5-Apr-11 -- The essence of a 14-man Marine Special Operations Team is its ability to function independently in austere environments, often far from friendly lines and support infrastructure. So perhaps one of the most critical assets for an MSOT is the Joint Terminal Attack Controller – a Marine who serves as the direct conduit between the team and vital air support.
At its core, a JTAC is an individual who is qualified and certified to direct the actions of combat aircraft engaged in close air support and other offensive air operations. On a Marine Special Operations Team, however, JTACs are not only experts in air to surface fires, they are also subject matter experts in every function of aviation support. Whether the mission consists of Assault Support with helicopters from the Army, an aerial delivery of supplies from an Air Force C-130, or Electronic Attack from a Navy EA-6B, the Team JTAC is prepared to plan, brief and execute nearly any mission that involves aircraft.
“Special operations teams depend on air support, because they generally operate without a lot of friendly forces around” said the officer in charge of the Firepower Control Platoon at U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command. “JTACs are counted upon to enhance a small team in any scenario, which is why they are a mission essential capability,” he said.
As testament to their versatility, 10 JTACs recently reinforced their CAS skills by taking part in a Carrier Airwing Training exercise conducted by the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) aboard Naval Air Station Fallon, Nev.
“Whenever we get an opportunity to conduct training, we take it,” said the officer in charge.
The JTACs participated in two weeks of the month-long event, which is catered to Navy air wing units slated for deployment. While the Navy’s procedures for conducting CAS are set in doctrine, their techniques and procedures can be slightly different than Air Force or Marine strike platforms.
“This exercise gives our guys an opportunity to cover a variety of attack parameters,” said the MARSOC JTAC Evaluator. “We conduct operations with live ordnance, convoy operations, danger close operations - all that can be accomplished out here at Fallon.”
The JTACs took full advantage of the ranges at Fallon to perfect their skill sets. The JTACs practiced a multitude of combat scenarios, from directing aircraft that were escorting a ground convoy, to providing aircraft guidance on targets that they couldn’t physically see. All of the training was conducted under the watchful eye of instructors and evaluators.
“There’s a lot of information the JTACs have to consider,” said the JTAC-Evaluator. “They’ve got to know surface-to-air threats, tactics and ordnance. It’s a very perishable skill, so they have to stay on top of their game,” he said.
JTACs are required to conduct at least six controls every six months and complete an academic package over the course of a year in order to stay qualified. In addition, JTACs must successfully pass an intense evaluation every 18 months.
“That’s hard to do when you’re at the team or company level,” said a JTAC with the 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion. “There’s always so much other training going on. This exercise is great because it gets us caught up on our certifications.”
While the exercise was a great opportunity to reset the currency of the younger JTACs, it was also a great opportunity for the senior JTACs to pass along lessons learned from the battlefield. “Being a JTAC involves more than just, ‘let’s talk to the jet and drop a bomb,’” said the officer in charge. “It’s more of a ‘how do I design my attack to mitigate any negative effects, while still achieving my commander’s intent.’”
These lessons learned were then integrated into scenarios that required the JTACs to essentially shoot, move and communicate while maintaining positive control of the aircraft overhead. To make scenarios more complex, senior JTACs would often role-play supporting agencies like armed UASs or supporting artillery batteries. Those JTACs under evaluation soon realized that the key to success was to deconflict the routing of aircraft and integrate fires on the objective. “We are very multi-faceted,” said the officer in charge. “We are all things fire, and all things air” – bringing “fire from the sky.”