COLONEL DAVID LAPAN (deputy assistant secretary of defense for media operations): Good morning here in the Pentagon, and good evening in Afghanistan. I'd like to welcome to the Pentagon Briefing Room Colonel Don Galli, commander of Task Force Falcon and the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade.
Colonel Galli deployed his brigade to Afghanistan in November of last year. The 5,000 soldiers of Task Force Falcon provide full-spectrum aviation operations to Regional Command East, in partnership with aviation forces from Afghanistan, Poland, the Czech Republic, Korea and France. In August, elements of Task Force Falcon were the first American responders to evacuate thousands of displaced people during Pakistan's devastating floods.
This is Colonel Galli's first briefing with us in this format, and he joins us today from his headquarters at Bagram Airfield. He'll provide a brief update on current operations, and then he'll take your questions.
And with that, Colonel Galli, I'll turn it over to you for your opening remarks.
COL. GALLI: Thank you. It's my pleasure to be here today and to have the opportunity to talk to all of you.
I'll first provide an overview of our operations during the past year in Afghanistan. Twelve months ago, the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, Task Force Falcon, assumed the aviation mission here in RC-East. We were task organized for combat as the largest aviation brigade in the Army, with 260 aircraft and over 5,000 soldiers. Our aircraft include the UH-60 Black Hawk, the CH-47 Chinook, AH-64 Apaches, OH-58 Kiowa Warriors, and fixed-wing aircraft.
On a daily basis, we execute full-spectrum aviation operations in some of the harshest conditions and most extreme terrain imaginable. Our first and foremost goals have been to support U.S. and coalition troops on the ground and protect the population of Afghanistan. One initiative we've implemented to do that is Falcon Strike, an intel-driven counter-IED operation focused on protecting our coalition partners and the people of Afghanistan.
Second, we were the first aviation brigade to partner with the Afghans. As a result of this historic partnership, we've trained hundreds of soldiers, commandos and airmen from the Afghan National Army and Afghan air force in combined-action tactical missions. We established four specialized training programs designed to enable the Afghans' tactical proficiency on the battlefield. We've conducted combined-action missions with the Afghans, including air assaults, humanitarian missions and key leadership engagements.
Third, in addition to combat operations, Task Force Falcon provided humanitarian aid and medical assistance and transport to Afghan civilians after a devastating avalanche, an earthquake and flash floods. We provided humanitarian aid, medical assistance, transport, subsistence and food to the Pakistanis displaced by the worst flood in that country in over 80 years.
Fourth, we supported the Afghan government during the 2010 elections by providing air support and moving personnel and election materials throughout RC-East. We faced a wide array of challenges here. The terrain is difficult, the weather is unpredictable and the conditions are extreme. The enemy is a thinking enemy, they are elusive, persistent and adaptive.
In this environment, we have accomplished more than any aviation brigade in Operation Enduring Freedom. We flew red illum [illumination] conditions from Day One, compiling over 1,600 red illum missions since November 2009. By the end of our deployment, we will have flown in excess of 160,000 flight hours, moved over 20,000 short tons of cargo, and moved more than 219,000 personnel.
We broke with convention and flew the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior Helicopter above 6,000 feet, and in many instances between 10 [thousand feet] and 12,000 feet, allowing that airframe to be an integral part of high altitude fights here in Afghanistan.
Our maintainers and shorter aircraft are ready to fly at a rate previous unheard of in combat. We supported the ground forces by flying over 25,000 missions. We've conducted over 900 air assaults, 5,700 reconnaissance and security missions and over 3,300 medevac [medical evacuation] missions rescuing more than 5,000 coalition and local national patients.
Task Force Falcon has directly contributed to disrupting terrorist networks, rooting out the enemies of Afghanistan and protecting the Afghan people. We've removed a significant amount of insurgents from the battlefield. The most telling statistic -- and I've heard this from other leaders as well -- because of our aggressiveness and willingness to attack the enemies of Afghanistan, no friendly COPs [Combat Outpost] or FOBs [Forward Operating Base] have been overrun by the enemy on our watch here in RC-East.
We’ve prevented the enemy's ability to amass combat power near our friendly forces. When the enemy did try to attack, they failed spectacularly in the face of our air crews. We directly defeated five attacks on friendly COPs and FOBs at Salerno, Bagram, Fenty, Spera and Marja.
During our year in Afghanistan, we have focused on supporting the troops on the ground, and protecting the Afghan people. We measure success not by the numbers of missions flown or the number of enemies killed. Rather, we knew we were successful because the troops on the ground understood that we would support them when they were in contact with the enemy, and we would always take extraordinary measures to save the lives of American soldiers, coalition forces, and innocent Afghan civilians.
