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18th ASOG serving only the best in close-air support training missions

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer

An A-10 tank buster maneuvers low over wooded terrain, as it approaches its target. Emerging into a clearing, a small village appears exactly where the pilot expected it to be. Special Forces are on the ground painting the target with a laser.

The strike must be precise, as the target, a mobile missile launcher, is nestled amongst civilian housing and buildings. Minimizing collateral damage is part of the mission criteria. Armed and ready the A-10 closes, releases a laser-guided bomb and the target is squarely hit. But there is no explosion. There are no flames - just the dull thud of an unarmed bomb piercing the wooden missile launcher and stopping dead in the sandy soil.

This mission wasn't over Iraq or Afghanistan. It was at Avon Park and the 18th Air Support Operations Group's Detachment 1 gets the credit for making it as close to the real thing as can be achieved outside of combat. Based at MacDill, the new 18th ASOG, Detachment 1, which until Oct. 1 operated under the banner of the 347th Rescue Wing, has the critical job of training pilots for air combat and the pride and expertise is in delivering an experience as close as possible to a real battle scenario, said Lt. Col. Stamp Walden, commander.

An F-117 pilot tapped for the training job and to carry the detachment into its expanded role as a close-air operations training unit, Colonel Walden flew combat missions in operations Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom. He also played a support role in Operation Iraqi Freedom, making him an ideal candidate for heading up a group whose goal is to prepare pilots and aircrews for the critical job of modern-day air support.

"The most critical part is providing the most realistic experience possible," said Colonel Walden. "You train like you fight."

Walden said the shift to close-air support training is something that has emerged in recent years. The priorities really shifted with Sept .11, 2001, he said, as the military examined the types of operations required for dealing with terrorist, who often use civilian buildings and populations as shields. The tactic makes the job of the U.S. more difficult, but as was illustrated with the pinpoint strikes of targets during Operation Iraqi Freedom, air power was able to support troops on the ground without the collateral damage typical of the past. Such tactics are the way of the future, said Colonel Walden, and we are getting better through training and the use of increasingly sophisticated weapons. That's where the 18th and Avon Park play important roles. MacDill is key in the equation, as well, being the support center the 18th needs to run operations as the Deployed Unit Complex, from where units deployed for Avon training meet, schedule and plan.

"We rely on MacDill for support from administration to safety to security, legal and finance," said Colonel Walden. "We couldn't do what we do without MacDill."

The relationship between MacDill and the detachment of the 18th ASOG is unique, said Dick Cutshall,, who is Colonel Walden's deputy and operation officer and airspace manager for the detachment.

Originally part of the 56th Fighter Wing when MacDill was a fighter base, "we used to run the base and now we are a tenant," said Cutshall, who started with the 56th in 1985. When the fighters left in 1996 and MacDill was in limbo, the base was reincarnated as a tanker base under Air Mobility Command and Cutshall's unit emerged as part of the 347th Rescue Wing, but carrying on in its previous capacity running combat mission training. Further realignments resulted in the move Oct. 1 of this year to the 18th ASOG, Detachment 1.

While part of Air Combat Command, "we feel like we are part of the wing (6th Air Mobility Wing)," said Cutshall. "We work very closely together on exercises and activities on the base."

The detachment's home base at MacDill acts as a battle hub during the many training missions and plays host to every branch of the U.S. military. When F-16s, FA-18s, F-15s, combat choppers and various other combat aircraft fly into MacDill, chances are they are heading for the DUC and preparing for a simulated attack at Avon Park. While the accommodations at MacDill are a lot nicer than desert tents and dirt runways, the structure of operations is the same and prepares air and ground crews for what they will experience in battle. There are planning, debriefing and intel rooms at the DUC, where missions are prepared

and launched. When the mission is over debriefings are held just as they would be in the theater of war.

The 18th Detachment 1 doesn't just serve the Air Force. Any branch in need of training can call on it for a mission made to order. With a staff of 86 between MacDill and Avon, the wheels begin turning as soon as the mission is defined and approved.

Targets are built to order. They could range from plywood and aluminum tanks, to missile launchers and even entire villages. Old cargo containers painted to look like houses and commercial buildings serve as realistic buildings. The 18th even is able to build highly realistic training scenarios, working with everyone from intelligence and ground control units to Special Forces to prepare them for specific missions down to the last detail. But while the high profile aspect of the detachment is combat training, there are many other elements of the job not so apparent. At Avon Park these include forestry, wildlife management, hunting and fishing management and lumber harvesting.

Detachment 1 also is responsible for most of the air space over the Gulf of Mexico and Florida, routing and approving flight paths for all branches of the military. The detachment, under the leadership of Cutshall, has organized and managed the annual air shows that were a fixture at MacDill until suspended after Sept. 11, 2001.

(Cutshall said planning is under way for a show next year but final approval has not been given.) The detachment also arranges fly-overs for Bucs games and other sporting events.

Going into the future, the goal at Avon Park is to improve and expand the capabilities of the base, said Colonel Walden, with an eye toward making it the most important and useful close-air support training facility in the east. With several projects on the drawing board or under way, Colonel Walden said Avon Park is becoming a more active base and the greater capabilities and expanding training missions will pay off in combat, said Colonel Walden, who speaks from experience. As a pilot who has flown combat missions, the training objective is for the pilot to be comfortable and to recognize the combat scenarios to which he is subjected.

"You want to recognize what you are seeing and good training prepares you for that, so nothing is a surprise," said Colonel Walden.




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