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Nominee predicts continued U.S. presence at Manas

The woman nominated by the White House to serve as the next ambassador to Kyrgyzstan predicts Manas Transit Center will be available to the U.S. military for as long as it’s needed. In comments before the U.S. Senate panel considering her confirmation, nominee Pamela Spratlen said:

“While we’ve had our ups and downs with Kyrgyzstan, there have been negotiations over the exact elements of how we would cooperate with Kyrgyzstan to use the transit center, in every instance we’ve been able to come to an agreement with Kyrgyzstan on a way forward,” Spratten told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “I think the Kyrgyz authorities clearly understand the importance of a secure and stable Afghanistan. … And I believe that it will be possible for us to continue to rely on the cooperation of the authorities of Kyrgyzstan for the use of the transit center for as long as we need it.”

Here’s a link to coverage of the committee hearing by EurasiaNet.org: click here.

 

Jet fuel supplier stirs Kyrgyz protest

Jet fuel, essentially the lifeblood of Manas Transit Center, has become a worsening diplomatic problem for the United States.

Kyrgyz government leaders want the Pentagon to scrap its new, $630 million supply contract with Mina Corp., which many believe has ties to ousted Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev and is the subject of a corruption investigation by authorities in Bishkek. A U.S. congressional panel investigating ownership of the company has found no connections to Bakiyev.

The (London) Telegraph published a good wrapup of the standoff in today’s editions, an electonic copy of which can be found here. And late last month, The Washington Post published a lengthy examination of Mina Corp.’s secretive ownership, which includes a retired U.S. intelligence officer from California who owned a hamburger joint in Bishkek before becoming a billionaire fuel supplier. An electronic version of The Washington Post article can be found here.

The new supply contract was announced last week. Terms include a one-year, $315 million agreement for delivery of 96 million gallons of fuel, with an optional one-year extension. The agreement also allows for the use of subcontractors.

Kyrgyzstan’s state-run oil company, in conjunction with a Russian fuel supplier, was among the nine bidders for the contract. Mina Corp. and its sister company, Red Star, have held the fuel delivery contract at Manas since 2003. The U.S. State Department hasn’t commented on Kyrgyz demands to withdraw the supply contract with Mina.

Manas coverage in print editions

Here’s an electronic recap of the Manas-related articles published over the past week in The Spokesman-Review’s print editions:

Tuesday (10.19.2010): Front-line support — A look at a typical refueling mission over the rugged battlefields of Afghanistan.

Thursday (10.21.2010): Rebuilding hope — A look at the humanitarian assistance efforts of U.S. military men and women deployed at Manas, many of them Fairchild volunteers.

Sunday (10.24.2010): A two story package examining the base’s uncertain future amid Kyrgyzstan’s political turmoil, and the teamwork that keeps KC-135s in the air and Manas on the move.

And, here’s an SR article from 2009 examining Fairchild’s links to creation of the U.S. base at Manas amid an eventually scuttled eviction notice. Among the tidbits: So many Fairchild airmen were deployed at the base that they staged a makeshift Bloomsday run one year; and an unfortunate mishap involving a fiery collision between a KC-135 and a commercial airliner.

Compare and contrast

Airman 1st Class Travis Carter had been in Baghdad when combat operations dwindled and he found out he’d be redeployed to Kyrgyzstan.

Initially worried about what it would be like, he’s now glad to be at Manas, assigned to the logistics and readiness squadron. He helps oversee the fuel-intake depot, where nearly half a million gallons of fuel is trucked to the base daily before being treated and prepared for aviation use.

“You still have to be aware,” Carter said earlier this week when drawing comparisons between Manas and Baghdad. “But we work with Kyrgyz nationals every day they’re really trustworthy.”

From ‘need to know’ to ‘need to share’

   Manas commanders regularly struggle with what they consider flawed perceptions of the U.S. air base’s military role showing up in Russian, Kyrgyz and other predominantly foreign media.

