JTACs train to put Wolf Pack, allied bombs on target, on time

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Stephen Collier
  • 8th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Joint terminal attack controllers assigned to the 604th Air Support Operations Squadron descended here July 9 through 13 to train with 8th Fighter Wing "Wolf Pack" pilots. 

Known as JTACs, the Airmen are primarily trained to direct combat aircraft onto an enemy target. JTACs, who exist in each service branch under different names, are recognized and qualified to provide close air support to the units they are embedded with. 

While here, the controllers performed day and night missions with pilots from the 35th and 80th Fighter Squadrons outside of Jeonju, 45 minutes from the base. During the training, Wolf Pack pilots simulated dropping joint direct attack munitions, or JDAMs, as well as laser-guided munitions based on coordinates provided by JTACs and tactical air controllers. 

Also aiding in the training was a recent cold front moving through the region, which gave the controllers the ability to use ground laser designators, allowing them to "paint" a target, destroying a simulated laser-guided munition. 

"This mission is important, primarily to provide bombs on target to enemy positions," Staff Sgt. Wef Bryant, 604th ASOS controller said. "We're a liaison for the ground elements, which are typically [U.S.] Army, but it could be Marines or coalition forces. We also have the ability to coordinate local airspace and ensure the integration of all direct fire." 

Preparing for future combat

Not unlike the missions JTACs perform in Iraq and Afghanistan, joint controllers are continually faced with adapting to new threats and environments. During the Korean War, many battles were fought in mountainous terrain through valleys and fords. In recent years, the expansion of the Korean economy has led to significant growth in urban areas, making the threat of urban combat more of a reality.

"These guys are ready for all types of environments," said Capt. Christopher Luczun, 604th ASOS air liaison officer. "As far as the urban environment, the training they've experienced with the 8th Fighter Wing has focused on simulating the pinpointing [and elimination of] smaller-type areas with houses close together, all the while challenging the pilots to do talk-ons [with the JTAC], depending on the weather. This allows ordnance to be used on pointing out specific vehicles or, if need be, support convoy operations. JTACs train for every environment they're subject to or are deployed to."

Air liaison officers, or ALOs, are charged with providing support to ground commanders with Air Force assets are available to them, including bombers, fighters, fixed and rotary-wing aircraft alike. ALOs also have the task of assessing a battlefield situation while at the same time providing minute-to-minute recommendations on the best type of airpower to be used in the quickest amount of time possible.

JTACs in the fight continue to learn throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, to include the wider use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. There, UAVs have augmented some missions traditionally held by other fighter aircraft. But regardless of the aircraft used, Captain Luczun pointed out. The JTAC is still a required element, to include any contingencies on the Korean peninsula, he said. 

"If anything, the Air Force needs more JTACs [on the ground]," the captain said about the use of UAVs in the field. "They are in very, very high demand, especially in today's world. I don't ever see the need for JTACs going away. Once the [U.S.] Army sees the capabilities airpower brings to the fight, they really start to appreciate what the Air Force can do." 

The pilotless aircraft are typically controlled via satellite uplink at Nellis and Creech Air Force Bases in Las Vegas. 

Protecting life as bombs drop 

Just as important as placing sophisticated weapons on target is saving lives. 

Controllers like Sergeant Bryant, an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, point out while advancing on an enemy as well as defending one's self are important, ensuring friendly forces and non-combatants aren't on the receiving end of an F-16 Fighting Falcon's bomb is crucial. 

"As JTACs, the amount of training we go through to get certified was put in place for good reasons," he said. "During the development of forward air controllers, there was a lot more fratricide on the battlefield. A lot of the technological advances we have had with targeting and acquisition systems have come at a price, learning from the past on how to save the lives of friendlies." 

Within U.S. Forces Korea, members of the 604th ASOS are assigned to both U.S. Army Garrisons Casey and Red Cloud, located in Area in the Republic of Korea. There, they train to support both ROK and U.S. Army Soldiers by providing close air support missions in the event North Korean forces launched an assault into the south. 

Working closely with elements of the 2nd Infantry Division, based at USAG Casey, JTACs train with Soldiers to help provide bombs on specific targets at a moment's notice if an attack were launched against them. Each controller has the ability to coordinate air assets and, in some cases, artillery against an enemy position while being responsible for the lives of a squad or platoon, and in some cases, a brigade. Squads are typically made up of more than 20 Soldiers while a brigade can have up to 3,500. 

F-16s from either the U.S. or ROK Air Force would be charged with circling overhead, delivering ordnance directed by a JTAC, destroying the enemy. Because some ground units have the ability to move quicker than others, Sergeant Bryant said the "fog of war" is a constant concern for any JTAC as they continually keep pilots updated with coalition positions. That's why, according to Sergeant Bryant, the difficulty for JTACs lie within coordinating with army units around them. 

"It's all about people," he pointed out. "Some people can be easier to work with than others. Sometimes, it doesn't even matter [the people you work with] depending on the nature of the battlefield. The biggest challenge is keeping track of friendly units to keep them safe while having a good read on what's going on around you. Constantly, you want to know if there are friendlies in another town near you so friendly aircraft know precisely where they're at."

Regardless of who an ALO or JTAC is working with, the core of the controller's mission will continue to center on putting ordnance on a specific location to destroy an enemy position. In the Korean theater of operations, more of the JTAC's mission focus is centered on a 'force-on-force' model, with JTACs engaging targets such as anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missile systems. 

"Although there is never any type of theater-specific training, JTACs train for every theater of operations all the time," Captain Luczun said. "You get more of the force-on-force [focus] here versus snipers and insurgents in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. Regardless of the location, the execution of our mission will never change, just the nature of the enemy."