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The TACP Problem

Dec 2, 2017
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While the Obama Administration attempts back-channel diplomacy to tamp down tensions with North Korea, our military commanders in the region are doing their job: preparing U.S. and allied forces for the worst-case scenario, i.e., a renewed conflict on the peninsula.

While most analysts believe the chances of a second Korean War remain remote, that doesn’t reduce the requirement–or the urgency–of the training mission, particularly in terms of airpower. In a recent interview with Aviation Week, Brigadier General Mike Keltz, the Vice Commander of 7th Air Force, outlined his priorities:

“My first concern is training,” said Brigadier General Keltz. “As the U.S. and South Korean air forces start employing advanced weapons, we will need instrumented ranges big enough to accommodate the greater speeds, altitudes and distances they require so that units can become more mission capable. A new world-class training range also should be [capable of hosting] high-intensity, air-to-air training.”

Another worrisome issue for forces on the peninsula is integrating U.S. and South Korean close air support. Programs are in place to search out Koreans with good English skills to man and train new Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTACs) for a long-term commitment as specialists instead of as one-time, temporary assignments.

South Korea F-4 and F-5 pilots are given Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) assignments as a one-year additional duty tour. As a result, air controllers are just getting proficient when they rotate. The shortage of trained JTACs is evident in the current manning level of only two TACP teams per division and none at lower levels. That shortage would be compounded in wartime by broken, mountainous terrain that restricts line-of-sight communications and creates gaps between units. U.S. officials are trying to promote the idea of pushing TACPs down to battalion level at least.

Obviously, a high-tech, fully-instrumented range is a futuristic, long-term project. Securing the necessary land and airspace represents a major hurdle. The days when we could fly wherever we wanted in South Korea are long since past. With a booming economy–and rapidly expanding population–the South Korean government isn’t anxious to surrender thousands of acres of prime real estate for an advanced training range.

On the other hand, General Keltz’s worries about joint tactical air controllers are anything but new. During my one-year stint in Korea (Kunsan AB, Class of 1992), I learned first-hand about the controller and language barriers that could hamper an air campaign against North Korean invaders. For our F-16 drivers at “the Kun,” a sortie near the DMZ with ROKAF controllers was always an adventure. And, more often than not, they would complain during debrief that the ROKAF TACP provided inaccurate (or conflicting) vectors, or the controllers couldn’t speak acceptable English. We passed along our pilot’s observations in our mission reports (MISREPs), but the problem continued.

Almost two decades later, we’ve apparently made little progress on the TACP issue. While U.S. controllers are assigned at the battalion level, the ROKs don’t have any TACPs below their division headquarters. That’s a major problem, since battalions are brigades represent the primary war-fighting organizations within an Army, but those ROK commanders have no way of directly communicating with their air assets.

From the cockpit, the picture is equally grim. By most estimates, most of the early air war in Korean would be devoted to close air support (CAS) sorties, aimed at blunting the North Korean offensive. While some CAS missions can be pre-planned, the majority are “on call,” with air assets responding to specific requests from individual units, processed through the Air Support Operations Center (ASOC). But aircraft tasked through this system still require a skilled controller to orient them to the engagement, and “talk” the pilots onto the target.

And that’s where the ROKAF TACP system falls critically short. Not only do most South Korea controllers struggle with English, the majority of them are F-4 and F-5 pilots on a one-year tour. Continuity is virutally non-existent in the limited ranks of ROKAF forward controllers.

So, why not just use American TACPs? There are a couple of problems with that scenario. First, with only one U.S. Army division still “in country,” the number of American ground controllers is extremely limited. There are three detachments of terminal attack controllers, assigned at an equal number of Army installations in South Korea. With U.S. and South Korea pilots expected to fly more than 1,000 missions on the first day of the war, there’s no way that a handful of American controllers could handle most of the CAS sorties, particularly with ROK units shouldering most of the fighting.

The Aviation Week piece describes elimination of North Korea’s long-range artillery as a primary mission for airpower–and the JTACs. Based on our experience, that’s only half-right. As one USAF officer points out, we’ve been watching the DPRK build artillery emplacements along the DMZ for 60 years. In most cases, we have the coordinates for bunker doors or firing positions “dialed in,” meaning that ground controllers won’t have to direct our pilots to those targets. However, forward observers would be useful in spotting long-range guns “in the open,” when they’re easier to destroy.

According to intelligence estimates, North Korean tube artillery and multiple-rocket launchers have the ability to fire upwards of 250,000 rounds in the first 24 hours of combat. Many of those shells and rockets would land in the city of Seoul, triggering widespread panic, and complicating allied defensive efforts (imagine trying to get reinforcements through the South Korea capital while millions of civilians stream south, under a relentless rain of enemy fire).

Making matters worse, any “new” war in Korea would be won (or lost) in the first week. After that, the influx of U.S. airpower and ground reinforcements would halt the North Koreans in their tracks. But for that strategy to work, existing forces on the peninsula have to hold the line, and that means optimum employment of airpower, with accurate guidance from controllers on the ground. Unfortunately, continuing problems with the ROKAF TACP system will almost certainly mean communications and coordination problems, inevitably leading to missed targets and unsuccessful CAS sorties.

General Keltz isn’t the first American commander to face this issue, and he won’t be the last. Put another way; that state-of-the art training range will be a reality long before the South Korean TCAP system achieves the needed level of proficiency.

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