News Branch Air Force

Putting warheads on foreheads — This is the gear Air Force combat controllers carry into battle

Spoiler alert: Sharpies are a big one
David Roza Avatar

When it comes to calling in air support, nobody does it better than Air Force Combat Controllers, who are trained to deploy with Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, and other special operators who go way outside the wire. CCTs go through a two-year-long training pipeline to become commandos who are also Federal Aviation Administration-certified air traffic controllers and can serve as the go-between for special operators and pilots. Besides calling in airstrikes, they also set up landing zones and work with aircrews to bring humanitarian aid to places that don’t have airports.

“We’re that special operator that brings the air integration piece and really focuses on that,” said Tech Sgt. John Neidrick, a CCT who served with the 21st Special Tactics Squadron and is now transitioning to become an Air Force special warfare recruiter.

It’s a tough training pipeline. The attrition rate for CCT trainees has historically been 70 to 80 percent, according to one 2011 study. But calling in air support and setting up landing zones takes more than training: it also takes specialized gear. Neidrick took the time to walk Task & Purpose through some of the essential tools that CCTs use to accomplish their mission:

1. A good CCT needs a good rifle

Top to bottom, an M4 rifle and a MK-20 Mod 0 Sniper Support rifle. Neidrick said both weapons are great for CCTs, and the second is also an excellent tool for spotting targets up to a mile away. (Courtesy photo Tech Sgt. John Neidrick)

Like any special operator, CCTs carry a range of small arms into battle. These include the M4 rifle, equipped with modified upper receivers that allow CCTs to personalize the position of optics and attachments such as holographic sights, scopes, infrared pointers and flashlights. Some CCTs also carry the MK-20 Mod 0 sniper support rifle, a weapon chambered in 7.62mm x 51mm that lets users engage the enemy at a longer range than the M4. 

The cool thing about the MK-20, Neidrick explained, is that its 6 to 18-power magnification scope allows CCTs to see farther out, which helps them do their air support job as well as fight the enemy.

“It’s great to identify stuff at longer distances,” he said. “We can see what personnel are doing: if they’re up to or near a mile away, we can tell if they’re doing something suspicious, like digging in the dirt, possibly trying to implant something. We can really use it for the reconnaissance piece as well, because of that large magnification on the scope.”

The MK-20 is just one example of CCTs using standard special operations gear for their own purposes. Another is the M320, which is a 40mm grenade launcher that combat controllers use to fight the enemy up to 350 meters away. Though the launcher can shoot lethal explosive grenades, it can also launch smoke grenades which CCTs use to mark targets or landing zones.

An M-320 40mm grenade launcher that CCTs use both to attack enemy fighters and mark targets for air support. The holographic sight on top of the weapon adjusts for target distance, allowing users to place incredibly accurate shots. (Courtesy photo Tech Sgt. John Neidrick)

The M-320 also has a holographic sight that adjusts based on how far away the target is, which allows for highly-accurate target spotting.

“I’ve seen several of our operators who can commonly put a smoke grenade in a doorway at around 150 meters,” said Neidrick. “It provides that level of accuracy, which was very challenging to do before that weapon system came.”

That accuracy makes a big difference when talking with pilots, who can’t see landmarks as well as the guys on the ground.

“In certain circumstances like a large urban area, where a lot of things look alike, it may be difficult for an aircraft to see exactly what you’re looking at while flying overhead at 20,000 feet,” Neidrick said. “Utilizing different tools such as a smoke grenade or an infrared marker can shorten that time it takes to confirm we’re both looking at the same point.”

A cool side-note about smoke grenades: when it comes to signaling aircraft, different colors of smoke often sends different messages to aircrew. Though it may change based on the unit, Neidrick said red typically marks a hostile target for an aircraft to attack, while purple marks medical evacuations or helicopter landing zones.

2. The most important piece of gear they have is a radio

Left to right, a PRC-152 handheld radio and a PRC-117G radio, which is heavier but produces a more powerful signal. CCTs often use two PRC-152s, one for air support and one for their teammates. They have to learn how to listen to a conversation in each ear. (Courtesy photo Tech Sgt. John Neidrick)

Carrier pigeons and telegraphs just don’t work for coordinating close air support, so instead combat controllers commonly use two PRC-152 radios: one for talking with aircrew, and the other for talking with their teammates on the ground. Listening to a separate conversation in each ear takes practice to master, but it’s an essential skill for CCTs to do their job properly.

“One combat controller put it as you’re kind of like the director in certain ways,” Neidrick said. “You have multiple things going on that you’re trying to provide a solution to. You’re multitasking, you have different information coming in one ear, and different information going into the other ear, and you’re trying to problem solve in the most effective and time-efficient way.”

