FORT SILL, Okla. -- In a combat situation, one of the most motivating sounds a Soldier can hear is fighter jets overhead and artillery hitting its mark nearby. And the one Soldier that can help make that happen is the Joint Fires Observer or JFO.
JFOs in the Army are typically a 13F or Forward Observer, but they can also be special operations or even officers. This L7 additional skill identifier, or ASI, is becoming a valued ability to combat brigades headed overseas.
According to the official definition, these Soldiers are "trained service members qualified to perform three main duties: Request, control, and adjust surface to surface fires (such as artillery, mortars, and naval surface gunfire); Provide close air support (CAS) targeting information to a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) or a Forward Airborne Controller (FAC "A") as well as talk directly to the pilot if authorized to do so by the JTAC; and autonomous Terminal Guidance Operations (TGO) as any kind of visual, voice, mechanical or electronic measure (such as lasers or smoke grenades) of providing targeting information to the pilots.
Lt. Col. Michael Todd, Joint Fires Observer Course chief at Fort Sill, believes JFOs are a crucial asset to units in combat.
"We do see the JFO as that critical link to the joint warfighting capability. They're the subject matter experts when it comes to the Army's joint warfighting capability."
In a combat scenario needing close air support, the JFO is the eyes on the ground, working to identify targets and relaying the information back to the JTAC, who is usually in a tactical operations center watching the information coming in.
With the green light from the ground commander, the JTAC will then control the close air support as the JFO continues to identify targets and help the pilot and JTAC when needed.
"[The JFO] buys time," said Todd. "He makes what would be a long process to safely request close air support to engage a target a more timely and efficient process."
The first certifying JFO course was established at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., in 2004. It was then moved to Fort Sill in 2006, and also Einsiedlerhof, Germany at the Warrior Preparation Center. The Marines have also established their own JFO course in Quantico, VA. Needless to say, the military has seen the importance JFOs have in today's missions around the world and are expanding.
"Divisions and brigades are wanting more and more JFOs because they realize the capability that a JFO gives their unit," said Todd, and are requesting more training from Fort Sill's school. They even send teachers to units as a form of mobile training.
The Fort Sill course is two weeks long and ends with a final capstone project at Monti Hall. By the end, these Soldiers have the basics to help assist any unit they are sent to.
However, Todd emphasized the importance of keeping JFOs trained and proficient in their skill.
"We can't really stress enough that the JFO has to sustain his skills. He has to remain proficient in all the CAS knowledge that he's learned. Once he leaves here, his job's not finished. He has to sustain [this knowledge] over time."
The strategy in Afghanistan has been noteworthy for the importance that airpower has played in combat and support situations. Especially in the mountainous eastern region, marked by treacherous valleys and widely disbursed outposts, a patrol's best options for help are artillery and close air support. JFOs on the ground can help a fighter pilot map out friendly and enemy forces as well as adjust artillery fire for more accurate targeting.
"Afghanistan has shown us how important JFOs are. Because of the mission set and the terrain, it really creates the necessity for that brigade to have JFOs at all levels."
The Army is looking at almost doubling JFOs in brigades in the coming years as demand for their skills increase. These "lethal joint warfighters" are certainly making an impact on the battlefield and with the units who have been helped by this training from Fort Sill.