By Donna Miles
WASHINGTON, Sep. 1, 2006 – When describing the vast scope of the air mission in support of ground troops waging the war on terror, the commander of U.S. Central Command Air Forces paints some graphic images. In addition to its daily average of 74 close-air support missions in support of combat missions in the region, Air Forces in the region do the heavy lifting - literally - for U.S. Central Command, Air Force Lt. Gen. Gary North told Pentagon reporters today.
Flying 165 mobility sorties on a typical day, they transport an average of more than 2,900 passengers and 400 tons of cargo, North explained during a video teleconference from Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.
But North likes to express those numbers as a concept that's easier for people to wrap their arms around. So far this year, "our theater airlift forces have moved the equivalent of the city of Baltimore," he said. If the airlifted cargo was loaded onto 18-wheeled vehicles that were then parked end-to-end, bumper-to-bumper, they'd stretch all the way from Washington to New York City.
The Air Force's air refueling mission - which typically equates to about 39 air-to-air refueling sorties a day - conjures up another colorful image. The 78 million gallons of fuel airmen have delivered so far this year to U.S. and coalition fighters, bombers and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft would gas up all 33 Indianapolis 500 race cars as they circled the globe 185 times.
These missions, like all others conducted by the 25,000 airmen at 32 sites throughout the CENTCOM operating area, directly support U.S. and coalition forces on the ground, North said. And as he's quick to point out, they've played a big part in the successes those ground forces have experienced in the region.
Air assets - manned and unmanned - provide a close watch over ground troops, alerting them to insurgents who may be placing roadside bombs or detecting hot spots that indicate weapons caches, he said. They track enemy forces' movements, identifying where insurgents live, work, conduct their planning, assemble improvised explosive devices and stash their weaponry.
"The information is delivered where and when it needs to be to support ... the tempo of the operation for the seamless integration of air, land, space capabilities and assets," North said. One of the command's highest-visibility recent successes - the successful June 7 air strike against Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq - followed what officials called a painstaking process that occurred over several weeks.
"(The air strike) was a result of tremendous work by coalition forces, intelligence agencies, partners in our global war on terrorism, that all came together feeding different parts and pieces that allowed us to build that puzzle," Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, spokesman for Multinational Force Iraq, told reporters following the strike. Close-air support is also key to progress in Operation Together Forward, the effort to secure Baghdad and was a critical factor in operations Mountain Lion and Mountain Thrust that flushed out Taliban extremists holed up in Afghanistan, North said.
Meanwhile, North cited other critical support air assets are providing ground troops. Last month alone, they flew 183 aeromedical evacuation sorties, moving some 1,000 troops from the battlefield, North said. Of these, nearly one-fourth were flown on to theater-level, then regional, then U.S. hospitals for additional medical care, usually within 48 hours, he said.
For troops operating in remote areas difficult or impossible to reach by road, air assets provide essential airdrops of food, water, ammunition and humanitarian assistance, as needed, North said. For example, air assets have delivered 226 airdrops since January in support of U.S. and coalition forces involved with operations Mountain Lion and Mountain Thrust in Afghanistan, he said.
As it conducts these missions, U.S. Central Command Air Forces is introducing new systems and technologies that will improve the support it's able to provide warfighters, he said. These include:
- The Small-Diameter Bomb, a satellite-guided warhead that will provide precise targeting while minimizing collateral damage;
- Improved systems that ensure there's no gap in radio coverage for ground troops operating outside the range of their forward operating bases; and
- The Joint Precision Airdrop Delivery System that provides an accurate way to airdrop supplies from altitudes beyond the reach of enemy threats.