18th ASOG JTACs exercise joint efforts at DRAGON STRIKE
By Airman 1st Class Dillian Bamman, 23d Wing Public Affairs
/ Published June 22, 2015
AVON PARK AIR FORCE RANGE, Fla. -- "Cleared hot!" yelled the joint terminal attack controller (JTAC), sweat dripping from his sunburnt face.
Within seconds, he hears the sound of 50-caliber rounds raining down on the target from an A-10C Thunderbolt II. As a billowing cloud of smoke and dust consumes his sight, he runs to his next objective.
This scenario was one of many conducted during Exercise DRAGON STRIKE, a JTAC-oriented exercise June 6-13 in Avon Park Air Force Range, Fla.
JTACs out of the 18th Air Support Operations Group worked in a joint environment alongside Airmen from the 820th Combat Operations Squadron, 23d Fighter and Maintenance Groups, and U.S. Army Soldiers from the 3-27th Field Artillery Regiment.
"DRAGON STRIKE is a means of taking JTACs and putting them in an environment where they're fighting against [simulated] high threats," said U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ramiro Villalobos, 18th ASOG JTAC. "Our goal was to take these JTACs that generally don't get this level of training and integration ... and give them means to do that."
DRAGON STRIKE consisted of close air support (CAS) and personnel recovery scenarios orchestrated through JTACs and aircraft.
"There have been all kinds of aircraft making an appearance," said Master Sgt. John Dolbee, 18th ASOG surveillance liaison and Exercise DRAGON STRIKE planner. "We have 10 [A-10s] from Moody here, a B-52 [Bomber] and F-16 [Flying Falcons] flying overhead, opposed to only a few at last year's [DRAGON STRIKE]. We gained a lot of assets this year, which gave [the JTACs] scenarios they aren't typically trained for."
For each CAS mission, the A-10 pilots and JTACS discussed mission planning before and after in-person, something usually not feasible in real-world missions.
"When we go out to these types of exercises, the pilots are from bases a few hours away, so our interaction afterwards is usually a phone conversation," said Villalobos. "It's a great opportunity to capture lessons learned in a formal setting and identify areas needing improvement.
"Without establishing a relationship to the pilots, the JTAC is just a guy on the ground," he added. "But if they do a pre-brief and a brief afterwards face-to-face, that relationship will make communication run a lot smoother, more like a CAS team."
The JTACs coordinate with CAS pilots often, but in a deployed environment, they may need surface-to-surface fire provided by the Army.
"Our goal with bringing HIMARS into the mix is to introduce something to a JTAC that they usually don't see or use," said Villalobos. "They were able to train on something [different] for a high-threat environment."
The 3-27th FAR 2nd Fires Platoon out of Fort Bragg, NC, gained experience by providing HIMARS support with JTAC coordination during DRAGON STRIKE.
"[The HIMARS] definitely provides a service that isn't always accomplished by aircraft," said U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Blaine Bradburn, 3-27th FAR 2nd Fires Platoon leader. "We have the capabilities of setting off a rocket, packing up and flying off in a C-130 within 10 minutes. It gives the [JTACs] a lot more options on taking out threats."
According to Dolbee, ordering a strafe run or a HIMARS launch requires extensive surveillance and reconnaissance, which is what the 820th COS's RQ-11B Raven program, a small unmanned aerial system (SUAS), provided to JTACs during the exercise.
"They used the SUAS's to identify future targets the JTACs didn't know of at the time," said Villalobos. "When the A-10s are striking at target number 3, the Raven's out there looking for target number 4. They used them in a very effective means in taking out and finding new targets."
Support roles like the Raven program are sometimes overlooked, but according to Dolbee, Airmen from the 18th Weather Squadron were crucial in planning their exercises.
In addition to the weather Airmen, the 23d MXG also supported DRAGON STRIKE for the entirety of the exercise by keeping the A-10s ready to fly.
"We hold an important responsibility of maintaining our aircraft, but [DRAGON STRIKE] was a joint exercise requiring everyone to do their best," said Senior Airman Jeffrey Veazey, 74th Aircraft Maintenance Unit A-10 avionics.
According to Dolbee, each Airman and Soldier played a pivotal role in this exercise, whether in the hanger ready to fix an engine or in the field calling airstrikes.
"This has been one of the best exercises I've been to," said Staff Sgt. Cruz Richardson, 15th Air Support Operations Squadron JTAC team leader. "We were able to coordinate face-to-face, get to know one another and work with assets we've never worked with. Overall, [DRAGON STRIKE] was a success."