RAF LAKENHEATH, England — U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jim Burt wears the patch
of the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division — the "Big Red One" — on the left
shoulder of his uniform, a testament to the role he plays with one foot in each
He and other members of Detachment 2, 2nd Air Support Operations Squadron,
4th Air Support Operations Group may belong to the Air Force, but they are
attached to the Army, specifically the 1st Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade at
It falls to them to contact and guide aircraft when the soldiers on the
ground need a helping hand from above.
"Our job is to provide close air support and advise [the soldiers] on how
they can use air power safely and effectively," said Burt, a 19-year veteran of
the Air Force, all of it as a tactical air command and control specialist.
For the past couple of weeks, Burt and several colleagues have been at RAF
Lakenheath, practicing close air support with the 492nd Fighter Squadron.
While F-15E Strike Eagles soar above in the English sky, the controllers
remain on terra firma, linked to the aircraft by radio, directing the pilots to
particular targets in simulated attacks at a British military training area not
far from the base.
It is appropriate training. Both the 1st Infantry Division and the 492nd
Fighter Squadron are soon headed to the Middle East. The soldiers are going to
Iraq, and the fliers will make their home at an
air base in the theater of operations.
If the "Big Red One" soldiers get in trouble, it might be the F-15E Strike
Eagles from RAF Lakenheath they call on for help.
"This training is properly suited for [Aerospace Expeditionary Force] 7
because these controllers will be down there when we are," said Lt. Col. Dan
DeBree, the squadron's director of operations.
AEF 7 is the designation given to the squadron's rotation into the region,
which begins next month.
Plus, DeBree said, the ability to have controllers on the ground in England
for training is unusual.
"Just the basic training of close air support is tough for us to get," he
Burt and his colleagues live with the Army in Germany and some will deploy
with the division to Iraq this month, rotating in and out with other detachment
members. If the soldiers go on a raid or a convoy gets ambushed or any of a
number of other actions take place that may require air support, that help is a
radio call away.
"Our job is to make sure the bombs hit on target and not on friendlies," said
Airman 1st Class Will Jorgenson.
Burt said, "We give [the pilots] as accurate as possible coordinates. We go
through a lot of pain to ensure we're talking about the same thing."
The final decision on whether bombs will be dropped rests with the ground
commander, Burt said. It is the controller's responsibility to tell the
commander what aircraft are available, what munitions are on them and what the
expected damage will be.
"We advise them on what will be the best for the effect they are looking
for," Burt said.
The key word in the phrase "close air support," of course, is close.
Burt said the preferred distance to have between the friendly troops and the
target is 1,100 yards. In Afghanistan, however, he said, some munitions were
dropped on targets barely 200 yards from the American soldiers.
"A lot of times, all you need is the aircraft to come down to provide a show
of force," he said. An F-15 swooping low over a crowd "is definitely going to
get their attention."
Several times a day in England, the controllers and the fliers join forces to
identify and "attack" terrorist camps, enemy armor or troop locations.
The F-15s may be specks high in the sky, but their effect can be felt on the
"It's good practice for what we can expect to see if we have to do this,"
said Capt. Hans Hilterman, a pilot with the 492nd Fighter Squadron. "We can see
how long it takes to actually go through the process."
Capt. Erik Jorgensen, the weapon systems operator in Hilterman's jet, said
the training is "invaluable."
"It brings home the point that we're there for them — the guys on the
ground," he said.
DeBree said the value of training for close air support can't be overstated.
"We have to be ready, especially with close air support," he said. "With the
close proximity of friendly troops ... the precision and accuracy has to be
spot on. The consequences of a mistake can be extremely great.
"That's why it's so critical with close air support to get it right."
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