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Flying High: Afghan Tactical Air Controllers Strengthen Capabilities

Dec. 20, 2017 | BY Marine Corps Sgt. Lucas Hopkins, Resolute Support Headquarters
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Several Afghan air force tactical air controllers worked to enhance their ability to direct aircraft during airstrike training at Camp Shorabak in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, Dec. 18. 

The ATACs worked side by side with coalition advisors to direct notional airstrikes onto simulated targets in preparation for upcoming operations in the province. The setting replicated a real-world combat scenario in which Afghan air force MD-530 helicopters would destroy Taliban staging areas and other enemy locations.

“We’ve set them up as if they are in the district where an operation is taking place and giving them a real enemy and friendly situation,” said Marine Corps Capt. Robert Walters, an advisor with Task Force Southwest. “From there, we’ll be identifying certain targets and communicating with the MD-530s to talk them onto that target so they can commence the strike.”

Tactical air controllers consistently travel with the forwardmost ground element on the battlefield, directing vital air-based fire support and providing the Afghan defense and security forces with increased security, additional freedom of movement and ability to obliterate Taliban fighters.

“In a real-world situation, as those friendly forces move into objective areas they have identified, they’ll be prepared to use MD-530s or Mi-17s if necessary to support with regard to the scheme of maneuver,” Walters said.

‘Great Dividends’

Although advisors are helping to develop this capability with their partners, the ATACs have demonstrated the capacity to coordinate aircraft in combat scenarios. During Operations Maiwand 8 and 9, ATACs integrated with Afghan National Army 215th Corps infantry units and successfully coordinated airstrikes in locations throughout Central Helmand province.

“Having a competent, capable Afghan air force is going to pay great dividends for the ANA,” Walters said. “The more these ATACs work with their ANA counterparts … it will further implement another dimension we can attack the Taliban with and cause them to lose ground, while allowing ANDSF to take that ground.”

Task Force Southwest and other coalition advisors, including those with Train, Advise, Assist Command-Air, are developing in-depth courses to strengthen ATACs skillsets, in turn giving Afghan forces throughout the country another lethal capability in the fight against insurgency.

“This capability is new,” Walters said. “[But] with where they stand right now, we’re confident they’re going to be able to support friendly forces and provide the same capability we saw in the most recent operations.”