walker said. "But it's all stuff we need to know when we're out there doing this for real."

When TACP Airmen aren't deployed and doing their job for real, they participate in exercises that allow them to practice their skills and stay certified in required tasks. The latest was the National Guard Bureau's joint quarterly training exercise at Fort Stewart, Ga. Here, TACPs from the 116th ASOS practiced working with Soldiers and calling in close air support aircraft, ranging from A-10 Thunderbolt IIs, to F-18 Hornets and HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters.

"It's great to work with real aircraft and see live rounds hitting targets," said Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Santiago, a TACP with the 116th ASOS. "Simulations are fine, but the real thing is always better."

But other than giving the TACP hands-on training, the exercise also lets them check a very important box.

"We have requirements to control aircraft every 90 days and direct the release of ordnance every 180 days to stay current on our certifications," Sergeant Santiago said. "Participating in exercises like this lets us meet those requirements."

And meeting these requirements is often difficult for members of the 116th ASOS. Being a Guard unit, its Airmen must balance the demands of their day-to-day jobs with those of the military.

"We have to meet the same requirements as our active-duty counterparts, but we're doing it part time," Sergeant Walker said. "So we only get half the time to do what the active-duty guys are doing and that is challenging at times."

There are deployments, too. TACPs are in high demand in Afghanistan, and 116th ASOS officials are routinely sending their tactical air controllers over there.

"We've got some guys slated to go here soon, so we'll make sure they get priority when it comes to staying certified," Sergeant Santiago said. "And the training will pay off over there, too."

These men know what they're talking about. In one six-month period in 2009, Sergeant Walker's three-man team called in over 300,000 pounds of bombs in Kunar province, Afghanistan.
"It was about a battle every day," he said. "Sometimes two or three a day."

TACPs may not be very good at playing video games, but they are good at protecting real troops by calling in real air strikes that keep Soldiers out of real danger.