By Air Force Staff Sgt. Shawn J. Jones
Special to American Forces Press Service
June 11, 2008 - U.S. airmen are teaching command-and-control techniques to their counterparts at the Iraqi air operations center at Camp Victory here. The operations center is the hub that controls all Iraqi air force missions, where mission planners analyze weather conditions, intelligence and the status of their aircraft to make decisions regarding the command and control of air operations within the rebuilding country.
A team of 10 U.S. Air Force advisors from the Coalition Air Force Training Team are teaching Western-style command-and-control structure to the Iraqis, most of whom are more familiar with Soviet-style command structure.
"In the Soviet style of managing command and control, it was very rigid," said Air Force Lt. Col. Gary Kubat, the top advisor at the Iraqi air operations center. "Any decisions that were made had to be made by the top."
Western command and control encourages more information sharing throughout command channels so airmen aren't totally reliant on the highest levels of leadership to get things done. Kubat said he has spent the past year encouraging Iraqis to empower their mid-level commanders to make more decisions that are appropriate for their level.
In its position between the Iraqi air force's top leaders and the tactical units that perform the missions, the operations center fulfills a key role in Western-style command and control. For the Iraqis, the changes in command structure initially were as foreign as the U.S. airmen who were teaching them.
"When it first started out, there weren't a lot of Iraqis looking to do command and control," the colonel said. "They didn't quite understand that they had decisions to make at this level. When anything would happen, they would push it up the leadership chain and expect somebody else to make the decision."
Change is starting to take effect at the operations center.
"Now as we have been moving along, they have been aggressively taking on more and more of that decision making at lower levels," Kubat said .
The growing capabilities of the operations center are illustrated by the increasing number of missions flown by Iraqi airmen. Last year, the Iraqi air force flew fewer than 100 missions per week. In past three months, the average weekly number of flights has jumped to 271, with a record of 383 flown in mid-April. So far this year, the Iraqi air force has flown more than 5,000 missions in support of the global war on terror, including combat operations in Basra, Mosul and Sadr City.
The operations center also controls noncombat missions that contribute to the security of the Iraqi people and their democratic government. This year, Iraqi surveillance aircraft exposed smugglers who were damaging the government's oil pipeline. Additionally, other Iraqi aircraft flew above a religious pilgrimage, discouraging terrorist groups from attacking them.
"This, in turn, tends to makes the population a little bit happier with their government, because things are becoming more stable," Kubat said. "While they may not recognize the direct impact of the air force, they're seeing their government as an entity become more secure, more stable and providing for their needs."
The public's improved confidence in the government should make things tougher on terrorist insurgents.
"They are less likely to rebel against their government or provide aid to the people who are causing the problem," Kubat said.
Though they've experienced plenty of progress at the operations center throughout the past year, the advisors have had to overcome many challenges. Cultural differences are the most visible hurdle to teaching Western methods of airpower to the Iraqis.
Kubat said strong relationships with their Iraqi counterparts play a substantial role in the advisors' ability to teach command–and-control structure. An earnest appreciation of Iraqi social etiquette can go a long way toward improving the relationships between the airmen, he noted.
"We have a different sense of timeline in the West," Kubat said. "We tend to be a little more brusque, a little more up-front." Iraqis typically prefer to get to know a person before they become comfortable in working or conducting business together, he said.
Another challenge facing the advisors is the significant technology gap between the two nations' airmen. While much U.S. Air Force business is accomplished on computers, the Iraqis more commonly rely on paper or verbal dialogue. This forces the advisors to innovate, adjusting their systems and programs that would normally run on a computer into a manner that is more accessible to the Iraqi airmen's work culture.
"Very often we'll scratch our heads and say, 'Yeah, that could work,' and it actually ends up working more effectively than what we would have put in place," Kubat said.
The operations center, like the Iraqi air force, will expand rapidly over the course of the next few years. While only 12 Iraqis work there now, that number will soar to 88 within a year, and finding the right airmen to staff the opening is a considerable challenge.
"Right now, what you have is a military where previous air force officers have come in from the old regime, and they've been vetted and are trustworthy, and they've been taken into senior leadership positions," the colonel said.
These senior-level airmen have military experience, but they are not yet comfortable with the Western style of command and control, he explained. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are plenty of new, inexperienced Iraqi airmen who are eager to serve as junior officers while they learn on the job.
Unfortunately, there is a wide chasm between the senior and junior officers. There are very few suitable mid-level officers with experience, because Iraqi airmen were not being developed during the time between the first Gulf War and the current war.
As the senior officers draw nearer to retirement age, the lack of mid-level leadership to take their place will be a tough challenge for the Iraqi air force and U.S. advisors, Kubat said.
Another challenge is integrating Iraqi air force operations with coalition operations. Not only must the center learn a completely new way of doing business, it must learn quickly so it can integrate Iraqi air force activities into the coalition's air missions.
Kubat said the challenge of implementing a Western-style air force can be overcome, but it should not be rushed.
"Change here isn't going to happen anywhere near as fast as what Americans like. That's not the mentality here in the Middle East," he said. "Things take time."
The advisors plan to stick around until the mission is accomplished.
"The Iraqi airmen, and especially their chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Kamal Barzanjy, are especially grateful for the expertise and sacrifice the Coalition Air Force Training Team advisors are giving," said Maj. Gen. Brooks Bash, CAFTT commander. "They know they have a long road ahead to develop a robust command-and-control capacity, but they are confident, because the advisors will be with them every step of the way."
(Air Force Staff Sgt. Shawn J. Jones serves with U.S. Air Forces Central Public Affairs.)