Get smart on the NTTR at the NTTR Academy

  • Published
  • By Benjamin Newell
  • 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
As I stood in the simulated urban combat area on the Nevada Test and Training Range with Maj. Trinidad Meza, we discussed the role of Joint Terminal Attack Controllers over the din of radio chatter between a JTAC and a pair of A-10 Thunderbolt II "Warthog" aircraft. As the major explained the finer points of the art of being a JTAC and guiding aircraft onto targets from constantly shifting perspectives, I slowly realized I was missing the real show.

That is when the impacts began.

The sound of 30 millimeter rounds landing on target actually reaches your ears before the sound of the bullets being expended by the aircraft. The impacts sound like hard hail on a tin roof in the distance. The noise is disturbing, but not shocking, because you have also seen smoke and dirt plumes from the rounds as they strike home. The disturbing part is what some spectators referred to as "Warthog backfire." That sound, a deep and guttural buzz, is often the last thing you hear when witnessing a Warthog attack run. I doubt you would hear it at all if you were on the receiving end of the barrage.

Learning the dynamics of an attack run, the role of a JTAC, as well as the capabilities and available targets at the range are all part of a day-long academy run by NTTR leadership, which I was lucky enough to attend. Occurring every six months, the NTTR Academy is frequently attended by spouses of current NTTR workers and newcomers to the area, like me.

"This puts faces, action and impact on what I do every day working for the range, but in 10 years have never witnessed," said Doris Austin, a security specialist at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. "I've talked about this, heard about it and read reports about it. Nothing beats seeing it."

It has been about two months since I arrived at Nellis and I have heard much about the NTTR, though a lot of the words seem hollow and almost unbelievable.

To quote the brochure handed out to NTTR visitors: "The NTTR maintains the densest threat simulator environment in the world...The NTTR is a unique and irreplaceable "National Treasure"... It is an unmatched battlespace for joint service and multinational large force integration training."

How could all that be true?

Well, I learned that the NTTR is more technologically-advanced than many other ranges because of a web of sensors, radar and radio towers which allow for trainees and testers to be monitored, even when flying or driving inside one of the many deep canyons on the range. Additionally, the NTTR is the largest available bombing range in the U.S., offering about 1,200 unique targets. And to top things off, in many ways, the NTTR mirrors the topography and environment of current areas of responsibility, like Afghanistan.

In one entire day on the range, I laid eyes on roughly one percent of it. The range is so huge, and parts of it are so remote, that some of the 800 contractors who work for the NTTR live and work exclusively on its 2.9 million acres. In fact, some radar and sensor stations are only accessible by air. There are whole simulated cities on the range, built to full-size replicas using stacks of up to 15 shipping containers. Autonomous vehicles speed down dry lake beds at 70 mph to be targeted and sometimes blown up by aircraft of all kinds.

Col. Kenneth Thompson, NTTR commander and pilot, has seen the range from nearly every perspective. He began flying over the range in 1988, and he performed three tours before eventually assuming command.

"I'm still surprised by what I see out here, especially by the people who work here," Thompson said. "Our people are really the reason this place works so well."

The academy gives its students a chance to hear briefings by leaders of operations, support and logistics, as well as finance gurus and the pilots and NCOs who work the range every day. Contractors also play a major role, maintaining all of the range equipment on the ground.

"Just like everybody in the Air Force, we're facing cuts," said Thompson. "It's important for the folks who work on base, and for morale, that everybody gets to see what they're contributing to every day."

If the NTTR is more of a concept to you than a concrete place where real training and testing occurs, I recommend signing up for the academy. You will not regret it.