Combat Control HistorySmall teams of silent professionals doing classified missions hide the accomplishments of CCT from the public at large. This document will merely scratch the surface of a proud legacy.
001. Our Army heritage
World war two spawned both the "conventional" and "special operations" roots of combat control. Conventional roots sprouted in the European theater while special operations heritage can be traced to the Pacific theater.
German paratroopers shocked the world with their effectiveness in April 1940 while invading Norway and Denmark. The Allies first major airborne assault happened in June 1943 as 82nd Airborne Division jumped into battle near the city of Gela on the island of Sicily. Over 200 C-47s were involved in this first night mass tactical airdrop. Poor visual references and 35 mph winds wrecked havoc with two battalions landing 30 miles off the DZ (drop zone) and a third 55 miles away! Despite this lackluster drop score paratroopers were able to slow a German counterattack and gave seaborne forces time to gain a foothold at the beach-landing site.
General Gavin, Deputy Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, decreed that future paratroop operations must include some means of placing more personnel on the objective. Thus the Army Pathfinder was born. Specially trained troops would jump in and establish electronic and visual aids for the main assault force. The visual aids were burning buckets of gas-soaked sand and the Eureka radar beacon with its paltry ten-mile range filled the role of an electronic NAVAID. Despite the limits of their equipment, the DZ acquisition aids and the communications abilities of the pathfinders made an unbeatable combination. Subsequent parachuting operations were far more successful. During the Normandy invasion pathfinders jumped in 30 minutes prior to the main force and over 13,000 highly motivated paratroopers were able to effectively engage the Germans. The pathfinders adopted the motto "first in-last out."
Later in the war, troop-carrier squadrons developed glider-borne teams known as "Combat Control Teams." The glider pilot and four enlisted technicians utilized a jeep and a trailer mounted radio to pass critical information to the follow-on aircraft. Two Combat Control Teams infiltrated into Germany by glider with the 18th Corps during "Operation Varsity." Following their infiltration, the teams were able to move rapidly to forward airfields where they supported resupply operations and provided airfield control.
General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold created a unique organization to support operations against the Japanese in Burma. Major General Orde C. Wingate, a British commander, was conducting guerilla warfare with great results but with high causalities. Long term behind the lines operations needed a source of resupply and reinforcement adapted to the mission. Rugged terrain and long distances further complicated the undertaking. General Arnold envisioned an "Air Commando Force" that would transport large numbers of troops deep into enemy territory and wholly supply them by air. Colonel Philip G. Cochran, a veteran fighter pilot from the North Africa campaign, was designated the reluctant commander of the 1st Air Commando Group. He wanted to go "where there was some fighting." General Arnold informed him he would get all the combat he wanted and outlined the mission and left him with the freedom to execute it remarking, "to hell with the paperwork, go out and fight."
With tremendous autonomy the Air Commandos carefully selected equipment and personnel to match the mission. Transports, gliders, light liaison aircraft supported the logistics puzzle while fighters and medium bombers completed the fire support problem. An exhaustive training and rehearsal program honed the unit and confounded outsiders. "Visitors to our installations were confounded by the lack of "rank"…officers and men…sweated shoulder to shoulder…" At first Allied troops were not sure the Air Commandos could do what they promised.
The fighter-bombers began "preparing the battlefield" in February 1944 while updating intelligence on possible landing sites. On 5 March 1944 the airlift portion of Operation Thursday began in earnest. Pathfinder aircraft carried teams that marked the landing zone for follow-on forces. Long-haul communications reported that initial resistance was light and heavy reinforcements were recalled. Rapid runway construction allowed follow-on forces a much safer landing area. Over the course of the next three months the Air Commandos delivered over 9000 troops, 1,300 pack animals and 245 tons of supplies.
The Air Commandos delivered the fight to the enemy. Ground force coordinated air strikes via radio, wounded were evacuated by air and aerial resupply techniques were honed.
When the Burma Road was reopened in January 1945 the Air Commandos were deactivated. The men and equipment were absorbed into conventional units in preparation for the planned invasion of the Japanese mainland. The first use of atomic weapons overshadowed many of the Air Commandos accomplishments. Almost everything the Air Commandos did was an important "First":
First air unit designed to support a ground unit
First composite air unit
First air unit employed with total autonomy
First invasion into enemy territory solely by air
First nighttime heavy glider assault landing
First night combat glider recovery
First glider airlift of large animals
First major employment of light airplanes in combat
First air unit to employ helicopters
First rescue by combat helicopter
First firing of rockets form aircraft in combat.
The legacy of these heroes providing specialized airpower "Anytime, anyplace" can be seen everyday in AFSOC units worldwide.
As World War Two ground to a close the Armed Forces demobilized and reorganized. The United States Air Force was created on 18th of September 1947 with the National Security Act. Major reorganization issues took a back burner to the Berlin Airlift and the CCT issue would not be addressed for years to come.
The Air Force factor
The new decade began with the opening salvos of the Korean War. The two main missions of combat control evolved during the war.
Terminal attack control evolved painfully. Initial fratricide losses were high until an effective system was rediscovered and ground parties directly approved ordinance release in the close proximity of friendly troops. The Tactical Air Control Party was born with rated fighter pilots on the ground calling in air strikes.
Operational security limited the use of pathfinders during the three main airdrops of the war while doctrine battles raged in Washington. Air Force leaders believed there were too many disadvantages to pathfinder operations; insufficient element of surprise, poor use of navigation aids, and, not the least, being forced to rely on Army pathfinders. The Air Force contended that air traffic control was an Air Force unique mission. The Department of Defense agreed and the mission of the glider-borne CCT was combined with that of the pathfinders and given to the USAF. The Army, on the other hand, made no bones about its willingness to continue fulfilling the pathfinder role. The Army has never deactivated its pathfinder units although their primary mission has evolved to emphasize helicopter operations.
