March 19, 2006 in City

Airmen join ground war

By The Spokesman-Review
Kathryn Stevens photo

Air Force personnel use a simulator to practice for combat. Even cooks bound for combat zones are trained how to fight.
(Full-size photo)

Roadside explosions rocked his armored vehicle some days.

Bullets pounded its thick panels on others.

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Shannon Johnson and his fellow airmen found themselves providing cover in the streets of Tikrit to make sure the truck convoys they were escorting made it to safety.

With each insurgent attack, the Fairchild-based transportation unit became another example of the transition occurring in the U.S. Air Force’s military role.

“This hasn’t happened since World War II, that we’ve had to drive Army convoy trucks,” said Johnson, who never figured when he joined the Air Force that he’d have to worry about urban firefights. “After a while we felt we weren’t U.S. Air Force anymore.”

Johnson and a half dozen other members of the Fairchild-based 92nd Logistics Readiness Squadron returned recently from six months in Iraq, where they were given armored gun trucks and ordered to work alongside U.S. Army units protecting transport convoys around Tikrit.

Until then, the airmen had largely spent their military careers managing motor pools and ferrying VIPs and others around distant air bases.

But the ongoing war on terrorism, with its reliance on dangerous, street-level operations, is forcing military units, and entire military branches, to adapt.

The U.S. Air Force itself is in transition.

Supporting role

After the initial “shock-and-awe” phase of the Iraq invasion, the Air Force’s radar-evading bomber fleets, high-tech missiles and supersonic fighter jocks seemed to take a back seat.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Norman R. Seip acknowledged in a meeting with military journalists last month that the Air Force is largely in a supporting role.

“It’s not a sexy story. I realize it’s hard to tell,” said Seip, assistant deputy chief of staff for Air, Space and Information Operations, Plans and Requirements at the Pentagon.

But he emphasized the importance of airmen, many of whom already are adapting to the changing demands of fighting a scattered, ill-defined enemy rather than the Cold War superpower for which the Air Force spent decades preparing.

At Fairchild, for example, airmen – from cooks to engineers – are being given combat refresher courses. Bomb squads are working double time throughout the Middle East defusing roadside explosives, and will figure prominently in the new offensive announced last week to eliminate the worsening threats posed from insurgent bombs known as improvised explosive devices.

As the Pentagon re-evaluates the Air Force mission, and military planners debate the best course, the transition already is under way.

Air Force Col. Scott Walker, vice commander of the U.S. Air Force Doctrine Center at Maxwell Air Force Base, said it’s a myth that the Air Force that went to war in Iraq in 2003 was still a Cold War Air Force.

“I think that back in the 1950s and ‘60s there was too much focus on the Cold War to the detriment of small-scale conflicts; it would be just as wrong today to focus exclusively on the (global war on terror),” Walker said.

“The truth is that the transformation began over a decade ago,” he said.

He added that one of the biggest changes has been simultaneously focusing on both homeland security and war abroad. In Iraq the Air Force is providing air-to-ground fighter aircraft, air mobility and airborne communications capability to assist the fight.

Airmen are also serving in large numbers as key support personnel at U.S. forward-operating bases.

“We’re trying to relieve some of the stress on the forces out there,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Jordan, a command pilot who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

That’s a big change compared with the Cold War era when air power ruled.

After the shock-and-awe phase, the war in Iraq was turned over primarily to the Army and Marines, some of whom disparagingly refer to airmen tucked away in forward operating bases (FOBs) as “fobbits.”

Though the conflict in Iraq is ground-focused, the Air Force can’t completely abandon its high-tech dominance in the air because another superpower could yet emerge, Seip said.

That doesn’t mean less for the war in Iraq, said Walker. “It is absolutely untrue to think we’re providing anything less to support the fight on the ground in the name of air superiority.”

But the changing nature of how individual airmen are being pressed into service is where the most dramatic changes can be seen.

Dangerous duty

Airmen must now be prepared for anything.

Though many never leave the forward operating bases, all Fairchild personnel now are given five days of pre-deployment combat training by base security forces to help better prepare them for the unpredictable nature of Iraq and Afghanistan deployments.

Many haven’t had such training in years. “You need to have a refresher of what to do,” said 2nd Lt. John Farmer.

So security forces teach other airmen how to operate weapons ranging from pistols to machine guns.

“We make sure they’re comfortable with it because their lives and others could depend on it,” said Staff Sgt. Kevin Sklark.

Roughly half of Fairchild’s security forces are deployed at any given time, said Master Sgt. Tim Cook. And those who are deployed can be called upon to do anything from guarding a base to training Iraqi police. They work directly with the U.S. Army.

Few airmen face the dangers that members of Fairchild’s 14-member explosive ordnance disposal shop do on a daily basis when deployed. In addition to disposing of weapons caches, these airmen are called on to disarm improvised explosive devices – the biggest threat now facing American troops in Iraq.

Robots, remote-controlled cars and high-powered weaponry are all used to detonate roadside bombs. “There’s no standard, cookie-cutter way of taking care of one,” said Staff Sgt. David Zaccanti.

And they often have just 15 to 30 minutes to figure it out before insurgents arrive and begin shooting at them or causing other problems.

It’s a relatively small Air Force career field, with a high washout rate during training, said Tech. Sgt. Christian Wiese. But some thrive on the danger and intellectual challenges presented by each roadside bomb.

“We’re there to keep people alive and keep the equipment moving,” said Wiese.

Evolving mission

Even Fairchild’s core KC-135 refueling mission is evolving.

Crews are constantly called upon to perform multiple tasks, said Capt. Alton White, a KC-135 pilot.

They can be called on for anything from service in the Middle East to American transport operations to homeland security. They refuel both American and allied planes.

Tanker crews are at the ready at all times in case of an attack on the U.S., operating out of the Readiness Center.

The facility was set to be demolished when B-52 bombers were removed from Fairchild, but after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., the Readiness Center was given renewed importance. It is in the final stages of a refurbishment to make it more comfortable for the crews that must stay there during their alert shift.

And the KC-135 is being equipped to assist the military with better communications and intelligence using new technology to provide real-time information from the ground.

“This plane can do whatever’s needed,” Alton said of the KC-135.

And as the Air Force continues to evolve, both the KC-135 and Fairchild airmen will be expected to do more.

That transformation already is being noticed.

While training for convoy duty with the Army at Fort Sill, Okla., Tech Sgt. Johnson heard a fair number of wisecracks about how much help could be expected from the “Chair Force.”

He and the other Fairchild airmen put any doubt to rest once in Iraq, earning the respect of the soldiers and convoy drivers they worked with in Tikrit. Johnson’s computer screensaver is now a testament to the peril he faced, far from the office-chair duty soldiers joked about. It’s a photo of the moment an improvised explosive device detonated just 10 feet behind his vehicle.

During the deployment, just one person under the protection of Johnson’s unit was injured; no one was killed.

“After a while we were getting to be the most-requested gun truck detachment on the base,” he said.

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