The war in Iraq is over and Afghanistan is winding down. But with Iran likely on the verge of nuclear weapons and threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, al Qaeda weak but still threatening, the “Arab Spring,” unrest in Pakistan, and perpetual Arab-Israeli tension, US Air Forces Central will likely be very busy for the foreseeable future.
In fact, the air component footprint in Afghanistan will probably increase as operations evolve, just as forces in Iraq ramped up, then stabilized, before rapidly drawing down last year, according to Lt. Gen. David L. Goldfein, AFCENT commander.
In a late January interview, Goldfein said his biggest challenge today is to “posture this air component so I can provide more top cover” as ground forces depart, while simultaneously trying to “maintain the momentum of combat operations.”
It’s been a long, tough fight in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but Col. Claude Tudor, who commanded the 368th Expeditionary Air Support Operations Group until its inactivation in mid-December, said he hopes military planners can learn from both the mistakes and accomplishments in Iraq. The withdrawal from Iraq, completed weeks ahead of the Dec. 31, 2011, deadline, was one of the largest and most complex US military logistical endeavors since World War II.
All the Lanes of Movement
USAF security forces airmen conduct a patrol near Bagram AB, Afghanistan. There is no dearth of threats from insurgents.(USAF photo by TSgt. DeNoris A. Mickle)
One potential lesson learned is the advent of “flying JTACs,” or airmen with joint terminal attack controller qualifications, who are normally embedded with ground units. As the US division in northern Iraq began to redeploy last March, commanders began placing JTACs in overhead aircraft while continuing to embed others with Army units below, said Tudor. The idea was to offer extra protection to ground troops by providing redundant capability in case a convoy was attacked and communications were disrupted.
“It’s a nondoctrinal way of looking at it,” said Tudor, interviewed in Kuwait hours before the final US convoy—and its multilayered command and control architecture—rolled across the border into that country, marking the official end to the war in Iraq.
Similarly, the air support operations center in Iraq adopted a “larger operational and strategic level perspective,” another idea not found in the current doctrine that could be useful in Afghanistan.
“There are a lot of things out there they can look at to help expedite [the withdrawal] and provide that airman’s perspective into the fight,” said Tudor. He added, “We’ve created a lot of lessons learned that we are hoping the men and women in Afghanistan will look at” as they get closer to finishing the mission.
Some senior military leaders wondered whether Afghanistan’s rough, mountainous terrain would compel a ground-only departure, which would be a significant change from the Iraq model. Others predicted airpower will play a much larger role in Afghanistan, but Goldfein said he expects to utilize “all the lanes of movement” as US forces leave.
“I don’t actually see this being a [primarily] air movement,” he said. “I think it will be multimodal.”
Regardless of how that transition plays out, the US and the Middle East are moving into a new era—one where the US is committed to supporting its allies but hopes not to have to engage in multiple, simultaneous wars within the same area of operations.
Goldfein has laid out five priorities that will carry AFCENT into the future. The first is decisive airpower. The second is regional defense.
“We are responsible for pulling it all together,” he said, emphasizing that AFCENT must coordinate Navy movements, Army air defenses, Air Force command, control, and cyber capabilities, “and coalition Gulf partners.”
The third objective—”defining the base”—may prove more challenging. Goldfein said this term refers not only to physical bases sprinkled throughout the Middle East, but also US communication networks and the link architecture required to operate those networks.
However, the growth of Iran’s anti-access, area-denial capabilities threaten long-held assumptions about how the Air Force will operate in the Middle East. The US may no longer “enjoy unfettered access to close-in bases [and] US battle networks [that] would remain intact and secure,” according to Mark A. Gunzinger, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
In a recent CSBA white paper, “Outside-In: Operating From Range to Defeat Iran’s Anti-Access and Area-Denial Threats,” Gunzinger asserts that the US needs to develop a new Persian Gulf-region operational concept. This concept would assume close-in basing “may not be available, all operating domains will be contested, and Iran may threaten terror and [weapons of mass destruction] attacks, including the use of nuclear weapons, to deter or prevent a successful US military intervention in the Persian Gulf.”
Here To Stay
Lt. Gen. David Goldfein (c), Lt. Col. Richard Goodlett (l), and Maj. Gen. Russell Handy (r) on the flight line at al Asad AB, Iraq, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Goldfein recently identified five priorities to carry AFCENT into the future.(USAF photo by MSgt. Cecilio Ricardo)
However, Goldfein said the US continually re-evaluates its strategy, noting the dynamic nature of the region.
“I don’t think we ever stop and get complacent,” he said.
Goldfein’s fourth priority—engagement—also could be complicated by Iran. Gunzinger wrote that whenever possible, “Iran will seek to avoid direct confrontation with the US military” by bullying neighboring countries into denying the US permission to stage operations from their soil. He also noted, “The populations, governments, and much of the wealth of the region are remarkably concentrated in a handful of urban areas within range of Iran’s ballistic missiles.”
