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Lakenheath aircrews train with Estonian forward air controllers

by Master Sgt. Gino Mattorano
U.S. Air Forces in Europe Public Affairs

9/18/2009 - TALLINN, Estonia (AFNS) -- Several F-15E Strike Eagles aircrews participated in a two-day NATO training event helping to train Estonian forward air controllers in calling in close-air support Sept. 14 and 15 near Tallinn, Estonia.

The event, titled Baltic Region Training Event IV Alpha, gave the aircrews from the 494th Fighter Squadron in Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, and the Estonian forward air controllers the opportunity to work together in a training environment to better prepare them for real-world missions.

"Our aircrews benefited from conducting close-air-support training with the (Estonian) FACs who will soon deploy to Afghanistan," said Lt. Col. John Bunnell, the 494th FS commander. "We have supported these FACs and their parent ground units in the past and undoubtedly will in the future. This exercise allowed us to practice convoy escort and video downlink."

While this was a NATO training event, it supports U.S. Air Forces in Europe's goal of building partnership capacity throughout the region.

"The exercise is important training to ensure Estonian interoperability with the NATO partners," Colonel Bunnell said. "There are many difficulties involved in complex military operations that never show themselves until you exercise in a live environment. This particular (training) was important for the Estonian Scouts Batallion as they prepare to send forces to (International Security Assistance Force) operations in Afghanistan. Since the 48th Fighter Wing continually trains and regularly deploys to these operations, the training was valuable to our aircrew as well."

Master Sgt. Jay Lemley, a joint terminal attack controller assigned to USAFE's Operations Directorate Close Air Support Branch, has been working with the Estonians to help train them to work with US and NATO aircraft. A JTAC is the U.S. Air Force equivalent to the Estonian forward air controller.

"Standardization is very important to JTAC missions," Sergeant Lemley said. "It's vital for them to ensure they are training to NATO standards, and this training is about as close as we can get to a real-world situation."

One of the most challenging jobs for a JTAC is to learn to manage the variety of assets involved in combat; from fighter aircraft and unmanned aircraft, to the Army ground artillery units, helicopters or other military units in the area, Sergeant Lemley said.

"The JTAC has to be the key element tying all these pieces together," he said. "And he has to make every effort to ensure that we're protecting both friendly forces and the civilian populace; it can mean the difference between life and death in combat."

For their part in the training, the Estonian forward air controllers, were excited for the opportunity to train with U.S. forces.

"This was our first time training with F-15s," said Estonian air force 2nd Lt. Ivo Koiv. "We were able to exercise coordination between us, the aircraft and the ground forces. We are constantly learning, and this training helps prepare us for our deployment to Afghanistan next year."

Along with the obvious language differences, Lieutenant Koiv noted another key part of the coordination process between air and ground forces, was that he had to be able to translate common Air Force terms to terms used by ground forces, and vice versa.

Sergeant Lemley praised the Estonian forward air controllers for their role in the training, and said he believes they're ready to make vital contributions to the ISAF mission.

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