Close air support exercise challenges aircrews, ground forces, base support
By Capt. Nathan D. Broshear and Airman 1st Class Stephenie Wade , Atlantic Strike Public Affairs
/ Published November 09, 2007
MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- The cool evening is still as three camouflaged insurgents watch an Army patrol approach their village. Unbeknownst to the saboteurs, an Air Force targeting pod is closely watching their position and relaying information to the ground commander. Suddenly, a deafening explosion drowns out all sound and the overwatch position is engulfed in smoke, signaling a successful airstrike by an A-10 Thunderbolt II close air support aircraft circling far overhead.
This isn't a combat patrol inside Iraq, rather it's a coordinated scenario from Atlantic Strike VI, the U.S. Central Command Air Forces-sponsored close air support exercise happening in the Florida woodlands southeast of MacDill Air Force Base involving more than 800 military members spread across several operating locations.
The "insurgents" are experienced Tactical Air Control Party members role-playing enemy forces and the weapons drop is simulated by ground burst pyrotechnics and colored smoke flares. No one is actually injured and the ground commander moves to his next training objective. For all of these components to become reality a dedicated team of exercise planners and support personnel work behind the scenes to bring the training audiences together.
Capt. Dan Heely, the Atlantic Strike aircraft operations director, is temporarily working at the MacDill Air Force Base Deployed Unit Complex. He's an experienced B-1 Lancer Weapons Systems Officer, but his current assignment is to assist Army units in integrating airpower into their ground operations as an Air Liaison Officer with the 25th Air Support Operations Squadron at Wheeler Army Airfield in Hawaii. During Atlantic Strike VI, he oversees every aspect of flying operations to ensure aircraft are overhead the Avon Park military training ranges ready to participate in scenarios ranging from tracking an enemy vehicle to live-fire 'talk-on' training and simulated urban patrols.
"During our sortie periods, aircraft from locations around the southeastern U.S. participate from their homestations," said Captain Heely. "For example, JSTARS from Robbins AFB, Georgia have the ability to fly over the Avon Park ranges and return home, while close air support aircraft such as the A-10 operate from MacDill and F-16 Falcons fly from Homestead Air Reserve Base outside of Miami -- it's very similar to operations overseas in that aircraft arrive on station at different periods and can operate for varying lengths of time."
Time and asset management are key skills Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, the Air Force members embedded in Army units who help aircraft to target enemy positions, must master to be successful in urban close air support operations, explained Captain Heely. "Atlantic Strike challenges the full communications process from the aircrew in the aircraft to the Airmen and Soldiers on the battlefield, the Air Support Operations Center, the Air Operations Center at Shaw AFB, S.C.-- the entire 'kill-chain' is exercised to ensure all parties are receiving realistic and challenging training."
"Atlantic Strike scenarios are very realistic in that battles can vary in length," said Captain Heely. "It's up to the ground commander to properly manage the air assets on hand to combat the many simulated threats they'll encounter during convoy operations or while entering a hostile village."
Aircrew debriefs indicate flyers appreciate the quality of training taking place in Avon Park. "The A-10 pilots in particular have commented that they've enjoyed the varying levels of difficulty, activity, intensity and especially the instant feedback ground-based pyrotechnics provide during the training ... Atlantic Strike is realistic training for the close air support team," said Captain Heely.
F-15E Strike Eagle multi-role aircraft were scheduled to participate in Atlantic Strike VI. Unfortunately, these close air support platforms were grounded Air Force wide after an unrelated mishap. The grounding has had some impact on exercise operations, commented Captain Heely. "But fortunately, we've been able to use other aircraft or operate with less air support for certain scenarios, so the impact on training for our primary audience, JTACs and Air Support Operations Center, is minimal."
So far, support from host bases has been first class, said Captain Heely. "We're deeply grateful to each of our host bases. We've got hundreds of participants at multiple locations -- everyone has pulled together to ensure this event runs smoothly," he said.
"One off-base hotel even held a charity barbecue benefiting the Fisher House (a charity organization assisting families of wounded veterans) for Atlantic Strike participants ... it was a touching thank you," added Captain Heely.
Aircrews and JTACs aren't the only military members learning from the Atlantic Strike battles. Capt. Jennifer Gurganus, Aircraft Maintenance Unit officer in charge with the 81st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, and her unit are on temporary duty at MacDill AFB while their A-10 aircraft participate in Atlantic Strike VI.
These maintainers from Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany work out of a hangar next to the MacDill Deployed Unit Complex to ensure aircraft are ready for various training scenarios over the Avon Park Air Ground Training Complex, launching 16 sorties per day.
"Atlantic Strike is great preparation for deployment for both aircrews and maintainers," said Captain Gurganus. "Close air support is our primary role and this specialized training is the perfect opportunity for our munitions experts, weapons loaders and maintainers to work together in a mock-combat situation prior to actual deployment."
"I've been extremely impressed with everyone's hard work ... they've been doing an outstanding job during this exercise as I expect they'll continue to do so once we arrive downrange," added Captain Gurganus.
"We've had the chance to use more munitions and turn aircraft with a smaller staff (versus home station) during this exercise so adding a bit of pressure has helped to keep everyone sharp ... Atlantic Strike has ensured that once we deploy, the enemy should be ready to 'Fear the Hog,'" concluded Captain Gurganus.