Dubai Air Show

Top brass (ret.) sees USAF in Iraq long term

 - December 6, 2006, 1:40 PM

Recently retired U.S. Air Force chief of staff Gen. John Jumper has just lived through a tumultuous tour of duty. Little did he know where the job might take him on his first day in office, which was more than a little disrupted by the events that morning. The date was Sept. 11, 2001.

Jumper had no idea that he would end up leading the USAF into major air campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. He probably had no inkling of the problems he would then face in trying to juggle all the tasks associated with maintaining a wartime operational tempo with the branch’s current inventory of aircraft, managing the ups and downs of procurement scandals such as the Boeing/Darlene Druyun tanker contract affair, and keeping the service’s next-generation programs on course, like the Lockheed-Martin (LM) F/A-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

But this September and nearly four years later, on his official last day at the helm, he was able to do for his successor, Gen. Michael Moseley, what he undoubtedly wishes his predecessor could have done for him: leave a clear roadmap of the USAF’s responsibilities into the near future.

Jumper’s interviews and statements during his final days in office make it clear that U.S. fighter aircraft and reconnaissance platforms will fly support missions for the troops on the ground in Iraq–be they U.S. and coalition units or Iraqi security forces–for some time to come.

“As I see the transition into the hands of the Iraqi military, I will continue to see the need for them to require the support from the air until they’re able to set up their own ability to support themselves,” General Jumper told reporters during a recent Pentagon briefing. “And that’s going to take a while, even after some future withdrawal of ground forces.”

Jumper’s position reflects the reality that USAF units will have to remain in country to support Iraqi units long after coalition ground forces have turned over the task of fighting the insurgency to the Iraqis.

A few weeks before his retirement date, Jumper spoke even more directly about the future role for the USAF in Iraq. “We will continue with a rotational presence of some type in that area more or less indefinitely,” he said. “We have interests in that part of the world and an interest in staying in touch with the militaries over there.”

One reason seems obvious–that Iraq has no air force and probably won’t for some time. The U.S. and its coalition partners can stand up new Iraqi ground forces that will eventually take the place of allied forces because an ocean of armored vehicles, small arms, support equipment–much of it of Soviet origin–remains from the Saddam Hussein regime to equip them.

But the Iraqis buried in the desert what was left of the Iraqi Air Force since 1991 in a vain effort to save it from destruction. In fact, the desert elements ruined most of them. To create an Iraqi air force would mean starting completely from scratch–a much more expensive prospect than training ground forces. So, for now, only the USAF can provide air support for the new Iraqi units.

Meanwhile, no one yet has found a way to solve the problem of improvised exploding devices (IEDs) in Iraq, creating a huge political problem for the Bush Administration as the U.S. death toll surpasses 2,000. Senior members of the U.S. Congress have pressured the Pentagon to find a way to detect and neutralize such weapons, and the number of casualties that they produce only increases the sense of urgency and frustration.

IED countermeasures have received priority funding–along with buying equipment to protect troops against them–“because it is not USAF or Navy pilots being killed in Iraq, but Ma and Pa Kettle’s son who was in the Reserves,” said a Washington, D.C. diplomat. “Much of the public’s perception of whether or not the war in Iraq is worth the cost may come down to how the IED issue is or is not resolved.”

A more near-term solution, which could become one of the chief missions for the USAF in Iraq, involves the use of Lockheed Martin Sniper targeting pod on F-16 fighters to detect insurgent teams as they position and arm IEDs and before they camouflage and hide them under a roadway. Defense analysts looking at the IED problem have suggested that such preventive detection might prove an easier and more effective solution than costly ground-based countermeasures.