Air Force Combat Controller (CCT): An irreplaceable asset in modern warfare

Author: Eric Sof

Last modified:

Air Force Combat Controller (CCT) is part of the US Air Force Combat Control Teams, which are part of the United States Special Operations Forces. Their members are also known as special tactics operators. Combat Controllers (CCTs) are usually assigned to Special Tactics Squadrons and Special Tactics Teams and Pararescuemen, Special Operations Reconnaissance, and Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) operators.


Combat Controllers (CCT) are an integral part of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), the Air Force component of United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), and of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Like their counterparts in the Army and Navy, Combat Controllers (CCT) don’t do much of the HVT (high-value target) hunting, and that is why they are not so exposed to the public.

They also are not the first thought when it comes to missions of high importance. The reason they are around is not to do the glamorous things. They have a role and purpose. The Air Force Combat Controllers (CCT) are specialized in all aspects of air-ground communication, including air traffic control, fire support (including fixed and rotary-wing close air support), and command, control, and communications in covert, forward, or austere environments.

United States Air Force Combat Controllers (CCT) participating in Operation Enduring Freedom provide air traffic control to a C-130 taking off from a remote airfield
The United States Air Force Combat Controllers (CCT) participating in Operation Enduring Freedom provide air traffic control to a C-130 taking off from a remote airfield (Photo: XY)

Most of the time, these Air Force special operators have been detached from other special forces units. This is also one reason why the public doesn’t recognize these Air Force special tactics operators because they are being attached to other special operations forces within the US Military.


Combat Controllers (CCT) primary mission is to deploy undetected into remote and possibly hostile environments and combat zones to establish assault zones or airfields for incoming troops while simultaneously conducting air traffic control, fire support, command and control, direct action, counter-terrorism, foreign internal defense, humanitarian assistance, and special reconnaissance. As you may assume, they are FAA-certified air traffic controllers.

The motto of the United States Air Force Combat Control Teams goes by their mission, “First There,” reaffirms the combat controller’s commitment to undertaking the most dangerous missions behind enemy lines by leading the way for other forces to follow their lead.


The origins of the United States Air Force Combat Control Teams date to World War II. Army pathfinders originated in 1943 out of the need for accurate airdrops during airborne campaigns of World War II.  General James M. Gavin, the Deputy Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, created the Army Pathfinders to ensure airborne operations are more successful in getting the paratroopers at the designated drop zone.

The origins of the United States Air Force Combat Controllers (CCT) dates to the World War II
The origins of the United States Air Force Combat Controllers (CCT) dates to World War II (Photo: XY)

These pathfinders preceded main assault forces into objective areas to provide weather information and visual guidance to inbound aircraft through the use of high-powered lights, flares, and smoke pots. Pathfinders were first successfully used later in the Sicilian campaign. During the Normandy invasion, pathfinders jumped in before the main airborne assault force and guided 13,000 paratroopers to their designated drop zones. Pathfinders were used during Operation Market Garden to secure several key bridges required for advancing allied ground units. During the Battle of the Bulge, pathfinders enabled an aerial resupply of the 101st Airborne Division.

When the Air Force became a separate service, the United States Air Force pathfinders, later called Combat Control Teams, were activated in 1953  to provide navigational aids and air traffic control for a growing Air Force.  In the Vietnam War, combat controllers helped assure mission safety and expedited air traffic flow during countless airlifts. Combat controllers (CCT) also flew as forwarding air guides to support indigenous forces in Laos and Cambodia.


Today, Combat Controller (CCT) training is almost 2 years long, and it is considered one of the most rigorous trainings in the US Military. Upon training completion, operators maintain their core skills as air traffic controllers throughout their careers and other unique skills. They are highly trained in infiltration methods, including static line and freefall parachuting, scuba, rubber raiding craft, all-terrain vehicles, rappelling, and fast rope methods. Most qualify and maintain currency as joint terminal attack controllers.

An Air Force Combat Controller wearing desert digital camouflage conducts a patrol exercise during MOUT training
An Air Force Combat Controller wearing desert digital camouflage conducts a patrol exercise during MOUT training (Photo: Wiki)

It makes them one of the most highly trained special operations forces in the world. They are also known by the rule that only males can apply for training. The basic training is designated to develop initial strength and improve unique skills. It lasts 61 weeks. It is divided into various phases:

  • Special Warfare Prep (8 wks)
  • Special Warfare Assessment & Selection (4 wks) – the screening course focuses on physical fitness classes in sports physiology, nutrition, basic exercises, CCT history, and fundamentals.
  • Special Warfare Pre-Dive (4 wks)
  • Air Force Dive School (8 wks) – Trainees become combat divers, learning to use scuba and closed-circuit diving equipment to infiltrate denied areas covertly. The six-week course provides training to depths of 130 feet, stressing maximum underwater mobility under various operating conditions.
  • Underwater Egress Course (1 day)
  • Air Force Survival School (SERE) (3 wks) teaches basic survival techniques for remote areas. Instruction includes principles, procedures, equipment, and techniques, which enable individuals to survive, regardless of climatic conditions or unfriendly environments, and return home.
  • US Army Basic Airborne School (3 wks) – Trainees learn the basic parachuting skills required to infiltrate an objective area by static line airdrop in a three-week course.
  • US Army Military Freefall School (4wks) – this course instructs free-fall parachuting procedures. The five-week course provides wind tunnel training, in-air instruction focusing on student stability, aerial maneuvers, air sense, parachute opening procedures, and parachute canopy control.
  • US Air Force Air Traffic Control School (14.5 wks) teaches aircraft recognition and performance, air navigation aids, weather, airport traffic control, flight assistance service, communication procedures, conventional approach control, radar procedures, and air traffic rules. This is the same course that all Air Force air traffic controllers attend and is the core skill of a combat controller’s job.
  • US Air Force Combat Control School (12 wks) – this course provides final combat controller qualifications. Training includes physical training, small unit tactics, land navigation, communications, assault zones, demolitions, fire support, and field operations, including parachuting.

It is considered the first part of their basic training, which earns them their initial certification and the right to wear the distinctive scarlet red beret. After that, they follow an additional 11-12 months of advanced skills training, which takes place at the Special Tactics Training Squadron, Hurlburt Field, Fla., before they can be assigned to an operational special tactics squadron and considered combat-ready in USAF Combat Controllers teams. It is a specially designed program for newly assigned combat controller operators.

Combat Operations

USAF Combat Control Teams continue to be the literally First There when they are called upon to participate in international emergencies and humanitarian relief efforts. Just, for instance, some 85 percent of the airstrikes in Operation Enduring Freedom were called in by Air Force Combat Controllers, according to the then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

USAF combat controller (CCT) operators are indispensable asset in modern warfare
USAF combat controller (CCT) operators are an indispensable asset in modern warfare (Photo: XY)

Operators from the Air Force Combat Control Teams saw combat in every conflict the United States fought since World War II. They have become an indispensable factor in every operation on hostile territory, especially since the new kind of warfare (Global War on Terror) emerged. The USAF combat controller (CCT) operators carried an incredible load. In the first days of the Afghanistan campaign, some Special Forces (SF) teams were deployed without a CCT, and the difference between those that had controllers and those that didn’t were dramatic.

Quite frankly, today, no one wants to go to war without them. They are admired, capable, and requested at a rate far greater than we could ever provide. Their efforts were critical in the early days of OEF and still are.

Share on:

Leave a Comment