The Taliban fighters opened up on the Americans from both sides. It was the night of March 28 in the Kunar Valley in eastern Afghanistan, and a patrol from the 2nd battalion of the U.S. Army’s 503rd Infantry Regiment was under attack. Rocket-Propelled Grenades exploded against the thick side armor of one vehicle. Bullets smacked into the windshield of another. Several vehicles had their armor chewed up and pieces of equipment blown off.
At NATO Forward Operating Base Joyce, an earthen-walled compound just a few miles away, U.S. Air Force Tech Sergeant Phoebus Lazaridis sat in front of a laptop computer and a bank of radios. Over the course of a couple hours, the 33-year-old Joint Terminal Air Controller coordinated a series of pinpoint air strikes to assist the embattled troops.
It was an overcast night. The troops at Joyce could hear the Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles, based at Bagram roughly 100 miles away, flying overhead. The impacts of the F-15′s satellite- and laser-guided bombs were chest-thumping bass notes. From a distance, it might have seemed that the Air Force was carpet-bombing the Kunar Valley.
In reality, the F-15s dropped just a handful of bombs — and those only after Lazaridis, the aircrews and Army commanders had painstakingly surveyed the impact zones for Afghan civilians. The end result is that just one Taliban fighter was confirmed killed. It was as bloodless an engagement that NATO could hope for, while still being successful. The ambushed soldiers escaped the kill zone with just one casualty: a soldier shot cleanly through a limb.
Just two years ago, during a previous yearlong deployment to the same valley, Lazaridis helped clear jets to drop more than a million pounds of ordnance. In 2010, the Air Force has dropped just a fraction of that. “It’s part of the new rules of engagement,” Lazaridis said. The new rules are meant to reduce the risk of civilian casualties that might undermine NATO’s efforts to win over the Afghan population. The restrictions have a heavy burden for Lazaridis and other young JTACs, who must walk a fine line between helping NATO troops and protecting civilians.
Eyes and Ears
“Air power is one of those asymmetric advantages we have in Afghanistan,” said Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Brad Lyons, from the 34th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, flying F-16 Block 40s from Bagram. “We take our technology, we take our people, we take the system we have in place … and we put our ordnance very precisely where the ground commander is looking to put that ordnance.”
“There are a lot of pieces in place to ensure our air power is used in a responsible manner,” Lyons continued. “JTACs are a huge part.” He should know. In the 1990s, Lyons spent a few years as a JTAC himself.
It was a cool March morning at Bagram, a sprawling air field and outpost originally built by an occupying Soviet army in the 1980s. Today the air field is the major air hub for the escalating NATO war effort. Here, the 34th with its F-16s plus the 494th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron flying F-15Es provide Close Air Support coverage for all of eastern Afghanistan. Every day, the two squadrons put most of their planes into the air. Most days, they participate in some kind of engagement, perhaps a “show of force” involving no ordnance, a strafing pass or a bombing run with 500- or 2,000-pound weapons.
Regardless, by NATO policy every engagement requires a JTAC. He might be hunkered down with ground troops, within sight of the enemy; sitting in a vehicle near the front lines; or, like Lazaridis on March 28, participating remotely in the Tactical Operations Center of a Forward Operating Base. Where he’s located, and the nature of the engagement, dictate which technologies the JTAC employs. But the purpose is always the same: to “mediate” between air and ground forces, and act as a sort of “combat ombudsman” to ensure that NATO air power doesn’t harm civilians.
“That JTAC … in some ways I’m his eyes and ears,” Lyons said. “In many ways, he’s my eyes and ears. He’s going to tell me what that ground commander’s intent is, what effects he’s looking for. The effects may be to kill the enemy. In some cases, it may be not to kill enemy. It may be non-traditional [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] to search a room and make sure his forces can move unimpeded.”
“Every dynamic requires a unique approach,” said Air Force General Steve Kwast, commander of Bagram’s 455th Air Expeditionary Wing. “Afghan culture and the Afghan environment require a very sophisticated approach with regards to the American way of war. The old way is, you maneuver, and when you make contact with the enemy, you stop and call in overwhelming firepower to do away with the enemy and move on. In Afghanistan, the damage that can do to the infrastructure of Afghanistan — homes, orchards, irrigation, and the people it might hurt — that does so much damage in this culture and this land that our approach needs to be: as we maneuver and contact the enemy, look at all the options we have without taking undue risk with American and coalition lives … [try] to solve the problem without pulling out that big stick.”
