During my initial appearance on the show, Quinn asked me if JTAC operational procedures were similar to sniper teams, where we could prioritize what targets to hit. My answer was no. I explained that JTACs do not pick targets on our own. I mentioned that we support the Ground Force Commander [GFC] and service targets based on his direction and priorities. A big part of our job as JTACs is to advise the GFC on possible targets, and if a possible target presents a hazard to the aircrew, to convince the GFC such target is a priority to be serviced immediately. With that said, some questions may intrigue people who are not familiar with the Close Air Support [CAS] targeting and engagement process, such as: How do you know what targets to hit? And, how do you let aircraft know what target to hit?
For the first question, the answer is simple, but it comes in two parts.
- The GFC tells the JTAC what target to hit.
- The JTAC finds a target with his own eyes [getting shot at, etc.] or through other surveillance assets [both manned and unmanned]. The JTAC then advises the Ground Force Commander and gets his approval.
The answer to the second question is a bit more complicated. In reality, all JTACs need to do the job is a radio, a compass and a map. We have additional toys that make the job easier, but at the very core, what I mentioned above is all we need. We rely heavily on our ability to establish known reference points on the ground and talk the “eyes” of the aircraft to the target.
We can use the map to come up with coordinates using the Military Grid Reference System [MGRS] based on terrain association. However, such coordinates may be of poor quality because we may be getting shot at, suffering from sleep deprivation or are too amped up on nicotine and caffeine. In order to shorten the kill-chain, we need to provide the best coordinates that we can. We rely on two interfacing pieces of equipment organic to JTACs and critical to our ability to generate coordinates that are within 100 meters of the target. The GPS PSN-13 [DAGR] and the Pocket Laser Range Finder [PLRF 15C] are two lightweight pieces of equipment that every JTAC has when conducting CAS. Their predecessors, the PSN-11 [PLGR] and the Mark VII had similar capabilities but were much bulkier. This was an issue for JTACs who supported dismounted controls due to the weight when added to the already heavy equipment load-out of a JTAC. The PLGR was phased out circa 2003 and was replaced with the DAGR. The much-improved DAGR has become the standard for GPS handheld devices for all military ground operations. The PLRF 15C had been available to Combat Controllers much longer before it became the standard for TACPs.
In short, when the PLRF 15C and the DAGR are coupled, they use slant range calculation to create a set of coordinates. Using the present location of the DAGR, when the PLRF 15C zaps a target based on the distance and direction, the DAGR will calculate the potential location and elevation of the target. Accurate target and accurate elevation are critical to effectively conduct a CAS attack. The better the coordinates are that we pass to the aircraft, the faster we can service the target.
With such coordinates and after target confirmation, the aircrew will then determine what weapon is best suited for the target based on the effects requested by the JTAC. While we can request a specific type of weapon, aircrew are more educated on the weapons that their platform carries, and we rely heavily on their input – we do not always use JDAMs. Again, the accuracy of the coordinates might not be as important as our ability to get the “eyes” of the aircraft to the target. If the aircrew believes that a JDAM is the best weapon for a target, they can refine the coordinates to suit the weapon after getting them to “see” the target.
As a side note, when we use LASERs, we don’t “paint” the target; we mark it. I’ll save LASER employment for a different post.
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