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An Afghan Air Force tactical air controller scouts notional targets for MD-530 helicopters during an ATAC training exercise at Camp Shorabak, Afghanistan, Dec. 18, 2017. Several ATACs worked to enhance their aircraft directing skills with assistance from coalition advisors in preparation for future operations in Helmand province. Tactical air controllers often travel with ground force elements on the battlefield to direct airstrikes onto Taliban targets, allowing for better maneuver and safety of Afghan forces. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Lucas Hopkins)

Photo by Sgt. Lucas Hopkins

Flying high: Afghan tactical air controllers strengthen aircraft-directing capabilities

19 Dec 2017 | Sgt. Lucas Hopkins II Marine Expeditionary Force

Several Afghan Air Force tactical air controllers worked to enhance their ability to direct aircraft during airstrike training at Camp Shorabak, Afghanistan, Dec. 18, 2017.

The ATACs worked side-by-side with coalition advisors to direct notional airstrikes onto simulated targets in preparation for upcoming operations in Helmand province. The setting replicated a real-world combat scenario in which Afghan Air Force MD-530 helicopters would destroy Taliban staging areas and other enemy locations.

“We’ve set them up as if they are in the district where an operation is taking place and giving them a real enemy and friendly situation,” said U.S. Marine Capt. Robert Walters, an advisor with Task Force Southwest. “From there, we’ll be identifying certain targets and communicating with the MD-530s to talk them onto that target so they can commence the strike.”

Tactical air controllers consistently travel with the forward-most ground element on the battlefield, directing vital air-based fire support and providing Afghan National Defense and Security Forces increased security, additional freedom of movement and ability to obliterate Taliban fighters.

“In a real-world situation, as those friendly forces move into objective areas they have identified, they’ll be prepared to use MD-530s or Mi-17s if necessary to support with regard to the scheme of maneuver,” said Walters.

Although advisors are helping to develop this capability with their partners, the ATACs have demonstrated the capacity to coordinate aircraft in combat scenarios. During Operations Maiwand Eight and Nine, ATACs integrated with Afghan National Army 215th Corps infantry units and successfully coordinated airstrikes in locations throughout Central Helmand province.

“Having a competent, capable Afghan Air Force is going to pay great dividends for the ANA,” said Walters. “The more these ATACs work with their ANA counterparts… it will further implement another dimension we can attack the Taliban with and cause them to lose ground, while allowing ANDSF to take that ground.”

Task Force Southwest and other coalition advisors, including those with Train, Advise, Assist Command-Air, are developing in-depth courses to strengthen ATACs skillsets, in turn giving ANDSF throughout Afghanistan another lethal capability in the fight against insurgency.

“This capability is new,” said Walters. “[But] with where they stand right now, we’re confident they’re going to be able to support friendly forces and provide the same capability we saw in the most recent operations.”

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