By 1st Lt. Andrew Layton | Michigan National GuardNovember 12, 2019
WATERS, Mich. - "Joint Fires is complicated. You have to be flexible because there are no two controls that are similar. Every time you're stepping onto the range, you know it's going to be different."
Capt. Rihards Zalitis, a Joint Terminal Attack Controller in the Latvian National Armed Forces, squints in the autumn sun. He looks up to where, moments ago, an A-10 Thunderbolt II streaked barely a hundred feet overhead, its 30 mm Gatling gun blasting targets with an eerie "BRRRT."
"It gives you an excitement -- for both sides -- the pilot as well; your adrenaline levels rise because you know what you're doing is your job that you've trained to do."
Zalitis is in his element. More than 4,000 miles from his home, he knows the terrain of Grayling Aerial Gunnery Range -- a 45,000-acre training facility run by the Michigan Air National Guard -- by heart. This fall, his team of JTACs is back in Northern Michigan to rehearse the lethal symphony of close air support with A-10s and pilots from the Michigan ANG's 107th Fighter Squadron.
Based at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in the Metro Detroit region, the 107th flies training sorties to Grayling almost daily, honing precision skills they employ on frequent combat deployments.
"There's a cadence you've got to go through when you check in with a JTAC on the radio," says Capt. Daniel Kovarik, pilot of the A-10 coordinating with Zalitis. "You're always going to have that little bit of adrenaline, but that's also what opens up a risk of human error. The whole point of our training is to reduce that risk, so it doesn't happen when you're in a combat situation."
Kovarik describes the choreography of Joint Fires with an acuity earned over more than 120 combat sorties in the Middle East.
"First, we go over safety, rules of flight, and anything that's going to be dangerous to the aircraft," he says. "Then we go to aircraft check-in; he gives me a situation update, targets, [and other data] -- and then we start prosecuting the attack."
Kovarik knows the sequence from both vantage points: from 2000 to 2006, he served on active duty as a JTAC in the U.S. Air Force. After transferring to the Michigan Air National Guard, he was one of the initial instructors who worked with Latvian personnel as the Baltic nation began shaping its JTAC program in the late 2000s. Undergraduate pilot training followed.
"It's a great perspective to have been there at the beginning, and then to see them come all the way up to where they are today, totally proficient," says Kovarik. "They have their own instructors now, and through the relationship we've built together, they've become a self-sustaining program."
Latvian JTAC instructors now lead close air support qualification courses in Riga, which meet the annual Joint Fires core competency requirements and have been attended by fellow JTACs from Lithuania, Canada, Estonia, Italy, Poland, Slovenia, Spain, the United Kingdom and other European nations.
Much has been achieved in 12 years of Michigan-Latvia JTAC cooperation, enabled by the U.S. National Guard Bureau's State Partnership Program, which links the National Guard forces of a U.S. state with the National Armed Forces of a partner nation to build interoperability and cross-cultural relationships. But both sides say it is crucial to continue striving for increased readiness and proficiency together.
Zalitis explains that at Latvia's primary training range, aircraft typically fly in from other countries, while in Michigan, the Selfridge A-10s are based only 30 minutes away. This, combined with the fact that Michigan is home to the largest U.S. military airspace complex east of the Mississippi River, opens flexibility and time to craft more realistic combat scenarios with a quicker generation of sorties.
Kovarik agrees that training stateside with NATO allies is crucial preparation for the dynamic he faced -- and will soon face again -- in combat.
"It's paramount because when you go to Afghanistan as an A-10 pilot, you will work with Latvian JTACs, you will work with Poles, the Romanians -- you could be working with any of our NATO allies," he says. "So it's more realistic, and we keep the same process with every JTAC we talk to, whether they are American, Latvian, Polish, or any other nationality."
Working together in this high-stakes, ultra-technical sphere of Joint Fires has proven that some of the best antidotes to the risk of human error are very human qualities like teamwork, empathy and mutual respect.
"Working with the Latvians for more than 10 years now, I know they have the same families back home and want the same freedoms we want -- that's why it's a great state partnership that we've been able to forge," says Kovarik. "Hopefully, we never have to utilize what we train for, but if we do, we know we're ready."
Zalitis says those relationships are part of what has helped him find so much fulfillment in his work.
Overhead, the A-10s still circle, preparing for their next pass. They disappear into the broken cloud cover and emerge again. The sun flashes against the lead ship's canopy.
"For me, it is all about the exchange of experience because a JTAC is definitely the focal point of coordination -- he has to have situational awareness about everything on the battlefield," says Zalitis, grinning.
"I started my service in the air force, but after three years I still felt myself young, and I wanted to run on the fields and do 'cool' stuff, so I became a JTAC."
"This is what I was looking for. This is a dynamic service."