Air Force joint terminal attack controllers, JTACS for short, are airmen who go forward with special operators, infantry, and other maneuver forces to call down the wrath of god on anyone with the cajones to engage American troops while they’re around.
Here’s what they do and what makes them so lethal:
A Joint Terminal Attack Controller from the 116th Air Support Operations Squadron, 194th Wing, Washington Air National Guard, observes a U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning during close air support training at the Utah Test and Training Range, April 11, 2018.
(U.S. Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Jason Kriess)
JTACs are an outgrowth of the “forward air controllers” who tipped battles in World War II through Vietnam. Their job is to keep track of all aircraft available in the area they’re sent into while supporting any maneuver force to which they’re attached. If that maneuver force comes into contact with the enemy, intentionally or otherwise, the JTAC gets to work.
They can fire their personal weapons quickly and accurately if needed, but their priority is fixing the locations of all friendly forces, enemy elements, and civilians on the battlefield. Once the tactical air control party, or TACP, has a map of where he can’t shoot and where he should, he starts calling in help from planes, helicopters, and drones flying overhead.
U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Clayton Eckstrom, Train, Advise, and Assist Command-Air Joint Tactical Air Controller advisor, observes the target accuracy of an Afghan Air Force training strike on Forward Operating Base Hunter, Afghanistan, June 18, 2018.
(Operation Resolute Support)
With the powers of all U.S. air assets at their command, JTACs can do a lot of damage. One of the most common weapons dropped in Iraq and Afghanistan is the JDAM, an older, dumb bomb upgraded with a kit that allows it to be guided to a target. JDAMs can be a 500, 1,000, or 2,000-pound bomb.
But JTACs can also call for bunker busters against hardened targets or strafing runs against personnel and light vehicles. If they think the best way to end the threat to friendlies under their umbrella is to call for attack helicopters to lay down a cloud of rockets, then all they have to do is set it up and tell the pilot that they’re “cleared hot.”
But the Air Force puts a priority on training their JTACs to not only call in fires from the air to the surface, but also “surface-to-surface” fires, employing artillery, like howitzers and rockets. In other words, JTACs are expected to be able to call in Army, Marine Corps, and naval artillery with just as much lethality as they call down fires from the air.
A joint terminal attack controller from the 18th Air Support Operations Group checks an M4 Carbine during an exercise aimed at pushing JTACs to their limit, Aug. 3, 2018, at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia.
(U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Janiqua P. Robinson)
So, for those keeping score at home, TACPs can kill you with nearly any artillery that rolls on the ground as well as any bombs and bullets that can be fired from the sky. And they can also kill you with AC-130s, which are planes that fire artillery from the sky.
But, of course, these are also special operations airmen, so even if all of those weapons aren’t available, they’re also well-trained in shooting you in the face.
All of this can quickly become more complicated than it might sound, because the JTAC has to organize all of this chaos, making sure that he never requests artillery that will cross the line of flight of the helicopters and aircraft in the area, since that would end with the aircraft being shot down by friendlies.
A Slovenian Armed Forces joint terminal attack controller moves through a building during training in Slovenia June 4, 2018.
(U.S. Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Michelle Y. Alvarez-Rea)
But the JTAC community has proven itself equal to the tasks, and often surpassed the call of duty while supporting their friends on the front lines.
For instance, Master Sgt. Thomas Case is the recipient of two Silver Stars, both awarded for actions taken as a JTAC-certified member of the TACP. The first award came for directing hundreds of strikes over a three-day battle in 2003, and the second award came for exposing himself to enemy fire while directing danger-close support from an AC-130.
And Tech Sgt. Robert Gutierrez received the Air Force Cross for directing air strikes in 2009 that saved his entire team, despite the fact that he was severely wounded with a “softball-sized” hole in his back that he didn’t expect to survive. At the time, Guteirrez was just shy of full JTAC certification, and had to get another operator to give the final OK for the mission. But it was his math and decision making, calculated while under fire and medical treatment, that saved the day.
Meanwhile, when British Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, went to war in Afghanistan, he went as a JTAC. And even he ended up deep in the fight, once manning a .50-cal. machine gun to fend off an insurgent attack alongside a bunch of British Gurkhas.
As a matter of fact, the Air Force’s JTACs have been so successful that the Marine Corps has actually adopted the term for referring to some of their forward air controllers, and has launched new efforts to recruit the best Marines into the job.
So yeah, don’t mess with the JTACs. Or do. We’re not your parents, and we’re not here to tell you how to lose your life.