Helicopters are flying overhead. Occasionally, there is an incoming swooping scream of a fighter. One voice reports a line of tanks incoming from the north – another demands a “sitrep.” Suddenly, an aircraft is signing off. Someone else reports ground troops are on the move. An airman takes all of this information in over a pair of headphones, holed up in one spot and trying to track these movements. It’s also the middle of the night. Night vision goggles (NVGs) are the only thing keeping that lone joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) from sitting in complete darkness with no way to map the battlefield.
“We’re taking fire!”
The JTAC must prioritize. Ground troops need an exit route and the pilots need to know where the enemy is. It’s dark, and everyone is on night vision. What are the steps?
The 137th Combat Training Flight (CTF) has added to the operational capabilities and renown of Will Rogers Air National Guard Base in Oklahoma City since it began in 2016. The 137th CTF has run a total of 32 students through the school since then. It offers initial qualification training for JTACs, who control the ground and air space on a battlefield to coordinate air and ground attacks targeted at the enemy.
“Your whole career relies on this school,” said Master Sgt. Benjamin Lake, 146th Air Support Operations Squadron JTAC, who is also an instructor for the course with the 137th CTF.
Tactical Air Control Party Airmen (TACPs) must pass the JTACQC within 18 months of their school dates, or they cannot remain in the career field. The stakes are high, with good reason. Through these JTACs, who are on the ground coordinating air strikes, the Air Force helps joint forces on the ground be more effective and protected.
“There’s so many more moving pieces, and it’s so much more dynamic,” said Senior Airman Brandon Cooke, who was in the Army before joining the 14th Air Support Operations Squadron (ASOS) as a TACP airman. “As a JTAC, you’re such a pivotal player on the battlefield, and I think that’s highly critical to future operations.”
The course used to be four weeks long, but has been increased to five. This class, 19A, was the first class under this new schedule.
The depth of the education they receive is unique to the 137th CTF.
“We get more one-on-one time with smaller class sizes,” said Capt. Lawrence Wilson, 14th ASOS Air Liaison Officer (ALO) out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. “You can ask more in-depth questions and there’s a chance to expand on topics.”
The max class size with the amount of instructors who are certified in the course is four. For the other training courses, a class size of 24 is normal.
“I was looking around the first day of class and thought, ‘Oh man, there are so many people that are gonna get in trouble, they’re so late,’” said Senior Airman Alec Eller, 284th ASOS TACP out of Salina, Kansas.
The squadron has a certain number of instructors, so class sizes must remain smaller, but this allows the students to come together more easily as a unit.
PHASE ONE: ACADEMIC PHASE
“We are basically giving them a firehose and telling them to drink,” said Tech. Sgt. Fred Moreton, Air National Guard chief JTAC Qualification Course instructor.
They’re drinking from a hose spouting acronyms, procedures and hypothetical scenarios – pressurized by expectations – with two tests (one each week) temporarily damming the barrage. These tests are the Phase One building blocks on which their careers rest.
Ten days of PowerPoint presentations outline in words what the JTACs are supposed to do in less than an hour.
As a break in the monotony, the class also had the unique opportunity to go to Fort Sill near Lawton, Oklahoma, to be briefed by Army and Marine components.
“Ironically, we’re going to Fort Sill next week, and that’s where I heard about the transition program initially,” said Wilson. He transferred from the Army into the TACP officer program to become an air liaison officer (ALO).
Ties with the Army can help when the JTACs are learning how to speak the lingo and translate it to another branch, but the Army and Marines only gave the TACPs a small taste of what they do and who is responsible for what on the battlefield.
“We have to know the information before we implement it,” said Eller. “The reality is, it’s going to be a lot more work than I anticipated.”
Learning by doing is not a possibility for these TACPs until they pass the first phase. They must learn every aspect of the battlefield and how to operate within that setting on paper first. However, with nearly 3,000 slides in less than two weeks, information builds up.
“I got here and I was expecting the academics to be the easy part and the operating to be the hard part,” said Cooke. “This is like the hardest standardized test ever taken.”
PHASE TWO: SIM PHASE
The battle space between the air and ground must be a finely-tuned, seamless group dance all called by one person. The responsibility that comes with this position saves U.S. and friendly force’s lives. And that is why they run JTACQC Airmen through a simulator for practice.
“The stress level is a little higher because you’re two weeks from going home as close to a JTAC as you can be,” said Senior Airman Dalton White, TACP Airman from the 169th ASOS, Peoria, Illinois. “I grew up accepting challenges – wanting a challenge to just defeat me or bring me down. It was definitely a challenge to get where I am now.”
The Air National Guard advanced joint terminal attack controller training system (AAJTS) can easily create a challenging virtual battlefield for these JTACs. It spans a 270-degree field of view and uses visual projections and surround sound. It also allows interaction between participants and the simulation by utilizing field equipment, which means JTACs can use their NVGs while in a simulated night battle.
The classwork plays into every single part of the simulation, and instructors expect brevity in every communication. The JTACs are there to fight an enemy, and they hold lives in their hands as they operate.
“Words mean things – especially when you’re talking about human life,” said Lake.
Basically, this is the instructors telling students that, as JTACs, they are ultimately responsible. Lives are on the line, and there are serious consequences for what might be initially minor mistakes. But the intimidation factor is not all the instructors are there for: They offer advice to the TACPs to help them develop best practices to convert to instinct later on. This time in the simulator is crucial for setting them up for success in Phase Three.
“Way more exciting than academics, but the tradeoff is a lot more stress,” said Eller. He joked, “I never cried so much in one day.”
PHASE THREE: FIELD TRAINING EXERCISE
The voices coming through the headphones in the sim phase become the voices of actual pilots during the field training exercise. The pilots are there from the first week of simulations through Phase Three.
“We can provide them with a higher level of understanding than other pilots who show up for their last week of training and are more unknown,” said Lt. Col. Gerremy Goldsberry, 457th Fighter Squadron (457th FS) F-16 Fighting Falcon Forward Air Control – Airborne, in Fort Worth, Texas.
The 457th FS partners their close air support F-16 pilots specifically with the 137th CTF to accomplish JTACQC training. These pilots are the in-the-air version of a JTAC. They come to the third, fourth and fifth week to help on the simulators and during the live fly. Other JTACQC courses have JTAC instructors who are able to man the simulator controls but can lack the expertise of actual pilots.
“It makes the scenario more realistic with pilots versus JTACs running controls, and offers a different perspective,” said Goldsberry.
So what happens when the pilots leave the simulator?
Falcon Range is in Lawton, Oklahoma. Expanses of grassland and stubby prairie trees give way to craggy hills. All of that uninterrupted landscape is a perfect quilt to stitch together a battlescape.
We have a LTL of 270 with a laser safety fan of 260 to 310 or 280 to 230 – ground base lase.
This line of acronyms, nouns and numbers means something to these JTACs now, so it is time they step up. The students are given desired learning objectives, what they are expected to learn during five scenarios over five days on the range, so they are prepared for what a real battlefield in the real world can look like.
“Each step of this course is adding a new stressor to it,” said Moreton. “The final step is Falcon Range with an aircraft that has limited fuel and cannot be reset.”
The class fought to graduate and developed into a focused team with tight camaraderie over the five weeks of intense training. This was the first class at the 137th that every student graduated.
“You guys worked together as a team and made it through,” said Moreton