WASHINGTON — Afghan Tactical Air Coordinators — or ATACs — are proving to be increasingly vital as Taliban forces engage in another brutal fighting season across Afghanistan.
“ATACs are in high demand out in the field,” Capt. William Salvin told Military Times.
The ATAC program was launched last summer with the goal of producing tactical air controllers capable of putting bombs on target in support of Afghan ground operations. That program was expected to field nearly 40 qualified air coordinators by April, according to a previous story by Military Times.
Due to operational security, officials at Operation Resolute Support were unable to tell Military Times the number of qualified ATACs currently in the field. However, “the number of trained ATACs are growing along with the quality of their skills.” Salvin said.
According to Salvin, the program is already bearing fruit on the ground.
An ATAC on the ground recently assisted an Afghan convoy that was being routinely attacked from the same location, Salvin explained.
A target package was developed and passed to the Afghan’s fixed wing ground attack platform — the A-29 Super Tucano. With an assist from the ATACs on the ground, the threat was neutralized and “the convoy was able to pass through the area without being engaged which was the first time the convoy had not been attacked in some time.”
The Afghans boast a small but impressive fleet of ground attack aircraft capable of supporting Afghan forces and conducting pre-planned strikes against designated targets.
According to the latest assessment from the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, the primary strike assets in the Afghan air force include 26 MD-530 Cayuse Warrior helicopters, 12 A-29 Super Tucanos, and four Mi-35 Hinds.
Afghanistan’s air offensive capabilities are slated to grow as the war-torn country embarks — with the support of the U.S. and NATO — on a revitalization program. Afghanistan’s primary ground support strike assets are set to grow by nearly 30 more MD-530s and six A-29s, according to Military Times.
Gen. Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told lawmakers in February that offensive capabilities were needed to break the “stalemate” in Afghanistan. The American general touted Afghanistan’s air force and its nearly-17,000 special forces personnel as the focus of his plan for breaking the stalemate with the Taliban.
Over the weekend, two strategically located districts — Kohistan district in Faryab and Taywara district in Ghor — collapsed to Taliban militants, according to Tolo News, a local Afghan media network.
The fighting this summer has been intense.
As of June 30, U.S. aircraft had already dropped more munitions in Afghanistan in 2017 than all of 2016, according to Air Forces Central Command air power summaries.
Afghanistan’s air force is struggling to pick up the slack since NATO and U.S. forces began drawing back support under the Obama administration, but the ATAC program represents the newest sign of self-reliance.
“The Afghans are already showing strong leadership and instructional ability requiring less and less coalition involvement,” said Salvin.
After nearly 16 years of war in Afghanistan, the Afghans are finally fielding their own tactical air controllers capable of calling in precision strikes.
There are over 8,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan as part of a train-and-advise and counter-terror missions. The Trump administration is still wrestling with a decision on whether to send 4,000 more troops into America’s longest war.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.