Seventeenth Air Force took an opportunity to reconnect with its
heritage recently when retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Heflebower met with senior leadership at the newly reactivated unit’s headquarters here Feb. 3.
General Heflebower was the last commander of 17th AF before its inactivation at Sembach Air Base in August 1996.
The retired flag officer has continued to work with the Air Force as a senior mentor, offering his wealth of experience as a consultant with a defense contractor. He is currently working with U.S. European Command as a senior mentor for the Austere Challenge exercise series.
During an official visit to Third Air Force, the general capitalized on the chance to meet with 17th AF leaders and learn about the new incarnation of his old unit, which had a very different mission in the mid 1990s.
“Our mission covered a fairly broad spectrum, to include Africa, interestingly enough,” he said. “But we were organized under a different principle than the numbered air forces are today. Then, our focus was to support (U.S. Air Forces in Europe). We were coming out of the Cold War and focused very much on central Europe.” This focus also included a role as NATO’s Combined Air Operations Center 3 for Europe at Sembach and ranged from supporting initiatives like Partnership for Peace and capacity-building activities to supporting stabilization operations in Bosnia through reception and throughput of forces.
Today, 17th AF is the air component for U.S. Africa Command and serves operationally as U.S. Air Forces Africa. The unit, which was reactivated Oct. 1, is aligned under U.S. Africa Command operationally and under USAFE administratively, though USAFE doesn’t align under U.S. Africa Command.
This new organizational construct reflects the challenges and capabilities of today’s operational environment and the opportunities that come with it, the general said.
“We were not an air component to a combatant command, which is the biggest difference, but rather reported directly to the USAFE commander, who reported to European Command,” General Heflebower said. “Today, our NAFs operate under a different organizational structure. And frankly, we have capabilities today that we did not have then. Seventeenth Air Force and AFRICOM are going to go places where other commands have not gone before. People assigned to 17th Air Force will have an opportunity to grow and experience things and take part in activities that are just not part of the mission at other numbered air forces. “
An in-depth mission briefing and hour-long discussion with leaders of the “new” 17th AF left the general with a favorable impression of the unit’s progress and leadership’s vision and approach to building the unit.
“The men and women of 17th AF have certainly been dealt a winning hand with the leadership here, the conditions have been set for success,” said the general, who has known 17th AF Commander Maj. Gen. Ronald R. Ladnier for many years. He added that the combination of air mobility and special operations backgrounds in the commander and vice commander is visionary.
Leadership across 17th are well prepared, forward-looking and optimistic, the general said.
General Heflebower toured 17th in the midst of ongoing construction, furniture delivery and communications equipment installation.
“This is all part of establishing a new organization – a new command and control organization,” General Heflebower said. “From what I can see, the command is exactly where it should be and right on track toward full operational capability. With appropriate support from the Air Force, they will make it.”
As the men and women of 17th AF press forward in this endeavor, they can certainly look to their
heritage for inspiration, said General Heflebower, but they must also focus on the future.
“Be proud of the patch, and those who came before you,” General Heflebower said. “This is a unit that stood through some of the darkest days of the Cold War as we faced down the Warsaw Pact, and certainly had a hand in winning the Cold War. But you also have to define your own organizational identity and look to the future. I really anticipate great things from this organization and from U.S. Africa Command. I only wish I could stay and live through it with you.”
Seventeenth Air Force Chief of Staff Col. Keith Cunningham, who took part in the meeting, said 17th AF will benefit from General Heflebower’s perspective and experience.
“We appreciated his insight on how we are building our component numbered air force,” the colonel said. “With his experience and credibility, having him take a look at what we are building, in terms of an AFFOR staff and tailored air operations center, was very beneficial. His perspective was invaluable.”
The men and women of “Team Pegasus” will soon have another chance to benefit from the general’s wisdom and experience.
General Heflebower has agreed to be the guest speaker at the unit’s April dining-in.