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Gainey Visits Underground South African Air Force Command Post

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

PRETORIA, South Africa, Feb. 14, 2006 – U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Gainey traveled deep underground today to learn the South African air force deals with many of the same personnel issues facing American forces.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Gainey (left), senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks to Warrant Officer of the South African air force Johan Du Preez in front of a statue of Gen. Sir Pierre Van Ryneveld in the South African air force headquarters in Pretoria Feb. 14. Van Ryneveld founded the South African air force in February 1920. Photo by South African air force Warrant Officer 2 Christo Crous

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Gainey, the senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took an elevator to "Minus 2" -- about five stories underground -- and passed through foot-thick steel doors to visit the South African air force's command post here.

The building is not dug into the earth, the service's senior noncommissioned officer explained. Instead, it is a freestanding building constructed inside a huge hole in the ground. The building doesn't touch the walls of the hole, so it is more earthquake proof, Warrant Officer of the Air Force Johan Du Preez said.

South African military services use the term "warrant officer" for their most senior NCO ranks, roughly equivalent to grades E-7 to E-9 in the U.S. military.

The air force headquarters building was built during the 1980s, when South Africa was at war with guerrilla forces with communist backing fighting to end apartheid, the former government policy of forced racial segregation, air force Warrant Officer 1 Wayne Beskin said.

While the command post is at level Minus 2, one level lower, Minus 3, houses the service's mission control at about seven stories below ground. Specialists within mission control monitor all South African air assets in real time, similar to the North American Aerospace Defense Command headquarters, in Colorado.

South Africa is the dominant air power on the African continent. In an information briefing for Gainey, Beskin called the country's air force the "big daddy" in Africa. South Africa provides tactical mobility and airlift support to coalition operations dealing with natural disasters, elections monitors, peace-support operations, and international exercises, he said.

The 8,450-servicemember-strong air force is dealing with many personnel issues U.S. forces have also worked to come to terms with. "Human resources is our biggest strategic challenge right now," Beskin said.

Prior to 1994, the air force was overwhelmingly white, with only 500 black members. As of November 2005, 60 percent of airmen are black. "This was basically a white force," Beskin said. "Now we're transforming to represent the demographics of the country."

Today the South African air force's motto is: "Through diversity to air power excellence."

President Truman ordered the U.S. military to desegregate in 1948, but it took years for the services to comply. And racial tension in the military continued through the Vietnam era.

At the same time, the South African air force is dealing with gender integration. In 1994, the South African air force was 9 percent female. Now females make up 19 percent of the service, Beskin said. The U.S. military has similar numbers. In 1992 women made up 12 percent of the U.S. Air Force. Today, women make up slightly more than 19 percent of the force.

Militaries must realize they need to make the best use of all their assets, Gainey said. Pointing to a young female lieutenant in the room, he told the other men present: "She has the same God-given right to defend her nation and bleed for her country as we do."

Another personnel problem for the South African and American air forces is losing trained pilots to civilian competition. Du Preez, the top SAAF NCO, said his service is currently losing as many as 50 percent of trained pilots to commercial firms within the first year of their training. Officials have even offered to train civilian pilots for a cost to prevent civilian agencies from stealing away air force assets, he said.

Losing trained personnel to competitors is "the single biggest obstacle to operation readiness" for the service today, Beskin said.

Gainey explained the U.S. Air Force has experienced the same problem and offers pilots incentive pay to stay in uniform. "But we still lose a lot of good pilots," he added.

Throughout the visit, Gainey said he was struck by how senior leaders from both countries -- the United States and South Africa -- are dealing with similar issues. "Don't think the other countries, no matter how big or how small, don't have the same challenges," he said.

Contact Author

Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Gainey, USA

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