GRAYLING, Mich. – In Michigan’s 26-year defense cooperation with Latvia under the National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program (SPP), a defining area of collaboration has been the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) program.
The latest chapter in this story of cross-cultural teamwork is being written at Grayling Air Gunnery Range, Michigan, July 22 – Aug. 2 during exercise Northern Strike 19, with a visiting team of qualified Range Control Officers from Ādaži Military Base, Latvia. Their presence is augmenting the Michigan Air National Guard’s capability as it hosts more than 6,000 personnel from eight countries for Northern Strike.
The visit is part of an ongoing exchange program between Michigan Air National Guard and Latvian RCOs, reciprocating the efforts of JTACs from the Grayling range during Summer Shield XVI, an exercise hosted by Latvia with more than 950 participants from 11 countries May 13 - 25.
“This year, Michigan came to help out with operations at Ādaži range during Summer Shield, just to monitor if everything is going smoothly,” said Capt. Rihards Zalitis, deputy commander, Tactical Air Control Party, Latvian National Armed Forces. “Since 2016, we have also been going to Michigan for Northern Strike, not only doing the JTAC job, but helping out with RCO duties. It’s an exchange, and it has been helping us both quite a lot to have the extra manpower.”
Defined as qualified personnel who direct the action of combat aircraft from a forward position, JTACs from the Michigan Air National Guard and Latvian National Armed Forces have weathered harsh storms together. From essentially building Latvia’s JTAC program from scratch, to participating in joint deployments in the Middle East – including the loss of a Latvian JTAC under fire – the bond between these counterparts has literally been forged through blood, sweat and tears.
“As an RCO, you’re the person on the ground who runs the entire show when it comes to safety,” said Maj. Trevor Kernes, range officer-in-charge, Grayling Air Gunnery Range, Michigan. “You’re making sure that when pilots and JTACs are training, they’re doing everything safely.”
The RCO exchange grew out of the existing Michigan-Latvia JTAC cooperation approximately three years ago. Since then, it has paid significant dividends on both sides of the partnership, especially at peak operating times during multinational exercises such as Summer Shield and Saber Strike, both hosted in Latvia, and Northern Strike in Michigan.
Zalitis points to the seamless interchange developed between Latvian and U.S. JTACs as proof of the program’s effectiveness.
“JTAC-wise, the guys in Michigan are supporting us all the time in different ways,” said Zalitis. “I would say at this point we are very much like family.”
Kernes agrees, emphasizing that the partnership goes beyond relationships to be a tangible force multiplier.
“I feel very comfortable when the Latvians are running operations at Grayling Range in Michigan,” said Kernes. “I trust them completely.”