An integral component of modern U.S. battlefield superiority is air power. More specifically, the ability to call in effective and timely close air support (CAS) provides ground troops with a crucial advantage over their opponents, whether these are Taliban fighters in the mountains of Afghanistan, ISIS terrorists in the deserts of Iraq, or Russian mercenaries in the plains of Syria.
To facilitate CAS, the U.S. military is utilizing Joint Attack Terminal Controllers (JTACs) who are embedded with ground troops and can talk “Air Force.” JTACs come in all sorts of sizes and uniforms: They can be Air Force Combat Controllers, qualified Green Berets or Navy SEALs, and Tactical Control Air Party airmen, among other war-fighters. However, with great power comes great responsibility.
A JTAC often has to make split-second decisions under fire that can either obliterate an enemy machine gun position or kill an innocent family sheltered from the fighting. Consequently, JTACs have had to follow a lengthy procedure for calling CAS. But lengthy also means dangerously slow, especially when under fire.
Perceiving this threat, the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has developed and implemented an Android app that enables commandos to call CAS faster while still maintaining the safety procedures. The Android Tactical Assault Kit (ATAK) is a handheld device. Its smaller size and weight are an additional benefit to its efficiency for calling CAS.
“We’ve taken the JTAC kill chain from minutes—that 16-step process—down to seconds. Close air support is now seconds of coordination,” said Col. Joel Babbitt, project manager of the Special Operations Forces Warrior Office, in a statement during the 2019 Special Operations Forces Industry Conference.
The ATAK was developed in conjunction by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Air Force Research Lab.
Those successes have led SOCOM to go all in on the tech, which was originally developed by DARPA and the Air Force Research Lab. “We are integrating everything into ATAK,” added Colonel Babbitt, emphasizing that the ATAK’s success has convinced disbelievers throughout the U.S. Department of Defense to adopt the app. But its appeal isn’t limited to the military. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is also looking into the ATAK and how best to employ it.
Mark Shook, the chief of science and technology of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) told Breaking Defense that initially, the ATAK “was falling on deaf ears, because it didn’t quite fit exactly in somebody’s nice little picture of a program.” As a result, funding was hard to come by for a project that didn’t fit a usual acquisition program.
But perseverance from SOCOM, JSOC, and the research and development agencies led to ATAK’s success and popularity. “We cannot afford to let the process say no to some of these game-changing capabilities,” added Shook.
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