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JTACs train in complex art of coordinating close-air support

by Capt. Nathan D. Broshear
12th Air Force Public Affairs

6/18/2008 - AVON PARK, Fla. (AFPN) -- Exercise Atlantic Strike VII kicked off June 14 in the swampy pinegroves of the Avon Park Air Ground Training Complex as more than 800 joint and coalition warfighters from around the world gathered to practice and train in the complex art of coordinating close-air support for ground maneuvers.

The exercise will debut the fielded Tactical Air Control Party Close-Air Support System version 1.4.1, test refinements to air-support operations center gateway equipment, and serve as an operational test and evaluation event focusing on digital close-air support.

"U.S. Air Forces Central has placed a top priority on warfighters being 'digital CAS capable' upon arrival in operations Iraqi (Freedom) and Enduring Freedom," said Maj. Raymond Brennan, the Atlantic Strike exercise director. "Atlantic Strike VII emphasizes digital communication between joint terminal attack controllers, close-air-support aircraft, and a mobile air support operations center."

"Broad integration of updated video and digital CAS technologies into the terminal attack phase of air-to-ground combat makes Atlantic Strike a unique training event. Our goal is to increase effective employment of airpower in support of urban CAS operations," he said.

AFCENT members have been lead the Atlantic Strike exercises in Avon Park, which are JTAC-focused events to prepare JTACs and aircrews prior to deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the importance of CAS operations has grown in the current conflict, demand for the training has soared -- leading to the transfer of the training from a numbered Air Force-sponsored event to a major command-sponsored training program.

"Atlantic Strike was born from an urgent need to train JTACs to use video downlink capabilities and shorten the kill chain. As the event evolved rapidly in size and complexity, senior commanders agreed that it fills a requirement for updated terminal-attack-control training, tactics and procedures," Major Brennan said. "Sponsorship transfer from AFCENT to Air Combat Command confirms the Air Force's long-term commitment to the tactical air control party community. For the first time, there is a MAJCOM-sponsored training event that identifies JTACs and the air support operations center as the primary training audience."

Fourteen pilots and 6 A-10 Thunderbolt IIs from the 355th Fighter Wing at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., are among the 32 aircraft participating in Atlantic Strike VII. This week's event is the first time the 354th Fighter Squadron has participated in the CAS exercise and the first time the Atlantic Strike will host the latest A-10 model aircraft, the C model, upgraded to increase its effectiveness in CAS operations.

"The C model A-10 is equipped with the LITENING II targeting pod and video datalink capability," said Maj. James Krischke, the assistant director of operations at the 354th FS. "Along with the new tactical awareness display the C model provides precision munitions capability not available in previous A-10 models."

Davis-Monthan AFB members are also completing their first operational deployment with the new C model prior to the unit's upcoming Operation Enduring Freedom rotation. The exercise objectives are vital pre-deployment skills and a perfect fit for the A-10 aircrews, Major Krischke said.

"Atlantic Strike is the only venue where aircrews can focus solely on digital tactical air control party CAS systems during convoy operations and urban close-air support," he said. "These are the same skills our aircrews will use in theater -- likely with the same JTACs we train with at Atlantic Strike."

Also new for Atlantic Strike VII is the inclusion of an AC-130U Spooky gunship from the 4th Special Operations Squadron, Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field, Fla.

The AC-130U is the Air Force's premier close-air-support platform, able to loiter over an area for several hours while consistently engaging ground targets. Part of the most heavily deployed unit in the Air Force, the AC-130U typically works in coordination with special operations forces such as Navy SEALS and Army Rangers. During Atlantic Strike, the AC-130U will be coordinating with conventional coalition ground forces to practice the "close" aspects of close-air support.

"During the exercise, our team will work on aircrew-proficiency training," said Staff Sgt. Dale Eslinger, an AC-130U sensor operator with the 4th Special Operations Squadron. "Crews will focus on live-fire exercises with ground forces within 600 meters (of the target) and simulated combat situations of a 'danger close' distance of 40 meters."

Exercise Atlantic Strike VII runs through June 20.

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