Air Force Iraq Mission Likely to Increase Before It Ends

WASHINGTON, Aug. 29, 2011 — As the Amer­i­can pres­ence in Iraq draws down, the U.S. Air Force mis­sion in the nation like­ly will increase, Air Force Maj. Gen. Rus­sell J. Handy said.

Handy — com­man­der of the 9th Air and Space Expe­di­tionary Task Force and direc­tor of the Air Com­po­nent Coor­di­na­tion Ele­ment in Iraq — dis­cussed the Air Force mis­sion in Iraq and the way for­ward dur­ing a tele­phone inter­view from his head­quar­ters at Camp Vic­to­ry in Bagh­dad.

“We have to con­tin­ue doing the same things we’ve been doing sup­port­wise that we have been doing through the entire tran­si­tion,” the gen­er­al said.

The com­mand is respon­si­ble for coor­di­nat­ing and enabling air oper­a­tions in the coun­try. “As we con­tin­ue to draw down the land com­po­nent, we will con­tin­ue to fly cov­er over­head,” Handy said. He antic­i­pates that the num­ber of U.S. Air Force sor­ties will trend up in the next few months to cov­er the draw­down.

This includes the full range of mis­sions, from close-air sup­port to strate­gic air­lift, he said. It also entails armed over­watch of U.S. troops con­duct­ing part­nered oper­a­tions with Iraqi forces and aid­ing U.S. forces as they defend instal­la­tions and pro­tect con­voys.

And intel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance and recon­nais­sance “is a huge part of our mis­sion area, and we will con­tin­ue to fly that,” he added.

Some 46,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq today, and all are set to leave by the end of the year as part of the U.S.-Iraq secu­ri­ty agree­ment signed in 2008. This will mean an influx of mobil­i­ty forces com­ing into Iraq, Handy said.

“That is a growth area for the Air Force here between now and the end of the year as we start to pull forces out,” he said. “We will need a lot of air­lift.”

This is not just C-130 Her­cules tac­ti­cal air­lift, but involves giant C-17 Globe­mas­ter III and C-5 Galaxy trans­port jets. These air­craft will require tanker air­craft and oth­er sup­port, so this will be a busy time for air­men in coun­try, Handy said.

Mean­while, the gen­er­al said, the com­mand is in the process of turn­ing over air bases to the Iraqi air force.

In addi­tion, the U.S. Air Force has a num­ber of units and indi­vid­ual air­men embed­ded with U.S. Army units in Iraq.

“These air­men are engi­neers, secu­ri­ty forces, intel­li­gence pro­fes­sion­als and medics,” Handy said.

Also, a num­ber of air­men are work­ing with experts at the U.S. Embassy in Bagh­dad to rebuild the Iraqi trans­porta­tion sys­tem.

“They need to build that from the ground up — from radars and com­mu­ni­ca­tions link­ages to train­ing air traf­fic con­trollers and to fit all that togeth­er,” Handy said. The air­men have been trans­fer­ring “chunks” of Iraqi air­space to the Iraqis for the past two years, he not­ed, and the U.S. Air Force is respon­si­ble for a small seg­ment at low­er alti­tudes of cen­tral Iraq.

“Our require­ments through the end of the year won’t go down, and in some cas­es will increase,” the gen­er­al said. The com­mand will do that in com­bi­na­tion with Air Force units from out­side the coun­try, he added.

Handy’s com­mand also assists the Iraqi air force and the Iraqi army’s avi­a­tion com­mand. The U.S. Air Force part­ners with Iraqi air­men where it can. “We do part­ner, advise, assist and train with the Iraqis in every mis­sion area with­in their capa­bil­i­ties,” Handy said.

As Iraqi capa­bil­i­ties increase, U.S. air­men pull back, the gen­er­al said. For exam­ple, he said, the Iraqis oper­ate their own tac­ti­cal air­lift pro­gram with no U.S. involve­ment.

The Iraqis have run the C-130 squadron on their own since 2009, the gen­er­al said. In addi­tion, the Air Force part­ners with the Iraqis in intel­li­gence, recon­nais­sance and sur­veil­lance plat­forms. The Iraqi mil­i­tary has a fledg­ling ISR capa­bil­i­ty that has, despite its new­ness, had sig­nif­i­cant oper­a­tional suc­cess­es.

“We part­ner with them at the squadron and on the ground, and in the oper­a­tions cen­ter to inte­grate that ISR,” Handy said.

The Air Force ele­ment in Iraq part­ners with all lev­els of the Iraqi air force, from the air col­lege in Tikrit to ini­tial pilot train­ing, “and just about every­thing in between,” the gen­er­al said.

The Amer­i­can force does not part­ner with the Iraqis on fixed-wing close-air sup­port, the gen­er­al said, because the Iraqis do not have that capa­bil­i­ty yet.

Much remains to be done in Iraq, Handy said, but his com­mand, too, will leave by the end of the year. He said he antic­i­pates that the Office of Secu­ri­ty Coop­er­a­tion in the U.S. Embassy will con­tin­ue to work with the Iraqi mil­i­tary as the Iraqi air force con­tin­ues to grow.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)