Initially the Air Force gave little more than lip service to their newly acquired program. The long-range plan was to do away with pathfinders. Senior leadership believed that electronic NAVAIDs would relieve them of the requirement to put pathfinder units in the field altogether. The crisis came to a head in mid-1952, something had to been done quickly, or the Air Force would lose the mandate to field pathfinder teams. 18th Air Force ordered Tactical Air Command to take the necessary steps to fix the problem. On 14 October 1952, the first 10 USAF pathfinders attended jump school.
Anticipating an influx of trained pathfinders, 18th Air Force activated the Pathfinder Squadron, Provisional on 15 January 1953 at Donaldson AFB, SC. The initial plan was to fill the unit with sister-service transfers primarily from the Army. Surprisingly they hoped to form six pathfinder teams. They were lucky to get enough men for one team. See figure 1-1.
Figure 1-1. The First USAF CCT
Effective 27 March 1953, the Pathfinder Squadron, Provisional was deactivated and the jumpers were assigned to 1st Aerial Port Squadron (APS) and officially designated a Combat Control Team.
The Army leadership continued to be very critical of the Air Force usurping what they felt was an Army mission. The USAF was vulnerable to criticism, as it seemed unwilling to fully assume its responsibility focusing instead on developing supersonic fighters, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and long-range bombers.
Army versus Air Force
The "Waterloo" of sorts, for the Army pathfinder program versus Air Force Combat Control Teams, occurred in August 1953. The 10th Special Forces (SF) Group, at Dobbins AFB, Georgia, refused to comply with directives that incorporated CCT into their joint tactical missions. Although, SF had no objection to controllers working drop zones and participating in practice jumps, they did not want CCT personnel integrating into their missions.
Tactical Air Command suspended all airlifts on 11 August 1953 it until the Army and Special Forces backed down. The unfortunate incident did have a positive result in that it served to reinvigorate the USAF's commitment to Combat Control.
There were other problems for the hastily organized Combat Control Teams. Parachutes were in short supply and the few radios that the teams had were not adequate for the job. Additionally, controllers were not authorized to wear an identifying badge or the Army's parachutist badge. This fact, coupled with the uncertainty of promotion in a new undefined career field, contributed to recruiting and moral problems. Furthermore, the Aerial Port Squadrons did not have a body pool of trained personnel to draw recruits from or qualified trainers in the event that a recruit was found. This was not a very promising start for the orphan career field.
The technical nature of Combat Control required that controllers have an air traffic control or radio maintenance background. The Air Force actively solicited recruits from these career fields. Air traffic control school or radio maintenance schools, along with jump school, were the only formal schools required. The other specialized combat related skills came either on-the-job or through in-house training. Controllers were eventually given special permission to blouse their pants, wear paratrooper boots and a navy blue baseball cap. To stand out just a little more, the controllers also pinned jump wings to their caps.
The first real-world participation of CCT forces came in 1958 when a team deployed to Lebanon.
CCT validated its mission in the 1960s. The parallel development of special operations and conventional missions shaped the career field. Definitions are blurry at best but drop and landing zone operations were considered "conventional" with other mission considered "special operations."
In July of 1960 CCT personnel responded to the Congo crisis. A team from Europe was airlifted to the capital city of Leopoldville and disbursed throughout the country working airfields.
CCT personnel were instrumental in the development of parachuting tactics and equipment. Technical Sergeant James A. Howell performed the first live supersonic ejection set test June 24th 1961. Two years later he was the primary jumpmaster establishing the upper limits of freefall parachuting exiting at 43,000 feet.
In November 1962, Combat Controllers were some of the first Americans sent to support India during their border dispute with China. Controllers deployed to remote airstrips high in the Himalayas near Indian's northern border. For several weeks, they controlled resupply airdrops for the beleaguered Indian soldiers and Sikh refugees.
In April 1961 then Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis E. Lemay directed the creation of the "Jungle Jim" program at Hurlburt Field, Florida. The Air Commandos were reborn as the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron. Captain Lemuel Egleston was one of the first to volunteer. The Air Commandos flew the small castoff planes no one else wanted to fly and did the kind of job that no one else wanted to do. A natural extension of this relationship included Forward Air Control duties for the unconventional close air support missions.
Sgt Richard Foxx
The first Combat Controller killed in action was Sgt Richard Foxx. On October 15, 1962, Sgt Foxx was killed while performing FAC duties in a U-10. The South Carolina native was a pioneer in the enlisted forward air guide program. TSgt Foxx's plane was shot down near the village of Ban Me Thot, Republic of South Vietnam, while controlling air strikes for US Army Special Forces "A-teams." Controllers performed as either airborne or ground FACs. They worked in South Vietnam, Cambodia, and the "secret war" in Laos.
Ho Chi Minh trail ran through Laos and Cambodia. The North Vietnamese never admitted the trails' existence or their intrusion into the supposedly neutral country of Laos. Consequently, the US administration did not feel compelled to acknowledge its own operations in that area either. This set the stage for a small group of unorthodox Combat Controllers who did their part to win the so-called "secret war."
