Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Past surges offer clues about who will go first in Afghanistan



By Bruce Rolfsen and Michael Hoffman

The Air Force’s cargo crews, civil engineers and trainers can expect a busy 2010 as part of President Barack Obama’s decision to ratchet up the war.And JTACs, joint terminal attack controllers, will see a lot of action in their work with soldiers and Marines.Right now, about 6,000 airmen are in Afghanistan, and 28,000 are deployed with U.S. Central Command, many of whom fly or assist with daily missions flown into the landlocked country.

The Air Force moves troops in and out of the country and delivers supplies to them — and that role will grow with the buildup.Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz sees hauling duties as a challenge but not one that airmen can’t handle.“I don’t think transportation will be the limiting factor,” Schwartz told a business gathering Dec. 3 in New York City. “It will be a tough haul, but not a limitation.”

As Schwartz addressed publicly Obama’s plan to deploy 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, commanders at Air Forces Central Command, U.S. Central Command and U.S. Transportation Command worked on how and when troops will be moved in.Calculations on airlift and support requirements will not be made until after the Pentagon issues a detailed deployment plan and schedule that should be available in mid-December, said Army Brig. Gen. Michael Lally, TransCom director of operations.

“It is a little early to tell until we have the specifics,” said Maj. Gen. Mark Solo, head of Air Mobility Command’s Tanker Airlift Control Center.

Who’s going

Unlike the Army and Marine Corps, which deploy entire units, the Air Force deploys airmen from across the service. If additional security forces are needed, airmen from several base security forces squadrons will come together as an “expeditionary” security forces squadron.Previous surges into Iraq and Afghanistan created demands for airmen in ground support roles that haven’t slowed. The demands pushed the Air Force to increase deployment times and frequency. Today, 50 percent of deployed airmen are on six-month or longer tours.

If the career fields needed to support the upcoming surge mirror the previous surges, airmen in base support, intelligence, communications and security will be called up.In the past year, five of the 20 Air Force Specialty Codes with the longest average deployments were enlisted civil engineering specialties: pavement, electrical, engineering, heating/air conditioning and water/fuel systems.

Transportation placed three enlisted AFSCs — vehicle maintenance, vehicle operations and traffic management — in the top 20.Enlisted security forces airmen deployed the most: 10,452 were gone for an average of 120 days.Among officers, the top 20 included logistics readiness, civil engineer, communications, contracting, force support [personnel, services and manpower] and officers serving as instructors.

What’s flying

When Obama sent 16,000 additional troops to Afghanistan earlier this year, the Air Force added fighters and transports.The service sent an F-16 Fighting Falcon squadron to Bagram Air Field and shifted A-10 Thunderbolt operations from Bagram to Kandahar Airfield to fly close-air support. An F-15E Strike Eagle squadron stayed at Bagram.

A second C-130 Hercules squadron deployed to Kandahar. The C-130 squadron at Bagram stayed put. Both focus much of their time on airdropping supplies to forward bases too dangerous to reach by road.Smaller units were also stood up: MQ-1 Predator operations at the Army’s Jalalabad Airfield in eastern Afghanistan, HH-60G Pave Hawks flying out of Camp Bastion Airfield in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province and an aerial port operation set up at Bastion to support aircraft arriving with gear for the adjacent growing Marine base at Camp Leatherneck

The new aircraft and airmen resulted in the standing up of a second wing in Afghanistan, the 451st Air Expeditionary Wing.Though the Air Force refused to discuss what additional aircraft will be needed for the surge, it has identified fighter squadrons on call to deploy from January through April.

They include:

* A-10: 75th Fighter Squadron, Moody Air Force Base, Ga.

* F-15E: 493rd and 494th Fighter squadrons, RAF Lakenheath, England, and 389th Fighter Squadron, Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho.

* F-16: 77th Fighter Squadron, Shaw Air Force Base, Ga.; 113th Wing, Andrews Air Force Base, Md.; 114th Fighter Wing, Sioux Falls, S.D.; and 177th Fighter Wing, Atlantic City, N.J.

The Air Force has not identified which airlift and tanker squadrons are on notice for deployments in early 2010.

Instructions went out to airlift wings, however, to be prepared if orders come in December to begin moving troops, according to Solo, the tanker airlift chief. It takes as few as four days to have additional crews and planes headed overseas.Solo doesn’t expect the Air Force to establish more large air hubs because it is already flying out of all the airfields with runways and infrastructure able to handle cargo planes such as the C-17.

The Air Force could help stand up smaller airfields aimed at handling lighter planes such as C-130s, Solo said. Airmen are already in Afghanistan sizing up potential sites as part of joint assessment teams.Solo and TransCom officials pointed to the 16,000-troop buildup earlier this year as an example of how the new surge will work.Almost all the troops were airlifted into Afghanistan on Air Force C-17s after flying to the region on commercial flights from their home bases. About 20 percent of the cargo was flown in on military and commercial planes. The rest of the cargo was trucked into Afghanistan.

Moving those 16,000 troops required Air Force and commercial cargo planes to deliver 5,300 tons of gear, the equivalent of up to 315 C-17 flights, TransCom figures showed. Flying the passengers required about another 90 C-17 flights into Afghanistan.While most of the Air Force flights were done with aircraft already deployed to the Persian Gulf and central Asia, Solo said, the Air Force did temporarily assign C-17s to ferry some cargo such as Army Strykers that had been shipped by sea to the airfield at the Navy’s Indian Ocean base on Diego Garcia.

UAVs and ISR

The Air Force has been expanding its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations since 2007, according to the service’s top ISR official.“We’ve been surging for two years now,” Lt. Gen. David Deptula, deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, told a Dec. 2 gathering of the Air Force Association.The service now flies 39 round-the-clock MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper combat patrols over Iraq and Afghanistan, an increase of 15 patrols in the past eight months. The Air Force, however, refuses to break down how many of the patrols are over each country.

Troops in Afghanistan will see more reconnaissance aircraft, including the MC-12W; the first is scheduled to arrive this month, with 23 more due by September. Nine MC-12Ws flying over Iraq could be transferred to Afghanistan. The 362nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron flew the 1,000th MC-12W combat sortie in November — five months after the first MC-12W arrived in Iraq.

Deptula said he is worried the service would soon be “swimming in sensors … drowning in data” once Reapers equipped with the Gorgon Stare sensor arrive. The first four Gorgon Stares will deploy aboard MQ-9 Reapers in April. The wide-area sensor can photograph an 8-kilometer-wide circle underneath the Reaper from 12 angles.

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