Death On Call

The strategic use of airpower in the early “Shock and…

The strategic use of airpower in the early “Shock and Awe” phase of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq received wide recognition, but the role that tactical close air support plays on a daily basis has gone largely unnoticed by those not serving at the front. Air support by U.S. and Coalition tactical aircraft plays a significant role in ongoing combat operations and has saved the lives of countless Coalition troops, by striking precise, deadly blows on the enemy. Little known is the role of an elite U.S. Air Force ground combat force, known as a TACP (Tactical Air Control Party) who fights alongside Army forces on the ground.

tacp2.gif“TACP” (pronounced Tack-Peas), is usually composed of two or more enlisted Airmen who are trained as Tactical Air Command and Control Specialists. Coordinating and directing close air support for the Army is their primary mission.

Most Grueling Military Training Ever!
To qualify as a TACP, Airmen must complete the extremely difficult 105-day TACP qualification course, by Detachment 3, 342nd Training Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Florida. During this demanding and grueling course, trainees learn the basics of close air support and learn how to use an array of high-tech communications equipment and gear. They also get down and dirty, learning infantry skills to include patrolling, small-unit tactics and advanced small-arms marksmanship.

The course includes field exercises, with a week of non-stop patrols, a­­­­­­­­­­­­mbush drills, land navigation and field craft. This week gives trainees a glimpse of the realities of combat as they train in difficult conditions and rarely get more than two hours of sleep at a time. Once this course is successfully finished, TACP candidates are required to complete the 17-day SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) School, by the 336th Training Group at Fairchild Air Force Base, WA, which includes an intense six-day segment in the wilderness of the Colville and Kaniksu National Forests.

Once TACP candidates complete training at Hurlburt Field they are awarded the coveted TACP crest and flash, worn on the black beret. The black beret and TACP insignias were formally approved in 1985. Earlier, TACP’s had worn the black beret unofficially as a symbol of their elite status. After initial training, TACP’s do intense on-the-job training as an apprentice at unit level. They also complete other advanced schools such as the Army’s Ranger Course, Airborne Course, Air Assault, Pathfinder, Marine Corps Combatives and Combat Lifesaver.

TACP’s support Army ground combat man­­­­­­­­­­euver units such as armored and in­­­fantry divisions, independent brigade com­­­­­­­bat teams and even the Ranger Battalions and Special Forces Groups. In order to carry out this direct-support mission, TACP’s are assigned to units world-wide, known as Air Support Operations Squadrons (ASOS), normally based with or near the Army units they support. They fall under the operational umbrella of the major Air Force commands that provide combat airpower. Currently, there are 11 active duty ASOS home-based in the continental United States under the Air Combat Command. Another eight are controlled by the Air National Guard and support Army National Guard combat maneuver units. A number of ASOS that support overseas based Army units, are under the control of U.S. Air Force Europe and Pacific Air Forces.

Tactical Weapons’ Exclusive Invitation
TW was recently privileged to take a rare inside look at how one of the most elite of these Air Support Operations Squadrons operates and trains. The 14th ASOS, stationed at Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina, is assigned to support the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. The 14th ASOS comprises approximately 10 officers and 100 enlisted. Officers assigned to the 14th ASOS, as well as those assigned to every other ASOS, are highly experienced pilots or weapon-systems officers from the fighter and bomber communities.

These officers volunteer to serve as Air Liaison Officers. Prior to the creation of the TACP concept, which uses enlisted Airman to direct close air support, this duty was the responsibility of trained fighter pilots based on the ground known as Forward Air Controllers or FAC’s. Today ALO’s serve as the administrators of the various ASOS and act as advisors to Army commanders on the capabilities and limitations of close air support. ALO’s regularly perform their duties on the front lines.

The 14th ASOS has a headquarters element and four TACP sub-units known as flights. When deployed, the headquarters element usually advises the 82nd Division headquarters and provides administrative and logistical support to the four flights. Each of the four flights, designated A, B, C, and D flights, in turn each operate with one of the 82nd’s four Brigade Combat Teams. It has been the Army’s policy during the current stage of the war generally to deploy units as self-contained Brigade Combat Teams, rather than the complete divisions. As a result, one or more flights might be deployed downrange on a combat tour at any given time, while the others are not.

The exact composition varies according to the mission. A TACP team might be assigned at company level one day and the next day be with a squad on a recon patrol. TACP’s travel by whatever means is necessary to support their Army counterparts. The 14th ASOS has highly equipped armored Humvees for the mechanized role, but may also use 4×4 ATVs or travel on foot. Since the unit they support is an airborne unit, all of the 14th ASOS TACP’s and ALO’s must be jump qualified.