In May 1966, TSgt Charlie Jones was sent to Laos to fight a war that was not officially in existence. TSgt Jones was "sheep-dipped" and Mr. Jones took his place. All his military identification and uniforms were exchanged for civilian clothes and papers identifying him as an employee of a civilian company. His job was to blend an incredibly diverse group of strike pilots and their weapons systems with enemy targets. Slow moving Air Commando propeller-driven aircraft, fast moving US Air Force and Navy jets and foreign aircraft were integrated and struck their targets extremely effectively. The enlisted FAC program was an unequivocal success with all but one person.
When Lt Gen William Momyer, the 7th Air Forces commander learn that enlisted personnel were employed as Forward Air Controllers, he put an immediate stop to it. The controllers were replaced with rated officers. in six months TSgt Jones flew 413 combat missions.
In 1965 1st Lt John Teague operated clandestinely for six months with a small indigenous force of mountain tribesman known as Montagnards. His primary mission was to locate enemy targets and then direct fighters into the area. On one occasion, Teague used close air support to route a massive communist attack against a friendly village. He then commandeered a helicopter and flew the village leader to the front of the mile-long column of fleeing refugees. Together they managed to talk the villagers into returning and thus denied the enemy a victory. Other controllers assigned to do a similar mission were Sgt Mose McBeth and TSgt Joe Orr. The missions they participated in have not been entirely declassified.
Combat controllers were involved in other special operations missions especially beacon bombing missions and the development of the gunship.
Three man teams would deploy throughout the country. The standard team had two ATC specialists and one radio maintenance specialist. The teams normally traveled by aircraft with a jeep, outfitted with a radio pallet and a generator equipped trailer. A team was always on alert, ready to deploy in 30 minutes or less.
Throughout the war, controllers crisscrossed the country working assault zones. CCT planners tried to avoid the extended air traffic control (ATC) missions because of equipment and personnel limitations. A reasonable deployment length was considered ten days. As the US military presence in South Vietnam increased, the influx of Army and Marine air traffic controllers helped to ease CCT's workload. Unfortunately, not all the Army units working drops and landings had the same level of training. Army air traffic advisory services presented very real challenges for the USAF and Combat Control.
The soldiers at the remote Special Forces camps, also known as Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) camps, rarely had any ATC training. At best, controlling a DZ or a LZ was treated as an additional duty. The camps often teamed with native families seeking refuge from the horrors of the war. Indiscriminate runway crossing and poor ATC services created a chaotic and unsafe air traffic environment. Therefore, CCT was called upon to work these types of camps almost exclusively from 1965 until the end of the war.
Communicating with Army helicopters was a continuous problem . Pilots never seemed to get the word and controllers were forced to monitor the local area advisory frequency and one by one explain to the transiting choppers that they were controlling the airfield. Devising a solution CCT "bootlegged" its own frequencies in order to set up discrete ATC channels. Finally in 1968 frequencies were officially set-aside exclusively for Combat Control use. In an attempt to further standardize communication fixed callsigns were assigned. The callsign "Tailpipe" was used to designate CCT with a phonetic extension indicating location. For example "Tailpipe Fox-trot" was used at Song Be LZ and "Tailpipe Echo" was used at Bo Kheo LZ. The tailpipe of the radio jeep made it easy to remember and the "Tailpipe" callsigns have been associated with CCT ever since.
The siege of Khe Sanh
Combat Controllers were on site the entire time working resupply drops and airlands during the siege at Khe Sanh. The Marine Combat Support base at Khe Sanh first came under heavy artillery, rocket, and mortar attack on 21 January 1968. CCT Operations at Tan Son Nhut AB received immediate tasking for a three-man team at 1800 the same day.
A conventional CDS DZ was setup just outside the base perimeter. Marines and CCT secured the DZ and searched for mines every morning prior to the first drops. The DZ markings were the only thing conventional about the operation. Bad weather and low clouds prevented visual flight rules (VFR) drops. An ingenious and very unconventional system for getting their resupply aircraft over the correct release point was devised. Marine approach controllers provided modified GCA (Ground Controlled Approach) services until drop aircraft were then handed off to the Combat Controllers on the DZ. CCT cleared the aircraft to drop and then relayed the drop scores to the succeeding airplanes. This instrument flight rules (IFR) airdrop system was extremely successful and the clouds offered excellent cover for the slow and low flying aircraft. In fact, once the weather lifted, F-4s were brought in to drop CBU-12 smoke canisters in an attempt to screen the drop aircraft.
Unfortunately, on 19 February, the GCA took a direct hit from a rocket. CCT quickly setup portable radar beacons that allowed the airdrops to continue without any delay. The Marine ATC tower was eventually destroyed and the controllers found themselves fulfilling the role of primary ATC until the Marines could reconstruct their tower. For the 77 days of the siege, CCT was on site providing an invaluable service. CCT was directly responsible for 8000 tons of cargo being delivered to the surrounded Marine camp.
The mission at Khe Sanh verified to command level leaders that CCT was the force of choice for ATC in a combat environment. Five silver stars and eight purple hearts reflected the bravery but the mission effectiveness silenced most critics.
Other significant events
The first Combat Control School began in mid-1965 at Sewart AFB. The school cadre consisted of five instructors; four controllers and a jump qualified weather observer. School was five weeks long. The first three weeks involved classroom instruction. The fourth and fifth weeks were devoted to parachuting and parachute packing. Upon graduating, Combat Controllers were awarded the dark blue beret. CCT developed its own distinctive image and adopted the motto "First There."
The first recorded CCT combat jump occurred in April 1966. However, the large quantities of helicopters and the lack of large suitable drop zones almost completely replaced the tactical personnel airdrop option for US conventional troops. Small jungle-ringed clearings were more suited for container delivery system (CDS) or door bundle drops. As a result CCT worked a number of resupply airdrops.
