By Donna Miles
SOUTHWEST ASIA, Oct. 20, 2006 – U.S. civilian leaders visiting here today got a taste of how U.S. military air power supports troops on the ground - from delivering troops, beans and bullets to the battle to providing life-saving intelligence to taking out targets that threaten U.S. and coalition forces. "We are the guardian angels overhead," Brig. Gen. Charles Shugg, commander of the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing based here, told participants in the Joint Civilian Orientation Course. Officials requested that the base's exact location not be disclosed.
"We're always there to support that soldier, sailor, airman and Marine on the ground," Shugg said.
With a takeoff and landing every nine minutes around the clock, the 379th AEW supports troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa, Shugg told the JCOC members. "We go three different directions, as needed, to support our forces," he said.
Lt. Gen. Gary North, commander of U.S. Central Command Air Force, described the magnitude of the Air Force mission in Southwest Asia in support of warfighters.
The Air Force provides airlift, taking troops, their gear and the logistics needed to sustain them. It provides intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support, serving as the troops' eyes and ears in the sky. And when called on by ground troops, the Air Force delivers close-air support quickly and with precise accuracy, North explained. After getting called, the Air Force delivers this "kinetic" support within 10 minutes in Iraq and within 25 minutes in Afghanistan, he said.
"All the focus is on supporting the ground force," North told the group.
While responding quickly to calls from ground troops, the Air Force goes out of its way to prevent collateral damage and avoid attacking the wrong target, he emphasized. "We are very deliberate in our business," North told the group, adding that he'd rather see an insurgent get away than risk killing "a good guy in error." Similarly, he said, too much firepower can be worse than too little, especially if it kills innocent civilians or destroys homes and infrastructure on the ground.
"Collateral damage prevention is Job One," he said.
In addition to providing close-air support, Air Force assets increase ground troops' situational awareness so they're better able to stay a step ahead of the enemy, North told the civilian leaders.
The RC-135 Rivet Joint intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, for example, collects and passes signals intelligence to ground forces. The E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, more commonly known as "JSTARS," provides a real-time picture of what's happening on the ground. Its crews report anything suspicious - from a vehicle moving after curfew to someone digging ground on a roadside as they might when emplacing an improvised explosive device - to ground forces, explained said Lt. Col. Tim Manning, a JSTARS mission crew commander.
North called the RC-135 and JSTARS "vacuum cleaners in the sky that are sucking up every bit of intelligence," transmitting it for processing, and "telling us who to look for and what to look for."
F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets also provide intelligence by reporting anything suspicious or unusual they identify to ground troops during their patrols, Shugg said.
Often, pilots spot a patch of roadway that's been disturbed by insurgents planting a roadside bomb, and warn troops on the ground. They also watch convoys from above, alerting them to what's ahead. "We're countering attacks and saving lives," Shugg said.
Among the 379th AEW's unsung heroes are KC-135 Stratotanker crews that keep aircraft flying as long as eight hours. They dispense enough during aerial refueling missions every day to run the Indianapolis 500 12 times, Shugg told the group.
"We're keeping the fighters overhead and protecting the ground troops," said Capt. Michael Corsair, a KC-135 pilot. "We keep them airborne and put the 'reach' in global reach." And as Tech. Sgt. Sean Rix, a KC-135 boom operator, likes to put it, "Nobody kicks ass without tanker gas."
Rix had the importance of his job driven home when he pumped 8,000 pounds of fuel into a B-2 bomber en route to Afghanistan during the opening day of Operation Enduring Freedom. "I said to (the crew), 'Hey, we'll see you on CNN,'" he said. After landing an hour and a half later, Rix flicked on the TV set and saw the result of his work as the air war unfolded.
Capt. Matt McKinney, weapons systems officer for the B-1B Lancer bomber, said it's gratifying to know he and his fellow airmen are supporting the ground forces. "We're giving the guys on the ground overhead coverage, providing a show of force and dropping weapons on target as needed," he said.
McKinney said he enjoys checking in with the ground forces he's supporting to ask, "Hey, what can we do for you tonight?"
Airmen like Tech Sgt. Jerome Knights, who work more behind the scenes, say they recognize that they're making an important contribution to the global war on terror.
"See these hands? They're making sure these engines run," said Knights, a jet engine mechanic. "We're helping make sure the pilots have the tools they need in bringing the fight to the enemy."
Capt. Daniel Converse, a navigator on the RC-135 Rivet Joint, said there's no question that air power is playing a critical role in the ground fight, but said it feels particularly good to hear someone they're supporting express appreciation. "It's really gratifying when you hear a comment back from one of the ground guys who says, 'Thank God you are there,'" he said. "That's when you know that you're really making a difference."
In addition to meeting and chatting with the airmen, participants in the JCOC program -- civilian business, academic and community leaders -- got to kick the tires and crawl into the cockpits of the 379th AEW's aircraft and tour the Combined Air Operations Center.
Cliff Bartow, president and chief executive officer of Family Christian Stores based in Grand Rapids, Mich., called the visit to the CAOC a highlight and said he was amazed at the technology he saw and how's it's being applied to the terror war.
"That's why I sleep good at night," agreed Charlie Freericks, vice president of DMB Associates Inc., in Scottsdale, Ariz.
The Joint Civilian Orientation Conference is a weeklong program designed to expose civilian opinion leaders from around the country to U.S. military operations and the men and women who conduct them. This JCOC trip is the second to the Middle East since the Defense Department started the program in 1948.