PILGRIM IN AN UNHOLY LAND: A STRATHCONA WITH THE GUNS

By: Captain Bryce Simpson

Since spring 2015, I have had the pleasure of being one of the very few Strathconas representing the Regiment in the Siberia of Western Canada (also deceptively referred to as Shilo, Manitoba), as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) within Z Battery, 1st Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery (RCHA).  ‘JTAC’ has taken over the former speciality of Forward Air Controllers in conducting terminal control of aircraft (both Fixed and Rotary Wing) engaged in Close Air Support (CAS) of ground forces and is open to all combat arms personnel. Currently, the speciality remains resident within the Artillery Regiments who are responsible for JTAC training and supervision of currency requirements. I applied for training to become a JTAC while a Troop Leader in A Sqn, (though admittedly through a ‘who likes ice cream’ system of volunteerism) and was posted to Shilo to begin the training process.  Combined pre-course training and the JTAC Course itself takes approximately four months followed by a 6-12 month period of training before individual JTACs are designated ‘combat ready’.  

NATO-wide currency requirements mandate a certain number of various types of JTAC ‘controls’ of aircraft (ie: controls by night, danger close, low level attacks, etc.) per semi-annual period and so the training schedule is generally filled with travel to various national and international exercises in order to achieve these requirements, added to the regular cycle of IBTS and collective training to which 1 RCHA and 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group (1 CMBG) are committed.  While this has meant an unusually busy training cycle this past year due to 1 CMBG being on the Road to High Readiness, conducting this cycle as a JTAC has been an immensely rewarding opportunity for a combat arms officer to gain an understanding of the integration of artillery and air assets into the manoeuvre battle.  1 CMBG JTACs had training opportunities to integrate live ordnance from air assets and manoeuvring ground forces from both Canadian Army and coalition nations on Ex STRIKING GANDER in Twentynine Palms, California and on Ex PITCH BLACK in Darwin, Australia as well as closer to home on Ex PROMETHEAN RAM.  Smaller training venues included the annual CAF Ex MAPLE STRIKE which focuses exclusively on CAS, as well as regular training with United States Air Force B-52 and B-1B bomber squadrons who are kind enough to ensure that the CFB Shilo training area is redecorated with plentiful and accurately placed craters.

Overall, the experience of being a JTAC has been a challenging and rewarding one.  With the loss of infantry mortar platoons, it is also one of the few opportunities for manoeuvre arm soldiers to gain fire support exposure, and the opening of the JTAC qualification to them was partly designed to remedy this.  At the risk of sounding like a bad recruiting commercial, it is also an excellent way for both officers and NCO’s to expand their knowledge of the all-arms fight in an increasingly three dimensional battlespace while also exercising a bit of childish glee by blowing some things up in spectacular fashion.