By Capt. Jennifer CruzFebruary 23, 2016
KADAGA, Latvia - From thousands of feet in the air to the ground in seconds - no, these are not paratroopers. Instead, these are Latvian and U.S. Air Force service members conducting a training simulation providing close air support.
Recently a well-traveled journalist said she had never seen anything like it. What is this training being conducted that can nearly drop the jaw of a journalist with over 20 years experience?
The service members who are part of the tactical air control party fall under the Joint Terminal Attack Controller.
Staff Sgt. James Ingram, a TACP with 2nd Air Support Operations Squadron, described JTAC as specialist who inform fixed and rotary wing aircraft and helicopters where it is safe for them to fly and use their munitions.
The service members train in an inconspicuous building on a simulation between troops on the ground or in the air calling in close air support, and pilots in the air providing the air strikes.
If one were to walk into the room where the training is conducted when it is absent of personnel, it would simply appear to be a high tech military office or a 21st century gamers room. There are multiple computers with screens in the back and a large 240-degree wrap around screen in front.
When military service members are in the room and conducting a simulation it is a completely different image.
During a scenario service members operate in each position as a ground force commander, fixed wing pilot, rotary wing pilot, fire coordinator, observer and predator controller.
Although it is a simulation, both Latvian and U.S. TACP service members take the scenario seriously.
Sgt. Linards Ivanovs, a Latvian Land Force Brigade TACP, and Ingram, conduct a military decision making process before starting the simulation to discuss the most likely and most dangerous course of action, avenues of approach, what equipment and support is available, what problems could arise and the commanders intent.
After discussing all of this information, Ingram, who is the observer for this simulation, also known as the trainee or "being in the hot seat," takes 15 minutes to process the information and guidance, before preparing for the simulation. Then the simulation begins.
The exercise this day started with the TACP providing armed over-watch with Apaches [AH-64] for troops on the ground in Afghanistan securing a Forward Operating Base. As the observer, Ingram was tasked to ensure the necessary support was on scene to assist troops in contact with the enemy.
"One of our Apaches that was providing armed escort got shot down, so I sent up an air request," Ingram said. After being granted A-10s [Thunderbolt II] Ingram provided armed over-watch. "We started neutralizing multiple Air Defense Artillery threats as well as other ground threats to friendlies."
"We ended up neutralizing all the targets that were a factor in the area, and got the friendly convoy who had troops in contact, we got them out of the area safely before we had to egress in our helicopters," Ingram said.
Ivanovs, who played the role of the Ground Force Commander during this simulation said, "JTAC received information about the mission which was really simple to execute, but sometime after the mission started it turned that this mission was not going to be same mission as it was planned. It was completely different."
After the exercise was completed, personnel in each position took a break, then conduct an after action review, or AAR. During the AAR, they discussed what happened, and provided feedback on both what went well and what needed to improve for the future.
It wasn't all seriousness; during the AAR Ivanovs said to Ingram "No hints for Bobby." Bobby is Staff Sgt. Bobby McDonald, who was going to be the observer in the same simulation scenario later that day.
Some of the simulation's many benefits include only using the resources of manpower, electricity and computer technology with the soldiers receiving nearly real world training.
"One of the cheapest ways we can gain our proficiency and maintain our currency, as we can replace actual work with aircraft with the simulation," said Ivanovs.
An even greater benefit is soldiers receiving training without the hazards or dangers of actually being in combat where there is the risk of being shot at or threats of explosive devices.
"Unless we are in a real battle we can't simulate that kind of stuff in real life without being a significant danger to the actual JTAC and the pilots," said Ingram.
In other words, expensive resources such as aircraft, fuel, and munitions are not required with the simulation.
"They are very smart [Latvian TACP] and we've taught each other a lot of stuff, so it is a great partner capacity for different NATO nations," said Ingram in regard to the TACP's from Latvia and United States working together and learning from each other.
Ivanovs described JTAC saying, "I believe it is a really dynamic profession. I like that there is no such thing as two similar controls in an example [scenario], so all the time there is something new."