Insertion by parachute was demonstrated during the exercise conducted for TW. After preparing their gear and boarding a C-130 Hercules, one of the 14th ASOS flights conducted an airborne assault at Camp Mackall. Best known as a training site for Army SF and other SpecOps units, Camp Mackall has several highly specialized training areas. After jumping into Luzon Drop Zone, the TACP’s mission was to form up, establish security and have a communications net up and running in a matter of minutes.

A Pistol, A Carbine & Accessories!

Personal small arms are the only weapons organic to the 14th ASOS—currently the M4A2 carbine and M9 pistol. Deployed, TACP’s always carry both weapons, enabling them to engage the enemy in any situation. A wide variety of accessories and optics were noted on the carbines. “Ryan,” an experienced Master Sergeant, explained that a TACP may configure his individual weapon to suit. Based on operational experience, many TACP’s use the Leupold Mark 4 CQ/T or Trijicon ACOG in Afghanistan where enemy contact is usually at medium to long distances. In Iraq the Aimpoint M68 CCO and EoTech HWS are preferred because most engagements are at closer range.

When not deployed, the standard TACP field uniform is the older woodland BDU. Downrange, they wear the digital ACU to blend in with Army personnel. Unique within the Air Force, the TACP community is allowed to wear the patch of the Army unit to which they are assigned. They may also wear the combat patch on their right shoulder, of units they have previously deployed with.

TACP’s use a variety of high-end field gear: BlackHawk, Tactical Tailor, Paraclete, and London Bridge were seen. “Ryan” ex­­­­plained the Air Force has the BAMS (Battlefield Airman Management System) method of issue, that is highly responsive to putting good-quality gear in the hands of TACP’s and other USAF ground forces, such as Combat Control Teams and Pararescue.

As the TACP’s hit the ground they consolidated into positions with good cover and set up security. They then used PRC-117F multi-band radios and satellite transceivers to establish a commo net. Were this combat instead of training, they would then coordinate and direct precision air strikes in support of Army or other friendly forces.

In The Thick Of It, Always
All four of the 14th ASOS flights are now deployed—three flights in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, supporting the 82nd Airborne’s four Brigade Combat Teams. The 1st Brigade Combat Team has recently moved into Iraq from Kuwait, 2nd Brigade Combat Team has been operating in and around Baghdad, 3rd Brigade Combat Team is in Samarra. Finally, 4th Brigade has been operating out of Forward Operating Base Salerno in Afghanistan.

Intense combat is the norm in both Afghanistan and Iraq, where TACP’s from the 14th ASOS and other squadrons have been scoring heavy hits on Al-Queda and other enemy forces on a near-daily basis. This group of Air Force ground warriors truly live up to the TACP motto “Death on Call.” Excerpts from Central Command airpower summaries highlight the important work done by the TACP Airmen: “US F-15E Strike Eagles dropped GBU-39s, GBU-38s and GBU-12s on concealed Taliban positions along a ridgeline and compound in Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan resulting in the destruction of enemy forces and crew-served weapons. In Iraq a B-1B Lancer dropped multiple GBU-38s on targeted buildings in Taji and Baghdad destroying them all. F-16s strafed IED emplacers with cannon rounds in Bayji.” These are just a few examples of the precision close air-support made possible by the TACP’s of the U.S. Air Force.

TW salutes these brave warriors and wishes them good hunting as they take the fight to the enemy and put ordnance on target.

Load Comments
  • steve

    Cool Article….Eagle 85 here yea it was pretty tough training I broke my foot down there training anyhow I love what I do thanks for the recognition theres not enough for us!

  • Larry Williams

    I went through the Tactical Air Command Ground Combat School (as it was called then) at Hurlburt Field in 1969 when I was a newly assigned, fully experienced (Sgt E-4) radio operator who was being trained to become a member of a three-man Combat Control Team comprised of a radio op, a controller, and a maintenance tech. The school in Florida was preceded by intense physical conditioning at my home base (Shaw AFB, South Carolina)and training on the equipment and activities we used such as ground power generation, antenna set-up, transmitter/receiver set-up,convoy tactics, and a refresher in Morse code. The school in Florida was only a few weeks and consisted of weapons and tactics mainly. We learned to use knives, bayonets, M-14’s, M-16’s, AK-47’s, grenades and grenade launchers (bloopers), 30 and 50 cal machine guns; as well as camouflage, map-reading, and survival/escape/evasion, The school scenario was that our outpost base was attacked and we had to devise a defensive perimeter while being subjected to psychological warfare and gas. The base would fall and be abandoned; we were then forced to trek individually through the swamp to “safety”. The escape and evasion portion was only a few days and when all the students were accounted for as some were “captured” and some “made it” we went through an old fashioned obstacle course right out of an old John Wayne movie and the course was over we were ready for what was called World Wide Duty. My unit was attached to the 82nd Airborne so we had to got through jump training as well. Those were the days right after Tet and we were not ready for what the real world had in store for us TTK’s (TAC Trained Killers) of the “Green Air Force” I am glad to see that at least they get some press releases nowadays. When we got into the field we were always TDY and usually slower, worse shots than the ground pounders we were supposed to be providing close air support for. Look up Composite Air Strike Force to get an idea of what we were up to in the 60’s.