CCTs sometimes carry different antennas for the PRC-152s depending on the terrain or how far away they are from the parties they need to talk to, both of which can affect the strength of the radio signal. PRC-152s have a range of 30-50 miles in the best conditions and terrain, but mountainous areas like those in Afghanistan might push that down. CCTs might also tape a splitter to the radio so that they can connect with satellite communications, Neidrick explained. Depending on the mission, CCTs might carry a heavier, higher-power, longer distance radio like a PRC-117G (a.k.a 117 Golf) when they’re posted up in one spot providing dedicated air traffic control.

3. A smart phone app makes today’s CCT’s even more deadly

A soldier uses an Android Tactical Assault Kit (ATAK), a smartphone app used to keep track of friendly forces and enemy positions in real time. (Photo courtesy of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Chemical and Biological Technologies Department)

Whippersnapper kids are always fiddling around on their phones these days, including Air Force CCTs, who use an Android smartphone app to keep track of where their buddies and hostile forces are during a mission. The Android Tactical Assault Kit (ATAK) replaces paper maps with Google Maps-like satellite imagery of the operating area. Atop those satellite images are overlaid symbols that represent friendly and enemy forces, along with a grid that allows users to coordinate where they are on the map. ATAK is a great tool for anything from direct action combat missions to airfield seizures to military freefall navigation to coordinating close air support. The tech even allows CCTs to text message aircraft at a longer range than voice radio comms can reach.

“It’s more convenient [than paper maps], being able to zoom in, zoom out and to already have specific label points and being able to update them real time for friendly and enemy positions,” Neidrick said. “It really keeps our situational awareness up.”

The app saved lives in 2017, when Neidrick was deployed with a Navy SEAL team fighting to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State group. An Iraqi special operations force working alongside the SEALs was ahead of them, surrounded by ISIS fighters on two sides and close to being overrun. They needed air support fast, but Neidrick had to be careful not to accidentally bring that firepower on the Iraqi commandos he was trying to save.

“We definitely wanted to double-check their location, and we could see their position on our ATAK screen,” the CCT recalled. “Through working with their commander, we were able to cross-reference and double check their location. Then we utilized A-10s orbiting overhead to put two 500-pound bombs on the enemy location and neutralize the fighters.”

The bomb drop came just in the nick of time, as the Iraqi commandos were on the verge of being overrun. It just goes to show the power that a smartphone app can have at the right moment in the right hands.

“It drastically reduced the time it took for us to safely employ a 500-pound bomb from an A-10,” Neidrick said.

4. Both Superman and CCTs use lasers to melt their enemies, sort of.

A U.S. Air Force Special Tactics operator assigned to the 24th Special Operations Wing marks a target with an infrared laser during Emerald Warrior 21.1, Feb. 22, 2021, at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Gabriel Macdonald)

No operator’s kit is complete without a cool laser to paint over some poor schmuck’s forehead. CCTs are no different, except they use lasers for more than just guiding rifle bullets. Indeed, combat controllers use a pocket laser range finder to find out how far away a target or a drop zone is, or even to measure the height of telephone wires, trees, or the cloud ceiling, which are important stats for aviators. CCTs can also use it to triangulate the distance between two other spots farther away from their position.

A PLRF is essentially a high-end version of a civilian laser rangefinder, Neidrick said, but, like MK-20 rifles and smoke grenades, CCTs use this relatively ordinary technology in creative ways for their own purposes. 

A pocket laser range finder used to mark targets and measure distances. (Courtesy photo Tech Sgt. John Neidrick)

Neidrick was deployed with Navy SEALs fighting in the middle of the Euphrates River valley in 2017 when a Humvee was hit by an enemy anti-tank TOW missile, killing several Iraqi Special Forces soldiers. It was a good thing Neidrick was there, because he worked with an Iraqi soldier to determine the rough direction the attack had come from, then used his PLRF to determine an azimuth and figure out approximately how far away the launch site was.

The CCT relayed the information to an MQ-1 Gray Eagle drone flying overhead, which used its sensors to spot an enemy vehicle fleeing the spot where the missile had come from. The drone then destroyed it with a Hellfire missile. It’s another example of CCTs using technology in out-of-the-box ways to produce results.

“Honestly I never thought it would work,” Neidrick said. “We were at an elevated position just conducting some reconnaissance while other friendly forces maneuvered … and then [the TOW attack] happened really out of the blue … I just thought ‘what could I do?’ I determined a rough location and through a little bit of luck and a skilled aircrew overhead” it actually worked, he said.

5. Moon’s out, goons out with infrared pointers and PVS-31 night vision goggles

PVS-31 Night vision goggles like the one attached to this helmet allow CCTs to not only see at night, but also see infrared pointers that you can’t see otherwise. (Courtesy photo Tech Sgt. John Neidrick)

Everything’s scarier at night, especially when you’re going up against special operators who have night vision goggles. Besides allowing users to see in the dark, the PVS-31s also let CCTs use infrared pointers that you can’t see without the right equipment, which allows them to mark enemy positions without being detected. 

