Keeping it Real: Don't Let Joint Fires Observer Skills Deteriorate
MSG Timothy Ryan
Congratulations, you have completed the Joint Fires Observer course at Fort Sill, Okla. Now what? I think the trend is to get back into the day-to-day grind of garrison operations with all the tasks that must be accomplished on a daily basis, but JFO skills may atrophy.
So, after three or four months back at garrison, are you ready to go to war as a JFO? If you are truly honest you might answer 'no' to the question. Because daily skills as a JFO might not be exercised, 'just-in-time' training might be needed to get back up to speed. This is the wrong approach and a better course of action is needed. A thorough continuation training program can help to ensure the maneuver commander is getting a valuable warrior.
The joint and combined integration directorate states in the article "Air, Land, and Sea Applications Bulletin," that ongoing training and qualification of JFOs are key factors in combat success. Luckily, the resources needed to build and sustain a robust JFO continuation training program exist at your garrison.
Continuous training. The integration of close air support into the ground scheme of maneuver is a perishable skill set that requires continuous training. Motivated leadership can build a comprehensive JFO program that can be tailored to any situation. Because of the joint nature of combat these days, it is imperative the services are able to work together in order to meet the supported commanders' intent. According to the JFO memorandum of agreement, the joint Fires observer training program relies on joint collaboration. As resources allow, Joint Terminal Attack Controllers and JFOs need to train together. A good way to accomplish this is to visit the local tactical air control party personnel.
Only a select few wear the Black Beret that symbolizes the TACP. These Air Force specialists are assigned to Army combat maneuver units around the world. On a battlefield, they form a tactical air control party team that plans, requests and directs air strikes against enemy targets in close proximity to friendly forces. A TACP is generally a two-airman team, working in an Army ground unit and directing close air support firepower toward enemy targets on the ground.
Although the initial training begins at the JFO school house, JFO skills need to be honed at the home station. A great deal of training should be accomplished at the home station, and is the correct place for refresher and spin-up training. Maneuver training centers are vital to exercising all the pieces making up the joint fires team. However, they are not the venue for refresher or just-in-time training. Graduate level tasks should culminate at events such as National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif., and the Joint Readiness Training Center, Fort Polk, La. These training centers should be utilized for full-spectrum operations that provide JFO top-off training.
There are three parts to building a comprehensive continuation training program. The first part is gaining knowledge. Just because information was retained long enough to take a test at the JFO school house does not mean it will be remembered for the long haul. Along with academic learning comes the need to review new technologies that continue to change at an alarming rate. The second part of the equation is gaining practical skills that get the procedural requirements of close air support down to a second nature, and finally, putting it all together culminating exercise with the joint terminal attack controller/joint fire observer team and live-flying aircraft.
Academic training. The joint mission task list, as identified in the JFO MOA, outlines three mission areas a JFO should be able to conduct. Duty Area 3, in particular, addresses the air to ground aspect of joint Fires. As a JTAC, I am most concerned with this duty area. To accomplish Duty Area 3, the JFO needs a solid background in the academics of the close air support mission set. Though this information is taught at JFO school, continual refreshing of this information is needed. From my point of view there are three ways this can be accomplished. This includes taking online courses, reading and digging into applicable publications, and being familiar with the latest tactics, techniques, and procedures that go with the JFO skill set.
Many important references for JFOs are online or available through online courses. Distance learning is an easy way to gain knowledge while saving training costs. Online learning makes it possible to attend a course and never leave garrison. A good resource for distance learning is the Doctrine Networked Education and Training website located at www.dtic.mil/doctrine/docnet/.
DOCNET's mission is to promote understanding, training, and education in joint doctrine of the U.S. armed forces. This website also provides online access to many joint publications, like JP 3-09.3 Joint Tactics Techniques and Procedures for Close Air Support, and also allows users to take online exams. As an added benefit, the American Military University grants one college credit hour for successful completion of each DOCNET course. This isn't the only web source for information, The Joint and Combined Fires University located behind the AKO firewall on the Fires Knowledge Network also has a variety of courses that allows the user to delve into a variety of topics.
Additional training. JFOs should also study and review joint, U.S. Army, and U.S. Air Force publications which will help build a body of knowledge that is needed to be a thorough warrior. Besides the JTTP for close air support, JFOs will benefit from reading joint publications for joint fire support and joint airspace control in the combat zone. These particular publications cover topics such as the joint targeting cycle, airspace control and how to integrate unmanned aerial platforms in the operational environment. Also, a JFO should have a good understanding of the most recent Army publications that put "steel on target."
The Joint Electronic Library, located on the web at www.dtic. mil/doctrine/, provides access to several applicable publications, as well as the Curtis E. LeMay Center for Doctrine Development and Education, located at www.cadre.au.af.mil/main.htm. This site offers an Air and Space Power Course which provides a broad understanding of airpower. Also by logging onto FKO, which can only be accessed with a CAC card, a user can click onto a link to Joint Knowledge Online. JKO is an online repository for training and informational material that impacts and improves the knowledge, skills and abilities of the joint warfighter.
