JTACs deliver air power to ground forces
By Senior Airman Siuta B. Ika, 51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published August 05, 2013
OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- "Icebox 56, Animal 11 two minutes from overhead," said the pilot of an A-10 Thunderbolt over the radio as his aircraft barreled toward its target at more than 300 miles per hour.
"Icebox 56 copies. Final attack heading will be 2-0-0 to 1-8-9," responded a voice over the radio.
"Animal 11 copies. 2-0-0 to 1-8-9. I got eyes on target," the pilot said.
"Let's light em' up," the voice said off-air before giving the pilot the go-ahead to proceed. "Animal 11 you are cleared hot."
Seconds later, the man behind the voice let out a sigh of relief after the A-10 obliterated the target he had mapped out - a storage container placed amid other would-be targets at the U.S. Army's Rodriguez Range.
The man behind the voice, Staff Sgt. Alexander Hardy, is a joint terminal attack controller assigned to the 604th Air Support Operations Squadron.
JTACs like Hardy are responsible for communicating with pilots and advising ground-force commanders on where and how to attack enemy forces. They control attacks from aircraft and artillery while keeping non-combatants and friendly forces safe.
Although many JTACs can be found throughout the Middle East, the ones stationed in the Republic of Korea train for a different type of conflict.
"If war kicks off here it's going to be a linear fight, Afghanistan is not a linear fight," said Master Sgt. Robert Callaway, outgoing operations superintendent of the 604th ASOS. "It's going to be force-on-force, tanks and large masses of troops moving around. The coordination piece is going to be a little tougher than what we are currently used to in Afghanistan or Iraq because we'd be working with our ROK counterparts, and there is a little bit of a language barrier."
Because of the impact they can have on any battlefield, JTACs maintain a rigorous training schedule in which they utilize the many tools of their trade.
"We have a lot of training we have to stay current on," Callaway said. "We're required to do a lot of CAS (close air support) controls each year and some have to be live. So on the day of a mission we'll head out to the range early and when we get there we'll use a laser rangefinder that is connected to an advanced GPS. The JTAC will then compare it to an old-fashioned grid map to make sure everything's right. In the field everything has to be right because once that bomb comes off the jet there's no taking it back."
Even though training can be intense, Callaway said it's nothing compared to the feeling you get from doing the job right.
"Some people view what we do as killing bad guys but I like to view it as saving lives," he said. "When you start strafing and dropping bombs, there's no drug in the world that can substitute for the feeling it gives you because it's like an adrenaline shot for the guys on the ground. It refocuses them and lets them know that there's someone else besides the guys next to them that have their backs. They can follow their orders of taking out the enemy, and not only do they have an M-4, but they have an A-10, F-16, or another aircraft ready to support them."
Often times, the end result of a JTAC's work can be felt by more than just a single unit or squadron.
"I was in Balad (Iraq) in 05' and we were getting mortared a lot and I couldn't figure out why until my first time outside the wire," Callaway said. "I looked back and there was like this big glowing white dome, so I pulled out my map and looked at the heading and was like, 'Wow that's Balad Air Base, no wonder why the enemy can hit it so easily.'"
"The weeks following that, we did a lot of data collection and mapped the mortar firing locations," Callaway said. "One night we finally found those guys, so we sent up their coordinates and we took out six of them right off the bat. While we were collecting intel with a Predator and our intel shop, we're watching the live video feed and there was another attack two kilometers south of the first one. We wound up putting an AGM-114 missile on them from the same Predator. We killed two mortar teams for a total of 14 guys in about two hours. For the next 30 days Balad was actually peaceful, there weren't any mortar attacks or anything."
Even though well-seasoned, Callaway said he still gets "butterflies" before a live mission, a sign for him that even after 18 years, nothing beats being a JTAC.
"It's pretty much one of those things that has become second nature, but still when you're doing a live CAS control and you say 'cleared hot' and you're waiting for that pilot to hit that trigger to see a bomb come off the jet or the gun to start firing, you know real world that target is gone," Callaway said. "Nothing beats that. Nothing."