Through out the war in Southeast Asia, Combat Controllers played a crucial role. Their special skills and adaptability made "Tailpipe" a welcome voice on the headset. Controllers continued to be a vital part of the war effort right up to the fall and evacuation of the capital cities of South Vietnam and Cambodia. True to the motto "First In, Last Out," MSgt Lewis O. Brabham was the last American off the US embassy rooftop in Saigon April 30, 1975.
Twenty-two combat controllers were awarded sliver stars during the war in South-East Asia.
The US military demobilized and the Air Force struggled to maintain combat readiness despite massive funding cuts. Tactical airlift and special operations took a back seat to long-range strategic bombers and ICBMs.
The combat control school moved to Little Rock AFB in 1970. In the mid-70's in an effort to boost moral the security police career field adopted the blue beret. This compelled the Combat Controllers to change to the scarlet color worn today however; this did little to boost CCT moral. In 1977 TACPs officially developed a unique AFSC, radio maintenance personnel were given an ultimatum, cross-train as air traffic controllers or become TACP. The rivalry between the two career fields began, as long time combat controllers struggled to justify their existence. Waivers were granted and a few CCT qualified radio maintenance personnel were able to remain on the teams.
During this chaotic time combat controllers continued to answer the call. Combat controllers provided ATC, command and control and other services in hotspots around the world. A few of the publicized events include Zaire and Guyana in 1978, and Nicaragua in 1979. Combat control teams survived by tailoring their training. Teams were identified not only by the wing/base but their employment specialization. For example the Charleston team was the "SCUBA" team. This allowed teams to focus on one employment method thus saving scarce training funds. The peacetime training mission of the host wing consisted of working airdrops, landing zones and extraction zones primarily for aircrew proficiency. Each change of command at the wing/base/squadron meant CCT had to explain their mission and justify their existence. Results varied widely and standardized combat focused training career field wide suffered.
On a positive note combat controllers learned to fight the paperwork battles that control funding, doctrine and manning. When wing leadership allowed their CCT to develop the benefits of small isolated teams became evident. Specialized employment methods were developed and honed. Technology was leveraged to fit the mission. New radios, NAVAIDs, night vision devices and parachutes were adopted, tested and fielded by combat controllers.
Pope AFB was the center of conventional CCT and Hurlburt Field continued to be the center of Air Force Special operations. But things are not always as they seem.
The decade began with a defining mission, the attempted rescue of American hostages held in Iran, and ended with another significant mission, the US invasion of Panama.
In April 1980, President Jimmy Carter sent a military mission into Iran to rescue fifty-three Americans held hostage in Tehran. Years of neglect hampered the mission at all turns. An elite US Army organization was exclusively tasked to carry out the mission instead of a Joint Task Force. It quickly became apparent that other forces would be needed. Security concerns were not well planned with several elements training in isolation. Two separate CCT units were preparing for the mission, each unaware of the other. Fixed and rotary wing aircraft were trained separately. The strike element and the support element did not mesh. Each service jockeyed for a piece of the mission at the expense of the other.
Sergeant Rex Wollmann, Hurlburt CCT, was tasked to provide administrative ATC and technical expertise to the local MC-130 squadron while they conducted classified training. The Hurlburt CCT commander was deemed by command authorities not to have "a need to know." The MC-130s and a select group of US Army Rangers were developing heretofore-untested theories and procedures for blacked-out landings and rapid airfield seizures. Sgt Wollmann was not originally part of the planned mission but when rehearsals drew to a close, he was deemed too essential not to be incorporated in the actual operation.
On the other side of the United States, Major John Carney was maneuvering his Charleston CCT into position and onto the mission. The Army did not want anyone accompanying their assaulters into the hit site. However, Carney knew the Army did not have the expertise to work the landing sites or the refueling points that would be necessary to refuel the Task Force's helicopters. Additionally, a landing zone assessment would have to be accomplished on a remote patch of desert, deep inside Iran. Fortunately, the Joint Task Force (JTF) commander saw the wisdom of including Major Carney and his team.
Under the cover of darkness, a CIA Twin Otter flew Major Carney into the proposed LZ. Major Carney conducted the assault zone survey on a mini bike, collecting soil, checking surface conditions, and burying remote control runway lights.
Three MC-130s, three EC-130s, and eight helicopters, departed their forward operating base in Masirah, Oman undercover of darkness. The lead MC-130 carrying CCT and the Rangers touched down safely and taxied into the prebriefed position just the way it had been rehearsed a hundred times. Everything was going as planned. CCT quickly cleared and marked two parallel runways, set up a portable TACAN, and prepared to accept the first of the follow-on aircraft for landing. Things would get very busy when the eight helicopters landed and began to refuel.
Dust and mechanical problems plagued the Marine helicopters from the beginning of the mission. Only six of the eight original helicopters ever made it to "Desert One." The mission commander felt confident that the rescue could be accomplished with only six healthy helicopters. As final takeoff preparations were being completed, a radio call came across the net that would end months of work and training. Another helicopter was broken and could not be safely flown. This meant that unless operators were cut from the follow-on mission, the entire rescue operation would have to be cancelled. The Army could not perform its mission without the full compliment of soldiers. The abort had to be given. Major Carney was given the word to get the aircraft off the ground and to police up the TACAN and all of the runway lights.
One of the helicopters required refueling before it could return to the U.S.S. Nimitz. This meant repositioning the lead helicopter. As the chopper began to taxi clear of the area, it became engulfed in dust. Without warning, it veered right and smashed into the parked EC-130, setting itself and the airplane on fire.
