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Marines close air operations center in Afghanistan, hand off mission to Air Force

Nov. 14, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
AV-8B Harriers with Marine Attack Squadron 231 fly over Afghanistan's Helmand province in 2012. The Marine Corps deactivated Tactical Air Operations Center on Nov. 2.
AV-8B Harriers with Marine Attack Squadron 231 fly over Afghanistan's Helmand province in 2012. The Marine Corps deactivated Tactical Air Operations Center on Nov. 2. (Cpl. Gregory Moore / Marine Corps)
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Four years ago, as Marines swept into Afghanistan’s southwest provinces to engage in some of the fiercest fighting of the war, members of Marine Air Control Squadron 2 set up a Tactical Air Operations Center at Camp Leatherneck to command and control the airspace.

Relying on the mobile, truck-mounted TPS-59 radar system designed for short-term expeditionary missions, the controllers worked around the clock, seven days a week, to deconflict the airspace in Battle Management Area–South, a 70,000-square-mile area roughly aligned with Regional Command-Southwest and the only one of the five BMAs in Afghanistan not handled by Air Force controllers operating out of Qatar, said Lt. Col. Charles Smith, commanding officer of Marine Air Control Group Forward.

Since 2009, Marines at the TAOC have coordinated 320,000 fixed-wing operations, 80,000 aerial-refueling operations, and 7,000 rotary-wing operations in support of coalition forces throughout Afghanistan.

This historic chapter in Marine aviation history came to a close Nov. 2 with the deactivation of the center. Responsibility for air operations above 16,000 feet — primarily jets and unmanned aircraft — will now be handled by the Air Force’s 71st Expeditionary Air Control Squadron in Qatar.

One reason for the creation of the TAOC in 2009 was that, with large number of Marines on the ground and in the air, it gave the controllers an opportunity to sit down with pilots and talk about the mission and their needs.

“I would say it gave us a greater education, a greater trust, because the pilots we supported were here at this location, so we would brief with them, we’d have dinner with them, we knew them personally,” he said.

Air Force controllers looking at a radar screen in Qatar see the same thing as a Marine controller at Leatherneck, he said, “but you lose that level of intimacy.”

For many of the 222 Marines with Marine Air Control Group Forward, the work continues to support the Afghan-led coalition forces and their Marine advisers, Smith said.

In addition to MACS-2, the group comprises three other detachments — Marine Wing Communications Squadron 28, Marine Air Support Squadron 1 and Marine Tactical Air Command Squadron 28 — as well as a headquarters element.

The Direct Air Support Center will continue to provide procedural control for flights under 16,000 feet, Smith said. That is the link to the ground forces.

“That has not changed at all,” he said. “They will continue to work those immediate air support requests that the ground forces require.”

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