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FEATURE ARTICLE  

 Military Steps Up Training For Joint Close-Air Support  

12  2,004 

by Harold Kennedy 

The command this year began conducting training exercises that focused heavily on JCAS, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Gregory McWherter, chief of the Joint Close-Air Support Branch at JFCOM headquarters in Norfolk, Va.

JCAS is defined as an air action-either by fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters-against hostile targets that are close to friendly forces. Each air mission has to be integration carefully with the fire and movement of those forces, McWherter told National Defense.

The concept is almost as old as military aviation itself. Military biplanes first strafed enemy troops in the battlefields of World War I. Today in Iraq and Afghanistan, close-air support is employed heavily, with embattled U.S. and coalition ground forces calling in help from a wide array of aircraft, including Air Force fighters and bombers, and sea-based Navy and Marine jets and helicopters.

Procedures, however, vary from service to service, leading to unnecessary confusion and increased risk of fratricide on the battlefield, McWherter said. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. aircraft have attacked U.S. and coalition ground troops by mistake.

Exercises are designed to "fill the gaps and seams" in JCAS that cause the confusion, said Air Force Lt. Col. Jeffrey Gettle, a training operations officer in Norfolk.

The exercises are being conducted using a new Joint National Training Capability, which mixes live forces and simulations in an integrated network of sites to provide a 24-hour, common, real-time battlefield, noted Army Lt. Col. Sean Donahoe, a senior exercise planner at JFCOM. The command began developing the JNTC in 2002. It reached initial operating capability this October, and full operational capability is scheduled for 2009.

The first exercise-the Western Range Horizontal Interoperability Event-occurred in January. Originally, it was planned for May 2003, officials said, but by then fighting had begun in Iraq, and the exercise had to be postponed.

When it finally got underway, 9,400 personnel from the four branches of service and the U.S. Special Operations Command took part at 16 sites across the nation. Participating aircraft included Air Force F-16 and Navy and Marine F/A-18 fighters.

The exercise took place primarily in California and Nevada. Activities included a brigade rotation at the Army National Training Center in Fort Irwin, an Air Warrior exercise at Nellis Air force Base, a combined-arms exercise at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms and a Navy surface-launched, land-attack missile exercise near San Diego.

The emphasis during the event was on JCAS. "All facets of JCAS were assessed," Marine Maj. Gen. Gordon C. Nash, JFCOM's director for joint training, told a congressional hearing.

"The event was significant in that it achieved critical improvements in the execution of joint training," Nash said. He cited these accomplishments: The exercise was the first fully tactical JCAS exercise to be conducted and assessed to defined conditions and measures. It integrated live training missions with virtual and constructive simulations. It included live and distributed virtual participation of special operations forces. It featured a distributed training audience and training support.

A second exercise with a JCAS focus was held in August at the Army's Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La. More than 6,000 troops participated, including the Army's 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division from Fort Benning, Ga.; the 2nd Battalion of the 10th Special Forces Group from Fort Carson, Colo.; the 25th Marine Reserve Regiment from Worcester, Mass., and fighter and airlift crews from Barksdale Air Force Base, La.; Pope Air Force Base, N.C.; McChord Air Force Base, Wash; Warner-Robbins Air Force Base, Ga., and Hurlburt Field, Fla.

Normally, an exercise at the JRTC has close-air support eight to 10 hours a day, officials said. Using simulation technology, however, aviators were able to provide it-for training purposes, at least-24 hours a day. Another key element of the event, they noted, was the addition of Air Force, Marine and special operations forces to a traditionally Army exercise.

Additional JCAS-related exercises are planned for next year, including one in March at the Marine Corps air station in Yuma, Ariz., and two more at Fort Polk, Donahoe said.

Meanwhile, efforts are underway to develop a standardized set of operating and training procedures for CAS. In all of the services, CAS is coordinated by controllers, who guide participating aircraft to targets, helping them avoid friendly troops and innocent bystanders. The controller may work from an aircraft above the battlefield, but most often he is embedded with the troops on the ground, McWherter said.

In the Air Force Special Operations Command, headquartered at Hurlburt Field, Fla., combat control team members are certified air traffic controllers. They can perform a number of highly specialized functions, including directing CAS, setting up makeshift runways, coordinating overhead air traffic and placing navigational aids.

