Adventures in Bare Bones Basing

Oct. 1, 2003

Throughout Gulf War II, coalition forces used Iraqi territory to maximum advantage. Land forces bypassed major cities and took to the open desert to avoid bottlenecks on the march to Baghdad. Coalition air forces, meanwhile, set up shop at captured airfields. This latter step pushed Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and allied aircraft much closer to the action.

Take the case of Tallil, a facility near Nasiriyah. It was among the first air bases to be captured and put to coalition use. The distance between Baghdad and Tallil is about one-third of that between Baghdad and either al Udeid AB, Qatar, or Prince Sultan AB, Saudi Arabia, two key coalition air bases.

Aircraft flying out of Tallil could get on station faster and stay there longer. Tallil, thus, became a prime staging point for various aircraft, notably A-10 fighters and C-130 transports.

Deploying airpower quickly to Tallil became a high priority for US Central Command, which wanted a forward operating location (FOL) that would permit aircraft and helicopters to more effectively support ground forces as they advanced toward Baghdad.

Setting up Tallil was an adventure in bare bones basing. Even before the war, the air base was in disrepair. However, just for good measure, Iraqi forces had sabotaged it, too. Runways were blocked. Inside buildings, wiring had been pulled from the walls. Outside roamed about 500 wild, hungry dogs, living in trenches that Iraqi soldiers had dug on the base grounds.

Before it could commence operations, the coalition air component had to turn this husk of an air base into a functional expeditionary location. Tallil needed everything, quickly, but it lay in a section of Iraq where fighting still raged and where supply lines were insecure and under frequent attack.

That did not stop the base builders. The first Air Force officer arrived on March 26. Four days later, aircraft began to land at Tallil for stopovers. Only three days after that, the base began bedding down its own contingent of A-10s.

Because they were so close to the battlefield action, the Warthogs were able to destroy roughly 1,100 targets in the major combat phase of Gulf War II. These targets included tanks, armored vehicles, munitions storage bunkers, and parked aircraft. The primary mission of the A-10 was to provide close air support to Army and Marine units as they approached Baghdad.

Enduring Challenge

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US, the Air Force has had plenty of experience setting up bases in remote locations. For Operation Enduring Freedom—the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan—USAF established and operated dozens of expeditionary bases, in locations that typically lacked basic utilities and services.

Officials say that Bagram Air Base (in Afghanistan) and Manas Air Base (in Kyrgyzstan), became vital Air Force sites as a result of the labor of airmen who arrived early in the war and rapidly built the new setups.

As later analysis showed, however, USAF lacked the equipment to run these forward bases in the most effective manner. The service failed to anticipate the need to set up so many FOLs in a short time, according to an Air Force report.

Task Force Enduring Look, charged with quickly identifying lessons from the global war on terror, determined in an October 2002 report on airfield operations that Enduring Freedom unexpectedly pushed requirements to maximum surge levels. Consequently, airfield operations elements “deployed to the theaters of operation with ailing 1970s-era equipment (1950s-era for Air National Guard), a deficient concept of operations, and separate management controls for personnel and equipment,” said the report.

Specific problems included sporadic availability of airfield lighting and radar systems and unreliable supply lines. In Iraq, these problems would recur.

Lt. Col. Dave Kennedy, commander of the 110th Operations Group at al Jaber AB, Kuwait, was the man responsible for turning Tallil into a base. On March 23, three days after the start of the war, Kennedy got word the Air Force needed the base.

At first, flying from Tallil “seemed back burner,” he said, but the urgency of the mission continued to build. He deployed into Iraq March 26.

Kennedy is also a Michigan Air National Guard A-10 pilot, based at Battle Creek’s W.K. Kellogg Airport. When he arrived as the first member of the Air Force contingent, he found Tallil to be in a shocking state of disrepair.

Starting From Scratch

Tallil was “absolute bare bones,” Kennedy said. The base was in Operation Southern Watch’s no-fly zone, so the Iraqis had been unable to use it since the 1991 Gulf War. It showed. There was no power, no water, no supplies, not even any windows in any of the buildings. Twelve years of sandstorms had dumped a layer of sand onto everything left behind.

