U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Jason Kriess
Joint Forces Headquarters, Washington National Guard
July 28, 2018
“Thirty seconds,” U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Joshua Scott announced over his shoulder as he removed his gaze from his laser range finder. Far off in the distance overhead is the faint, dull roar of a U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning. The dull roar grows louder and louder.
Scott returned to his range finder and watched as a 500-pound inert concrete bomb impacted the ground next to his intended target ... a small shipping container which portrayed the source of the enemy fire.
Scott resumed talking to the pilot in the F-35, “This is Husky. Cease laser. Good effects.”
Scott is a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) assigned to the 116th Air Support Operations Squadron, 194th Wing, Washington Air National Guard, and traveled to the Utah Test and Training Range to hone his skills as a forward air controller.
The mission of a JTAC airman is to integrate into Army units and be there to control close air support assets when needed. JTACs talk to the pilots overhead and lead them to enemy forces on the ground, bringing overwhelming firepower to the battle.
There, in the western desert of Utah, they practiced communicating with the pilots under various weather conditions and diverse simulated enemy situations.
“Every situation that we find ourselves in may look and smell the same but it is 100 percent different,” said Master Sgt. Cory Welton, 116th ASOS.
Weather, for example, is one of the biggest variables when controlling combat aircraft. At one moment, there may be cloud cover giving the aircraft concealment from enemy forces on the ground. A half hour later, the skies could clear up, leaving them vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire.
Welton said that the hardest part is the mental challenge. With so many variables in any given situation, (e.g. weather, terrain, munition types, what the enemy is using) solving the problem at hand takes concentration and practice.
The 116th takes multiple CAS trips per year in order to give their JTACs the amount of repetitions they need to maintain their precision accuracy. They’ve visited places like Arizona, Alaska and even locations in Europe working with various fighter wings in the U.S. Air Force. On this particular trip, they are controlling F-35s from the 4th Fighter Squadron, 388th Fighter Wing stationed at Hill Air Force Base.
Being a JTAC is not easy.
On a typical combat patrol, infantry personnel may carry with them their weapon, ammunition, food and water for multiple days as well as any other survival gear. The JTAC must carry all that along with multiple radios and other communications gear which can add 30 or more pounds to their basic load.
“Not only do we have to carry the basic infantryman load along with all our [communications] equipment, we have to keep up with the unit we’re attached to on the ground,” said Senior Airman Justin San Juan, a JTAC with the 116th. “And that can get very demanding when you’re navigating the mountains of Afghanistan.”
On a routine patrol in Afghanistan in May of 2011, members of the 116th ASOS, in communication with fighter and bomber aircraft, were credited with saving the lives of about 40 U.S. service members and about 20 of their Afghan counterparts from an enemy ambush.
On that day, two JTAC airmen were inserted with a U.S. Army platoon which patrolled in a remote valley surrounded by high canyon walls. Their formation had come under heavy enemy fire to include mortars and rocket propelled grenades. The Army laid down suppressive fire while the JTACs called for air support. Over the next seven hours, the JTACs guided the jets to drop bombs and other munitions onto the enemy locations surrounding his unit, killing more than 200 Taliban insurgents.
If a JTAC can’t keep up with their assigned Army unit, or if they are not paying close enough attention to the smallest of details, they put that unit at significant risk of being overrun.
“Without me being on the battlefield, I cannot enable the Army to overwhelm the enemy. Thus, the Army will suffer heavy casualties and those guys won’t come home to their families,” Welton said.
Along with the physical stamina it requires to be a JTAC, their mental agility needs to be sharp too.
“This job requires you to be on the money and attention to detail is key,” San Juan said. “If a JTAC messes up a ten-digit grid, then that could mean the difference between life and death.”