Here's what makes a Combat Controller so deadly

The teams that have completed some of America’s most stunning special operations included a few airmen who are often overlooked when it comes time to glorify the heroes: Combat Controller Teams.

Combat Controllers are Air Force special operators trained to support all other special operators and to conduct their missions behind enemy lines. Here’s what makes them so effective under such challenging conditions.

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Air Force special operators aren’t well known, but they have a reputation as both intellectuals and brawlers. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth)

First, Combat Controllers are certified as air traffic controllers and are also often certified as joint terminal attack controllers. These dual-certifications mean that they can direct friendly air traffic and request attacks against ground targets from the aircraft overhead.

Obviously, the guy who tells the A-10s where to shoot, the AC-130s where to fly, and the attack helicopters where they should enter and leave the battlespace is packing some serious firepower.

AC-130 Hercules Gunship firing during Vietnam

The Air Force’s AC-130s are literally airborne artillery. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

To do this mission, Combat Controller Teams move forward with Navy SEALs, Green Berets, or other Tier 1 operators and use a radio to keep in touch with air assets assigned to the mission. In fact, CCTs were originally formed to pair with Delta Force squadrons on their super-secret missions.

When they near an objective or get close to enemy forces, the CCTs call up their big brothers in the sky.

The controller tells the pilot what target needs to be taken out, where it’s at, and sometimes even what weapons and flight path the pilot should take.

As the combat controller is doing all that, he’s still in ground combat. While he’ll usually prefer to use his radio rather than his rifle — 30mm cannon fire from the sky is more lethal than 5.56mm rounds from the ground — he’s perfectly capable of going toe-to-toe with enemy soldiers when necessary.

Combat controllers practice firing movements on the range at a forward-deployed location supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. Air Force combat controller teams are trained to conduct and support special operations under clandestine, covert or low-visibility conditions. (Photo and cutline: U.S Air Force Staff Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock)

Photographed: guys who are not afraid to fight you. (Photo: U.S Air Force Staff Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock)

This connection with air assets also gives the CCTs a coveted battlefield asset: real-time surveillance. Pilots can describe what they see on the ground to the controller who keeps mission commanders in the loop. In some cases, pilots and drones can even send data streams to devices carried by the controller so the airman can watch the enemy in real time.

All these capabilities are valuable for joint operations, but they also allow combat controllers to conduct their own missions — which they do.

Air Force Combat Controllers clear airspace and runways for a C-130 to take off in support of Operation Enduring Freedom

(Photo: US Air Force Staff Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock)

One such mission is covert airfield seizure. The Army will send Rangers or paratroopers to seize airfields from enemy forces, but dropping a few hundred infantrymen can draw a lot of attention.

So, sometimes the Air Force sends small teams of combat controllers and other Air Force special operators on their own if the base isn’t too heavily guarded.

The controllers will seize the airfield and then certify it for operations. Once they give their blessing to an airfield, reinforcements can land on the runway and support aircraft can come in for refueling and rearmament.

Controllers can also go into combat on their own to help allied forces or to direct airstrikes that will delay an enemy or break up an attack.

To get to the battlefield, the controllers can swim in with SCUBA and diving gear, parachute, ruck, drive, or even ride motorcycles.

Air Force special tactics officer Maj. Charlie Hodges described “bike chasers,” controllers who throw a motorcycle out of a plane, parachute after it, and then ride the bike to their objective when they reach the ground.

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Wasn’t kidding about those bikes. (Photo: U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Gabe Johnson)

“All of our guys are trained to ride motorcycles,” Hodges told CNN. Getting to the fight sometimes “involves jumping out of an airplane, or sliding out a helicopter down a fast rope, or riding some sort of all-terrain vehicle, or going on a mountain path on foot.”

While Combat Controllers don’t always get the headlines and movies like SEAL Team Six, Delta Force, and others, they’ve proven themselves to be professional, courageous, and deadly in combat.

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