Military Steps Up Training for Joint Close-Air Support

By Kennedy, Harold | National Defense, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Military Steps Up Training for Joint Close-Air Support


Kennedy, Harold, National Defense


The U.S. Joint Forces Command is increasing its efforts to ensure that aviators from all military services follow the same procedures when they provide joint close-air support to ground troops during combat.

The command this year began conducting training exercises that focused heavily on JCAS, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Gregory McWherter, chief of the Joint Close-Air Support Branch at JFCOM headquarters in Norfolk, Va.

JCAS is defined as an air action--either by fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters--against hostile targets that are close to friendly forces. Each air mission has to be integration carefully with the fire and movement of those forces, McWherter told National Defense.

The concept is almost as old as military aviation itself. Military biplanes first strafed enemy troops in the battlefields of World War I. Today in Iraq and Afghanistan, close-air support is employed heavily, with embattled U.S. and coalition ground forces calling in help from a wide array of aircraft, including Air Force fighters and bombers, and sea-based Navy and Marine jets and helicopters.

Procedures, however, vary from service to service, leading to unnecessary confusion and increased risk of fratricide on the battlefield, McWherter said. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. aircraft have attacked U.S. and coalition ground troops by mistake.

Exercises are designed to "fill the gaps and seams" in JCAS that cause the confusion, said Air Force Lt. Col. Jeffrey Gettle, a training operations officer in Norfolk.

The exercises are being conducted using a new Joint National Training Capability, which mixes live forces and simulations in an integrated network of sites to provide a 24-hour, common, real-time battlefield, noted Army Lt. Col. Sean Donahoe, a senior exercise planner at JFCOM. The command began developing the JNTC in 2002. It reached initial operating capability this October, and full operational capability is scheduled far 2009.

The first exercise--the Western Range Horizontal Interoperability Event--occurred in January. Originally, it was planned for May 2003, officials said, but by then fighting had begun in Iraq, and the exercise had to be postponed.

When it finally got underway, 9,400 personnel from the four branches of service and the U.S. Special Operations Command took part at 16 sites across the nation. Participating aircraft included Air Force F-16 and Navy and Marine F/A-18 fighters.

The exercise took place primarily in California and Nevada. Activities included a brigade rotation at the Army National Training Center in Fort Irwin, an Air Warrior exercise at Nellis Air force Base, a combined-arms exercise at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms and a Navy surface-launched, land-attack missile exercise near San Diego.

The emphasis during the event was on JCAS. "All facets of JCAS were assessed," Marine Maj. Gen. Gordon C. Nash, JFCOM's director for joint training, told a congressional hearing.

"The event was significant in that it achieved critical improvements in the execution of joint training," Nash said. He cited these accomplishments: The exercise was the first fully tactical JCAS exercise to be conducted and assessed to defined conditions and measures. It integrated live training missions with virtual and constructive simulations. It included live and distributed virtual participation of special operations forces. It featured a distributed training audience and training support.

A second exercise with a JCAS focus was held in August at the Army's Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La. More than 6,000 troops participated, including the Army's 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division from Fort Benning, Ga.; the 2nd Battalion of the 10th Special Forces Group from Fort Carson, Colo.; the 25th Marine Reserve Regiment from Worcester, Mass., and fighter and airlift crews from Barksdale Air Force Base, La. …

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