274th ASOS Prepares for Combat

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Kevin J. Colbert
[The 274th Air Support Operations Squadron is stationed at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in Syracuse, NY. The squadron is currently deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. This is the first in a series of four articles giving the reader an inside look at how the unit trains, deploys, fights, and reintegrates from combat. The author works in the unit's support section.]

The men of the 274th Air Support Operations Squadron are a collection of type-A personalities, characterized most conspicuously by impatience and competitiveness, ambition and aggressiveness. They wear distinctive black berets and there is pride in the manner in which they carry themselves. Some have benign nicknames like Nemo and Rabbit; another is called Angry. Their professional names are Tactical Air Control Party members, or TACPs; the more experienced are designated as Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, or JTACs. Around the squadron, they are simply "ops-guys."

They are Air Force but in war their place is among the Army. They will live with them and train with them, interpret an Army requirement into an Air Force capability. One TACP or two will accompany a unit into battle. And this is what they do: they will support the unit by the coordination of close-air support (CAS), and this support is an aircraft carrying bombs or rockets or guns or all of these. They will use sophisticated communications equipment or naked sight alone to talk the pilot onto the target, perhaps a vehicle convoy or armed men clustered in a cave. They are a force-multiplier, meaning this capability magnifies exponentially the effectiveness of an Army unit. The firepower they bring will be precise, in terms of coordination, and proportionate, in terms of effectiveness, saving the lives of fellow soldiers by unburdening them of enemy resistance.

To be one of them is to have endured eleven weeks of advanced training in radio equipment and tactical communications, navigation by foot and by vehicle, and the mechanics of close-air support, a regimen supplemented by sleep deprivation and "Smoke-Sessions," wherein instructors at three A.M. provide to culture-shocked airmen creative ways to challenge their physical and mental limits. For this version of reality many are unprepared or unwilling and will have quickly shed any thoughts of adequacy in favor of a more impartial view, the tempering effects of relentless pressure. It is much to ask. By graduation, the ranks will have been culled by half.

A long-time TACP explained that in truth it is no one thing that breaks so many. You will become task-saturated, at times with little or no food or sleep. You are placed in pitch-black or perhaps suffocating heat and expected to perform. They place a rucksack on your back that comes to weigh seventy pounds and point to some distant place and tell you to march and that march will last for twelve miles. A man arrives at the school house and can run for miles at a stretch and tell others how capable he is. But it is the heart for it all that determines those who will make it and those who will not.

A recruit turned TACP arrives at the 274th. Each morning, he will gather with the unit for PT and there is little consideration for the weather. They do several forms of push-ups and sit-ups, followed by sprints and tire flips with large tractor tires that are never allowed to be rolled. They encourage each other and are always receptive to new exercises. The days are given over to refinement of existing skills and the introduction of new ones, some weapon or tactic or recent scenario worthy of discussion. They will travel to other places for weeks at a time preparing for a deployment to a foreign place. Spending time with them is to learn that the worth of an endeavor is not measured in dollars or praise but the extent to which it enables mission accomplishment.

They are not always privy as to the finer details of when and to what warzone the next deployment will take them, but each man can say for certain that he will be deploying, for the skills of a TACP are much in demand and there are not many of them.

[The next article will focus on deployment to the war in Afghanistan.]