The Air Force's elite joint terminal attack controllers are among the battlefield airmen who are helping wage war against the Islamic State militant group.

But unlike in their traditional roles, in which forward-deployed JTACs operate on the ground to call in airstrikes against hostile forces they can seethey have laid eyes on, JTACs involved in Operation Inherent Resolve are using live video streamed from aircraft to remotely direct fire against ISIS.

"Location and numbers of available coalition ground forces drove innovations in the way we target enemy assets," U.S. Air Forces Central Command spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Karns said in an email to Air Force Times. "The Joint Operations Center leveraged existing technologies and enabled JTACs to ensure strikes comply with rules of engagement, ensure the safety of friendly forces, and ultimately clear strike aircraft to employ ordnance, by using real-time video feeds rather than having to see the target directly."

This strategy allows the JTAC to not only see what the aircraft sees while making decisions on whether or not to engage a target, but also to have a "theater-level picture" that they could only have working out of the Joint Operations Center, Karns said.

Karns said JTACs are only some of the battlefield airmen who are supporting anti-ISIS missions. But Karns would not say where these airmen are located, or how many are involved.

Karns detailed the process that JTACs in various "strike cells" use to coordinate with aircraft to hit ISIS in this way:

  • The coalition schedules aircraft to make sure ground forces throughout the region are supported.
  • Air crews use JTACs' descriptions, as well as other sources of information, to differentiate between friendly forces and enemy forces.
  • After a JTAC and the strike aircraft confirm the target, the JTAC passes clearance on to the strike aircraft to fire on the enemy.

"This multi-step coordination process is critical to minimizing collateral damage and has proven to work," Karns said.

Karns said American and other coalition forces are using precision weapons to try to minimize collateral damage and mitigate civilian casualties, which he said are "key components of the air campaign." Karns said that coalition forces "take all reasonable measures" to try to lessen the risks to civilians, and that the coalition constantly reviews its tactics, techniques, procedures and training to improve its processes and avoid civilian casualties.

"Our airmen are serving in an advisory role, lending their expertise to air operations and working in Combined Joint Operations Centers, while advising the indigenous forces as appropriate," Karns said. "It is important to note, they are assigned in an advisory capacity. The key to this fight rests with the success achieved by indigenous ground forces."

Stephen Losey covers personnel, promotions, and the Air Force Academy for Air Force Times. He can be reached at slosey@airforcetimes.com.