One technique CCTs use is called snaking: using their high-powered IR pointers, they draw a small circle on the ground to mark their position, then they slowly snake the IR dot across the ground towards the enemy position or the landing zone they need to mark. Once the IR dot hits the mark, the CCTs might keep it on there, or make it blink or circle it with a figure-eight.

There are plenty of ways to do it, Neidrick said, including “roping” the aircraft in by drawing a circle around it in the sky with an IR pointer, then snaking down the IR to the CCT’s own position. That’s a particularly helpful tool when trying to show helicopters where to land or to point out obstructions like trees or power lines, he said. 

“While the helicopters are roping overhead we can identify those obstructions for them to avoid, so it’s another tool that has several different uses,” the CCT explained.

You may be wondering how CCTs decide to use smoke grenades or an ATAK or an IR pointer to communicate with aircrews, and the answer is that it depends on the situation. If it’s nighttime, it probably makes more sense to use the IR pointer rather than smoke. Lower elevation aircraft like a helicopter also have a better chance of seeing an IR pointer than a higher-elevation aircraft would. But if you’re in the middle of a firefight and don’t have time to describe the point you’re looking at, it might be faster to just mark it with some smoke from the grenade launcher.

“It really depends on the scenario, so we’re always going to carry a lot of different tools to be able to solve the problem,” Neidrick said.

6. Why Sharpies are a deadly weapon in the hands of a CCT

An Air Force Special Tactics combat controller and pararescueman before a direct action mission against enemy militants in Helmand Province, Afghanistan in May 2019. (Air Force courtesy photo)

The last two gadgets are at opposite ends of the tech spectrum. The first, a video downlink, allows CCTs on the ground to see what pilots are looking at through a camera in the aircraft’s sensor ball. The VDL takes the cockpit footage and displays it on either a small separate TV screen, a monocle-type device that combat controllers can mount on their eye protection, or on their ATAK.

“It’s a great tool and it’s also useful when you’re identifying a location with an aircraft,” Neidrick said. “You can see what they’re seeing in real-time and put yourself in their perspective to try to find the reference point or a target.”

Another tool that’s just as useful but far less high-tech is a clickable Sharpie marker, which CCTs use to write down grid coordinates marking the position of friendly forces, enemy fighters, landing zones, and everything in between.

“So many grids,” Neidrick said, when asked what CCTs are so busy writing down in any recruiting video that’s ever been made about them. “So many grid locations to what your team is seeing to what a partner force is seeing and definitely to what aircraft are seeing. We definitely want to exactly identify any possible target and be able to double-check it, so we’re constantly writing down tons of grids on anything we can, from notebooks to dry erase to whatever.”

Those records also help for after-action briefs and for any possible investigations if something goes wrong. Since this is a story about gear, Neidrick said many CCTs prefer a fine-point clickable permanent marker, such as a Sharpie. 

“It’s not that cool but it’s very vital,” he said. “Like on my first deployment, being very anxious and excited to do my job, I’d misplace some of these Sharpies, so I started wrapping them in Velcro, so I could just slap it to my uniform if I was in a hurry.”

Some prefer to write on a write-in-the-rain notepad, but Neidrick said he likes laminated sheets where he can lay out his preferred format for writing down grids in advance. Then he simply uses a magic marker to wipe off the grids when they are no longer needed.

There are plenty of other tools that CCTs may use on certain missions, but you’re likely to see these ones wherever a combat controller operates, Neidrick said. Of course, none of the tools are effective without a highly-trained, highly competent CCT using them. It takes a special type of person to work in the organized chaos of combat aircraft coordination, and that’s shown in the large number of decorations for bravery that CCTs have been awarded over the last 20 years, including a Medal of Honor for Master Sgt. John Chapman, who died fighting al Qaeda insurgents in Afghanistan in 2002. 

Of the 11 Air Force Crosses awarded for action in Afghanistan since 2001, eight were awarded to Combat Controllers, with the other three going to Pararescuemen. The Air Force Cross is the second highest military decoration in the branch, behind only the Medal of Honor. 

Though Neidrick said he plans on returning to an operational unit in the future, for now he will miss the constantly-challenging, constantly-improving mindset of the CCT world.

“I definitely miss being around a group of highly-motivated individuals on a team that pushes you, that always challenges you to become better,” he said. “Just being around very highly-motivated individuals at all times, no matter what the training event or deployment is like … I kind of missed that for the time I’m away from the career field.”

If he can drop bombs as well as he can drop the mic, I’d imagine the CCT community misses Neidrick too.

Related: Special Tactics airman awarded Air Force Cross for saving Green Beret team in desperate 8-hour firefight