I'll take some questions now.
COL. LAPAN: Okay. Let's see. Phil, you have a question?
Q Sorry about that earlier. You said earlier that the enemy is adaptive. Can you talk a bit about whether the -- how the enemy's adapted to U.S. airpower, and whether you're seeing an increased resistance to U.S. airpower, particularly the use of surface-to-air missiles?
And also, has the number of airstrikes increased following General Petraeus' revised guidance on them?
COL. GALLI: I'm sorry. I'm having trouble hearing you. Can you speak louder, and repeat the question please?
COL. LAPAN: Go ahead. Try that.
Q Has the Taliban resistance to U.S. air -- how has the Taliban adapted to U.S. airpower in Afghanistan over the past year? Are you seeing more resistance than you did previously?
And is there any use of surface-to-air missiles against U.S. aircraft?
COL. GALLI: I'm sorry. I really can't hear your question. Is there a way that you can say it more clearly?
COL. LAPAN: I'll try it here from the lectern. The first part of the question was changes in tactics or how the Taliban has reacted to airpower over the past year, what you've seen in how they have adjusted according to what you've been doing in the air.
And the second part of the question was whether you've seen any use of surface-to-air missiles against your air force -- or aircraft.
COL. GALLI: I believe your question is have we seen changes in Taliban tactics while we've been here this year, have there been any shoulder-fired missiles against aircraft. The answer is, the Taliban and the Haqqani network routinely change their tactics, but we always stay one step ahead of what they're doing. We do this through thorough reconnaissance on the battlefield. In terms of the shoulder-fired missiles, we have not seen that here at RC-East.
Q Colonel, this is Raghubir Goyal for India Globe and Asia Today. My question involves, there have been several reports of negativity. What is the major problem you think you have now today as far as making the Afghans happy that your presence is to protect them and their property? Is this maybe governance problem because of corruption and many other negative reports like drugs and all kind of things that al Qaeda had been involved?
COL. GALLI: I'm very sorry, I think all questions probably need to be addressed at the lectern, because I did not hear that at all.
COL. LAPAN: Hey, Don, I'll try again from here. The question essentially has to do with the local Afghan people and how they see your presence there, and what you've been able to do to provide security, and again, how the locals have reacted to your forces.
COL. GALLI: I believe the local Afghan people support our efforts.
For one, we have provided humanitarian assistance to them, and two, we -- a lot of our missions are designed to protect them from the insurgency. And we do this by staying one step ahead of the insurgency with thorough reconnaissance to try and find the enemy before the enemy finds our ground forces and the local populace.
Q Hi, Colonel, it's Andrew Tilghman with Military Times.
I'd like to ask you about how your brigade is coordinating with contractors operating rotary wing assets there? You know, how do you divide up the missions? Do they essentially work for you? What's the role of contractors in aviation over there?
COL. GALLI: I believe your question is related to contractors that work for my brigade. Is that correct?
COL. LAPAN: Yeah, contractors that are operating in your AOR [area of responsibility] maybe with fixed or rotary wing assets. So how do you de-conflict, coordinate? How do you work with contractors who may be flying in RC-East?
COL. GALLI: We have contractors that work for us, help us with maintenance activities of our aircraft. In terms of coordination of contract air, they stay in close coordination with my headquarters to de-conflict airspace, to get weather and for intel [intelligence].
Q Are -- if I can just follow up -- are contractors running rotary wing missions for -- essentially, for you in support of ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] operations?
COL. GALLI: Contractors do not work directly for me and do not support my efforts.
Contractors are used for logistical support, and that is done at the USFOR-A [United States Forces-Afghanistan] level.
Q Just because of the technical problem -- give me a few. It was not clear if air strikes, if air power had been -- has been used more since General Petraeus issued his updated guidance.
COL. LAPAN: Don, the question is -- since General Petraeus has issued his updated guidance, whether you have seen an increase or decrease in your airstrikes and air operations.
COL. GALLI: I would say that since General Petraeus has taken over, our engagements have been consistent with what we've done all year. I have not seen any drastic change with General Petraeus coming on board here.
Q (Off mike) -- greater detail about how you've used rotary wing in counter-IED efforts, what sort of different things have you tried that has been successful?
COL. GALLI: Our rotary-wing efforts at counter-IED is focused on arm reconnaissance of MSRs [major supply route] and highways. And we do this routinely throughout the day and at night, and this has been very effective.
Q Excuse me, Gordon Lubold from Politico. I just wonder if you could expand a little bit more about the threat and kind of how much danger your air assets are facing from Taliban on the ground.
