Marines Talking To The Higher Powers
by James Dunnigan
October 3, 2007
Strategy page

The U.S. Marine Corps is developing training techniques to teach infantry sergeants how to call in air strikes and artillery fire. Currently, you need a specially trained and equipped joint terminal air controllers (JTAC) to do it. These guys, who are usually themselves air force, army or marine pilots, have to be looking at the target before a smart bomb can be dropped. But there are not enough JTACs to go around. Even the aviation community, that backs the JTAC approach, admits that. So new methods, that allow squad or platoon sergeants to get in touch with a JTAC, and provide the location information, for something the JTAC can't see, are in the works. Junior NCOs are using computer simulations to practice these new skills, and get them down cold so that, during the stressful situation when they will have to do the deed, they will not get confused and make a fatal error. Basically, the NCO calling in fire has to know how to describe his own GPS coordinates, and those of the target. This means learning how to estimate distances, and memorize the structured series of questions and answers they will exchange with the JTAC. Troops will then practice these new techniques with JTACs, to establish trust in the techniques, and each other.

The U.S. Army is taking a slightly different route, with their JFO (Joint Fires Officer) concept. These guys can call in artillery (both army and naval gunfire) as well as army helicopters gunships, and select targets for the bombers (which would be passed to air force controllers to get bomber overhead to do the deed). The army is in the process of training over 3,000 JFOs, so each infantry or tank platoon can have their own.

The air force agrees with the army that, eventually, every platoon or squad will have someone equipped and qualified to call in bombs and missiles. Technology, more than training, will most likely make this possible. Meanwhile, the air force is having no trouble getting volunteers for JTAC duty. In the past, pilots avoided a tour as a JTAC. But now there's a war on, and most JTACs can expect to see some action. Most pilots aren't picky in that respect, fighting hostiles on the ground or in the air is all the same as long as it's real. The air force sees a long term benefit in this. Over the next two decades, some of the JTACs will become generals, and when they have to work with their army counterparts, they will have an easier time of it because they have participated in ground combat.