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Marine Forces Europe and Africa

United States Marine Corps

USAG Stuttgart, Germany
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Marines, Swedish aviators harness the power of FAC(A)

By Sgt. Tatum Vayavananda | | September 6, 2013


The Marine Corps' size and capacity is one of the world's leading examples of a small organization with the ability to pack a hard punch. The Corps is the smallest service of the United States Armed Forces but leads as the nation's crisis response force while supporting contingency operations in every clime and place. But being able to adapt to land, air and sea requires more than just capability; it requires integration of these elements with a mutual understanding of how to exploit each advantage, work as a team, and accomplish the mission.

This is the reason the Swedish Air Force's Operations, Training and Evaluation unit invited Marine Corps aviators from Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One, Yuma, Ariz., to introduce Forward Air Controller (Airborne) capabilities to their pilots for the first time in Swedish military history. The course, supported by U.S. Marine Corps Forces Europe, also introduced Close Air Support operations to the newly adopted Swedish UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.

Based on his experiences in the special operations community, Maj. Stefan “Rambo” Engström recognized the capability a FAC(A) can bring to military operations and started the process back in 2005 after he joined the Swedish Air Force as a pilot.

“This is a brand new profile for us; we’ve never done this before,” said Engström, the FAC(A) program director for the SwAF Operations, Tactics and Evaluations division.

The request through Marine Forces Europe was coordinated with MAWTS-1 around 2009 to introduce FAC(A) and engage with the Swedish Air Force OT&E division.

“Being a qualified [Joint Tactical Attack Controller] and doing those duties helped me recognize the value of having a CAS-player above me that has full understanding of air and land integration. We are a small air force and this program will increase our CAS capability; having this training will help us perform much better work and support to our ground unit.”

A Forward Attack Controller, or sometimes known as a “Joint Tactical Attack Controller,” is an element of Close Air Support that coordinates attack elements and ensures accurate fires on the intended target while preventing friendly fire. Guidelines and Memorandums of Agreement for standardization, qualifications and experience are standardized by NATO joint publications, the Standardization Agreement (STANAG), and used by coalition nations that support real-world overseas contingency operations. A FAC (Airborne) takes the role of the ground-based JTAC and operates on a fixed-wing aircraft or helicopter.

“I emphasized that we needed training from the professionals, so I put a lot of effort in getting MAWTS-1 here to advise and give us the right training and procedures. I was happy about the Marine Corps supporting this [engagement] because, by its nature, they are integrated; they are a small ‘armed forces’ in itself and they’re good at it,” said Engström

MAWTS-1’s overall mission is to standardize Marine aviation throughout the Corps and conduct weapons and tactics instructor courses. Every year, through numerous fleet-support trips, MAWTS-1 provides pre-deployment training and high-level certifications through academic instruction and real-world flight applications to units throughout the U.S. and abroad, as well as two main Weapons and Tactics Instructor courses a year. Subject matter experts also attend joint-service conferences throughout the year to develop and evaluate new doctrine, tactics and procedures.

“We have every functional area of aviation, not only ‘wing’ [assets] but support, including ground, JTACs, and FACs,” said Capt. Nels “Derelict” Dahlgard, a subject matter expert for FAC(A) UH-1 division, MWATS-1.

“If there is ever any issue in terms of integration, we basically have the subject matter experts who serve as the basis of standardization at MAWTS-1 there with us,” added the Seattle, Washington, native.

The Marine Corps, being the nation’s crisis response force, understands the importance of integration for operational efficacy and mission accomplishment while being small, with troop numbers almost a third of their sister services; the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy.

“[FAC(A)] is a very rewarding subject to me because it lends itself to what we strive to do in the Marine Corps, and that’s the ‘integration’ piece,” said Dahlgard.

“Bringing that to the pilots over here, not only the FAC(A) mission but also the integration, and getting all the different parts and people talking and working together, that’s been great.”

The engagement featured two airframes: the SwAF UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter and the Saab JAS-39 Gripen fighter jet. The Black Hawk is a new airframe to the SwAF, being adopted by the service within the past couple of years and already supporting operations for coalition militaries.

“It is eye-opening! The [UH-60] is a versatile aircraft because it can be conditioned very easily to conduct FAC(A); since they are not really a CAS platform, I think them being able to transition from assault support to doing FAC(A) is very important.”

The Saab Gripen, translated to “Griffin” in English, is the flagship fighter jet of SwAF because of its effectiveness, value, and advantages gained from hallmarks of Swedish engineering. Many other NATO countries have fitted this airframe to increase aviation capacity of their militaries to also include the Royal Thai Air Force, the U.K.’s Empire Test Pilot School, and South African Air Force, with numerous potential operators in the future.

Both airframes have been players in support to overseas contingency operations to include Operation Odyssey Dawn, Libya, in 2011 and current casualty evacuation support to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, with some members of this iteration deploying within months after this engagement.

“I am very confident that the right choice was for the Marine Corps to come out here and do this because we’re the only service that has an established rotary wing FAC(A) program,” said Capt. Thomas “Grape Ape” Duff, AH-1W Cobra FAC(A) subject matter expert, MAWTS-1.

“The Marine Corps has this piece down because we have our own organic aviation combat and ground combat elements and we integrate.”

The Marines and Swedish found common ground in being a small force with wide operational capability; the Swedish military is small in numbers but support many operations with modern tactics and operations. Their contribution to the ISAF and overseas contingency operations across the globe calls for interoperability between their air, land and sea service components due to restraints in numbers. 

 “With bigger forces, they are really good at what they do but they’re two different elements; in the Marine Corps, we are one and we fight as one,” said Duff. “There’s a full understanding of who you’re supporting; the infantry on the ground.”

“I picked up on how small [the Swedish] force was and with a smaller force, it’s easier to integrate,” said Duff. “If they fight a war, they have to come together and fight as one.”

This bi-lateral engagement was an example of efforts to bolster capacity for interoperability between partner and allied nation’s militaries with U.S. Marine Corps Forces Europe in the U.S. European Command area of responsibility.

 “The thought of Marine Corps troops requiring CAS and a Gripen showing up on-station or a Swedish Black Hawk controlling fires in-and-around Marines drives us to make sure they are good at what they do,” said Duff.

“At our level, when you work with other services, you build friendships because you have a bond; you both joined the military for the same reasons,” added Duff. “It’s important to have allies and work with other countries and it has been awesome; we both think tactics, we both love serving our country, and we both love flying. I hope the Marine Corps continue to take the lead on integrating with foreign services because they could be providing CAS for Marines on deck one day.”

The training engagement will be used by the SwAF Gripen OT&E division, to evaluate the concepts and operational requirements before deciding whether or not to further implement it into SwAF aviation training. The Gripen OT&E division is the team of SwAF aviators responsible for conducting training, creating procedures, and standardizing aviation doctrine throughout the Swedish Air Force.

“Especially since we have an active role in Afghanistan, we have a natural cooperation going, said Engström.”

“We are monitoring CAS and development and standardization issues happening here and we learn so much about air-land integration from [the Marine Corps] and I hope we can expand this in the future.”