By Air Force Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke
Special to American Forces Press Service
Sept. 15, 2009 - The commander of the Air Force's newest air expeditionary wing in Afghanistan is taking a hands-on approach to his duties. Air Force Brig. Gen. Guy Walsh, a Maryland Air National Guardsman from the 175th Airlift Wing in Baltimore, is flying at least two missions a week in the A-10 Thunderbolt II jet aircraft from Kandahar Airfield, which, he said, gives him the perspective he needs to do his job.
"As an airman ... it is important to have a perspective of the challenges," whether it is dealing with troops on the ground or answering questions from reporters about response times, Walsh told bloggers and online journalists today during a "DoDLive" bloggers roundtable.
"The ability to see that firsthand and understand what both the challenges and what the successes are, is huge," said Walsh, a career A-10 pilot. The general also qualified in the C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft when he became the commander of the 175th Airlift Wing, a composite unit consisting of the 104th Fighter Squadron and the 135th Airlift Group.
In addition to flying A-10s, Walsh said, he also has flown with the wing's HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters, which conduct search-and-rescue and medical evacuation missions, and the C-130J's, which recently have been tasked with airdrops in the area.
When he returns from a flight, Walsh said, "it is a lot easier to explain and improve both the capabilities we bring to the fight and how we support the troops on the ground. In all honesty, our No. 1 job ... there is no doubt that we are in a supporting role ... over here."
The 451st Air Expeditionary Wing is one of the largest and most diverse wings in the Air Force, with about 1,350 airmen, Walsh said. And its mission is to provide "a persistent and powerful presence for Afghanistan." It was stood up July 2 at Kandahar Airfield, a NATO base. The wing is a tenant unit.
Along with three airframes, the wing also provides intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability with about 50 unmanned aerial systems.
"It is a major part of the operation that we run over here," Walsh said.
The airmen who operate the launch and recovery effort are responsible for takeoffs and landings of the unmanned systems as well as doing system checks and routine maintenance. However, the actual flights are flown by pilots stationed at Creech Air Force Base, Nev.
After describing the differences between piloting an A-10 and operating an unmanned Predator, Walsh said he concluded that "to me, it is a lot easier when you've got a stick and rudder in your hand as opposed to a keyboard."
The unmanned aerial system really showed its worth during the elections in Afghanistan, the general said.
"Our ground forces have been fairly spread out," he said. "We nearly doubled the amount of coverage we have with the [unmanned aerial system]. In a lot of cases what helps the ground commanders isn't just the ability to go kinetic, ... but just the idea of being able to support that ground commander with the oval watch [and] being able to see where the enemy is. That piece has been absolutely huge."
When asked if he had enough A-10s, Walsh said the number of aircraft in Afghanistan has increased with the addition of F-15E Strike Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jets.
"I'm not sure if it's a matter of more airplanes that we need," he said. "I think we have made significant improvements on being able to get to the locations [where we are needed].
"We always find ways to improve or be more successful with the amount of equipment that we have right now," he continued. "I will tell you straightforward there is no more room on the ramp to move more A-10s in here."
Walsh said Kandahar has the busiest single runway in the world, averaging 700 to 800 takeoffs and landings every day. And about 250 aircraft are sitting on the ramp, which is a "huge challenge," he added.
Walsh said he is more concerned about providing enough intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, which is what the ground commanders want.
"We try to make what we do an important piece, but we are obviously one piece of a very large puzzle over here," he said. "The proud piece is that airmen have found a way to just make it happen for the folks on the ground here, regardless of tail number or regardless if it's Guardsmen, reservists or active duty."
(Air Force Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke serves in the National Guard Bureau.)