Emerging doctrine. A final area to keep familiar with is emerging doctrine and the most current tactics, techniques and procedures. The 561st Joint Tactics Squadron, located at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., both publishes and keeps track of emerging tactics. Though their files are U.S. Air Force centric, many of the procedures discussed will help with Duty Area 3 of the JFO MOA. These publications are comprised of the most effective methods identified for operations in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. The squadron's focus is to ensure that the deploying warrior is current, relevant and extremely well prepared for combat, day one in theater. Though not available from the public domain, their website is accessible from a .mil domain located at http://www.nellis.af.smil.mil/units/561jts/.
Practical training. The practical skills of the CAS mission set are retained, refined and enhanced over time with practice. Every time there's participation in CAS training, personal skills sets will be enhanced and more confidence will be gained when the time comes to assist in the application of airpower. The following three training activities, tactical discussions, radio rehearsals and simulator controls, can provide the polish for necessary skills.
It's important to note, that some of the best tactical discussions I have taken part in have taken place after work. In my opinion, low key environments that minimize rank create the best atmosphere for the free exchange of ideas. In these discussions there are no bad ideas - just better ideas. These tactical discussions should be viewed as a "hot wash" or informal after action review. The difference is discussing what will happen as opposed to what did happen. Discussions should focus on devising new techniques to test the next time there is participation in a CAS training event. The best environment to test and refine new TTPs is during local training. Then validate this training at the Joint Readiness Training Center or the National Training Center with major exercises in preparation for deployment.
Rehearsals are key. The radio rehearsal is a valuable tool. In the case of rehearsals for CAS, radio messages will focus on the procedural aspects of CAS control. Voice procedures are important during an attack brief to a pilot, so it is imperative to practice the proper calls. The flow of communication during a CAS mission is fast paced and follows a pattern built around information exchanges. Practice the information flow until it becomes ingrained.
Another useful technique is to pull out a map and practice a target 'talk-on' with someone with the same map in another room. What might be thought of as perfect 'talk-on,' may not be understood by another person listening in, so it's important to practice with a team member. After the radio calls come smoothly, it is time to take the training to a simulator.
Simulators are a great tool to re-enforce CAS procedures. A variety of missions can be built using a simulator and is the perfect place to try new techniques. Another nice thing about simulators is that the systems provide instant visual and auditory feedback to see if desired results were achieved. Also, if the simulation was tanked - just reset and do it again. There are a variety of simulators available in most Army garrisons, or work with the local Air Force tactical air control party to join in their training.
Live-fly training. I remember the first time I talked to an actual aircraft I got tongue tied. Looking at a piece of ground and telling the aviator to hit a particular target is not a simple task. It is important for a Fires observer to train with actual aircraft as much as possible to work through this issue. Extensively utilize live-fly training at local ranges. Local ranges are inexpensive to utilize and easily scheduled. However, do not disregard unfamiliar ranges that provide new targets and challenges. Traveling to off-station range is highly encouraged if funding can be secured to make it happen.
Whatever range the training takes place on, it is important to watch a target explode because it provides instant feedback. This is one of the reasons the JFO should accompany JTACs when they conduct CAS training. Local ranges present a good balance for the JFO. The local impact range has familiarity and is the range that JFOs routinely perform calls for fire missions on. However, conducting a CAS mission is a different mission set for most fire support professionals. Initial JFO training on a local range may allow JFOs to focus specifically on JFO skill-set building and minimize friction caused by range unfamiliarity. Though home-station training can be effective, it's important to remember to mix it up if possible. A local impact range will eventually cease to provide a challenging training environment. Before long, the joint terminal attack controller and joint fires observer can engage targets on the range from memory.
Case in point, I can control a mission on Redleg Range on Fort Polk, La. to this day - seven years later. If funds are available, a change in training locations can provide challenges with new conditions and target arrays.
More bang for the buck. It's important to note, the Joint Forces Command has put aside money to help defray training costs. The Joint Terminal Attack Controller -Joint Fire Observer Continuation Training Program aligns disparate JTAC/JFO units with CAS aircraft and provides temporary duty funding, otherwise not available, to enable live training to enhance JTAC proficiency and maintain currency. In order to apply for funding, the training event must involve two branches of the military. Military lodging can be provided. Also, the event must be scheduled during periods of historical favorable weather. The last step is to provide an after action review of the training event. The link to request funds can be found on Air Force Knowledge Now. Users, via a CAC card, must create an online account to access the AFKN system.
Stay in the game. A warrior should be ready to perform with little to no warning. This ability does not happen by itself. Stay ahead of the game by not allowing JFO skills to be dulled by the daily grind. The warrior reaches a high level of performance with continuous training. Growing JFO skills takes time and effort, but the end result is a capable combat asset for any commander. Get in the books and utilize all training venues and material that are readily available. A thorough training program that builds upon the knowledge, skills and abilities acquired at Fort Sill cannot be understated. Quality training at home station allows concentration on fine-tuning techniques at NTC or JRTC. The formal JFO course held at Fort Sill is just the beginning of a JFO's journey.
Last Reviewed: May 18, 2012