“Maybe it’s moving away and not engaging at that moment,” Kwast added. “Our ground force commanders are very good at this capability and understanding that they need to apply a diff approach.”
“JTACs are the glue that holds this all together,” Kwast said. “He’s the one to take charge of how this goes down. What the JTAC does is have a conversation between the aircraft and ground commander to make sure [they] solve the problem without doing harm to the Afghan people.”
It takes three years to train up a JTAC. That includes a year or so as an apprentice, following along behind a senior JTAC on combat deployments. There’s a reason the training takes so long. The air controller’s job is one of the most difficult on the battlefield. It’s intensively cerebral, requiring the deft mixing of vastly different spatial “pictures.”
“Imagine if you would, being down on the ground under fire,” said Lieutenant Colonel John Bunnell, commander of the 494th, flying F-15Es. “With your head down under fire, you have a very limited perspective” compared to the aerial view, Bunnell said. “It’s a different perspective, that’s in some ways actually better because you see more detail,” he added. “On the other hand, our perspective in the air cannot see detail. We have a much wider range. Integration of those two perspectives is difficult.”
And that’s exactly what a JTAC must do, day after day, on short notice and in unforgiving conditions. “What they bring to fight is the fact that it’s a fairly complex operation and it takes a lot of practice to make that happen,” Bunnell said of JTACs. “The Air Force ensures that the people who talk to our airplanes have currency and training.”
Much of an aspiring JTAC’s time is spent learning how to use the bewildering tool kit of technologies that allow a person to coordinate air and ground forces. In Lyons’ day, those tools pretty much amounted to radios. A JTAC would look at the target area, radio a pilot and compare what the JTAC saw with his eyes to what the pilot saw with his eyes. Once the JTAC was certain that both he and the pilot were looking at the same things and agreed upon the threat they represented, the JTAC — with the ground commander’s permission — might clear the pilot to drop ordnance.
Ten years later, JTACs have many more tools at their disposal. The radios aren’t much different, but in addition to radios the JTAC has access to full-motion video. All deployed U.S. fighters carry network-capable targeting pods with the capability to transmit video to a range of ground terminals. These terminals include large, bulky systems installed in TOCs, as well as handheld versions for JTACs traveling with the ground troops. The latest is the Remote Operations Video Enhanced Receiver V.
ROVER V is similar in size, shape and functionality to a Playstation Portable game system, said Staff Sergeant Kevin Rosner, a JTAC working under Lazaridis with the 503rd Infantry Regiment in the Kunar Valley. He showed off the three-pound, oblong ROVER while packing his gear for a March 26 mission into one of the Kunar’s dangerous capillary valleys, the Chowkay. Rosner’s apprentice Airman 1st Class William Chandler packed silently beside him. The two airmen seemed exhausted from the stress of frequent missions.
Rosner said he trusts his training to sustain him. “The mental preparation,” he said, comes from “preparing for the mission and knowing what you’re doing going into it. As long as you have the right tools, you can have confidence.”
Within minutes of reaching the Chowkay, the Army patrol was surrounded by enemy fighters who staked out positions on the high ground on three sides. Rosner prepared a request to prioritize the mission for Close Air Support, courtesy of Bunnell’s F-15Es. But electronic systems in the patrol’s vehicle jammed Rosner’s radio. He hurriedly arranged for the Army radio operator to send up the request using the patrol’s satellite communications system.
The plan was to put a bomb on each of the hilltops occupied by enemy fighters. It should be a clean strike, Rosner surmised, but it wasn’t without risk. The valley below was dotted with farmhouses. On the way into the valley, the soldiers had seen workers roaming their fields.
While the F-15Es were inbound, two Army scout helicopters buzzed the enemy positions, firing white-phosphorous rockets. Perhaps sensing the coming aerial barrage, the enemy fighters held their fire. The patrol sprinted back to their vehicles and retreated from the valley to avoid further escalation that might endanger local civilians.
Rosner said he accepts that sometimes his job is to prepare, prepare, prepare — and then do nothing. And that can be a good thing. Dropping bombs, he said, means “the shit has hit the fan.” Somebody’s probably been hurt — and more people are going to get hurt when the jets come in, cleared hot.