COL. GALLI: The threat that we face mainly deals with small arms and RPGs [rocket propelled grenade].
Q Yeah, could you just elaborate a little bit? I mean, do you see any change in that since you've been there? I mean, that's what we always kind of traditionally understand is that small arms, RPGs, but I mean -- has there been any increased use of RPGs? Are they using any other weapons that you're seeing?
COL. GALLI: I would say that the threat depends on the seasonal activity. The fighting season is usually in the summer months. What we have seen is a decrease in activity over the last four months, I'd say, but what we have seen has been very effective.
Q You talked about the Afghan force's capability -- air capabilities. Can -- when would Afghan forces be able to, for example, carry out an air assault on their own? Is that years away, or is that already happening? Could you just elaborate a bit more, give us an anecdote, even? Thanks.
COL. GALLI: Yes. For the last 11 months, we've been partnering with the Afghan air force through rotary-wing contingent. And we've been conducting several training programs for them, one of which is an air assault training program that works with Afghan commandos and the Afghan air force. We've also taught them how to -- their crew chiefs how to maintain their aircraft and how to be crew chiefs, as well as a medevac training program, and also to teach close combat attacks with their Hind helicopters. In our time here, we have seen their capability grow exponentially. They're doing incredibly well.
They are starting to do air assault operations on their own, and we're very encouraged by what we see.
Q Thank you, Colonel. Raghubir Goyal again.
Let me try one more time. In the past, local Afghans or Afghan population, they had more faith and trust in Taliban because they were providing them more than the government and the NATO. That was believed by the local Afghans. How this strategy now has changed? Because according to a survey, most Afghans are now comfort or comfortable with your presence there rather than trusting the government. How this will affect in the future, when you have a change coming next year?
COL. GALLI: Sir, I'm sorry, I had trouble understanding your question. If someone else could help me with that, I'd appreciate it.
COL. LAPAN: Yeah. Again, it goes back to the point about the local populace's support. In the past, it's been supportive of the Taliban, and there appears to be a shift where local Afghans are more comfortable supporting the coalition. And so your comments on how you've seen that progress over the year.
COL. GALLI: Well, from my perspective, why we train the Afghan commandos and the Afghan air force, our training missions would be air assaults in name only. Really what they were are key leader engagements to villages that we might not otherwise get to. And I had a chance personally to take part in many of those missions.
I will tell you, I'm very encouraged by what I see with the Afghan local populace. They were absolutely thrilled to see their military conducting missions.
It's apparent to me that the local populace very much trusts the ANA [Afghan National Army] and the Afghan air force.
Q Several weeks back, you guys had an incident in which some Pakistani soldiers at a Pakistani border post were killed.
Have you guys changed tactics in any way, or increased cooperation with the Pak side of the border to ensure that that sort of thing doesn't happen again? And I'm done.
COL. GALLI: Yeah. Here's what I can tell you about that. First, you need to understand that the border between RC-East and Pakistan is roughly 450 miles long. Very much of it is ill-defined, and it's very much a porous border that cannot be sealed off. Prior to the engagement that you describe, we had six other very kinetic engagements along the border.
We have taken a very hard look at our procedures, and have made changes as a result of that engagement. And ISAF works very closely in coordination with the Pak mil as we conduct operations along the border.
Q Can you talk about any of the changes that you've made?
COL. GALLI: Specifically, much more communication between our ground forces and their ground sources prior to our entry near the border.
Q Hi, Colonel. I was wondering if -- General Petraeus has his commanders now looking at specific, you know, regions and districts in advance of, you know, July next year of, you know, what are the first areas that could be ready for ground troops coming out of. How does all of that planning translate in the air for you guys?
Do you similarly have any kind of, you know, mirroring of a drawdown of assets or personnel in planned or in kind of coordination with what's going on down below?
COL. GALLI: What you need to understand about RC-East is this is really the rooftop of the world. The terrain here is very, very difficult to negotiate, and helicopters are absolutely essential to what goes on here. In the near future, I don't foresee any change in our force structure with our aviation forces.
Q Colonel, following that up, can you talk a little bit about just the supply and the demand for the rotary net -- rotary wing assets? Do you feel like now that the surge of troops, the surge of assets over there is fully in place? Do -- are there sufficient rotary wing assets for the demand for combat operations, logistics, et cetera?
COL. GALLI: We're very much an integral part of the life support and logistics systems here in RC-East, given the nature of the terrain, and in terms of our op tempo we will have flown in excess of 160,000 flight hours. That's a lot of flight time.
