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Air Commandos Build Bonds with African Country

By Capt. Tom Montgomery, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla., Sept. 30, 2005 – A select team of combat aviation advisors from the 6th Special Operations Squadron here deployed to the edge of the Sahara desert to conduct a joint exchange training exercise with the fledgling Niger air force in August.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
A 6th Special Operations Squadron maintenance instructor examines components of a turboprop engine on the Nigerien air force C-130 while a Nigerien maintainer learns some new techniques. Photo by Capt. Tom Montgomery, USAF

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

Because the 6th SOS has been to Niger numerous times, the air commandos better understand how to adapt to living and working in one of the world's poorest countries. The team requires very little outside support and leaves a very small footprint in the local area. The air commandos are culturally and linguistically trained to earn the respect of partner-nation citizens and military forces.

"The goal of the training during this deployment was for both air forces to enhance their already solid working relationship and promote an open exchange of ideas," Jerry Klingaman, director of strategy and plans for the 6th SOS, said.

Niger is in the middle of the Trans-Saharan region of Africa and is an important ally in the fight against international terrorism, Dennise Mathieu, U.S. ambassador to Niger, said.

Terrorist organizations have been able to exploit the remote, harsh terrain and loose border controls of the Trans-Sahara to their advantage. Terrorist groups and their supporters have funneled cash, recruits and weapons across the vast stretches of the Sahara -- a desert as large as the continental United States, Klingaman said.

"We're maintaining skills that are crucial to one of our main missions in the 6th: combat aviation advisory operations," said an Air Force major who was the deputy mission commander. "We're not only maintaining our (advisory) skills, we're also tending a great relationship we enjoy with the Niger air force." Names of special operations forces overseas are withheld for security reasons.

The air commandos of the 6th SOS are experts in aviation advisory operations to all corners of the globe, fluent in dozens of languages, and instructors on numerous foreign aircraft.

Niger's air force, less than two years old, has about 300 airmen and 10 flyable aircraft, including a C-130 Hercules and a Russian built Mi-17 multi-role helicopter. The air commandos from Hurlburt Field can fly and maintain both.

"Our air force is very small, but we are improving, and we are learning," said Nigerien Col. Hassan Mossi, Niger Aar force vice chief of staff. "It is extremely important for us to continue working with the United States Air Force. We love working with these guys (6th SOS) because they understand our needs as airmen, they understand our national culture, and they make an effort to speak our language." French is Niger's official language.

The air commando team and the Nigerien flew the C-130 and Mi-17 extensively during the exercise, practicing tactical skills, such as low-level navigation and remote-landing-zone infiltration.

"They've come a long way with how they use their Mi-17: doing more missions and exploring the capabilities of the aircraft," said an Air Force major in the 6th SOS. The major learned to pilot the Mi-17 in a former communist bloc country now on friendly terms with the United States.

"He (the major) taught me much better tactical approaches, spending much less time in a vulnerable position as we descended," said Nigerien Capt. Ibrahim Almoustapha, Mi-17 pilot.

"We learned a lot about crew coordination, which is very difficult," said Nigerien Capt. Amirou Abdulkader, another Mi-17 pilot.

The exercise wasn't all about flying, however. "In addition to pilots and navigators, we've brought along other aircrew members, maintainers, medical personnel, security forces, flight engineers and engine mechanics, among others," said an Air Force technical sergeant who was the team sergeant, or lead noncommissioned officer, for this operation.

"I wish I could have that unit (6th SOS) in every country every day of the week," Air Force Gen. Robert Foglesong, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, said.

Foglesong is responsible for air operations in Europe and most of Africa. He visited Niger and flew with the air commandos and the Nigeriens aboard the C-130.

Mathieu shared the general's sentiment. "The 6th provide exactly what the Nigeriens want," she said. "The Nigeriens have always said they have the motivation, but sometimes they need a little help."

"(This unit has) an ability to lash-up with these partner nations in such a way as to be very user-friendly," Foglesong said. "We must remember that we can't fight transnational terrorism individually. Collective security is vital to the next decade of democracy."

The U.S. government is engaging in a multi-faceted effort, called the "Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative," to deny terrorists any safe haven they may have enjoyed in the region. The initiative's goal is to improve the capabilities of Trans-Saharan governments so they can effectively prevent or remove terrorist threats themselves. The military component is called "Operation Enduring Freedom Trans Sahara."

"It is a very positive thing to have good military-to-military cooperation between Niger and the U.S. as we help build a stronger partner in the global war on terrorism," Mathieu said.

"The Nigeriens don't have all of the tools and parts they need, but they are very creative and find ways to fix things," an Air Force technical sergeant, who is a maintenance adviser on the team, said. "We have to be flexible and understand that they do things very differently than how we are taught in our air force."

The exercise kept airmen from both air forces busy in the air and in the briefing rooms. At the end of the exercise, the two air forces had practiced numerous aviation tactics, aircraft and perimeter security, airbase defense, detailed maintenance procedures, search-and-rescue operations, and a full-scale mass-casualty scenario that involved the national hospital, emergency-response teams, and the C-130 and Mi-17.

"Things went very well," the deputy mission commander said. "In past trips their C-130 (Hercules) had some maintenance problems, but our cooperative efforts over the past year have solved those problems, and this time around we really flew that 'Herk.'"

(Air Force Capt. Tom Montgomery is assigned to Air Force Special Operations Command.)

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