Ground FAC Europe

by L. D. Alford

Few pilots enjoyed the job of ground Forward Air Controller (FAC). Every one of us would rather be flying aircraft and getting all the glory rather than camping out with the Army and dodging bullets on the ground. Let’s face facts – someone has to do the dirty work of the ground FAC and control the Army’s allocated airborne Air Force heavy iron. The fighter and bomber pilots want it that way, and the Army wants it that way. Plus it gives both of them someone to blame when the bombs get a little too close to the good guys.

Back in the cold war in Europe the Air Force had FACs and Air Liaison Officers (ALO) with every Battalion and Brigade. I was assigned to the 1st Infantry Division (fwd), 1st Brigade, 1st of the 16th (1/16) (1st Battalion). It was more simply called the 1st of the 16th, 1st ID forward. The nomenclature of 1/16 came from the Army’s reorganization from Regiments into Battalions. The Battalions retained the historical regimental colors, patches, and numbers of key regiments. It was done to keep the esprit de corps alive and retain regimental cohesion.

So, I was a member of the Big Red One – Iron Rangers. Proud of it, and glad to participate with the Army as a member of the once great Army Air Corps (AAC). My father was a member of the AAC and the fledgling Air Force – he would have been proud.

You might imagine that for a pilot Lieutenant in the middle of the cold war, life with the Army would be exciting and interesting, but like I said, most of us would rather be flying. Working with the Army, from a FAC’s standpoint was boredom, hardship, no showers, uncertain meal times, sleep depredation, and putting up with the Army. The Army works much differently than the Air Force. The culture is different, the people are different – they like living out in the cold, wet, dirty, and dangerous. Did I say we FACs would all rather be flying? In the Air Force, you sleep in great hotels, you get great food, you travel to interesting places in fast planes, you get a shower almost every morning and you get 12 hours of crew rest when you aren’t fighting a war. These are all positives. With the Army, you don’t know when you will get your next bath, but you sure better be clean shaven. You get a warm meal when the services battalion catches up to you. You sometimes get a cot to put your sleeping bag on. In the middle of winter, in the middle of the night, when the heating oil runs out in your barracks, the Lieutenant gets to go for more heating oil – and you better be in uniform with your weapon, MOP (chemical protection) gear and harness. Since the FACs are usually the only Lieutenants in the Battalion Headquarters (HQ), guess who gets kicked out of the barracks for heating oil.

Now things do get better when you are out in the field. I had a jeep (M-151), a trailer, an M-113 track, a track commander (Army Sergeant), a track driver (Army Corporal), a million dollars of radio equipment, and two ROMADs (Radio Operator, Maintainer, and Driver). The ROMAD was an Air Force enlisted man specially trained in the upkeep of the FAC’s radios, jeep, and of the specialized equipment. ROMADs are supposed to be the best of the best; I was always issued the ROMADs with the least training and experience. I think it was because I was thought to be a strong officer, but who knows. They did give me two. Unfortunately, I usually had to show them how to back the jeep when the trailer was attached.

jeepThe Army always took excellent care of their FACs. I was never sure if that was because they hoped to get the best air support when they ran into trouble, or they just felt sorry for us. I always had the best track crew in the Battalion. My driver was better educated than I was – he had two degrees. The driver was incredible. We would pass other tracks stuck in the mud, one time completely engulfed to the top deck – my driver never put our track anywhere we couldn’t get out of, and we always had the best equipment because he knew how to take care of it.

In the middle of the night, the Army always moved the TOC (Tactical Operations Center, a fancy name for the HQ unit). You could set your watch by it – 2 o’clock in the morning – move the TOC. For this reason, my track driver slept in his seat, and the track commander slept in his cupola (even in freezing weather). They gave me the long seat in the back of the track to put out my sleeping bag – they never unrolled theirs. The other seat in a normal track was not installed in a FAC track because the radio rack literally covered one whole side. When they moved the TOC, always in the middle of the night, the big engine on the track would fire up and wake me. My track commander would smile down from the cupola, “Sir, you can go back to sleep, we’re just moving the TOC again.” He would even tell my ROMADs and sometimes they would be with us in the morning – sometimes not. I really would have gone to war with these men and been the better for the experience.

The FACs always accompanied their units during the yearly ARTEPs (Army Training and Evalutation Program). The ARTEPs were field exercises conducted for training and grading of Army unit effectiveness. They were war games played with real people and fighting equipment. We fought against a different Brigade usually from a different Division and simulated the fight we would make against the Soviets. Eventually we used MILES (Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System) to simulate the weapons and their effects. The Army vehicles were equipped with MILES gear, and you wore a MILES harness.  Every Army weapon included a MILES laser that simulated its capabilities. So if the correct MILES weapon hit your track, the alarm would go off and your engine would shut down. You would be figuratively dead, and listening to a 90 decibel alarm until the referees used their keys to turn you back into a target again. If they shot you, your harness would screech until the referee could turn you off.