   So, Manas is turning inside out the military’s precautionary mindset that all information be guarded on a “need to know” basis, and hoping that a more open and inviting relationship with the supply base’s neighbors will help ease Kyrgyz apprehension about its purpose.

   “We call it `a need to share,’” said Col. Dwight Sones, commander of the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing at Manas.

   The base has begun actively encouraging Kyrgyz nationals to visit the Transit Center, drawing an estimated 2,000 from the Bishkek area last week for tours, demonstrations and barbecue. Earlier, it hosted several foreign media organizations from as far away as Russia, China, Japan and England.

   So far, it’s helped identify at least one contributor to some of the worried speculation: windowless dormitories with separate air conditioning units for each room.

   The perception apparently had been that the buildings were being secretly used for something much more important than dormitories because it’s so uncommon in this part of the world to provide such amenities for rank-and-file troops, explained Major John Elolf.

The solution? Elolf made sure that those who were worried about the buildings got a chance to tour them.

Airmen visit preschool

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Airmen from the 92nd Air Refueling Wing out of Fairchild Air Force Base made a humanitarian visit to the Solnyshko preschool in Vasilievka, Kyrgyzstan, on Monday, Oct 18, 2010. The children received donated winter coat, balloons, stuffed animals and school supplies, as well as the visitors’ attention. Military servicemen and -women from the Manas Transit Center have been volunteering regularly at schools, orphanages and women’s centers in communities near the base.

UPDATE: An electronic version of the article published Thursday in The SR about humanitarian outreach efforts at Manas can be found here: http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2010/oct/21/rebuilding-hope/

Off to war

At the Manas Transit Center, Marines with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, make final preparations for haeding downrange in to Afghanistan Sunday, Oct. 17, 2010.

Nursing a double tall

It is 12:30 a.m. and I just gave up my bunk to a U.S. Army officer heading to Afghanistan. I have only six hours left of my stay at the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan. This place is jamming with a surge of new arrivals “heading downrange,” which makes bunk space severely limited on base. So I sit, nursing a double tall in a base coffee shop, surrounded with all my gear and a dying laptop battery. I’m so tired …

When a full bladder is a good thing

There’s a saying among KC-135 crews that goes something like, “You can’t kick ass without tanker gas.” It’s a not-so-subtle way of reminding hotshot fighter jocks that the range and versatility of their sleek, high-powered strike jets — particularly when fully armed — would be much more limited without the extra fuel delivered in mid air day and night by the Air Force’s massive aerial tanker fleet.

But those ever-present tankers would have nothing to deliver if it weren’t for P-O-L, the link in the supply chain that stands for “Petroleum, Oil and Lubricants.”

Manas Transit Center’s bladder farm can hold nearly 4 million gallons of fuel, most of it aviation grade. Deliveries arrive from Bishkek around the clock, keeping the 20 bladders filled, each of which can hold 200,000 gallons. It takes four to five tarmac fuel trucks to prepare a KC-135R Stratotanker for each refueling mission.

“We’re the largest expeditionary bladder farm” in the U.S. Defense Department, said Master Sgt. Christina Scampatilla, who runs the fueling facility.

Guardsmen from the Heartland

About 120 members of the Iowa National Guard, part of an advance crew for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, waited patiently in lines Sunday outside of a Manas supply tent, where they filed in based on body size to be issued body armor.

The group was expected to board a plane for Afghanistan by Monday, making preparations for when the 3,100-member bridgade joins them at Bagram. On a supply base that moves, on average, 1,200 troops a day, the guardsmen stood out for a couple of reasons. They were noticeably more focused while in line for the supply tent, reorganizing themselves quickly into new lines after being advised of a change in procedure, and appeared to be a bit older, on average, than many of the troop clusters found throughout Manas.

“We figure that about 60 percent (of the brigade) has been deployed before,” said Major Mike Wunn. It’s believed to be the largest unit call up of the Iowa National Guard since World War II.