The fireball could be seen for miles. One enormous flame was incinerating all things within its reach, including the hopes of rescue for the American hostages. Dejected men and machines departed the lonely Iranian airstrip that was to have been the key to a daring special operations mission.
Despite all of the confusion, the Combat Controllers remained calm and continued with the mission. They taxied the remaining aircraft around the smoldering wreckage and then cleared them for takeoff. After thoroughly searching the area for survivors, CCT boarded the last plane out of the LZ.
Five Airman and three Marine aviators died that night. The overall mission itself was a total failure. However, something positive often comes from terrible disasters, and "Desert One" was no exception. The national leadership realized that a special group of dedicated professionals would be needed to handle similar operations in the future. Thus, it was the driving force behind the formation of US Special Operations Command, AFSOC and other units. Major "Coach" Carney continued to lead and is known as the father of special tactics.
The invasion of Grenada in the fall of 1983 was a turning point for CCT. In the eyes of the special operations community, Combat Control had become a key participant whose contributions "to the fight" could not be replicated by any other organization.
On 23 October 1983 the US invaded the island of Grenada to rescue Americans held under "house arrest." Cuban "construction workers" were building a runway and had determined the Americans needed "protection."
Combat controllers were instrumental in the success of the operation. Rangers and Special Operations CCT jumped into Point Salinas at 500 feet in a futile attempt to avoid anti-aircraft fire. Once on the ground, the Rangers and CCT began to clear the runway while under enemy fire. Vehicles and concrete littered the landing surface. TSgt Rex Evetts' hot-wiring knowledge helped immensely when confronted with a bulldozer that was too large for the Ranger to push off the runway.
Conventional combat controllers arrived on some of the first airlands and took over ATC duties. Their ingenuity under fire was also noteworthy. SSgt Brad Glade constructed a terminal instrument approach with an old tourist map and several aerial photos. TSgt John Jones completely disassembled a MRC-108 radio pallet and then piece-by-piece reconstructed it in the airfield control tower. All airfield traffic and coordination could then be accomplished from the tower cab.
A joint mission with the US Navy SEALS was executed but high seas and bad weather prevented completion.
In 1980 the combat control school was relocated to Pope AFB, NC. The Special Tactics concept was put into action at Fort Bragg. Combat Control and Pararescue were combined on teams tailored for the special operations environment. A robust support structure was constructed to allow the operators to train instead of dealing time-consuming additional duties. For example, riggers and life support specialists took over the parachute shop instead of a PJ or controller running it between deployments.
On the purely Air Force side of the house Military Airlift Command claimed all PJs, controllers as the mission of air rescue, tactical airlift and weather services were consolidated under one command. The 1721st, 1722nd and 1723rd combat control squadrons were formed and the era of CCT as part of the aerial port squadrons ended. Combat controllers won a few key administrative battles as a unique AFSC was created. As a side effect all remaining CCT qualified radio maintenance personnel had to attend ATC School. MAC Regulations on training, standards and evaluation, and assault zone procedures finally applied to all controllers, minus the few in joint billets at the newly re-designated 1724th Special Tactics Squadron. Training, funding, tactics and moral were finally on the rise. In 1988 combat controllers and pararescue training pipelines were melded as the march toward special tactics continued.
On December 20th, 1989, SSgts Bob Kinder and Brad Baxter from the 1724th STS, were "First There" and inserted via helicopter just prior to P-Hour, to control the initial tactical airdrops. Overall, the invasion of Panama went like clockwork. Two key airfields, Rio Hato AB and Tocumen International Airport, were captured simultaneously in the two largest mass tactical airdrops since World War II. Rangers and CCT flew directly from the US and jumped directly into combat.
Rio Hato Air Base
Combat Controllers and Rangers jumped into a firestorm at Rio Hato Air Base. It seemed as though all 400 Panamanian soldiers stationed at Rio Hato were firing as they descended under their parachutes. For some of the controllers, the ride down from 500' seemed to take forever. Retired CMSGT Lampe, a veteran of the Vietnam, Desert One, and Grenada, later commented that the Panamanians put up a "hell-of-a good fight." The AC-130 gunship and Army helicopters were able to quickly dispatch the heavy weapons and armored personnel carriers, but the airfield continued to receive sniper fire for several more days.
Tocumen International Airport
Another contingent of 13 controllers from the 1724th STS jumped into Tocumen International Airport, Panama's International Airport and coordinated fire support aircraft and MEDEVAC helicopters into the chaos surrounding the airfield. Additionally, they established a drop zone for the follow-on force that consisted of the 82nd Airborne Division and additional Combat Controllers.
Combat Controllers from the 1721st CCS parachuted in with the 82nd Airborne Division. Their mission was to relieve the 1724th STS and establish a long-term airhead. The teams provided around the clock ATC service. In addition, they coordinated evacuation flights for wounded soldiers and those killed in actions (KIAs).
We suited up completely, trucks and everything, boarded the plane, and then sat for eight hours until it was time to jump.
SSgt Joe Santor, 1989 - Special Operations Joint Task Force
Combat Control was involved in every significant operation during the Panama invasion. Controllers were attached to both Army and Navy units. SSgt Dave Schnoor was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor for his heroic leadership during a mission evacuating American Civilians. One of the friendly helicopters was shot down during the operation, SSgt Schnoor, assisted in the rescue of the helicopter coordinated and controlled the MEDEVAC (Medical Evacuation) helicopter all while under sniper fire. SSgt Schnoor remained calm and directed AC-130 fire suppressing the snipers.
