If the final “Jeopardy” category in an imaginary U.S. Navy competition were to be “Amphibious Warfare,” and the clue “TACRon,” it is highly unlikely that anyone could phrase the correct question: “What is a Tactical Air Control Squadron?”
TACRons work in relative obscurity and their mission is not clearly understood, even by some familiar with the community. The amphibious assault ship skipper who recently asked rhetorically of a newly assigned TACRon officer “Why do we need TACRons?” was not merely being facetious, he was also vocalizing a common fleet-wide misconception about the mission, role and capabilities of a TACRon (whose call sign, by the way, is “Icepack.”)
Yet—TACRons were among the first U.S. forces to arrive in Somalia as part of Operation Restore Hope, where they established a tactical air traffic control system to support the Marine landings while also helping in the reestablishment of that country’s air traffic control System. In operations around the world, from Bangladesh to Bosnia-Herzegovina, TACRons have proved their capability to support not only military air operations but civilian operations as well. TACRon sailors are challenged every day.
Air support of amphibious operations does not occur in a vacuum, nor is it limited to aircraft—Tomahawk missiles and unmanned air vehicles all compete for airspace. On-call aircraft are stacked to respond immediately to calls for assistance from the beach while naval gunfire. Marine artillery, and mortars are firing—and the Cable News Network helicopter circles overhead gathering footage for the evening news.
What do TACRons do? They control the Navy segment of the Amphibious Tactical Air Control System (ATACS), a concept that few people except the Navy-Marine amphibious warfare team comprehend thoroughly. Yet if Operation Restore Hope—as well as several recent non- combatant evacuations and disaster relief missions, are typical of the Naval Expeditionary Force operations envisioned by “. . . From the Sea,” it is likely that the initial U.S. presence on the scene will be an amphibious ready group. The ATACS actually consists of two separate but functionally equivalent systems: a Navy one afloat and a Marine Corps one ashore.
Follow-on supporting forces must understand airspace control procedures established for the amphibious objective area (AOA). Aircrews that violate them needlessly endanger themselves, become hazards to other friendly air traffic, and may jeopardize the success of the entire operation.
The Navy faces significant issues regarding TACRon employment and a bit of history is necessary to put things in perspective. Procedures in effect today were not arrived at arbitrarily; they are the result of many hard-learned lessons.
TACRons trace their origins to the Air Support Control Units formed during the Pacific island-hopping campaigns to coordinate and control the air support of all services within the AOA. Unlike the Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea amphibious campaigns, where the attack force commander had no direct control over air support. Pacific naval commanders, like Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, painfully learned that every aspect of the assault, including air operations, must be controlled by the amphibious task force commander.
The units, working from amphibious command ships, were responsible for all aspects of air operations during the assault. Interestingly, they were controlled by amphibious commanders over the objection of the air commanders who were reluctant to place their aircraft under the direct command or control of non-aviation commands. Organizationally, however, the units remained independent from the ship’s company, ostensibly to ensure exclusive concentration on the problems of air support planning, coordination and control and to avoid involvement in extraneous duties aboard ship that would detract from their primary mission.
In 1946, the Air Support Control Units were redesignated Tactical Air Control Squadrons. Today, there are four active TACRons, each with an assigned reserve unit. TACRons 11 and 12 are stationed at Naval Amphibious Base, Coronado, California and report to Commander, Tactical Air Control Group One. TACRons 21 and 22 are stationed at Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Virginia, and report to Commander Tactical Air Control Group Two.
Each active duty TACRon is assigned approximately 14 naval aviators—including Marines—augmented by Army aviators. An additional Marine and an Air Force officer are assigned to the group staff. The naval officers represent nearly every aviation warfare specialty, with most from the tactical air community. They usually report with little amphibious warfare experience, and must complete formal training tailored to their billet. More than 50 enlisted personnel are assigned—primarily air traffic controllers trained to separate aircraft and air intercept controllers, trained to bring aircraft together.
