Undisclosed Location, Southwest Asia
Airpower has played a pivotal role in the battle against ISIS since 2014, but while coalition air strikes have gotten most of the attention, airmen of the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing (AEW) provide critical support to the fight, with airlift, electronic jamming, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations.
The 386th AEW moves some 8,000 passengers and about 8,000 tons of cargo each month for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), and that “has risen dramatically since 2014, when we stood the operation up,” wing commander Col. Charles D. Bolton told Air Force Magazine.
The unit became “the throughput for all of the logistics support starting in 2014, and it’s just steadily increased since then,” Bolton said. “We’re the ones behind the scenes, resupplying those troops … and carrying cargo for the other countries that are involved in that war as well.”
The wing’s mission is to deliver decisive airpower, through mobility airlift, providing theater basing and logistics support, and building strategic partnerships, Bolton said.
The wing also boasts electronic attack assets and remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) to provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and persistent attack.
The 386th AEW “played a major part” in staging Iraqi forces for the battle for Mosul, and as the fight shifts to Syria, “we’re supporting everybody in that effort as well,” Bolton said.
The 737th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron (EAS)—in December made up of Air National Guardsmen deployed from Peoria, Ill., and Great Falls, Mont.—provides the airlift piece of the puzzle.
SMSgt. Mike Donahue, a flight engineer, said he likes being part of the counterterrorism effort against ISIS, because taking the fight to the enemy is “doing what we train for.”
The Montana unit Donahue deployed from previously flew F-15s and had been in conversion status from 2013 to Oct. 1, 2016, so being back in the fight is “awesome,” he said.
SrA. Matt Hronek, a loadmaster also deployed from Montana, said he has enjoyed going from “just doing training all the time to coming here and doing the actual thing.”
Seeing the cargo they are moving “and who you’re actually supporting, that really helps you feel like you’re accomplishing something,” Hronek said.
Air Force Magazine rode along on a cargo flight into Camp Taji, Iraq, with a C-130 crew deployed from Illinois. The plane was loaded with passengers, luggage, blood for transfusions, ammunition, and generators.
It flew within a stone’s throw of Iran, passing over the lights and oil refinery fires of Iraq, before landing for a quick unload and reload. The flight was “about as normal as it gets,” crew members said.
Some of the passengers to and from Iraq appeared to be US Army soldiers and contractors, and Capt. Brian Nanko, copilot for the flight, said the 737th EAS transports “anybody who needs a ride, for the most part.”
SrA. Jake Dawson, flight engineer, said he enjoys seeing what cargo the crew will be transporting.
“It’s kind of exciting to see what you’re taking to these dudes to help out,” he said. “It’s a pretty good feeling.”
Nanko agreed with Dawson.
“Especially when we’re taking a bunch of ammo up there,” he said, it’s rewarding to know “those guys are getting the stuff they need.”
Donahue said he’d never realized how important some simple staples could be until this deployment.
“We’ll go to some of these bases, and you bring them a thing of cereal, and they are so happy,” he said. “I mean, one guy was almost hugging us because we brought them cereal. They don’t get that stuff.”
Though Dawson and Nanko were with an all-Peoria crew at the time of the Taji flight, both said they would be flying with Montana crews for the second part of their deployment.
The two Guard units trained together before they arrived in theater, Dawson said, and they occasionally swap aircraft, though Montana’s are 15 to 20 years older than Peoria’s, prompting some good-natured ribbing from the Illinois airmen.
The flight to Taji was the first of two trips to the same location in one night and is one of the shortest duty “days” the unit regularly flies, Nanko said. The longest, he said, is a night trip from the Southwest Asia base to al-Taqaddum, Iraq, with stops at Baghdad, Taji, and Irbil before returning. The airmen call it the “pain train.”
From Cereal to Electrons
Across the airfield, the war against ISIS is keeping the 43rd Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron in high demand.
Capt. Tim West, director of operations for the 43rd EECS, explained that in any fighting force, such as ISIS, there’s always a chain of command and a “boss” who needs to get orders and information out to his troops.