Just doing my job - SSgt Dave Schnoor, 1989
Other controllers were attached to select Special Forces "A teams" as close air support and communications specialist. One of those was TSgt John Eklof who, under enemy fire, directed AC-130 fire decimating Panamanian troops attempting to cross the Pacora Bridge and attack the arriving 82nd Airborne.
The last decade of the twentieth century was extremely turbulent for combat control. Our forces would be split among seven different commands while deploying to hot-spots almost continuously. Another demobilization, renamed drawdown, constant deployments, training problems and internal turmoil threatened the long-term survival of the career field.
Desert Shield/Desert Storm
Less a year after the invasion of Panama, the United States found itself on the brink of war. In August 1990, controllers deployed to Saudi Arabia as part of a massive buildup of coalition forces in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
Conventional Combat Control operations
Controllers surveyed over 200 potential drop and landing sites and worked several key airfields. At Rafa Air Base worked over 1650 C-130 sorties in just 10 days despite marginal weather.
CCTs were assigned to 9 maneuver elements as airlift command and control links and to control drop and landing if the need arose. CCT became key to collation operations due to the training and technological edge they possessed. Each three-team was equipped with global positioning satellite (GPS) as standard equipment. The US Army and Marine Corps units were not so equipped. Consequently, the navigational abilities of the controllers became indispensable to the units to which they were attached. In one instance, a team of controllers was placed at the point of a 165-vehicle divisional scout element. The CCT HUMV led the scout element to predetermined coordinates where they would wait for another scout vehicle to race back to the main body. Once the main body arrived at the point, the scout element, led by CCT, would carefully proceed to the next waypoint. This went on throughout the first nights of the ground war all around Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait. CCT led Marine and Army divisions through and around unexploded ordinance and mine fields. The CCT/scout relationship was invaluable to the drive to liberate Kuwait. Not enough can be said about the confidence and leadership abilities of the young CCT NCOs that led entire US divisions across the desert. The maneuver element leaders were:
· 82nd Airborne Division - SSgt Vernon Simmons
· 101st Air Mobile Division - SSgt Joe O'Keefe
· 1st Armored Division - SSgt Todd Swenson
· 3rd Armored Division - SSgt Jess Horstman
· 1st Infantry Division - SSgt Terry Ness
· 24th Infantry Division - SSgt Sean McPartland
· 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force - SSgt Pat Moulton
· XVIII Corps Engineer Battalion - SSgt Rick Bush
A common trait shared by most controllers is to help were they can and to get the job done. The conventional controllers were no exception. They filled in where ever they were required. When not in the tower, CCT worked with the armory, fuels, aerial port, and even base security. Security police augmentation was not a big issue in the Persian Gulf war zone. However, 1722nd Combat Control Squadron members who did not immediately deploy found themselves forced to work the McChord AFB front gate for the security police who did deploy. The decision to augment the local security police force was not only demeaning, it "rubbed salt in the wounds" of the ones who volunteered but were not chosen to go off to war.
Special Operations combat control missions
Special tactics combat controllers were involved in Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR), fire support along with the traditional survey and ATC missions. The incomplete King Fahd International Airport was surveyed and operations commenced less than 24-hours after the survey was approved on 16 august 1990. The controllers were responsible for total airfield management. They were instrumental in coordinating the installation of runway lights, upgrading the tower with electricity, potable water, and air conditioning. All this was done while the airport traffic count ballooned to a staggering 30,000 operation in just 4 weeks. By the time the airfield was transferred, the traffic count had reached 3000 takeoffs and landings a day.
Once the war began, STS controllers continued to operate landing zones at the forward operating locations as well as emergency airfields for battle-damaged or minimum fuel aircraft returning from combat sorties in Iraq.
One unique assignment was the beacon update mission. STS personnel deployed surreptitiously along the northern Saudi border and placed radar beacons to allow coalition aircraft a means to update their internal navigation system. This allowed more precise air strikes and assisted returning battle damaged aircraft.
Another mission that showcased CCT's abilities took place on 22 January 1991. As part of a special operations force coalition a STS controller infiltrated to within 15 kilometers of Baghdad on a classified mission. The controller's knowledge of fire support provided the team with the confidence to infiltrate deep into Iraq. The team's mission was to cut and disrupt the Iraqi command and control capabilities. They were able to cut numerous communication lines and get back out completely undetected.
Combat Search and Rescue
Staging out of Batman, Turkey, Combat Controllers, Pararescuemen and Army Special Forces provided vital CSAR coverage for the entire northern region of Iraq. Capt Terry Maki and SSgt Geoff Hitchcock received Air Medals for their participation in the rescue of a downed pilot deep in Iraq.
During the liberation of Kuwait City conventional CCT linked up with STS controllers and ATC services for the next 36 hours at the international airport. Smoke from the oil fires and unexploded ordinance added to the complexity of the mission. There was one team, comprised of individuals from different units, working together for mission success.
Minimal IFR capabilities hampered operations and led directly to the development of the mobile microwave landing system (MMLS), which is now standard Combat Control equipment. Training standards and equipment procurement though not perfect were on the right track. The line between special operations CCT and the conventional forces was drawn, not by controllers but by the command structure. The traditional missions of ATC, surveying and fire support were still valid while CSAR and other missions loomed large on the horizon.
Operations in Somalia began as a humanitarian airlift to relieve the starvation caused by years of civil war. Combat controllers worked landing zones throughout the country beginning in August of 1992. From almost the first relief mission the writing was on the wall, "The strong get the food and the weak become reliant on the strong." The operation changed to an armed relief mission latter that year. Armed factions stole food and crushed the weak as the operation drug on for months. Things in Somalia had deteriorated into open warfare, particularly in the capital city of Mogadishu, and the US felt the key to speedy resolution was the capture of Mohammed Farah Aideed, one of the more hostile faction leaders.