`Gunslingers’ on patrol over Afghanistan

Two F/A-18E Super Hornets from the decorated U.S. Navy attack squadron VFA 105, commonly known as the “Gunslingers,” were among the half dozen fighter jets refueled Saturday above Afghanistan by a Fairchild-based KC-135 tanker and crew on deployment in Kyrgyzstan.

The carrier-based strike fighters rely on the aerial tanker’s wing-mounted refueling hoses rather than the tail boom that most aircraft use for air-to-air fuel deliveries. The fighter jet’s fuel nozzle is located on the nose of the aircraft, which pilots must guide into the hose and keep their speed and course matched up with the KC-135R Stratotanker until the delivery is complete.

The squadron’s jets are easy to spot because its nickname is emblazoned in capital letters across the strike fighters’ massive drop tanks.

The Gunslingers have racked up a number of history-making accomplishments, including first fighter squadron led by a female, Cmdr. Sara Joyner, who also has become the first woman to lead an entire carrier air wing. The squadron is based aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, which has been launching combat sorties in support of U.S. and Coalition forces serving in Afghanistan since this summer.

UPDATES
An SR photo slideshow from the refueling sortie can be found here: http://www.spokesman.com/picture-stories/over-afghanistan/
An electronic version of The SR article published Tuesday about the Manas refueling mission can be found here: http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2010/oct/19/front-line-support/

Two beer limit

One of the surprises at Manas is its selection of beer, which includes an edgy, high-octane Russian import called “9” that blends a bit of vodka with the hops. And it’s just $2 a bottle.

But you’d be wise to savor each sip because the base also has a daily limit of two beers per person.

Bartenders enforce the restriction by scanning customer ID cards, and a computer tracks purchases in 24-hour cycles rather than by the calendar day. That’s signifant because Manas is a 24-hour base, which means everything — even the bar — is open around the clock, since troops are arriving from all over the world at all hours of the day and from a multitude of varying time zones.

Turkish surprise

The best-kept dining secret at Manas Transit Center is a Turkish cafeteria operating in a converted cargo container.

It’s surprisingly clean, quaint and delicious — the kind of place that would steal the show if the Food Network ever did a Kyrgyzstan edition of its TV series, “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”

One of our escorts had heard about the boutique cafeteria, which is away from the main part of the base, and is designed to primarily serve Turkish contractors expanding the airport’s tarmac. It has one serving line, one bathroom and just two long dining tables, plus a big-screen TV with foreign programming. Since there’s no signs on the cargo trailer, the cafeteria could easily be mistaken from the outside as a make-shift office, particularly on an expeditionary base with few permanent structures.

The meal was tasty — rice, cooked vegetables and some kind of links, along with a spicy split pea soup. But since the proprietor doesn’t speak English, no one in our group knows exactly what it was we had for lunch.

Bonding with Americans

Bishkek lawyer Louiza Abvullaeva, decked out in leather pants, stilletto heals and a designer T-shirt, was among the estimated 2,000 Kyrgyz residents to visit Manas Transit Center during the air base’s annual Friends and Family Day on Saturday.

“I have a bond with American people,” Abvullaeva said in slightly fractured English after hugging and posing for pictures with Airman 1st Class Joseph Riemer, who was ominously adorned in protective gear as part of a demonstration of the 376th explosive ordinance removal unit. “It’s cool. In Bishkek, people would look at me and … not understand.”

The celebration is dedicated to the hundreds of Kyrgyz contractors and civilian employees working at the U.S. base.

Attending with Abvullaeva was her sister, Newton Bela, who said her daughter-in-law works as a pharmacist in Spokane.

 

Sleepless in Kyrgyzstan

It is 4:40 a.m. in the morning in Kyrgyzstan and I can’t sleep. I’ve been bunking with an Army soldier who is headed home from Afghanistan. He, like many others we’ve met, have that far-away stare that is so common with guys coming out of combat situations. All he volunteered about Afghanistan was that it was really F’d up. He just packed up and left for home. I wish him well.

A delicate maneuver

In a delicate dance between man and machine high above Afghanistan, an F-15E Eagle tops off its tanks with jet fuel provided by a Fairchild Air Force Base 92nd Air Refuling Wing KC-135 Stratotanker on deployment at the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan.

