By Tim Kilbride
Special to American Forces Press Service
June 18, 2009 - As U.S. forces in Iraq prepare to pull back from most major cities by June 30 according to an agreement with the Iraqi government, U.S. air support will continue to enable and protect security gains made over the past two years, a U.S. commander said in a "DoDLive" bloggers roundtable yesterday. Air Force Col. Michael Fantini, commander of the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group, oversees a spectrum of air support missions that include nontraditional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; security operations support; high-end precision engagement; airlift of passengers and cargo; and combat search and rescue. His team is in charge of Predator and MC-12 surveillance flights, among others.
With U.S. forces repositioning in accordance with Iraqi requests and an improved security environment in urban areas, air support remains a key enabler of continued security, Fantini said.
"I guess things are not necessarily at a lower operations tempo; they're at a lower kinetic tempo," he said, meaning fewer combat operations are taking place. "We are still providing nontraditional intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance [and] traditional Predator ISR, and now we're utilizing the MC-12, all to provide that support to the ground force while the ground force is transitioning out of the cities."
Fantini described commanders' view of the Iraq situation as one of cautious optimism.
"We need to still be wary. It's still a dangerous environment that can turn relatively quickly," he said. However, he noted, "The fact that we see the lack of kinetic ops, the fact that we see a huge decrease in attacks, is all part of that. In the air power, we enable that every day by providing that support to the ground force."
Part of the long-term U.S. air mission is training the Iraqi air force and lending intelligence support to Iraqi-led combat missions. Fantini works through the Coalition Air Force Transition Training Team as a liaison between coalition forces and the Iraqi military, bridging the gap between subject-matter experts and training engagements.
"What I do to enable that is cross-talk with that organization," Fantini said, with a goal of enabling the Iraqi forces to "continue to take on more and more of their security responsibility."
Fantini's team is based out of Joint Base Balad, one of several large coalition air bases in Iraq. He described it as "pretty much the single largest base in Operation Iraqi Freedom" and "home for the busiest single runway operation in the Department of Defense."
(Tim Kilbride works in the Defense Media Activity's emerging media directorate.)