To compete with great powers, the Navy needs to capitalize on the experience gained from the past two decades of small wars and forge a permanent link between Naval Special Warfare (NSW) and carrier strike group (CSG) F/A-18F forward air controller (airborne) crews. During years of counterterrorist and counterinsurgent operations, small, highly trained special operations forces (SOF) units with robust command-and-control infrastructures operated inside the enemy’s decision cycle with rapid movement and refined skill. When they found themselves exposed to significant enemy action, they called in air support waiting above. In this manner, the NSW-CSG team can operate across the world in hostile regions and mitigate the risk of sending small subunits far from friendly territory when the enemy situation is sometimes hazy.
While great power competition is sometimes conceptualized solely as a contest between peer high-end warfighting technologies, historically, conflict often occurs on the periphery and involves small military forces. Fortunately, the Navy now has a surfeit of personnel with combat experience in this realm, and it needs to take advantage of this experience to write tactical and doctrinal training plans.
NSW has proven its efficacy in recent missions from the sea, air, and land. A CSG present in the region of trouble can employ its diverse capabilities on short notice. Marrying the two together, the Navy has executed all kinds of tasks in the regional brushfires that have flared across the globe since the end of the Cold War. From direct-action raids to intelligence gathering, NSW brings a host of capabilities to the fight. The CSG’s array of sensors, strike aircraft and weapons, command-and-control (C2) capabilities, and rotary-wing lift provides insurance and versatility to the ground force commander (GFC).
However, the main challenge to better CSG/NSW integration is hands-on training. NSW teams, like carriers and air wings, are low-density assets, always tasked and never idle. Demanding that the two simply train more together ignores the fact that training time is a zero-sum game. Mandating that CSGs integrate with NSW teams during workup cycles will reduce training time for other vital missions.
Fortunately, the Navy has many personnel in NSW and CSGs with extensive experience in low-intensity conflict. One would be hard-pressed to find a SEAL platoon that has many senior petty officers, chiefs, or junior officers without combat experience. Across the air wings in the fleet, there is unlikely a single squadron without an O-3 or O-4 with extensive combat experience. As combat operations in the Middle East come to an end, it is vital to capture that experience and hone it into doctrine.
The key players in the NSW component of this integration are the GFC and his primary assistant for close-air support, the joint terminal air controller (JTAC). Often the GFC of a special warfare element is a lieutenant—a very junior rank for the pointy end of the national spear. The GFC lays the boundaries for the air support, but the JTAC executes the mission. The JTAC is often a second-class petty officer on his or her second deployment. For a typical, theater-level SOF team, the JTAC is an NSW team member, not a JTAC specialist as in the Air Force.
As a combat pilot, I found NSW JTACs to be both the best and worst I ever supported. Later in my career, I became an instructor and evaluator of SEAL JTACs and served on a SEAL team as the fire-support officer, all of which gave me insight into why this is so. The JTAC qualification is prized among SEALs and special warfare combatant craft crewmen because it means teammates and leaders believe the individual can succeed in this vital and technical role in addition to all his other responsibilities. There is very little in the JTAC syllabus that is a natural extension of the NSW team member’s military knowledge and experience. Whereas the Air Force regards JTAC as a career field, the NSW JTAC gets a five-week class to grasp the complexity of calling in an airstrike near his position reliably and quickly. The best SEAL JTACs rely on their intelligence and poise to make clear what the aircrew are expected to do, but it is still a secondary or even tertiary responsibility for them.
As a result, a typical theater NSW team cannot employ a large number of aerial assets simultaneously without extensive planning. The JTACs do not have much experience handling more than one or two airborne elements simultaneously. A complex mission plan incorporating multiple aircraft is a hard problem to manage for experienced JTACs, let alone NSW JTACs with limited training. This problem is further amplified if the operation is going to take place in a more contested environment that requires electronic warfare and suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD), or that integrates fifth-generation aviation assets. It is not an easy problem to solve, because an NSW JTAC can only get more JTAC training by doing less assault and weapons training. It is not a compromise most NSW operators are willing to make.
The Current JTAC–Forward Air Controller (Airborne) Relationship
For a CSG to execute complicated missions on short notice with theater-level NSW teams, it will require GFCs and JTACs with extensive and rare experience. Fortunately, CSGs have assets on board the carrier who have tremendous experience coordinating close-air support—organic forward-air controllers (airborne) (FAC[A]s).