TACRons plan, coordinate, and control air operations for the Commander of the Amphibious Task Force (CATF), and are the primary point of contact between the Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and supporting aviation forces. More specifically, TACRons:
► Provide tactical air traffic control.
► Coordinate helicopter operations.
► Are prepared to act as or in support of the Joint Force Air Component Commander (JFACC).
► Coordinate antiair warfare (AAW) defense for the ARG and embarked troops.
► Coordinate close and deep air support.
► Coordinate air assets with supporting forces.
► Provide fire support coordination.
► Control search-and-rescue operations for CATF.
► Serve on tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel recovery team.
► Remain prepared to operate or establish an air traffic control facility ashore.
Stateside, TACRon officers routinely deal with Federal Aviation Administration agencies such as Air Route Traffic Control Centers during Atlantic and Pacific fleet exercises. In addition, TACRons also support close air support training for Navy and Marine Corps squadrons at Naval Air Station Fallon Nevada, and Marine Corp Air Station Yuma, Arizona TACRons have coordinate all orange air support for ft cent fleet exercises.
Additional TACRonmembers deploy to augment staffs during major oversea exercises and, unique to the Pacific theater, a permanent tactical air control capability is maintained in support of Commander Amphibious Squadron 11, homeported in Sasebo, Japan.
Typically, four to six officers and 15-20 enlistedsailors, are assigned to the flagship of each deploying ARG. The TACRon officer-in-charge, usually the squadron’s executive officer, reportto the amphibious squadron commander as his tactical air officer (N6/N8).
Under joint doctrine, CATF is assigned designate airspace of defined proportions for operations, normally designated the amphibious objective area (AOA), whin is always defined in terms of geographic boundaries and specific effective times. A specific altitude ceiling may be placed on the height of the AOA—essentially reducing CATF’s absolute authority over all aircraft operatic over the AOA—to facilitate various missions of supporting forces, such as air defense of the task force by a carrier battle group.
A common misconception is that amphibious tactical air control measures are in effect only after an AOA has; been established; but, just like carrier battle group commanders, CATF maintains a continuous air defense zone around the ARG, although at a much shorter range—perhaps 50 nautical miles from the flagship. Recent operations and exercises suggest a possible need to expand the range of the air defense zone.
The tactical air officer exercises control through the Tactical Air Control Center (TACC) afloat. The TACRon’s capabilities when manning a TACC, however, depend heavily on the type of ship.
A TACC on an Iwo Jima (LPH-2)-class amphibious assault helicopter carrier has significant equipment limitations and is little more than a handful of radios, manualplots, and status boards. Air control is necessarily procedural, and—within the confines of the objective area—is dangerous at best and clearly lacks the combat effectiveness and aircraft safety that positive air control provides.
Tarawa (LHA-1)- and Wasp (LHD-l)-class amphibious assault ships, however, provide an exceptional array of Navy tactical data system consoles and air control scopes. TACRon controllers can maintain positive control of aircraft and monitor air activity within and without AOA, and the TACC is collocated with or close to Supporting Arms Coordination Center (SACC) and Helicopter Direction Center (HDC). These work in conjunction to control all aspects of air operations, an ideal position for a JFACC (afloat) to facilitate operations.
The TACRon helicopter direction center coordinates all helicopter assault support within the assigned airspace, maintains an up-to-date status on all helicopter movements, coordinates daily helicopter schedules for administrative runs—personnel, mail, and cargo—and writes the daily air tasking order for both rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft.
CATF uses the SACC to coordinate all supporting fires under his control. A TACRon officer, normally a Marine, is assigned as the air support coordinator and is responsible to the tactical action officer for the assignment and coordination of close air support aircraft, singularly the most important TACRon mission in supporting the projection of power ashore. Communicating directly with landing force tactical air control parties ashore, he receives, consolidates, and establishes priorities for immediate tactical air requests—including urgent medical evacuation missions; it can be the most difficult and dynamic of the many functions of the TACRon detachment.
