Mike Leonard is a Vietnam era combat FAC pilot. He has numerous distinguished service awards including the Flying Cross and was hanging it out there when most modern Warfighters were in diapers. I’m proud to call him a friend and glad to share this interview with all of you.
Brandon: Mike, a lot of readers don’t understand that Forward Air Control (FAC) started in the air not on the ground! Can you expound on this for our SOFREP readers?
Mike: Battlefield’s morph over time based on a variety of drivers, including; technological innovation, the tactical environment, and dollars (aka cost/benefit). The enemy we face today has forged major changes in US military doctrine. I believe the official term used to describe how we fight today is “asymmetric warfare”. Maybe a more descriptive way of stating these changes goes something like this; you’d better be as agile as your enemy, highly flexible in dealing with them, and able to take the fight to their backdoor (notice I didn’t say front door). One of the tactical changes that interests me most is the use of USAF enlisted Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) specialists imbedded with front line troops, including SOCOM and USMC units. Their primary mission is to control tactical air assets in support of our guys when engaged with the enemy. The job is simply to bring overwhelming firepower, in the form of airstrikes and/or artillery, to the battlefield. My interest in this terrific group of young men stems from the fact that in my past, I also performed this role. There were, however, some differences in how we executed that mission 40 plus years ago. The Vietnam (VN) battlefield of the 1960’s and 1970’s may have been the first time that the US military confronted “asymmetric warfare” on such a large scale. To confront the enemy in the jungles and mountains of VN, the US Military reached back into its bag of tricks and brought back with a vengeance the airborne Forward Air Controller (FAC). I say reached back because the job of controlling tactical air on enemy targets really dates back to the advent of aviation. Space doesn’t permit a history lesson about the origins of this mission; so please trust me when I say that over the course of history this role has vacillated from above the battlefield to on the battlefield and back again. In VN job of controlling tactical air assets occurred above the fray. What may be of even more interest is this. While the VN FAC’s role was to direct airstrikes onto enemy positions in support of US forces, the FAC was also an expert in Visual Reconnaissance, Artillery Fire Control/Adjustment, Bomb Damage Assessment, Search and Rescue, and in my case Defoliation Mission Support (aka Agent Orange).