17th AF engineers first African operation

Story and photo by Master Sgt. Jim Fisher

Air Force C-17s will soon begin airlifting special equipment for Rwandan peacekeepers in the Darfur region of Sudan, marking the kickoff of the first major operation engineered by U.S. Africa Command’s air component, 17th Air Force, also known as U.S. Air Forces Africa.

The numbered Air Force is responsible for planning and implementing air operations on the African continent.

Members of 17th AF took a moment Tuesday to look over various news stories announcing the U.S. government’s support to the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur.

As national and international media covered the official announcement, planners at 17th hearkened back to the operation’s inception, which began several months ago as a “very general” roundtable discussion.

“The initial scope was extremely large,” said Maj. Andy Venne, a member of the planning team in 17th’s operations directorate. “We started off with a big mission set.”

The major said that while the final version of the U.S. Africa Command operation will culminate as a week-long expedition to move out-sized equipment, the original parameters involved the potential movement of thousands of troops and a larger amount of cargo.

The process began when the United Nations asked for airlift assistance, which the U.S. has repeatedly provided over the course of Africa Union peacekeeping activities in Darfur, beginning in 2004. Past operations have been conducted by the U.S. European Command and Third Air Force. But with 53 African nations now under the purview of U.S. Africa Command, the task to develop airlift options for this movement fell to the newly-formed air component headquartered at Ramstein.

“Africa Command received a request from the U.N. to move people and equipment to support the peacekeeping mission in Darfur. Our operational planners formed a team that developed several viable courses of action that were then reviewed by leadership at U.S. Africa Command to determine how to best fulfill the requirements,” Major Venne said.

The planning process involved every possible area of expertise, said Capt. Ron Johnson, who conducts implementation operations for the 17th.

From logistics to finance, communications to medical, “we had every directorate, every area of special staff – the entire team was involved,” Captain Johnson said. “Every member of the team brings a different piece of the puzzle.”

The staff began planning for the U.N. operation soon after the unit officially declared initial operational capability Oct. 1.

While all of the assembled staff are experts in their respective Air Force functions and specialties, the newly-formed team faced challenges, said Maj. Greg Lococo, chief of the operational plans division who directed the planning effort while training other members of the team in the joint planning process.

“It was challenging because Africa presents a unique set of variables. It’s a huge continent, almost three times the size of the continental U.S.,” Major Lococo said. “Then there are several challenges of in-place support, lodging and logistics from one airfield to the next. We had to tackle all these issues and consider several

different scenarios. We provided U.S. Africa Command with thoroughly-developed and analyzed courses of action, and it was a great experience for our team.”

From the options presented, decision makers chose a combination of contract and military airlift. Once this decision was made, 17th planners had to then put the pieces together in terms of people and aircraft to execute the military airlift portion of the mission, Captain Johnson said. Because the 17th is a staff headquarters with no forces assigned, they had to request forces, aircraft and support from the joint staff in coordination with Africa Command.

“Because we don’t have the assets assigned that were needed for this mission, there is another level of involvement. We had to make contact and conduct extensive coordination with many different agencies. And because we had just declared initial operational capability, we are still ironing out the kinks on how to formally request forces for tasked operations,” Captain Johnson said.

Once C-17s were identified as the aircraft for the job and forces were sourced from Air Mobility Command to conduct the ground mission, there was the question of the equipment to be moved, said Master Sgt. Rich Rizzo, a logistician with 17th.

He and other members of the 17th traveled to Kigali, Rwanda, to inspect and certify the equipment for airworthiness.

“We had to gather information and work with Air Mobility and Air Force Materiel Commands to get it certified to move, ensuring it could be transported safely and effectively,” Sergeant Rizzo said.

With the team in Africa and airlift about to begin, the staff at Ramstein is pleased to see the culmination of several months work about to bear fruit, said their Commander Maj. Gen. Ronald R. Ladnier.

“This is the product of a true team effort, and we can be proud of the way our people have tenaciously planned this mission. They diligently went about gathering information and formulating the best plan, teaming with Air Mobility Command members for ground support and airlift and overcoming the challenges they encountered along the way to make it all happen,” the general said. “We’ve now started implementation of the plan and will ensure our nation can do it’s part to

support the U.N. and African Union in alleviating the suffering of so many in the Darfur region.”