By Lorin T. Smith/Northwest GuardianJune 16, 2011
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- The Airmen of the 1st Air Support Operations Group wear blue uniforms, but don’t solely consider themselves Air Force. They work for the Army, providing tactical air command and control and operational weather briefings for Joint Base Lewis-McChord units like I Corps, the three Lewis Stryker brigades, two combat aviation brigades and other Pacific Region combat units.
But they aren’t “green” either, as these two jobs are doctrinally part of the Air Force. These 400-plus Airmen that make up the Army’s air liaison support structure like to consider themselves not blue, not green, but teal.
The battlefield Airmen of the 1st ASOG are aligned to JBLM Army commands, but have been supporting brigades, battalions and companies deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan during the last decade because of larger Department of Defense requirements. That’s going to change, as the unit will send a small contingent of ASOG staff with the I Corps on its pending deployment to Afghanistan this summer to maintain the Air Force-Army alignment. The Airmen will assist America’s Corps with air operations coordination as pat of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force Joint Command in Kabul, Afghanistan.
“We are taking our best and brightest and sending them to support I Corps,” said 1st ASOG Commander Col. Steven Gray. “We are doing this not because the Air Force told us to, but because we see this as valuable to maintain that connection to I Corps.”
Gray acts as the senior air liaison officer for the I Corps commander. It’s a unique relationship to have an Air Force unit subordinate to the Army, but one the mission dictates. The unit traditionally operates an air support operations center, tactical air control parties and battlefield weather teams for Lewis combat units.
The ASOG’s two subordinate squadrons, the 1st Weather Squadron and the 5th Air Support Operations Squadron, carry out these missions, both at home and abroad. Administrative, medical and other Air Force-specific functions are taken care of by the 62nd Airlift Wing at McChord Field. When taskings come down for events or ceremonies requiring an Air Force presence, the 1st ASOG provides the Airmen.
“We are the Corps’ Airmen,” Gray said.
One of those Corps’ Airmen who will be deploying with I Corps is 1st Lt. Mike “Bulldog” Smith. Smith will work as a planner in one of the regional air operations centers giving the corps air intelligence updates. He is an air liaison officer now, but prior to his commission, Smith was an enlisted joint terminal attack controller like many Airmen in the 5th ASOS, coordinating air support for Army combat arms units. Like Army forward observers, JTACs can call in and control air strikes, mortars, artillery, naval gunfire and close combat attack assistance through helicopters.
“A JTAC can control any piece of firepower from any service component, to include our coalition partners,” Smith said.
Smith will be working with JTACs embedded with Army units around Afghanistan to deliver quickly and effectively the needed air power to win any battle. Having been a prior enlisted JTAC, he has a unique perspective on what tactical air control parties (a radio team with usually a JTAC and a junior enlisted team member called a radio operator, maintainer and driver) go through on the battlefield.
While the JTAC radios in enemy locations to the air liaison officer, the ROMAD assists that JTAC with map or compass work, battle damage assessments and returning fire on the enemy. It takes three years for an Airman to progress from a ROMAD to a JTAC. With an operations tempo of six months deployed and six months at home, maintaining skills while maximizing rest for these troops has been difficult, Gray said.
“(5th ASOS Airmen) are in a support role and tend not to be a bright shining sun,” the commander said.
There are about 1,000 JTAC-qualified Airmen in the Air Force. Very few JTACs actually reside near an Air Force base because they are embedded in Army brigades, Smith said. But most JTACs wouldn’t have it any other way. He never would have had the opportunity to become qualified at prestigious Army schools like Airborne, Air Assault and Pathfinder. All these additional skills help him build credibility with the Army units he works with.
“The Army said there’s a need for me to do these things,” he said. “You may be in the Air Force, but you get to do the ‘cool guy’ stuff the Army gets to do.”
Gray also oversees another important element that will help the corps succeed in Afghanistan: the 1st Weather Squadron. The weather squadron’s staff weather officers enhance Army battlefield commanders’ capabilities to conduct missions, regardless of the weather. Battlefield weather Airmen receive up-to-the-minute weather reports and provide detailed assessments and recommendations to commanders on whether a certain operation should take place, weather-dependent.
“If the (forward operating base) gets the resupply in bad weather, it’s because battlefield weather Airmen figured out the perfect time for that to happen,” said Gray, a former A-10 pilot who turned in his wings to become an air liaison officer. “That’s doggoned important to those troops on that FOB.”
Like the 5th ASOS, Lewis’ weather forecasters have been deployed to many different units during the past decade, with few of them from Lewis. The squadron has its headquarters at Lewis and detachments in Alaska, Hawaii and Japan. Having a geographically separated unit has made command and control a challenge for Gray, but command is supposed to be challenging, he said.
“I’ve learned a lot about geographically-separated units and setting a common mission, vision and goals for the organization,” Gray said.
Another challenge is maintaining the group’s larger Air Force requirements to send JTACs and battlefield weather Airmen downrange, while filling the I Corps’ requirements of prepping for Afghanistan, conducting airfield operations and providing Airmen for joint base events. No matter which organization is asking for what, the Airmen in his unit always accomplish the mission.
“If (I Corps) knows it can come to us and knows we’ll respond to them, then they are satisfied,” Gray said. “And I can help by taking some requirements off of the 62nd Airlift Wing and the Air Force. It’s all about developing those relationships.”
Lorin T. Smith: email@example.com