Q Hey, Colonel, it's Luis Martinez of ABC News. Can I ask you about --
COL. GALLI: (Off mike) -- asked if. Go ahead.
Q No, why don't you finish your thought, go ahead.
COL. GALLI: I think a part of your question is could we use more aircraft? I think that's what he was asking. Given the nature of the terrain here and the difficulties of movement, I guess, one could say we could always use more aircraft, but I will tell you based on my months here what we have is definitely enough to accomplish all the missions.
Q Thank you, sir.
Colonel, going back to the op tempo, can you narrow it down? I mean, you're talking about flight hours. But in layman's terms, how many flights a day does that equate to?
And over the course of the year, how has that gone? Has there been a curve upward? Or has there been a steady state?
COL. GALLI: You know, in the winter months -- and that's what we're about to enter in here -- the weather conditions slows the op tempo down. As we turn towards spring, the op tempo steadily increases. In the summer months it's -- in the summer months, it gets very high. And so that -- seasonal changes definitely helps us with the op tempo.
But in terms of missions per day, it can range anywhere from 100 to 200 missions. We've done as many -- the highest we've done is 900 missions in a given week, which is -- which was our highest number. Average, I would say, somewhere along 600 to 700 missions per week.
Q That's almost 100 missions a day. How many aircraft do you have to fly that many missions?
COL. GALLI: We have a total of 260 aircraft in my brigade.
Q And earlier you were asked about civilian casualties and how you try to mitigate it. Do you have actual statistics for the number of incidents that have resulted in civilian casualties during your tenure there?
COL. GALLI: Yeah, let me try to put this into some perspective for you. We always take extraordinary measures to ensure that there's no civilian casualties. You need to also understand an overwhelming number of civilian casualties are caused by the insurgents themselves.
Since we have been here, we've had 500 kinetic engagements.
Of that, only one resulted in a confirmed finding of civilian casualties.
One is way too many, but the record shows how seriously we take this, and how well-trained and disciplined our air crews are with regards to the rules of engagement and the tactical directives.
Q Yeah, earlier, sir, you were asked about that tactical directive. How really did that really impact your op tempo in any way? Obviously, you're flying so many flights, and it's based on seasonal patterns, but how did the tactical directive really impact your mission?
COL. GALLI: It really has not in any way affected our ability to conduct operations here. If anything, it's provided further clarity as to what General Petraeus wants us to do on the battlefield.
Q When General Petraeus got there, there had been discussion that maybe he might change the ROE [rules of engagement]. It turned out he didn’t, he said we'll do anything to protect our troops. How -- what -- to what lengths do you actually go to protect troops? I mean, when you go to CAS [combat air support], how -- can you describe a typical CAS mission for us?
COL. GALLI: What mission? A cav mission? Is that what you said?
Q Combat air support.
COL. GALLI: We go to extraordinary lengths to protect our soldiers and coalition forces on the battlefield. We do this by conducting thorough armed reconnaissance to attempt to find the enemy long before they can mass against our ground forces. And we try and do that well in advance of our forces moving on the battlefield. And once they are positioned where they need to be, we're very much over their shoulder, protecting them as they're conducting their missions.
COL. LAPAN: Okay, Colonel Galli. Looks like we're finished on this end. I'll send it back to you for any closing remarks you'd like to make.
COL. GALLI: Okay. Thank you again for this opportunity. As I stated in my opening remarks, we flew over 160,000 flight hours during our deployment. It takes nearly 600,000 man-hours to maintain that operational tempo. All of our soldiers, all the way from our command sergeant major to my battalion command teams, from our air crews to the soldiers turning a wrench, fueling an aircraft or serving a meal, have done tremendous work to make sure we are able to successfully accomplish our mission here at RC-East. Our families and friends back in Savannah do not get enough credit or thanks for everything they do for us, and the Savannah Hunter Army Airfield community.
I want to take this time to thank everyone in the city of Savannah -- the Hunter Army Airfield community, the 3rd Infantry Division and all of our families, friends and loved ones for all they have done during this difficult deployment. Without them, we could not have been successful as we have been. We look forward to seeing them very, very soon.
I also wish to thank our veterans. Because of what they did, we are all able to enjoy the freedom and peace and prosperity there in the United States. As our veterans will attest, service does not come without sacrifice. Twelve of our soldiers were wounded in combat. They're all heroes and American patriots. I wish all of them the best in their recovery as we look forward to their return back to our unit. There are those who have made the ultimate sacrifice here in Afghanistan. I want to convey to their families and loved ones that they're always in our thoughts and prayers.
Thank you again for this opportunity, and may God bless the United States of America.
COL. LAPAN: Okay, thank you, Colonel Galli.