Liftoff!

Experience what it is like to be inside a KC-135R Stratotanker as it takes off from Fairchild Air Force Base en-route to a deployment at the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan.

Sleep when you can…

As morning light breaks over the Atlantic Ocean, Airman 1St Class James White with 92nd Air Refueling Wing from Fairchild Air Force Base, sleeps during his nine-hour flight to England in a KC-135R air refueling tanker Oct. 14, 2010. White is on his way to a four-month deployment in Kyrgyzstan that will involve deicing aircraft at the Manas Transit Center.

Preparing for winter

The temperature in Bishkek when the KC-135 landed at Manas was in the low 70s, a bit of an October oddity for this part of Central Asia, but five of the Fairchild-based airmen aboard are a reminder that winter is on the way.

They are the first aircraft de-icing team of the season to be deployed to Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous nation known for its harsh winters.

The airmen — Derek Vaughn, staff sergeant; Daniel Goodman, senior airman; Josh Myers, Antonio Rapp and James White, all airmen 1st class — will undergo training after a 12-hour acclimation to the 13-hour time zone difference in Bishkek.

At least one member of the new crew already has had a crash course. Goodman was pressed into service as a de-icer when he first was stationed at Fairchild during Spokane’s record-breaking winter of 2008-09.

Prepare for landing

After an overnight in England, Capt. Chris Dieter and his co-pilot Lincoln Olsen prepare to land their KC-135R Stratotanker at Manas Transit Center Oct. 15, 2010. The night before, over the Atlantic Ocean, the crew was given a front row seat to a massive Northern Lights show.

Not business class

Airmen with the 92nd  Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild Air Force Base strap in for a seventeen hour flight to the Manas Transit Center in  Kyrgyzstan. The aircrew and five maintainers are in route to Kyrgyzstan aboard a Fairchild KC-135R Stratotanker refueling aircraft for a five-month deployment.

Sputter….

During taxiing to the runway at Fairchild Air Force Base, our pilot noticed that he had trouble steering the nose gear of aircraft.  We have deplaned and await word whether we can continue on with the trip tonight, or come back tomorrow and try again.

Spokane’s growing links to Kyrgyzstan

The connections between Spokane, Wash. and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan became abundantly clear in The Spokesman-Review newsroom back in April of this year.

The City Desk, no stranger to unusual questions and requests from across the Inland Northwest, began fielding phone calls from readers asking various renditions of this: “What’s the latest out of Kyrgyzstan?”

A quick scan of The Associated Press international wires, at the time, showed violent protests had erupted throughout the capital city of Bishkek, and that ethnic violence to the south had turned increasingly bloody. The violent protests would eventually topple the Kyrgz leadership, but what piqued our curiosity was why so many of our readers were paying such close attention to the internal affairs of an impoverished former Soviet republic 6,000 miles and 13 time zones away.

The answer was found on Spokane’s West Plains, specifically Fairchild Air Force Base.

Bishkek is home to Manas Transit Center, a NATO airfield serving as a major supply hub into Afghanistan, and Fairchild crews are instrumental in keeping the base operational. The deployed crews are serving under the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing.

Now, we’re traveling to Bishkek for a week or so to get a firsthand look, and bring back stories of the increasing role of the 376th in keeping NATO troops supplied and combat jets in the air.

The trip was arranged by the Fairchild-based 92nd Air Refueling Wing, and made available to Spokane-area journalists. We’ll be departing Oct. 12 aboard one of Fairchild’s aging KC-135 tankers as it heads from the overhaul bays of the West Plains to the flight line at Manas.

Our hope is that this blog, Gateway to Afghanistan: Dispatches from Manas, becomes a way to bring readers along.

Making the trip for The Spokesman-Review are veteran journalists Colin Mulvany, a photographer and multimedia producer, and David Wasson, a deputy city editor. Both will be posting regularly — or at least as regularly as available WiFi permits.