ĀDAŽI, Latvia – In a Nov. 15 ceremony at Ādaži Military Base, Latvia, two
Airmen from the Michigan Air National Guard were decorated by the Latvian military for contributions to the development of Latvia’s Joint Terminal Attack Control (JTAC) program.
Lt. Col. Bart Ward, 127th Wing, Selfridge Air National Guard Base, and Master Sgt. Charles Barth, Grayling Air-to-Ground Range, were presented with the Commander of the Land Forces Medal for Merit, 3rd Class, by Col. Ilmars Lejiņš, Land Forces Brigade commander, National Armed Forces of Latvia. The award is one of the highest honors of the Latvian military.
Speaking to Ward and Barth, Lejiņš emphasized that Latvia’s JTAC program, recognized as one of the strongest in Europe, would not have been possible without Latvia’s partnership with the Michigan National Guard. A JTAC is defined as a qualified service member who directs the action of combat aircraft engaged in close air support and other offensive air operations from a forward position.
“Thank you to all the Michigan National Guard for this tremendous force multiplier,” said Lejiņš. “But you two gentlemen have done a bit more than others, so I’m very happy to give you this medal.”
The Latvian JTAC program is frequently identified as one of the most important capabilities developed under the Michigan National Guard’s alignment with the National Armed Forces of Latvia within the U.S. Defense Department’s State Partnership Program (SPP). Michigan and Latvia were the first partners aligned under the SPP in 1993; since then, the program has grown to include 74 unique relationships between coalition nations and the National Guard organizations of various U.S. states.
Barth, initially a JTAC with the 169th Air Support Operations Squadron, Peoria Air National Guard Base, Illinois, worked with Latvian JTACs in the mid-2000s during multinational training in Europe and at exercise Northern Strike in Michigan. Since transferring to the Michigan Air National Guard approximately five years ago, Barth’s unmatched experience has made him an ideal coordinator between JTAC counterparts in Michigan and Latvia.
“I’m probably one of the oldest JTACs still operational,” said Barth, who has held program-specific certifications since 1993. “While I was in Peoria, we did a lot of training with the Latvians in Poland, which is Illinois’ state partner, so I’ve been involved with the JTAC program here almost since its inception.”
Before 2007, no JTACs existed in the Latvian National Armed Forces. The organic need for a JTAC’s ability to call-in airstrikes from the ground was identified as soldiers from Michigan and Latvia were preparing to deploy together to Afghanistan for an Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team (OMLT) mission. With cooperation from JTACs in the Michigan Air National Guard, a training plan was developed. Between 2009 and 2010, Latvian JTACs integrated with Soldiers from the Michigan National Guard on three deployments together.
One of the first Latvian JTACs, Sgt. Voldemārs Anševics, was killed in Afghanistan on May 1, 2009.
“I worked with Voldemārs a lot,” said Barth. “He was a super good guy.”
Ward, an A-10 Thunderbolt pilot, considers himself lucky to be associated with the Latvian JTAC program, and has been making frequent trips to Latvia under the SPP for approximately four years. After the award ceremony, he recalled his proudest moment working with counterparts from Latvia: watching a Latvian JTAC perform with almost-unheard-of level skill at Grayling Air-to-Ground Range, Mich.
“While flying an A-10 mission, I was supporting an evaluation for a Latvian JTAC before he deployed to Afghanistan,” said Ward. “The JTAC performed one of the best training scenarios I’ve seen: he was able to conduct four 9-Line target briefs and an artillery call-for-fire within an employment window that had been shortened due to weather. It just spoke volumes to the level of proficiency the Latvians have in these skills.”
Barth said that while the Latvian JTAC program has always been credible, their capability continues to expand – to the point where Latvia has now become a hub for JTAC training across Europe. This year, their annual qualification development course at Latvia’s National Defense Academy was attended by JTACs from the U.S., Lithuania, Estonia, Canada, United Kingdom, Poland, Italy, Spain, and Slovenia.
Ward agrees that the annual course is one of the hallmarks of Latvia’s role as a leader for European JTAC capability.
“It is one of our key partnership programs,” he said. “It’s where everything is taught; from the basic joint and allied close air support tactics, techniques, and procedures, to advanced interoperability concepts.”
And, more than ten years after the birth of the Latvian JTAC program, the growth of the country’s cadre of JTAC specialists shows no sign of slowing down.
“When I started coming over here with the Michigan Air National Guard there were maybe 6 or 7 Latvian JTACs,” said Barth. “The big accomplishment is that since then, we’ve built about 10 more. For as small a military as they have, Latvia now has 16 operational JTACs – that’s a lot, especially when you consider that it takes 3 to 4 years to build a JTAC.”
Barth says that the key for enhancing capability in a highly technical, multinational environment isn’t necessarily found in a specific military doctrine or tactic. Equally important is the high degree of trust that comes with close relationships like those he has with his Latvian counterparts.
“It’s an honor to receive an award like this, but it’s unnecessary,” said Barth. “We don’t do this for recognition – we do this because we love working with these guys.”