Regional partners are always assessing the costs and benefits of partnering with the US, Goldfein said, but as he travels the area, he emphasizes the message that America is there to stay.
He pointed out that USAF has produced air tasking orders and flown over Iraq for more than two decades, while the US Navy has been based in Bahrain since 1948.
Still, the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—are closely monitoring US and Iranian interactions. They are especially watching over the Strait of Hormuz, where escalating tensions have actually had “an incredibly strong coalescing effect” in the region as the Gulf countries partner together “to counter what they see as improper behavior” from Iran, said Goldfein.
“We’ve been able to make some significant strides and improvements in our regional strategy and our interoperability,” he said. “The region is as closely connected and tied today as it’s ever been.”
However, there are a lot of uncertainties. For example, it’s unclear whether Kuwait will be used simply as a transit point for troops (as the Kuwaiti Defense Minister said in November) or whether the US presence will settle back to levels seen before Operation Iraqi Freedom. A completely new relationship may also develop.
“That’s in discussion, and really, that’s going to be Kuwait’s decision,” said Goldfein. “We are guests in each of these countries where we are based. How we operate and what we do there is, at the end of the day, up to them to decide.”
Various press reports have suggested an additional 15,000 US troops will deploy to Kuwait to stabilize the region after the Iraq withdrawl and to act as a response force if necessary. However, Goldfein said that number sounded “a little large.”
Shaping a Partnership
An A-10 over Afghanistan, ready to refuel, jockeys into position under a KC-10 Extender. Analysts say that soon the US may no longer enjoy unfettered access to close-in bases in the Middle East.(USAF photo by SSgt. Greg Biondo)
Whatever influx of troops there has been in Kuwait has been mostly soldiers, working to inspect, clean, marshal, and ship residual equipment home from Iraq. Goldfein said the amount of material still to be dealt with is “significant.”
The US also is still “resetting” its relationship with Iraq under a new diplomatically led effort. A very small contingent of US troops—less than 200—remain in theater under the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq, a subset of the US Embassy in Baghdad. Its mission is to help build Iraq’s military through the foreign military sales program and to continue advising and assisting the Iraqi military and its leaders.
Staff Lt. Gen. Anwar Hamad Amin, commander of the Iraqi Air Force, said the end of combat operations in Iraq simply marked the beginning of a new long-term partnership with the US.
“In my opinion, I think the 31st of this month is not [the] last day [to work],” Anwar said in December 2011.
“That is [the] last day for the American withdrawal here in Iraq, but I think … 2012 … will start [a] new relationship between us,” Anwar said during a briefing for Iraqi and American media in Baghdad.
Maj. Gen. Russell J. Handy, the senior Air Force leader in Iraq from August 2010 until the last troops left in December, said at the same briefing that he hopes as part of that new relationship, the US and Iraq will participate in exercises similar to those conducted with other Middle Eastern nations.
“I think there is still much discussion to be had on exactly what that partnership will look like. As a minimum, we’ll have a large US embassy in Iraq. We will continue to have advisors, such as you see here among us today, partnering with the government of Iraq, specifically the Iraqi Air Force,” said Handy.
“What our two governments need to continue to discuss is what other things we may do, such as exercises and training events and those types of things. … I’m sure General Anwar shares that hope that we can continue to talk about that and continue to improve those types of opportunities.”
Goldfein said he foresees a “slow but gradual” buildup to where “Iraq is a full partner in all the exercises we currently have throughout the region.” Moreover, the first opportunity could be happening “fairly soon,” he said, though he cautioned there are many levels of exercises. The first such engagement could be basic, such as a group of Iraqis traveling to a base for training, or a small team of US advisors conducting a limited and specific exercise with the Iraqis.
Finally, he said, preparation will be key for any future engagement within US Central Command.
“What I tell my airmen across AFCENT is, I don’t know what’s coming next, but I do know I have until now and then to prepare for it,” said Goldfein.
|Why the Middle East Counts
A new national military strategy, unveiled at the Pentagon early this year, holds out the Middle East as one of the key areas where the US must continue to engage and maintain a presence.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said the US is at a “strategic turning point,” and the time is ripe for a reassessment of US relations with the region.
According to the strategy, which guides Pentagon planning and budgeting through 2020, “regime changes, as well as tensions within and among states under pressure to reform, introduce uncertainty for the future.”
However, “they also may result in governments that, over the long term, are more responsive to the legitimate aspirations of their people and are more stable and reliable partners of the United States.”
The new strategy acknowledges an “increasingly complex set of challenges” and places “a premium” on a continued US presence “in and around” the Middle East. Moreover, the so-called Arab Awakening, which swept through the region last year, “presents both strategic opportunities and challenges,” according to the strategy.