Initially, control of all air operations in the AOA is assigned to the TACC on board the flagship. As the assault progresses and the landing force completes movement ashore, agencies of the Marine command and control system can be established on land, and the responsibility for various functions can be phased ashore. The Tactical Air Command Center ashore becomes the primary control agency in the AOA and assumes the call sign “Icepack.” The afloat agencies revert to standby mode, ready to reassume responsibilities should the situation ashore so dictate.
Marine Expeditionary Units (Special Operations Capable)—MEU(SOC)— normally have a limited capability to establish a Direct Air Support Center (DASC) element ashore. With no radar, data link, or identification-friend-or-foe interrogation capability, the element is designed for specific control of close air support operations rather than the direction and control of all air traffic and air defense operations within the AOA. It is normally geographically or electronically collocated with the senior fire support coordination center to coordinate air support missions with other supporting arms.
The TACRon community is confronted by several significant issues:
► Carrier battle group (CVBG)-ARG Interoperability. Predeployment training for the amphibious ready group and MEU(SOC) reinforces Navy-Marine teamwork in every evolution. Aggressive scheduling programs have been implemented on both coasts to match concurrently deploying CVBGs and ARGs during predeployment training to establish this same rapport. But if brown-water ARGs and blue-water CVBGs are to operate as white-water Naval Expeditionary Forces, significant carrier amphibious assault support paradigms must be broken. Many recent examples exist—from exercises, where artificial requirements were levied upon amphibious forces, to real-world operations, where AOA airspace control measures were violated—where it was more convenient for the carrier battle group to maintain the comfort of the status quo rather than maximize power projection capabilities ashore. CATF’s airspace requirements and the commander landing force (CLF)’s need for strike aircraft orbiting in on- call stacks are essential pieces of the exceptionally complex modern amphibious assault puzzle.
► The success of the U.S. Air Force Theater Air Control System (TACS) in coordinating the efforts of a joint air campaign during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm left a lasting impression on the U.S. Navy and obviously exposed some significant shortcomings within the amphibious forces. Access to Air Force systems, such as the Contingency TACS Automated Planning System (CTAPS), and improved communications—super-high- frequency radios—are required on board amphibious flag ships including LHAs/LHDs/LPHs. Training with TACS procedures and Air Force equipment must be increased. TACRon officers now attend the Air Force Air Ground Operations School at Hurlburt Field, Florida, and are participating in Air Force and joint exercises. TACS techniques must be tailored to amphibious force operations, not to duplicate exactly the Air Force ATO process, but to achieve the same results.
► Joint Force Air Component Commander afloat. In some situations, it will be best if amphibious forces either assume initially the responsibilities of a JFACC (afloat) or host the group assigned that role. TACRons can operate as a component of the JFACC and are trained to assume the role of JFACC on a suitably equipped ship for an operation of limited scope and duration. TACRons on both coasts have already supported JFACCs (afloat) during exercises such as Ocean Venture 93 and the amphibious portion of Tandem Thrust 92. [See “Commanding a Joint Air Campaign—From a Ship?” Proceedings August 1993, pages 34-35.]
► Adaptive Force Packaging. The establishment of experimental Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Forces on board carriers raises several significant issues concerning supporting arms coordination for the landing force. The combat lessons of World War II remain: if mutual interference and fratricide are to be averted, then organizations specifically trained in amphibious air support control measures and tactical air control party procedures are needed afloat.
► Naval Expeditionary Task Group. Currently under study, proposed command relationships must recognize that it is the crucial interaction between the TACC, SACC, and HDC on board the amphibious flagship that enables the simultaneous use of fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, naval gunfire, and artillery in support of the assault.
If “. . .From the Sea” points the way to total support for Naval Expeditionary Forces, then every community must be trained to operate in support of the amphibious forces. More specifically, aircrews from every aviation community must be prepared to operate within the Amphibious Tactical Air Control System.