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Air Guard takes steps to retain seasoned combat controllers.

In response to shortages of Air Force special operators, the Air National Guard is setting up a squadron designed to help retain highly specialized troops when they leave active duty.

The Oregon Air National Guard's 125th Special Tactics Squadron is scheduled to become operational in 2007. The unit previously was the 244th Combat Communications Squadron.

Located at the Portland Air National Guard Base, the 125th has 47 slots for combat controllers and, so far, has filled about 10.

Finding those extra controllers won't be easy. The Air Force Special Operations Command is supposed to have about 384 combat controllers in its 10 active-duty and Guard special tactics squadrons, but currently it only has about 200, said Air Force Lt. Col. Terry Maki, a special tactics officer.

The sole Air National Guard special operations squadron is the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, in Kentucky. This leaves few options for special operators leaving active duty who may want to serve in the Guard, but don't want to have to move to Kentucky.

"Talk to any combat controller," Maki said. "They'll tell you that they're tired of moving, but they want to contribute."

Activating a Guard Special Tactics Squadron on the West Coast will offer geographic flexibility. Based in Portland, the 125th is an ideal location to scoop up controllers leaving the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron at McChord Air Force Base, Washington, Maki said.

These operators are FAA-certified air traffic controllers. While that might conjure an image of a safe job in control towers, combat controllers have more in common with the elite ground forces they support.

Trained in numerous forms of infiltration, from high-altitude parachuting to combat diving, Air Force combat controllers accompany Army Special Forces, Rangers and Navy SEALs during missions.

"There's no movies made about us," said Sgt. Jim Hotaling, a decorated detachment commander with the 125th Special Tactics Squadron, reflecting a common attitude among controllers that their work often goes unacknowledged.

When seizing airfields, the controllers immediately begin directing the influx of warplanes and supply aircraft, no matter what the dangers or conditions.

"We'll do the mano a mano combat action, take the control tower down, and control the initial flow of aircraft," said Hotaling. "What that means is the full gamut--airborne operations, seizing airfields, providing close air support capabilities and controlling that initial 72 hours of air operations until the situation is stabilized, and we can bring in regular air traffic controllers."

In addition to calling in air strikes, combat controllers in Iraq and Afghanistan operated navigational aids, conducted bomb damage assessment and collected intelligence with unmanned aircraft, Hotaling said.

Each of the 125th controllers is a combat veteran of Afghanistan or Iraq, and many served in both theaters. Hotaling, a former Washington state trooper, estimated that the members of the unit average about 12 years of combat experience.

Hotaling noted that combat controllers' jobs have evolved over time. In Operation Anaconda, in Afghanistan, Hotaling directed aircraft using old Soviet maps--which he found to be surprisingly accurate--and a grease pencil. He ,also had to haul a 143-pound rucksack over 10,000-foot-high mountains and won a Distinguished Flying Cross for the attempted rescue of a downed F-15 pilot in Iraq.

A year later, during the Iraq invasion, the rucksacks weight had been reduced by 25 percent. Using wireless equipment has saved controllers from carrying eight pounds of cable. They now have laptops to receive satellite imagery. Instead of having to call in a Predator unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, controllers have their own portable drones.

Some special tactics squadrons are proficient in pararescue and combat weather work. The 320th Special Tactics Squadron in Japan and the 321st in England have multiple capabilities. The Kentucky Air National Guard's 123rd Special Tactics Squadron focuses on pararescue and combat control missions.

Oregon's 125th is one of three squadrons that specializes in combat control. It varies from other units in that it is funded entirely by the Air Force, and does not get financial support from the U.S. Special Operations Command, according to Maki. It will only report to the Air Force Special Operations Command, unlike other special tactics squadrons, which report to U.S. SOCOM.

This move was intended to enhance the Air Force's combat control capabilities, said Hotaling. "The problem is that so many of our guys are off doing classified missions with special operations forces, that the Air Force has lost a bit of its ability to control (combat controller) forces."

Hotaling emphasized that the new Air Force unit is very much aimed at joint-service operations. A series of miscues during Operation Anaconda served as valuable lessons, said Hotaling. He recalled coordination problems, for example, between special operators and conventional forces.

While special operations units had combat controllers squadrons, the conventional forces had "tactical air control parties," said Hotaling. "Up until Anaconda, we [special operators and the combat controllers] were the only guys in town. Then the conventional guys came in, and you have this clashing of SOF assets with conventional assets, who have their own close air support guys [TAC-P].

"So it ended up being a juggling match between all the terminal attack controllers over who was going to get the priorities," he continued. "Troops in contact have the highest priority for close-air support. The problem, as in Anaconda, is when you have multiple troops in contact. Who's deciding who is getting the aircraft?"

Calls for close-air support today are executed by joint terminal attack controllers, and they are supposed to follow a common doctrine, regardless of service.

Air Force combat controllers are learning how to intemperate with the Army and Marines, Hotaling said. "Most team-level operators are more comfortable talking and being with the other services than being with the Air Force," he noted. "It's not like you go to school to speak Army. It's just osmosis."
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Title Annotation:NATIONAL GUARD
Author:Peck, Michael
Publication:National Defense
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2005
Previous Article:Move to merge Air Force, Guard units derailed by base closures.
Next Article:Guard balancing emerging roles in homeland defense.

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