My track mounted a 50 cal with awesome blanks and a MILES laser. My track commander and driver had MILES on their M-16s. The FACs always carried a 38 cal revolver side arm, but we never got MILES on our weapons. The Air Force fighters and bombers didn’t carry MILES either. There was a good reason for this as you will see. Except for one occasion, on all the ARTEPs I participated in, we never lost our track to enemy fire, and we never were hit. That is a great testament to my track driver and commander. One time we did lose someone on our crew. During an ARTEP in 1982, the Battalion commander gave me the Division Sergeant Major to look after. At the end of the ARTEP, the commander was so exuberant about winning, he turned around in his HQ track and shot my Sergeant Major with his 9mm. We had to listen to the alarm for about an hour. It has to do with Army humor. The Sergeant Major thought it was a great joke.

My Army commander was happy enough to shoot his Sergeant Major because this was one of the few ARTEPs my Battalion won hands down, and the Air Force was the reason. As I said, Army maneuvers can be boring for a FAC. When you don’t have any fighters to control, you sit on your hands waiting for the radio call that will deliver a flight of fighters to you. We never got fighters until the weather was good and the battle was a couple of days old. Since I wasn’t expecting any air support, I took one of my ROMADs out on an explore in the jeep. We carried our portable radios. We accomplished a recon out ahead of the TOC to find our troops in contact. Did I tell you the Air Force jeeps didn’t carry MILES gear, so we weren’t afraid of getting hit. We were invincible, plus who would shoot a jeep? We parked our jeep below a ridge where we could watch the bad guys maneuvering ahead of our forces. The bad guys had the new M-1 tanks and the M-2 Bradley fighting vehicles – our side had M-113s and M-48 tanks (the old stuff) – that’s why we always lost.

My ROMAD and I were eating our lunch, the new, at the time, MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) and watching the fight. It was fantastic. The bad guys tanks were backing through the woods, and our guys were on the attack. The enemy Bradleys had just come out of the tree line below us, when above us on the ridge we heard a jeep drive up and stop. Okay, what are a Lieutenant and an Air Force three striper going to do when they are in the heart of the enemy territory and they hear a jeep park above them – of course, they check it out. We snuck up the side of the ridge and found the jeep belonged to the other side. I pulled out my side arm and my ROMAD pulled out the portable FM radio to call for reinforcements, and we captured the two guys and their jeep. It happened to be the enemy’s HQ jeep, and we had captured the other Battalion’s commander. Right behind him was parked a referee’s jeep (they had no MILES gear and a big white “X” on the grill and hood) and two referees. We had captured the head of the opposing force, and for one moment in time there was much rejoicing. However, because we were Air Force and Air Force casualties don’t count, we had to give him back – oh well. For a while we were heroes. My Battalion commander was very pleased, but that wasn’t the end of the story.

To add insult to injury as soon as the opposing Battalion commander stopped cursing and drove away, I got a call on the UHF. An unexpected packet of air power was inbound. Not just any packet of air power, two flights of A-10s fully loaded with simulated 30mm and Maverick missiles. Below the ridge, we could see the whole enemy force coming out of the line of trees into the open. That’s why the enemy commander wanted to sit there – you could see everything. With the referees standing not 100 feet from us, I called in the first and then the second flight of A-10s. I popped a smoke grenade on the top of the ridge and told the A-10s hit everything except my smoke, and they did. Taking turns between the two flights, they killed almost every tank in the opposing force, and the A-10s were still looking for targets when I sent them home. In a virtual sense, the opposing force was gone, nada, completely destroyed. For the first time in the history of Army ARTEPs, the other side was not just beaten, they were annihilated. My commander was very happy with the Air Force and his FAC until the Army referees conferred and decided that since Air Force casualties don’t count in ARTEPs, the other guys could have their tanks back – oh well. It was awesome while it was happening. The entire enemy force was backing from the tree line and the A-10s had a field day. The enemy tanks were so disconcerted by the A-10s and the confusion they didn’t take cover until it was too late. When our tanks poked their muzzles through he trees, they blasted the confused and unorganized enemy again. Enemy M-1s and Bradleys, MILES alarms were going off everywhere, their engines shut down, and unmoving, they were overrun by our tanks and then infantry. As I said, the Army didn’t count the Air Force kills, and they ruled the subsequent tank battle null and void. The opposing forces were given a “time out” and started the next day with their tanks intact. But for that one moment the Air Force had shown what they could really do for the Army on the field of battle.  

– The End –

The author is a retired Air Force test pilot. His other aviation, technical, and fiction writing can be referenced at