Several instances of air-to-ground friendly fire by U.S. forces in Iraq and
Afghanistan were attributed to misunderstandings between operators from different
services, who may not necessarily speak the same language when it comes to close
Under new procedures now in place, all participants in close air-support operations—including
ground and air controllers—will be trained to follow the same protocols
across all services, and will employ common terminology for assigning targets
and ordering air-to-ground strikes.
“We now have joint standards for joint close air support,” said
Air Force Maj. Gen. (S) Mark E. Rogers, director of requirements and integration
at U.S. Joint Forces Command.
“We standardized the curriculum for how we train the tactical air controllers,”
Rogers told National Defense. Certified joint tactical air controllers, or JTACS,
will be able to coordinate fire missions with aircraft or ground troops from
any service. “We are at the point that the process is standardized enough
that it should not matter what service or platform you are. … Any certified
JTAC can control any platform from any service,” Rogers said.
The updated doctrine for close-air support already is being executed in Iraq,
but the process is not as smooth as it could be, because the units still operate
older equipment—such as laser rangefinders, target designators and radios—that
never was designed to interoperate with other services’ systems. “One
of our efforts is to define the standard package of equipment,” Rogers
JFCOM eventually wants to see the integration of all services’ weapon
systems under a single command-and-control network, Rogers said.
When they want to strike a target, U.S. commanders literally have dozens of
options at their disposal—radar-guided missiles fired from helicopters,
cruise missiles, laser-guided and satellite-guided bombs launched from fighter
jets. But with each service operating different command-and-control systems,
joint commanders often do not have immediate access to those weapons. “The
challenge in joint fires is to give the brigade or task force commander an ability
to select from an assortment of fires and employ them, and the command-and-control
to get them,” said Rogers.
U.S. forces saw a relatively sophisticated level of joint command-and-control
in the Iraq conflict, but it was an ad-hoc setup. “It can be done, but
it’s not integrated to the degree we want,” said Rogers.
In his previous job, Rogers led a program at JFCOM to create a “standing
joint force headquarters,” a team of operational planners and information
specialists. During day-to-day operations, or when a contingency requires the
establishment of a joint task force, all or part of the standing joint force
headquarters is assigned to a commander and is embedded in his staff.
The first real-world test for the standing joint force headquarters came in
late February, when U.S. Marines were sent to Haiti to help stabilize the country.
The U.S. Southern Command had just finished setting up its standing joint force
headquarters when the crisis erupted. “In the past, they would have had
to rapidly go and find people from the services, pull them together, make them
smart on the situation and turn them into the command-and-control capability,”
A standing joint force headquarters is headed by a one-star or two-star officer,
along with 58 personnel.