Badass Alert: Joint Terminal Attack Controllers

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It was about a decade ago, as the war in Iraq confronted our military establishment with a problem for which it was ill-equipped, that the Air Force rediscovered its periodic respect for close air support (CAS). 

It’s a mission the service consistently tries to minimize or even escape, sometimes by trying to divest itself of the means to conduct it and other times by simply trying to implicitly redefine it into something more consistent with institutional interests. This isn’t done out of malice. It’s just the bureaucracy doing what bureaucracies do, and tightening budgets have a tendency to exacerbate corporate clownery.

But in those moments when CAS becomes the Air Force’s core contribution to a given fight, it spends more resources and gives more focus to a community of practice that otherwise does its duty mostly out of view. This community includes, among many others, Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs). This small band of undeniable badasses has an outsize mission impact.

These are the people who live and work with the Army and Marine Corps in the field, coordinating the delivery of kinetic airpower in support of ground operations. They have the task of developing an aerial perspective while living at meters length from the action, which is no small chore. They have the added job of translating that perspective into digestible, actionable information for ground forces, and must also build a ground picture for pilots transiting over the fight. If they get it wrong, the wrong people die. But they seldom get it wrong.

JTACs are the connective tissue between ground and air that makes joint firepower real. Their expertise turns the tide in firefights. It results in dead adversaries. It saves lives.

For about a decade now, JTACs have been on the move constantly. We can never get enough of them to meet demand, and we’re always finding new trouble spots where their services are essential. They’re chronically understaffed, and we don’t always give them the training and downtime they need. Yet, they continue, against these headwinds, to prevail.

One of the reasons JTACs are so effective is the extraordinary degree and character of teamwork they demand of themselves. This is a critical aspect of joint warfighting: the ability to form relationships of trust … to quickly establish credibility and earn the respect of teammates who consign their very lives to one another. JTACs do this well, in part because they live and work closely with their teammates under the worst of conditions … and in part because they know how important it is that the well of teamwork and mutual respect always be present to draw upon when the chips are down.

Today’s JTACs have re-written Air Force history. They represent what makes military service unique and special. People join the military for all sorts of reasons. College money, to get a start in life, or maybe out of pure patriotism or a sense of duty to country. But they stay in uniform for a much narrower set of reasons, and the biggest one is that they want to be part of a team that is doing something consequential together. It’s loyalty … not the kind you get by ordering people around, coercing them with policies, or quoting them passages out of rulebooks … but genuine loyalty. The kind that makes people want desperately to be a part of something even on the bad days. They don’t do it for money or for work-life balance, though those things are important in the big equation. They choose to stay because they don’t want to leave their brothers and sisters behind.

It’s worth registering their example this Veterans Day. Consider the following.

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