In the regular Air Force, enlisted terminal attack controllers serve in small units known as tactical air control parties, which are assigned to Army ground combat units. Their primary mission is to call in air strikes, but they also help to control the hectic air traffic in combat areas. This work used to be done by fighter pilots, but after the Vietnam War, the Air Force decided it could no longer afford to assign pilots to such ground jobs.

The Marines and Navy still assign pilots as forward air controllers in Marine ground units. The Marines, however, do not have enough of them to meet their needs. In 2003, the Corps revived two active-duty Air and Naval Gunfire Liaison Companies-one for each coast-to provide teams that specialize in coordinating CAS, naval gunfire, field artillery and mortar fire.

These active-duty liaison companies, called ANGLICOs, had been deactivated during the downsizing of the military services during the 1990s, leaving the work to two reserve units. Recent combat experience, however, convinced the Marines that they needed more of these units.

In addition, all of the services have begun training joint terminal attack controllers, who can direct CAS from any U.S. military aircraft. Even the Army, which traditionally has relied upon Air Force personnel to coordinate its air strikes, has agreed to begin to train its own controllers.

One proposal is for the Army is to create a new specialty called a universal observer. As envisioned, the universal observer would perform limited close-air support functions under the supervision of a JTAC, but would be easier and cheaper to train, McWherter explained. "It takes a lot of resources to train a JTAC," he said.

Every service maintains its own schools to teach CAS. Air Force, for example, operates the Air Ground Operations School at Nellis. The Navy has its Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nev. The Marine Corps maintains schools at two naval amphibious bases, in Little Creek, Va., and Coronado, Calif.

The Air Force Special Operations Command sends its combat controllers to several schools, including a combat-orientation course at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas; air traffic school at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss.; Army airborne school at Fort Benning, Ga.; survival school at Fairchild Air Force base, Wash., and combat-control school at Pope Air Force Base, N.C.

Each of these facilities has its own traditions, standards and terminology, and this has complicated joint operations. A 2003 report by the General Accounting Office found that the Defense Department has had only "limited success in overcoming the barriers that prevent troops from receiving the realistic, standardized close-air support training necessary to prepare them for joint operations."

The report cited the following reasons: Ground and air forces have had limited opportunities for joint training. Home-station training often is restricted and unrealistic. JCAS training often receives a lower priority than other missions. The services use different training standards and certification requirements.

The Defense Department is seeking to address many of these concerns with its new emphasis on JCAS training, officials said.

The GAO report also cited two major differences between the controller-certification programs for the Air Force, on the one hand, and the Navy and Marine Corps, on the other.

First, the GAO noted, the Navy and the Marines require their controllers to practice CAS with a variety of aircraft, including helicopters. The Air Force does not require helicopter practice, because it does not have combat helicopters in its conventional force, and the Army does not use its helicopters for CAS.

A second difference is that the sea services require their controllers to practice coordinating live indirect fire support, such as artillery, but the Air Force does not. Usually, the Army-not the Air Force-coordinates the use of indirect fires on its battlefield.

The Pentagon is continuing its efforts to work out a single method of CAS for all of the services. In February, the Air Force Research Laboratory signed an agreement with Firearms Training Systems Inc., of Suwanee, Ga. to develop a JCAS training program using the company's Indirect-Forward Air Control Trainer simulation system. I-FACT is the first commercially available system designed to train ground controllers to conduct JCAS, according to FATS chief executive officer Ron Mohling.

In September, the services and the U.S. Special Operations Command signed a memorandum of agreement calling for a common set of tactics, techniques and procedures. The MOA outlines a single CAS process for all of the services, specifying nine items of information that a controller needs to send to a pilot who intends to strike a ground target, explained Joe Sullivan, a civilian member of JFCOM's JCAS branch. The items are known as the "nine-line brief." (See box.)

Other nations require even more information for a CAS mission. NATO, for example, requires a 15-line brief. The United States is in negotiations with NATO to reach a common brief.

In general, Donahoe said, U.S. services "have come a long way" in developing JCAS. "We all know we're never going to work alone again," he said. "We're not that far apart. It's not a matter of whether we're going to work together, but how are we going to do it properly."

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