The mission on the 3rd of October 1993 would validate the special tactics concept in a most unpleasant manner. Reports indicated that Aideed and his lieutenants were meeting at the Olympic Hotel in downtown Mogadishu. Teams choppered out of their forward operating base at Mogadishu Airport. Blocking elements fastroped into strategic intersections; then the main assault force moved into the area, rounded up combatants and suspects and transported everyone out either by vehicle or chopper. SSgt John McGarry and Sgt Pat Rogers were both assigned to blocking elements and SSgt Jeff Bray accompanied the assault force.
As the blocking force fastroped into place and set up, the teams noticed that the incoming fire was a little more intense than it had been in the past. Almost immediately, the assault force required the assistance of the helicopters providing close air support. SSgt Bray's calls for fire slowed the incoming harassment fire. The mission appeared to be going just as the previous ones had, in and out quickly. As the assaulters were getting a headcount and preparing to move to the pickup point, SSgt Bray received a disturbing call from the command and control helicopter orbiting above the city, "Super 61 is down, move to the crash site."
The Somalis had downed an orbiting Blackhawk helicopter with an RPG (shoulder-fired rocket propelled grenade). The crash site was only 300 yards northeast of his team Unfortunately, those 300 yards were through a honeycomb of buildings, streets, and alleys. Each corner, window, and doorway was a potential hiding spot for a sniper or, worse, a Somali with an RPG. SSgt Bray's team quickly, but cautiously, made their way to the downed chopper. The assaulters split into two elements and leapfrogged down the street. As one group bounded forward, the other functioned as the overwatch and provided covering fire. The closer the rescuers got to the downed helicopter, the more intense the gunfire became. Bray's team could see Somali gunman racing to the crash site on parallel roads and alleys. The Somalis were thirsty for American blood. The blocking positions had their hands full fending off other gunmen attracted to the noise of the fighting. Consequently, they were not able to lend Bray's team any assistance.
SSgt Bray's element began to take serious casualties and needed to get out of the street and into some type of cover. After repeated attempts, SSgt Bray was able to break open the doors to a small courtyard. He and his team members cleared the yard and the adjacent home, detained the family living there, and set up a casualty collection point. This position also became the point from which SSgt Bray would control the helicopter gunships, which were furiously trying to protect the pockets of Americans pinned down and hiding in the streets of Mogadishu.
For the next 15 hours SSgt Bray directed helicopter gunships onto targets as close as 10 meters from his position. Expended 7.62mm shell casings often rained down on to his team's position as the helicopters maneuvered overhead. Fellow controllers who could not maintain communications with the gunships relayed critical information to SSgt Bray who then directed the strikes himself. Several times through the course of the night he exposed himself to hostile fire in order to accurately call in the helicopter fire missions. He was awarded the Silver Star, the first awarded to a Combat Controller since the war in Southeast Asia.
While the battle raged around the Olympic Hotel the other Task Force members tried frantically to find a route to the downed aircraft and their trapped comrades. Seven controllers were part of that effort. MSgt Jack McMullen's convoy was caught in an ambush before they could ever get to the Olympic Hotel area. The Somalis initiated the ambush on the lead vehicle by firing a RPG. MSgt McMullen was in the second vehicle, turned perpendicular to the road and set up a hasty blocking position for the rest of the convoy. All four vehicles turned around and quickly departed the area. In fact, they left so quickly that they left MSgt McMullen's M- 998. They were on their own for a while, escaping and evading throughout the city while they tried to find their way back to the airport. After returning to the Task Force compound, MSgt McMullen volunteered to reenter the area with another convoy. This time he made the trip with a Malaysian tank. The second rescue attempt was more successful. It diverted the Somalis attention enough to bring some relief to the trapped task force members.
As dawn broke across the city, the gunmen began to filter away. The beleaguered controllers and their teammates again counted heads and loaded the trucks for the ride back to the airport. The all-night battle was some of the most viscous fighting since Vietnam. The task force lost 18 men and sustained 84 injuries. General Aideed's forces suffered incredible losses. Some estimates put the KIA's and wounded as high as several thousand.
All the controllers involved in the operation performed bravely some were recognized with Bronze Stars, including: MSgt McMullen, MSgt Bob Rankin, SSgt Ray Benjamin, and SSgt Dan Schilling . MSgt McMullen's bronze star carried the Valor device. MSgt Rankin, in keeping with CCT tradition, was the last military member off the streets of Mogadishu.
There is a sad postscript to this story. Two days latter the Somalis got lucky and dropped a mortar round right into the entrance of the Task Force's compound. A death and several more injuries were added to the already bloody list of casualties. Additionally, following the battle, the Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, resigned in disgrace. He had earlier refused to grant the Task Force commander's request for M-113 APCs (Armored Personnel Carriers).
The front of your special tactics checklist contains pearls of wisdom gleaned from this operation. In addition to those points STS recognized the need for a more effective system to extract personnel from downed aircraft. The REDS kit is the hardware and the SAR Security Team reflects the tactics. Day and night urban CAS (close air support) tactics were reevaluated since CCT proved what worked versus what was theorized.
Even more significantly was the shift in attitude among sister service commanders. Special tactics was essential to the joint team and no one could deny that reality. Many organizations claim to be able to do our portion of the mission and fight tooth and nail to avoid bumping "shooters" for "support." The special tactics PJs providing trauma care and combat controllers providing deadly fire support saved the lives of many grateful "shooters." The general public, however, remained unaware as reflected in the movie "Blackhawk Down."
