Joint Terminal Attack Controller
© 2017 FrontLine Defence (Vol 14, No 3)

The human link between air and ground

Imagine you are fighter pilot flying over a battle at about 10,000 feet with orders to deliver 
ordnance. The area where the battle is taking place covers no more than about a square kilometre of space, with buildings and soldiers and vehicles spread out all over that area with weapons firing. How are you going to identify the exact point of your target? Enter the JTAC

CF-188 Hornet conducts a mission. (Photo: Cpl Manuela Berger, 4 Wing Imaging)

A JTAC acts as the ground force commander’s link to the use of airpower in a land battle. They plan and execute air support to army operations, integrating the effects of airpower to achieve the objectives of their respective commander. JTACs come from many areas of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) including the Canadian Army (CA), the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM).

The qualifying course to become a JTAC is conducted at the Royal Canadian Artillery School (RCAS) located at Base Gagetown in New Brunswick. It is considered one of the most challenging courses the CA has to offer. It requires students to master basic and advanced Close Air Support (CAS) theory, learn to set up and operate JTAC equipment, plan and execute safe and effective CAS missions, and provide appropriate advice to ground commanders, all while employing CAS in support of realistic scenarios.

The JTAC cell from 45 Battery at the RCAS was recently out in Petersville in the Gagetown Range and Training Area conducting “currency runs” which allow JTACs to maintain this distinct capability. I had the privilege of accompanying Captain Greg Wallace, one of the Combat Training Centre’s Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) officers, to see what they do and how they do it as they conducted low-level controls. 

Ideally, there is always a JTAC on the ground able to support the frontline troops. This however is not always feasible, so the JTAC capability is also maintained through the TACP at Unit Headquarters, usually at Brigade level or higher.

Nov 2016 – Army soldiers participated in Exercise Common Ground II, which exposed students to a combined arms experience. (Photo: Haley Voutour, 5th Canadian Div Support Group Gagetown)

Each year, in order to remain current, JTACs are required to complete 12 controls, each with its own specific set of requirements. Each currency run is conducted with the intent of maintaining the required controls. Beyond this, a JTAC will also control for proficiency, which usually involves controls of a higher difficulty level to build knowledge for more complex scenarios.

“The key factor in training JTACs is that there are international agreements concerning procedures and training that must be adhered to, so every JTAC trained in the Canadian Armed Forces is able to work with U.S. and NATO allies seamlessly,” said Captain Wallace. “Everyone involved here are qualified JTACs and we keep a list of requirements and controls to maintain qualifications.”

The JTAC course teaches students how to ensure the safe integration of aircraft into a land battle. Maintaining awareness with respect to aircraft that travel at high speeds and that are able to deliver large ordnance payloads is a skill that needs to be taught in a unique environment. Included in the equipment that JTACs customarily use in the execution of their missions are lasers, night vision and night marking devices, and a variety of radios. Digital datalink equipment is also a capability in which JTACs must remain current however, Canada does not yet specifically possess it.

Of course, the scenarios being used in this training are designed to be as realistic as possible. The JTAC instructors confirm airspace dimensions and gun locations of nearby artillery training – everyone is keenly aware of the very real risks involved in this training. Low-level controls are by definition, below 5000 feet, so tremendous care must be taken to ensure the supporting aircraft and their pilots remain clear of obstacles and hazards. 

“Controls using low-level tactics – which are fighter aircraft tactics – are used to enable a friendly aircraft to engage targets in a contested air environment by reducing their visibility to the enemy,” explains Major Neil Ryan, Senior TACP and G3 Air from the Combat Training Centre located at Base Gagetown. “These tactics can also be used in the event of poor weather, creating a situation where only low-level tactics will enable the aircraft to acquire the targets.”

WO Chad Walker, a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) Instructor, provides guidance to Sgt Seth Albert. (DND Photo)

Alpha Jets may not be a common sight in the training area but they are no strangers to the base either. They are the Dassault-Dornier Alpha Jet owned by a company named Discovery Air Defence Services which is a privately owned military contracting company. While several elements of the CAF use the Alpha Jets to fulfill their training needs, the mission-set for the particular training event I attended involved providing low-level air support in an urban environment, which is why Petersville was used. Pass after pass, the JTACs and the pilots coordinated with each other, constantly delivering valuable training and experience to each participant on the ground.

“A well-trained soldier is a ready soldier,” says Major Glen Dunlop, the Battery Commander for 45 Battery at the RCAS. “In order to perform the role of the JTAC effectively, these soldiers employ a very unique skill-set to integrate air and land combat power to support operations in all phases of land warfare. This link between ground and air is vital to effectively engage opposing forces while minimizing the risk to our troops.”

The use of Alpha Jets for this training provides two-fold benefit. First, CF-18 aircraft do not generally train to low-level controls, so Alpha Jets are one way to maintain this currency. Second, it enables training while sparing time and resources associated with the CF-18s, leaving them to fulfill their operational responsibilities. 

Although JTACs are able to practice specific procedures in a simulator, some of the controls require an actual aircraft – the ability to provide training with actual aircraft is crucial in maintaining skills. Training environments such as this produce challenges for JTACs that cannot be replicated in the simulated environment.

All JTACs must be able to think quickly, communicate clearly, intuitively understand complex 3-dimensinal environments, apply theoretical concepts in stressful situations, provide sound fire support advice, and execute a plan that meets the Commander’s intent. The JTACs from 45 Battery did just that! 

The Combat Training Centre uses state-of-the-art technologies to enhance soldier and leadership training.  These range in complexity from simulation systems to individual vehicle and weapon simulators.
The schools of the Combat Training Centre conduct over 600 course serials and host, on average, between 15 000 and 19 000 Regular and Reserve Force students annually. 
The Combat Training Centre, a formation of the Canadian Army Doctrine and Training Centre, is headquartered at 5th Canadian Division Support Base Gagetown in Oromocto, New Brunswick, and is comprised of eight schools and two units.

•    Royal Canadian Armoured Corps School
•    Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery School
•    Infantry School
•    Tactics School
•    Canadian Forces School of Military Engineering
•    Canadian Army Trials and Evaluation Unit
•    Combat Training Centre Headquarters
•    Canadian Army Advanced Warfare Centre (Trenton, Ontario)
•    Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers School (Borden, Ontario)
•    Canadian Forces School of Communications and Electronics (Kingston, Ontario)

More than 2000 Regular Force members, Primary Reservists and civilian employees contribute to making the Combat Training Centre a true learning organization, providing relevant, credible, realistic, demanding, and safe training that meets the needs of the Canadian Armed Forces.

Captain Ian McIntyre works at the Combat Training Centre HQ in Gagetown, NB.