Springer Journal: Your Air Force at War
Posted February 24, 2006
PINEHURST, N.C. — Over the past few years I have frequently been asked "just what is the Air Force doing in this war on terror?" And it is a good question.
Almost daily we learn from the news media of the casualties suffered by our soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan, and less frequently in other remote areas of the world. For example, within the past few days we learned of the tragic helicopter accident killing ten Americans off the coast of Djibouti.
We have Air Force men and women deployed around the world in over 120 countries. However, in this "long war" on terror, the nature of the Air Force missions results in fewer casualties than those of our sister services fighting a tough insurgent enemy on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. Consequently, there is scant media coverage of the absolutely critical missions being performed each day by America's airmen, along with our Naval aviators and coalition air forces as well.
As you read this column, there is most likely several United States Air Force (active, reserve or National Guard) fighters flying Operation Noble Eagle combat air patrol over key east coast cities. Other airmen are sitting alert status at more than 25 locations within the United States. Operation Noble Eagle was initiated immediately after 9/11 and has flown thousands of combat air patrol sorties over our homeland. Let us put 9/11 2001 in perspective. That means we have already been at this "long war" on terror some eight months longer than America was engaged in WW II! And the end is not in sight.
There are roughly 24,000 USAF airmen and over 300 aircraft deployed in America and Southwest Asia supporting Operation Noble Eagle, Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq). Most of these missions go unreported in the national media, but they are incredibly important to our overall successes in the global war on terror.
As I write this column there are about 3,000 airmen performing Army missions. Many of these are convoy truck drivers and security personnel. Speaking of convoys, for the past 18 months or so, the Air Force has been employing C-130 cargo aircraft (such as those flown by the 43rd Airlift Wing at Pope AFB) to haul much of the weapons and supplies previously convoyed by trucks and subject to frequent roadside bombs. This frees up our sister service ground troops for other vital missions and lessens their vulnerability to improvised explosive devises.
On any given day in Southwest Asia, Air Force F-16, F-15 (such as the F-15E's from Seymour Johnson) and A-10 (such as those from Pope AFB) fighter jets will fly close air support missions in support of coalition troops on the ground, and to deter and disrupt terrorist activities in both Iraq and Afghanistan. There are also the venerable 40-year-old B-52 bombers flying close air support missions from Diego Garcia, a small island in the Indian Ocean. The trip from Diego Garcia to Afghanistan is about the same distance as a flight from Tampa, Florida to Alaska. These long-range bombers designed to drop nuclear weapons during the Cold War have been modernized and can now drop conventional weapons with surprising accuracy from 30,000 feet above the ground. In fact the average miss distance is about the length of the bomb. Technology is wonderful!
Of course these bombers, as well as the fighters, rely on aerial refueling by Air Force tanker crews flying the nearly 50 year old KC-135 and the 30-year-old KC-10 aerial refuelers. On any given day in Iraq and Afghanistan the tanker crews will fly a few dozen sorties and offload millions of pounds of fuel to the bomber and fighter aircraft. Simply stated, our tanker force keeps the fighters and bombers airborne. They are indispensable to successful military operations anywhere in the world.
C-130 cargo planes alongside their much larger transport, the C-17, will fly 150-200 missions daily delivering troops and cargo to help sustain our forces throughout the theater of operations. For example, one day last week in Southwest Asia they flew 200 airlift sorties, delivering over 470 tons of cargo and transporting over 4800 passengers.
There are other fixed wing manned aircraft flying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft around the clock. These missions are complemented by hundreds of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV's) such as the Predator and the Global Hawk. The UAV's provide a persistent coverage over specific areas of interest and provide instantaneous intelligence information to battle planners and operations centers action officers. Quite importantly, these 21st century capabilities do not place any of our airmen in harms way. In fact, we have UAV's over Iraq or Afghanistan controlled by pilots with their joy sticks in a secure building on Nellis AFB, nearby Las Vegas, Nevada.
Most significantly, the Air Force also runs a large field hospital in Balad, Iraq. Active duty and reserve surgeons have saved countless lives by performing emergency surgery under less than desirable field conditions. These doctors, supported by incredibly talented and dedicated nurses and staff, operate around the clock and have stabilized some very critically wounded soldiers and Marines and readied them for flight on the Air Force operated air evac missions to the Army's Landstuhl Hospital in Germany. These same doctors, nurses and staff treat Iraqi citizens on a daily basis. I hope someone, someday, writes the story of these Angels of Mercy. It will be a remarkable read.
Please know that your Air Force is engaged around the world, 24/7/365, in this long war on terror. Their contributions and sacrifices, along with the sacrifices of their families, are significant and critical. Please include them in your daily prayers.