I don't want to give the false impression of what was going on. We were in a grave situation and we knew it. We would occasionally look at one another and say 'this is bad, real bad.
SSgt Jeff Bray, 1993 - Very Busy Force
The decade would see combat controllers in every theater performing various missions.
Controllers would be deployed to southwest Asia almost continuously supporting CSAR, weapons inspections, and relief efforts. A laundry list of operations combat controllers were involved in includes: Provide Comfort, Southern and Northern Watch, Desert strike/thunder/fox and UNSCOM inspections. In April 1996 combat controllers provided services for the evacuation of Monrovia, Liberia.
Relief efforts include: Provide Promise and provide hope. The central Balkans occupied CCT from early 1992 on starting with the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia. Controllers provided ATC, worked airdrops of relief supplies and provided long-range communications. As hostilities flared CSAR and fire support were added to list of duties. Controllers were attached to various allied forces as their primary fire support officer. They were attached to peacekeepers from Russia, the Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Egypt, Malaysia, Pakistan, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. This created a lot of tension with conventional Forces. Enlisted personnel controlling air strikes was sacrilegious; especially to the USMC. Traditional USAF leadership was not excited by the concept and created regulatory obstacles. Careful planning and meticulous documentation answered every nuisance. Young combat controllers were able to provide concise professional briefings on doctrine, tactics and procedures on the spot. When challenged with bureaucratic problems controllers presented well-documented training records and "just happened to have" current copies of the governing regulations.
In September 1994 deployed to Haiti in support of Operation Uphold Democracy. Personnel worked over 200 airland sorties in less than two days. Combat controllers continuously rotated into theater providing services to drug enforcement efforts, humanitarian efforts and joint combined exchange training.
Operation Sea Angel, a humanitarian effort in response to severe monsoons in Bangladesh was one of the last deployments of the team stationed at Clark AB in the Republic of the Philippines. Mount Pinatubo erupted in June of 1992 destroying the base. Combat controllers responded providing ATC, security and a myriad of other functions helping to evacuate over 18,000 Americans. Ash clouds combined with a Typhoon multiplied the challenges of airfield control. The team was reconstituted at Kadena AB, Okinawa.
Combat controllers provided services during several civilian disasters including Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Test and development of emerging technology continued to occupy combat controllers. Almost the entire spectrum of equipment from UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and the C-17 to radios and the MMLS (Mobile Microwave Landing System) CCT has tested, refined and many times developed technological solutions to tactical challenges.
In 1990 Air Force Special Operations command was established at Hurlburt Field as the Air Force component of US Special Operation Command. In 1992 the USAF reorganized and combat control forces were split among seven separate commands creating severe challenges. Training, tactics and equipment began to vary widely. Manning suffered with seven separate staff functions draining experienced controllers from the field. In 1996 all operational combat controllers were realigned under AFSOC.
007. 2000 and beyond
History is being written as I prepare this text. The global war on terrorism dominates all other issues. September 11th 2001 terrorists killed thousands of Americans in a cowardly attack on our homeland. Combat controllers responded and deployed to Afghanistan. Most of the operations will remain classified for some time. A few stories have been released to the public. CCT has received more open press on operations in Afghanistan than all other operations in our history combined.
The battle of Roberts Ridge
In the early morning of March 4th, 2002 an MH-47, callsign Razor 03, approached Takhur Ghar mountain preparing to deploy a joint special operations team. The helicopter was met with a fusillade of enemy fire as it prepared to land. The pilot immediately departed the HLZ (helicopter landing zone) despite a crippling hit from an RPG. In the chaos US Navy SEAL Petty Officer 1st class Neil Roberts fell out of the helicopter. With the controls freezing up, it was all the pilot could do to limp north and put the helicopter down in an area about 7 kilometers away out of immediate danger. Another helicopter, Razor 04, landed next to the disabled aircraft and picked up the team and aircrew. Razor 04 inserted the team under heavy fire in an attempt to rescue their fallen comrade. TSgt John Chapman was the first man off the helicopter and immediately engaged an enemy machinegun nest. TSgt Chapman's quick action allowed the remaining team members to seek a defensive position. TSgt Chapman was killed and several of the SEAL team were severely injured. TSgt John Chapman, was the first USAF CCT combat death since Vietnam; he died with his weapon in his hand providing covering fire in an effort to save his teammate's lives. Surrounded by Al Qaeda the team was in desperate need of rescue.
Shortly thereafter, a quick reaction force (QRF) was inserted to rescue the SEALs and eliminate the enemy. One of the QRFs insertion helicopters was hit with another RPG amazingly was able to land safely, if the middle of a firefight could be considered "safe." Enemy troops were less than twenty meters from where the helicopter came to rest. SSgt Gabe Brown was the combat controller attached to the QRF. For the next fifteen hours he directed close air support in a series of "danger close" calls that can be only described as heroic. A senior Air Force pilot said, "It was the most incredible close-in close air support I've ever seen." Seven brave Americans died that day on Roberts Ridge. Many were saved due to SSgt Brown's actions.
As of September 2002 CCT had controlled the release of over 2 million pounds of ordinance. Although steel on target is a more direct and visceral method to fight the war on terrorism all the skills of a combat controller are needed to win. Surveying, CSAR, and especially ATC were essential to combat operations in Afghanistan.
Reflect on the legacy of warriors past; remember their bravery and sacrifice. Humbly strive to serve our nation.
…"We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
Declaration Of Independence 1776