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.
“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.