Now, instead of playing out in an undisclosed remote location overseas, tonight’s mission is happening within the confines of the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR). For the uninitiated among you, the range provides a realistic environment to conduct testing, training and tactics development in support of U.S. national interests. All of our armed services use it, for it is the largest contiguous air and ground space available for peacetime military operations in the entire free world.
The range occupies almost three million acres of land, five thousand square miles of airspace which is restricted from civilian air traffic over-flight and another seven thousand square miles of Military Operating Area, or MOA, which is shared with civilian aircraft. All in all, it’s an area roughly the size of Switzerland, and it’s the United States Air Force Weapons School’s playground.
Sitting in the seat to my right is an Air Force Master Sergeant I’ll call “Jesse.” He entered the Air Force eighteen years ago as a TACP, or Tactical Air Control Party. Following the attacks in September of 2001, he was assigned to elements within Joint Special Operations Command. He has deployed nine times in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, having served with distinction and taken part in several high-profile missions that have netted some of the world’s most wanted terrorists.
On his last trip, he was involved in a daytime vehicle interdiction where an improvised explosive device detonated nearby, causing an injury significant enough that it made him non-deployable for a period of time. It was during his recovery that he was offered a job at the Weapons School, where his assignment involved helping integrate the JTAC/TACP mission into the overall scope of instruction. The aircrew involved with the CAS, or close air support mission, needed a look at how to conduct their mission in support of large-maneuver elements of the regular army or Marine Corps, as well as the smaller, more agile elements of Special Operations Forces.
From there, Jesse’s role developed into something larger, being initial cadre in standing up the JTAC Advanced Instructor Course, where JTACs and TACPs from both conventional and special operations units would learn and improve on tactics, techniques, and procedures in use downrange—not just established doctrines contained within the “book” in their discipline. In addition, they would become the same tactical experts in cross-domain conflict that other men and women became in earning the coveted graduate patch of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School.
“The problem we were seeing downrange is that all of the JTAC training was conducted in house,” Jesse reflected later. “So they were learning the tactics and techniques verbatim out of the manual, but were missing the updated procedures component, which had changed dramatically in combat after 9/11.”
Jesse, along with the other members of the initial cadre, validated the course, which would ultimately lead to them being the very first enlisted graduates of the United States Air Force Weapons School in December of 2012.
“We need the WUGs to have an understanding of all the digitally-aided stuff that we’re doing now as JTACs, and for us, it’s especially beneficial knowing how to integrate cyber, ICBM, intel—all the things we don’t get to see downrange under normal circumstances, into what we’re doing. When you have increased situational awareness about those things, your lethality is increased across the board.”
Ultimately, the reason for airpower is the boots on the ground. Giving the WUGs the opportunity to get face to face and learn how the Combat Controllers and TACPs operate is invaluable, and makes the fight more personal. Instead of just a voice at the other end of a radio transmission, yelling for air support and directing fire, all of a sudden that specialist on the ground has a face that the pilot knows, tightening the bond, and increasing the overall effectiveness of the partnership.
The next installment takes a look at the Geographically Separated Units (GSUs) of the USAF Weapons School, illustrating the challenges they face being apart from the main body, as well as the advantages they have to their (relative) autonomy.