Air Force Leaders Highlight Contribution to Warfighters
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
SOUTHWEST ASIA, April 30, 2006 Participants in the Joint Civilian Orientation Course began the last leg of their whirlwind trip through the U.S. Central Command area of operations yesterday by learning about the vast mission the Air Force carries out in support of troops on the ground.
JCOC participants armed with paintball rounds practice a drill with Air Force security force members. Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Larry Chambers, USGC
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Military officials asked that the visit's exact location not be released.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Gary North, commander of U.S. Central Command Air Forces, described the magnitude of the Air Force mission in Southwest Asia. The Air Force flies troops and their gear to and around the theater and delivers the beans, bullets and other logistics needed to sustain them. "We can move more stuff faster and farther than anyone else," he said.
But the Air Force makes other direct contributions to warfighters on the ground, North told the civilian business, civic and academic leaders. It serves as the troops' eyes and ears in the sky with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support, alerting ground forces to threats and tracking enemy activity. And when called on by ground forces, the Air Force delivers close-air support that, by killing enemy forces and taking out important targets, saves U.S., coalition and Iraqi lives, North explained.
"Our main focus is to support the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines on the ground," he said.
This broad range of missions depends on the support of every airman in the theater, from those who fly the airplanes to the refuelers and maintenance crews who keep them in the air and others on the ground who support them. "It takes a wing to kill two terrorists," said Brig. Gen. Ted Kresge, commander of the 4,000-plus-member 379th Air Expeditionary Wing.
The intra-theater tactical airlift system replaces what would amount to tens of thousands of truck deliveries. "Our people are helping keep young servicemembers off the roads and out of harm's way," Kresge said.
Other Air Force assets increase ground troops' situational awareness so they're better able to stay a step ahead of the enemy, he said.
Capt. Andrew Prue, an electronic warfare officer for the RC-135 information, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, described the plane as "a big sponge" that collects information and passes it to tactical operators on the ground. "We want to make sure we find the bad guys before they find the good guys," said Staff Sgt. Adam Triplett, a linguist aboard the aircraft. "We're in constant communication with the guys on the ground so we can provide that protection."
The Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, more commonly known as "JSTARS," provides support with a new twist that's adapted to the current "fourth-generation" fight. Instead of providing command and control for a traditional Cold War-era scenario along Germany's Fulda Gap, the system is helping flush out insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan and ensureing ground troops get the support they need. "It's all about adjusting to the war of today," Maj. Houston Myers said.
F15E fighter jets, too, are adapting their tactics to better support ground troops. Unlike earlier in Operation Iraqi Freedom, only about one in 20 sorties ever drops munitions these days, 1st Lt. Kyle Meyer, a weapons system officer, said.
"A lot of what we do right now is look for (improvised explosive devices)," he said. "We talk to the guys on the ground, look for broken-down trucks or suspicious activity," he said. Often, pilots spot a patch of roadway that's been disturbed by insurgents planting a roadside bomb, and warn troops on the ground. They also watch convoys from above, alerting them to what's ahead.
"This is a new art we are developing," Kresge told the JCOC group of these non-traditional missions. "We're making this up as we go along. But this nontraditional use of our resources is helping to save lives -- American lives and Iraqi lives."
Although missions involving munitions have dropped dramatically in the last six months, the Air Force stands read 24/7 to deliver terrorists what North called "a message from America." Close-air-support strikes typically arrive on target within 10 minutes of being called in by ground troops.
"A troop in need on the ground could die if we're not there in time," North said. "And there's not a person on the ground who doesn't appreciate that they're 10 minutes away from support fire when they need it."
Sometimes a simple show of force by an aircraft whizzing by overhead, often at very low altitudes, can do the trick. "The presence of an aircraft overhead sends a pretty strong message," North said. "Everybody knows what an airplane can bring."
Kresge praised his airmen, who conduct this wide range of missions around the clock, living in difficult conditions far from their families. "They know they are part of something big and important," he told the group. "You can see it in their extraordinary performance."
Troops in the theater supporting the mission said they're gratified to know they're making a difference for troops on the ground.
"What better way to help those guys?" Meyer said of his IED- and insurgent-seeking efforts. Hearing after the fact that he helped identify a bomb before it hurt someone or assist in a capturing a terrorist "is an awesome feeling," he said. "It's exciting. It's cool. And we've had a lot of success."
"I'm glad to be here," said Tech. Sgt. Jack Fiveash, a crew chief for the 12th Expeditionary Airborne Command and Control Squadron. He ensures aircraft "are ready to fly at a moment's notice."
"We have to be able to protect what we have at home," Fiveash said. "I have a family and two kids, and I don't want them to have to deal with all this sometime in the future. The quicker we get this done and get a stable democracy in Iraq, the better. My hope is that we remain here until we get it done and can send Iraq off to a stabilized future."
Lt. Col. Willie Holt, commander of the 379th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, said keeping the wing's planes flying has a direct impact on security, not just in Southwest Asia, but also in the United States. "It comes down to the fact that you have to fight the enemy here rather than have them come to our backyard," he said.
Army Staff Sgt. Nicole Beyer, who serves on the RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft and provides a direct link to Army units on the ground, said it's a great feeling to help her fellow soldiers. "We make sure the ground units know exactly what we're seeing," she said. "I'm talking to Army units over the radio, hearing the convoys and helping them have a successful mission and get them safely home," she said.
In addition to receiving briefings from Air Force leaders in the region and meeting with airmen carrying out the missions, some of the more adventurous members of the JCOC group joined security forces teams in an exercise, firing paintball rounds at notional enemy forces. Others tried their hand at working dog handling techniques.
The Joint Civilian Orientation Conference is a weeklong program designed to expose civilian opinion leaders from around the country to U.S. military operations, and most importantly, the men and women who conduct them.
This JCOC trip is the first to the Middle East since the Defense Department started the program in 1948. Since leaving U.S. Central Command's headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., April 24, the group members visited with servicemembers in Kuwait and Bahrain and aboard the USS Ronald Reagan before arriving here.