The Navy’s FAC(A) syllabus is not long—eight flights and a handful of simulations after classroom work,
sometimes including a ground JTAC qualification—but it stretches the aircrew to the limits of their capabilities. Ask a graduate of both the FAC(A) syllabus and the Navy’s elite TOPGUN curriculum which course was harder, and you may be surprised at the response. The FAC(A) syllabus forces
students to manage the balance of aircraft, weapons, and ground forces among the most chaos the instructors can create within an appropriate safety margin. The syllabus also provides FAC(A) students some basics on SOF support but not an extensive amount of integration training.
By doctrine, the FAC(A) is an extension of the fire-support team—owned in a SEAL platoon by the GFC and his JTAC. Where the JTAC might falter—say, organizing a dozen dissimilar aircraft in a close-air-support stack and directing their sensors—the FAC(A) has the experience to step in. The FAC(A) has trained in weapon-to-target pairing, the arcane arts of calling in naval gunfire and ground-based artillery, and a host of other ways to attack the enemy from the air. The FAC(A) has planned missions in contested environments and knows how to employ electronic warfare and execute SEAD in support of the ground force. The FAC(A) needs the ground element to explain the situation and nominate the targets, after which he or she will manage the close-air-support fires with more efficiency than the typical NSW JTAC—giving vital time back to the JTAC to coordinate with his GFC and take a second look at the friendly position. This interaction, however, is key—it requires specific training between the two elements.
Yet, with all the advantages the FAC(A)s can provide an NSW element, they are not frequently used for one main reason—operators generally avoid using in combat that with which they are not familiar from training.
The dispersed operating area of the western Pacific is a prime example of where CSG assets may be the only ones available to be called on to support NSW in either high- or low-end conflict. To expand the capabilities of the CSG and NSW, the GFC/JTAC/FAC(A) team needs to train together prior to deployment. Pairing an air wing’s FAC(A) crews with a specific NSW element can happen well in advance. Send more FAC(A)s to the NSW GFC’s schoolhouses to train the GFCs, which will simultaneously give the FAC(A)s an opportunity to learn the unique language of the SOF community. The Navy should then ensure FAC(A) missions are executed with the JTACs during post-schoolhouse range evolutions, which often occur on ranges near the fighter squadrons’ home bases.
A FAC(A) crew could be on the range for a couple of NSW training evolutions early in the workup cycle—they do not even need to be in the aircraft at first, just on the ground with a radio in hand, playing the game while watching and learning. By this time, the GFC/JTAC team has built some familiarity with the FAC(A)s and has started to grasp intuitively how to employ them to enhance the effects of their fires. Meanwhile, the FAC(A) crews will start to get a detailed sense of how their supported units operate and how their GFC/JTAC teams think and coordinate. Finally, the GFC/JTAC team gets the bonus of having some very experienced close-air-support mentorship alongside for planning and during missions,
improving their skills.
Toward the end of the predeployment training cycle, the Navy would have to get the groups together for some full-mission profiles in which both NSW and naval aviation leaders would have to devote some resources to working together. NSW would have to build training scenarios that call for FAC(A) support on a range, and naval aviation would have to send FAC(A)s and potentially additional strike aircraft. Furthermore, these scenarios would have to be trained to more than occasionally, as
the evolution will probably not always go well on the first run. But these are crack commandos and the best of the Navy’s F/A-18F aircrew—it will not take long to get the team working smoothly together.
The benefits for NSW are manifest. The GFC and JTAC will gain invaluable experience in close-air-support planning, particularly in more advanced or contested environments, by working with a veteran FAC(A) crew, reducing risk in the field and potentially enabling more difficult and complex missions. The FAC(A) crews will become the link between the GFC and the CSG, enabling NSW to bring to bear the CSG’s extensive capabilities.
The Navy needs to build this relationship now, before all these combat-experienced officers and senior enlisted leave the service or are promoted into senior positions in which they become too busy to devote enough time to the initiative. Marry the NSW JTAC and CSG FAC(A) elements and write the manual for integration as soon as possible to expand the capabilities the Sea Services bring to the fight.