  • HK

    I guess the author should have said “After 105 days of Pink Fuzzy Bunny, Fluffy White Cloud training and Kumbaya singing, the graduates are issued their coveted black beret…

    Would that be more interesting for ya?

    As a former Instructor, I always ensured each student got to his “Smoke” level at PT… Even the 300 club studs puke when “Trained” properly.

    What Flight/Class were you in Ramierez? Must have been a member of the Milk and Cookies flight.


  • DR

    All of TACPs want to be considered as elite and “high speed” as any other SOF career field. Just know that we aren’t though and it is a very select few of us that are. If you’re looking to be some Special Forces B.A. then look to the Seals, SF, PJ’s, or CCT. Having said that, we trail them closely…

  • TACPJustin

    You misspelled “thought” in the last sentince of your commentary.

    As you were,

  • Jason

    I agree it is not the most grueling training ever, but it is not the joke of a course you are making it seem. The washout rate is over 50% much like the SOF courses, and I promise the instructors put the students through training that will test anybody’s mental and physical thoughness.

  • Reading your article on TACP’s brought back many memories. I underwent TACP training at Ft Lewis, WA in early 1966 under the leadership of AF Lt Col McClain.
    At the conclusion of training we (about 50 Air Force personnel) shipped out to Vietnam with the advance party of the 3rd Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division. The remainder of the Brigade went over by ship. We spent the year in Vietnam on Operations with various units of the 3rd Brigade in and around Dau Tieng near Cambodia. Since then, I had never met any other Air Force Veteran with a similar experience.

  • I was a TACP member during Desert Shield; C/S Why Me-02. The country of Saudi Arabia needed a combat element in the Northern Province that could detour a threat from the North also build an area of expectable risk so coalition forces WOULD deploy their armor forces. One three man TACP mix together the doctoral operations of each collation member. Modified the American forces was done by the placement additional TACPs along with the 5th SF group. The SF were a G-2 asset who never worked CAS before but who were deployed hastily and were spaced miles apart who gathered enough hands on ability during the defense training to adapt to an offensive mission. The coalition was forged with the enemy only one hour away, by worriers in harms way establishing a baseline plan together defensive at first and later modifying it to the offensive. During Desert Storm I joined the Kuwait Liberation Bde, sure I struggled with taking refugees into a battle; I remember the discussion among the three of us, taking a short minute to say “hey isn’t that why were here? After surviving the battle, being among the first into the city and never saying no to anyone leaves me with No Regrets but as proud American who was among the few who did the impossible.
    The TACP was the key to success in the desert, badges and grander Macho Libra antics did nothing at all. The team was built from one team among a number of teams with the ability to adapt to the situation at hand; all teams were tested daily in the ability to communicate with radios also approachable in person. True strength is one without a hidden agenda one that would stand by the plan tested by war, with their word and a hand shake among warriors means endless limitations. Sure you can break down the achievements by bombs on target and causalities and excitable losses but did you ever consider the ability of flexibility and keeping the mission situation first. Oh yea, just bragger here: we took 9 divisions of T-72 and 55 tanks against T-72 and 55 tanks with no faradizations period. The 18th ABN called us a speed bump how GAY is that, they should pay attention to the basics. I know of a course that is put together by folks who walk the walk.

  • almesa

    Great article. My lens is from being a ROMAD as a young pup and currently a PSYOP Army Officer. At a certain point we all look past the badge candy and see everyone’s role as important. I am greatful for all the contributions of our soldiers.


  • R Ramierez

    Most grueling training ever!?!?!? Are you kidding me. The author obviously doesn’t know the first thing about SOF or combat units and training or selection. This fluff piece is GAY! Now, the TACP mission is a fine mission – there are some great dudes out there kicking ass, but as an entry level course – grueling as a far streatch. Mr. Shepard must’ve though grammer school playground recess was a smoker!!!