The squadron’s EC-130 Compass Call aircraft prevent “the information from getting to the boss” and “prevents the boss from ever being able to direct his forces.”
The result, West said, is “a force that can’t coordinate, can’t communicate, and really, they’re rendered obsolete in the battlespace.”
The airmen and aircraft come from Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., and when they’re not deployed, they train “every day on fighting an enemy like this,” West said.
“You have to think about what the enemy is likely to do,” he explained. “It’s not like I’m going to blow a building up and I know the effect. I’m denying information from being passed from one entity to another.”
For OIR, the jamming aircraft are “there for Iraqi forces, so if they need support,” the Compass Calls will be requested.
West said this is his second deployment to the theater for the anti-ISIS campaign. Last year, “they struggled,” West said of the Iraqi forces.
“They weren’t getting even the food they needed, they weren’t getting the weapons, ammunition. It was a difficult fight, and they weren’t super well trained.”
But “fast forward … a year-and-a-half, and they’re doing … as well as you can expect them to. They’re doing a great job.”
The EC-130s are a low-density, high-demand asset. Keeping the aircraft available and ready is particularly challenging, aircraft maintenance officer in charge 1st Lt. John Karim said, because the break rate for the highly specialized aircraft is significantly higher than for other C-130s.
The aircraft date back to 1964. They have old engines and are quite heavy but “still kicking,” he said.
The insides—rows and rows of electronics and computers—are far more up-to-date than the airframe itself.
“We’re doing wonderful, amazing things” with the aircraft, West said. The heavy pace of activity is bearable because “we’re all supporting [the Iraqi forces] and it really is … rewarding to see the impact that we have.”
West tells his airmen that the Iraqi troops are fighting for their “God and country. They’re not paid a lot; they’re not well-equipped; … they’re just trying to remove what I like to call ‘absolute evil’ from their home.”
The airmen of the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron (ERS) also provide critical support to Inherent Resolve operations by launching and landing remotely piloted aircraft.
First Lieutenant Matthew, an MQ-1 pilot, said he and his fellow airmen perform takeoffs and landings every day for operators based in the US. (The Air Force does not release the full names of RPA operators for security reasons.)
Though Stateside pilots fly the missions, it is crucial to have specially trained pilots in theater as well.
While the Stateside operators communicate with the RPAs via satellite, “When you’re flying from here, we’re just using straight, line-of-sight frequencies,” creating a quicker and more reliable control link, Matthew said.
“It just comes down to a delay, and when you’re taking off and landing a plane, you can’t have a delay, because you’re going to crash the plane,” he explained.
Lieutenant Colonel Troy, commander of the 46th ERS, commented that the takeoffs and landings all assist OIR and is “a great mission for the RPA guys.”
“We’re leading the edge on the battlefield, and the guys are supporting that, so it’s very exciting for them,” Troy said. “They get very motivated, and the way that we’ve been able to push our flexibility has been pretty awesome.”
Matthew said he thinks “everyone here would agree that we feel great about [the mission], because without us it doesn’t happen, so we feel like the tip of the spear,” and when the airmen “have a purpose, it’s amazing what they’ll do. And it’s amazing what they’ll do when you just say, ‘I need you to go do this,’ and just let them go do it.”
The wing is about a 60/40 mix of Active Duty to Guard and Reserve, from all over the US.
“We’ve accomplished a lot in the six months that I’ve been here,” he said. “To be forward deployed and working side by side for six months is unique and interesting, and it just shows you how far our Air Force has come.”
Iraqi forces have also come a long way, he said, with what the airmen describe as support—but not hand-holding—from the US wing.
“We’re providing the bulk of the air support for them, but they have a pretty robust army aviation force as well as their air force. They’re flying every day as well,” said Bolton, the 386th wing commander.
“What gives me hope for the future is that they will get to the point where they can sustain themselves and do this on their own, and we’re seeing it now,” Bolton said. “I mean, we really are a very small, small force on the ground with them, … behind the scenes, just helping them, but they’re the ones planning it, executing it.”