On time, on target, safe always - Joint Terminal Attack Controllers graduate

By Flying Officer Monique Lonsdale

Chief Instructor Major (MAJ) Ross Wehby presented a disturbing but all too realistic scenario to the students of Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) Course 61 at this year’s Exercise Black Dagger. 

The township of Denman is under threat from an increasingly violent insurgency. 

Today’s mission is to secure the bridge at Sandy Hollow and thus secure the Southern Approaches.

 “Black Dagger is the culminating activity of the JTAC course where the students put into practice what they’ve learnt in the past five weeks through executing a series of live and dry fire serials directing both PC-9 and F/A-18 aircraft,” MAJ Wehby says.

Exactly what the students have learnt covers a myriad of topics including the very basics – what is a JTAC?

The course extends to understanding enemy formations, battle damage assessments, close-air-support, how to call controls for planes, helicopters, and UAVs, all the way down to the nitty gritty of fusing for each different type of ordnance used by the Australian Defence Force and our coalition partners. 

Flight Lieutenant (FLTLT) Alysha Dunn, a Joint Battlefield Airspace Controller (an Air Force air traffic controller), is undertaking the training as part of her role as Brigade Airspace Control Liaison Officer with 1 Brigade Headquarters in Darwin.

“The whole thing was initially pretty daunting and everyone was really nervous but then you’re in the swing of it and you conquer one little challenge and then another and it actually turns out to be pretty fun,” FLTLT Dunn says.

The experience has been an eye-opener for fellow student Air Combat Officer FLTLT Joel Flannery who admits that this time last year he had no idea what a JTAC was.

“It’s still a bit mind blowing to see yourself as this integral but tiny little speck in such a huge scheme of manoeuvre,” FLTLT Flannery says.

Coming to the course from a maritime background also posed some unforseen challenges.

“It was incredibly challenging to make the transition not only to an Air Combat Group way of thinking but an Army way of thinking as well,” FLTLT Flannery says.

The course of eight JTAC students includes two Air Force, three regular Army members and three Special Forces members.  

Once they graduate each will be required to employ their new found skills in very different roles dispersed throughout the battlespace. 

 These will range from working within a small patrol calling in kinetic effects from forward positions on the ground, to providing coordination for the air aspect at the Combat Team level and even acting as a subject matter expert advisor in a Battle Group Headquarters.

“The JTAC is in a position to shape the battlespace - for better or worse - in a way that no other individual in that scheme of manoeuvre can,” MAJ Wehby says.

“A miscalculation or a lack of situational awareness could lead to a mistake resulting in anything from mass fratricide and LOAC (Laws of Armed Conflict) violations down one end, to an air safety occurrence on the other.”

With that in mind the stakes are high for directing staff to ensure that at the end of Exercise Black Dagger they are graduating students capable of delivering on the JTAC motto, “On target, on time, and safe always”.

On this course, all eight course members of JTAC Course 61 completed the exercise successfully and graduated with their Dagger callsigns.