By Mr Lorin Smith (I Corps)June 16, 2011
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- Ask any Joint Base Lewis-McChord combat arms Soldier to rank the people he’d like to see come to his aid when the bullets start flying, and a surprising percentage will tell you No. 1 is a battlefield Airman from the 5th Air Support Operations Squadron. These highly trained and skilled radiomen make up a tactical air control party, capable of calling in any type of air asset to support Army ground troops engaged with the enemy in the combat zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The 5th ASOS falls under the 1st Air Support Operations Group, and gives Army combat units joint tactical air controllers, or forward-deployed Airmen who can call in fires and direct the action of close air support. One JTAC and a subordinate radio operator, maintainer and driver, embed with Army combat companies, battalions or brigades. Their primary jobs are to support units in combat situations, those reacting to improvised explosive devices or fighting their way out of ambushes. The Airmen can be on the ground moving with the unit, or back at headquarters watching on a live video feed.
“We can do as much from 30 miles away as from 10 feet,” said Senior Airman Josh Lawrence, 5th ASOS.
With just a few calls on the radio, those battlefield Airmen can get “air on station” " unmanned aerial systems flying around the contact zone providing commanders a visual picture of the situation, Army combat helicopters like Apaches or Kiowas or Air Force combat aircraft like the F-16 Fighting Falcon or A-10 Warthog.
Having an Airman nearby who monitors the engagement as it develops gives an added dimension of situational awareness to commanders, and potentially puts more weapons at his disposal.
“Anything that flies, we can talk to it and control it,” said Airman 1st Class Adam Long, 5th ASOS. “The Army has guns; we have aircraft. You are the Army’s main priority in a sticky situation.”
Long and other members of the squadron recently returned from a six-month deployment to Afghanistan. The battlefield Airmen worked with units in the Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment, a Stryker unit from Vilseck, Germany. The 5th ASOS’ JTACs are traditionally aligned with I Corps and the JBLM-based Stryker brigades, but due to manning shortages and theater requirements, the Airmen have deployed with many different units during the past decade. Regardless of the unit, the mission doesn’t change, said ASOS Commander Lt. Col. Matthew Parker.
“We are advocates for air power,” Parker said.
The Army and Air Force combine forces to fight the enemy with both land-based troops and air-based aircraft to provide full-spectrum operations to battlefield commanders.
“The Army and Air Force are significantly better when we work together,” Parker said. “We advise commanders what exactly is the best solution for a given tactical problem " Air Force rotary wing or Army kinetic effects " and give the commander all the necessary information to make the best decision on what kind of ordnance is going to be used.”
Developing the commander’s trust to make a proper decision can take some time, especially when the typical JTAC is a junior enlisted Airman and has less than three years in the Air Force. There are fewer than 1,000 TACP Airmen in 10 units around the world.
“(The Army) isn’t going to just trust you with the world, but if you are a qualified JTAC and they know what you are capable of, and know you on a personal level, it makes it better,” Senior Airman John Zimmermann said.
When the 5th ASOS personnel aren’t downrange, most of the unit’s nearly 100 people are training at Yakima with JBLM infantry brigades or on temporary duty in Alaska, Idaho or Utah. Many of their skills are perishable and need constant attention to stay effective, Parker said. With so many Army units constantly deploying in and out of two combat theaters, and so few JTACs, it’s not hard to see how demanding this job can be for these battlefield Airmen.
“When you demand a lot of young Airmen, not just physical performance, but ask them to make decisions that have some widespread effects, that matures you very quickly,” Parker said.
And because of their close proximity to the Army, the Air Force troops have fired their weapons at the enemy during firefights and served alongside Soldiers who have died in combat. Those negative aspects of the mission aside, to these Airmen, there’s no greater feeling than making the radio call that prevents American casualties and destroys the targets.
“You feel like a million dollars because you know you have saved peoples’ lives,” Zimmermann said.
Lorin T. Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org