WASHINGTON — As the American presence in Iraq draws down, the Air Force mission in the nation likely will increase, said Maj. Gen. Russell J. Handy.
Handy, the commander of the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force and director of the Air Component Coordination Element in Iraq, discussed the Air Force mission in Iraq and the way forward.
“We have to continue doing the same things we’ve been doing support-wise that we have been doing through the entire transition,” the general said.
The command is responsible for coordinating and enabling air operations in the country.
“As we continue to draw down the land component, we will continue to fly cover overhead,” Handy said.
He said he anticipates the number of Air Force sorties will trend up in the next few months to cover the drawdown. This includes the full range of missions, from close-air support to strategic airlift, he said.
It also entails armed overwatch of U.S. troops conducting partnered operations with Iraqi forces and aiding U.S. forces as they defend installations and protect convoys.
And intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance “is a huge part of our mission area, and we will continue to fly that,” he said.
Some 46,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq today, and all are set to leave by the end of the year as part of the U.S.-Iraq security agreement signed in 2008.
This will mean an influx of mobility forces coming into Iraq, Handy said.
“That is a growth area for the Air Force (in Iraq) between now and the end of the year as we start to pull forces out,” he said. “We will need a lot of airlift.”
This is not just C-130 Hercules tactical airlift, but involves larger C-17 Globemaster III and C-5 Galaxy transport jets. These aircraft will require tanker aircraft and other support, so this will be a busy time for Airmen in country, Handy
Meanwhile, the general said, the command is in the process of turning over air bases to the Iraqi air force. In addition, the Air Force has a number of units and individual Airmen embedded with Army units in Iraq.
“These Airmen are engineers, security forces, intelligence professionals and medics,” Handy said.
Also, a number of Airmen are working with experts at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to rebuild the Iraqi transportation system.
“They need to build that from the ground up — from radars and communications linkages to training air traffic controllers — and to fit all that together,” Handy said.
The Airmen have been transferring “chunks” of Iraqi airspace to the Iraqis for the
past two years and the Air Force is responsible for a small segment at lower altitudes of central Iraq.
“Our requirements through the end of the year won’t go down, and in some cases will increase,” the general said. The command will do that in combination with Air Force units from outside the country.
Handy’s command also assists the Iraqi air force and the Iraqi army’s aviation command.
The U.S. Air Force partners with Iraqi airmen where it can.
“We do partner, advise, assist and train with the Iraqis in every mission area within their capabilities,” Handy said.
As Iraqi capabilities increase, U.S. Airmen pull back, the general said. For example, he said, the Iraqis operate their own tactical airlift program with no U.S. involvement.
The Iraqis have run the C-130 squadron on their own since 2009, the general said.
In addition, the Air Force partners with the Iraqis in intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance platforms.
The Iraqi military has a fledgling ISR capability that has, despite its newness, had significant operational successes.
“We partner with them at the squadron and on the ground, and in the operations center to integrate that ISR,” Handy said.
The Air Force element in Iraq partners with all levels of the Iraqi air force, from the air college in Tikrit to initial pilot training “and just about everything in between,” the general said.
The American force does not partner with the Iraqis on fixed-wing close-air support, the general said, because the Iraqis do not have that capability yet.
Much remains to be done in Iraq, Handy said, but his command, too, will leave by the end of the year. He said he anticipates that the Office of Security Cooperation in the U.S. Embassy will continue to work with the Iraqi military as the Iraqi air force continues to grow.