Further, the Iraqis went out of their way to make Tallil unusable. Example: To prevent quick restoration of Tallil’s airstrips, the Iraqi forces buried destroyed vehicles under sand every 100 feet along the runways.

From the time it was captured, Tallil served as an Army encampment. Troops had to clear the runways of vehicle carcasses, but even after the strips had been cleared, Army units had to be ordered not to park tanks on the runways.

American forces also found that hundreds of Iraqis, who described themselves as “caretakers,” had been living on the base and in its underground tunnels. “It was obvious there were people living all over the place,” said Maj. Keir Knapp, part of the initial USAF contingent at Tallil. However, by the time the Air Force arrived, security forces had cleared out the squatters.

Another problem was unexploded ordnance. Retreating Iraqi troops had scattered all kinds of weapons around the base. As the Air Force presence at Tallil increased, disposal became critical, and not just to clear out a munitions storage area. Kennedy said a British tracked vehicle hit a mine. In one of the hangars, Iraqi troops had booby-trapped a door with a rocket propelled grenade wedged under the hangar door.

Despite Tallil’s sorry initial state, the coalition quickly ramped up operations.

Kennedy reported that fighting outside the base gates continued for several days after he arrived, and the battle for Nasiriyah continued unabated the entire time the Michigan Guard was there. There was no water on base except for that which people brought with them. As a result, fire trucks had to venture to town for water.

The base, with its large Army and security force presence, was nominally secure, but “could [the Iraqis] have lobbed in mortars or rockets? Absolutely,” Kennedy said.

The Air Force presence quickly increased. About 50 airmen from al Jaber arrived to erect a tent city. By the third day, about 100 people were setting up aircraft fuel bladders, repairing taxiways, building berms, and completing runway work.

Plans called for Tallil to go operational within two weeks. However, the first aircraft arrived just 12 hours after Kennedy received notice that flight operations would begin—about 10 days earlier than expected.

On April 2, Tallil became host to its own detachment of A-10s from Battle Creek, via al Jaber.

Lights Out

Kennedy reported that Tallil operated without radar and that the lack of reliable lighting “was an issue at first.” For the first week of operations, Tallil carried out daylight operations only, until a light system could be installed. Even that was not perfect, however. For nighttime operations, if an aircraft was not night- vision-goggle capable, airmen “had to run down to the runway” to turn the lighting system on, then turn it off again so that the NVG aircraft could land.

Another problem at Tallil was logistical support. The report noted that, for Enduring Freedom, it was “very difficult to receive equipment and parts in the field,” including radios, boots, weapons, and spare parts. Kennedy confirmed that the Air Force was to a large degree limited to using what it brought along to Tallil.

The supply lines were extremely strained. On three occasions, Air Force personnel at Tallil were denied either food or water from convoys.

The A-10 was ideally suited for these austere conditions, Kennedy said, so parts issues weren’t nearly as critical as they might have been for other aircraft. The Warthog is “built for that,” he said. “It’s rugged. It’s very easy to maintain.” He noted that A-10s also operate from Bagram, which was similarly rough around the edges.

Rapid establishment of Tallil as an FOL paid off in big ways. The A-10s were in place to support the Army’s drive toward Baghdad, and Tallil devoted most of its sorties to the close air support mission. Kennedy said, “I don’t know of any [A-10] pilots who didn’t at least stop over” at Tallil during the war.

The base now serves as a key logistical center to support residual coalition military forces with food, fuel, water, bullets, and other supplies. It is also used for the import and distribution of humanitarian and medical aid for Iraqis.

Airmen deployed to Tallil now are using air traffic control landing systems, called “an airport in a suitcase,” to help aircraft land safely in low-visibility conditions.

Despite its initial deficiencies, Tallil boasts two good size parallel runways, so “down the road, when they get that place fixed up, it will be an outstanding facility,” Kennedy said.