ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam -- Several thousand feet above ground, Air Force pilots see the bird’s-eye view of the battlefield; every road, building and vehicle is laid out for them.
What happens hidden from view, under cover of foliage or buildings, however, eludes them.
Deploying in small teams to augment combat units, tactical air control party Airmen are battlefield experts who eliminate blind angles by efficiently linking ground troops to lifesaving support from the air, as the eyes and ears for aircrews.
To practice their skills, TACPs assigned to the 3rd Air Support Operations Squadron from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, recently made the long journey to Guam to train with a variety of units from Joint Region Marianas.
"Guam offers a different training environment and allows us to broaden our horizon as we work with different units in joint training," said Master Sgt. Robert Pena, the 3rd ASOS operations superintendent, who organized the training in cooperation with the 736th Security Forces Squadron here. "This keeps our teams from getting complacent and keeps sharpening their skills."
For one week, the teams pursued a detailed counterinsurgency operations script and worked to eliminate designated simulated targets.
Responsible for navigation and weapons on a B-52 Stratofortress, Capt. Robert Vasey, a 20th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron B-52 weapons and tactics officer, relies on the most accurate target information possible from the ground in order to make sure his crew hits the right target.
"We're miles in the air at 20,000 to 30,000 feet," Vasey said. "Up above, we get the overview, but the TACPs on the ground see a lot more detail. Having somebody on the ground is clearly beneficial and they are experts at what they do."
While B-52 and other aircrews regularly train for cooperation with ground troops, Vasey said many sorties only simulate radio contact. Having joint terminal attack controllers, or fully certified TACPs, on the ground responding in real-time, however, offered a different dimension of realism that provided the aviators challenges and lessons learned.
"The training was quite successful," Vasey said. "We learned a lot from the team, and working with the experts on the ground is better than any simulation. We learned a few significant new details on how we can improve tactics when operating with our ground forces."
From agile fighters to the flying behemoth of a B-52, TACPs are responsible to know each aircraft's position in the airspace above, all while navigating difficult terrain evading hostile forces.
"A lot of TACPs are used to working with F-16 (Fighting Falcons) and similar close air support assets, but here we got some great exposure to training with the B-52s," said Staff Sgt. Gary Russell, a JTAC assigned to the 3rd ASOS. "You can't replace this type of hands-on training. When you go downrange ... you don't want to get into a situation without having trained for it. While training can't duplicate battle exactly, you can definitely develop lifesaving skillsets."
Coming from Alaska, where summer nights may mean no darkness at all, the team also benefited from the opportunity of extensive night training under Guam’s star-studded skies, which allowed instructors to evaluate new JTACs on crucial night qualifications.
With support from the Navy's Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 25 and Andersen AFB's 36th Mobility Response Squadron, teams fast roped from helicopters and immediately began their operation in the hills of the Navy's Ordnance Annex near Santa Rita, Guam.
"As soon as we get on the ground we try to build our situational awareness," Russell said. "We refer back to our map and graphics and orient ourselves with our surroundings. In the back of our minds we have to know which aircraft we have on station, where they are in the air, and have to deconflict all air assets to make sure nobody gets hurt. Our main objective is always to keep everyone safe."
Mere shadows moving silently through the night, the controllers were little more than small infrared lights visible only through the helicopter pilot's night vision gear. Speaking with clear, concise and confident instructions despite having sprinted or taken cover from simulated enemy fire, one JTAC after another took control of the aircraft above and guided them to simulated targets.
"The JTACs use the same standardized procedures we use," said Navy Lt. Robert Knoerzer, a MH-60S Seahawk pilot training officer assigned to HSC-25. "It's a joint and common language. So when they provide all necessary directions to us, we have all the information we need to support the mission on the ground."
In the dark skies above, HSC-25 aviators completed their own training requirements with a real-life twist.
"The training was a great opportunity to have our teams fly important training events and see how real-life JTACs actually operate on the ground without having to simulate it, which was great," Knoerzer said. "It challenged us to work through scenarios the teams created for us and definitely gave us a new perspective on how we complete our missions. It was amazing how easy it was to have our training objectives meet one another and get whatever everybody needed in relatively limited time. We would love to have the 3rd ASOS back any time."
After the mission, the teams disappeared again, as fast as they arrived, under the chopping sound of helicopter rotor blades in the dark.
Senior Airman Ronald Page, a 3rd ASOS TACP Airman in training, who used the training toward his certification as a fully qualified JTAC, led part of the advancing mission while experienced JTACs coached him through the real-life inspired scenarios.
"The helicopters provided overwatch of the area, warning us of any dangers ahead, while we translated their information to the ground commander," Page said. "Communicating with HSC-25 was completely seamless. They are very efficient with their close air support and there were no barriers in working with them at all."
Back on the ground, the TACPs' training focused on close cooperation with specially trained expeditionary security forces teams with the 736th Security Forces Squadron.
Select members of the unit graduated from the Army's military police Special Reaction Team course, a small unit urban tactics training similar to those completed by police special weapons and tactics teams.
"A lot of people think of security forces as standing at the gate checking IDs, but there is a whole other aspect for us here at the 736th SFS," said Staff Sgt. Charles Killebrew, the 736th SFS fire team leader. "We use our training downrange outside the wire as we support the full spectrum of combat and humanitarian contingency missions."
Running through a variety of fast-paced drills, trained on shooting stances and movements as a fire team, then covering one another through a variety of fire positions, the TACPs moved from one building to another and practiced how to move tactically in confined spaces and rooms, while maintaining 360-degree security and awareness.
"The teams were very motivated and ready to listen," Killebrew said. "We tried to get the operators spun up on what they could encounter downrange when it comes to clearing and navigating buildings with the Army. Everybody caught on quickly and performed the drills very well. It was a great opportunity to work with them."
Airmen with the 736th SFS also provided key planning and logistical support to the team, from transportation to lodging, which helped significantly, cut down cost of the training, Pena said.
"The units here go through some unique training and it was a great opportunity to tap into that," he added. "Working together in training is vital. You never want it to be your first time when you work together downrange. You should know the ins and outs on how each aircraft and unit can benefit you on the battlefield. Whether it's security forces, Air Force bombers or Navy helicopters, we train and work for a common mission."