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Air Base transitions a vital link to partner capacity

  • Published
  • By Col. David Blanks
  • 321st Expeditionary Mission Support Advisory Group
A new emphasis came to Iraq with the start of Operation New Dawn Sept. 1, 2010.

As Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III, United States Forces - Iraq commanding general, stated in his Operational Guidance memorandum of Oct. 4, 2010, "Our role is to advise, train, assist and equip [Iraqi Security Forces] so that they can provide internal security with a foundational capability to defend against external threats."

Inherent in the advise, train, assist and equip mission is the transfer of bases from U.S. forces' control to Iraqi Security Forces, which is the key mission for the men and women of the Iraq Train and Advisory Mission - Air Force.

However, handing over an air base is not as simple as passing along keys to buildings and property to the IqAF with the hope that everything will just work out. Instead, it's a systematic and orderly process to cover everything from perimeter security and basic life support, to airfield operations. A myriad of details must be taken into account to prepare the IqAF for full-fledged air base operations.

To assist ITAM-AF with these transitions, a Base Transition Team concept of operations was drafted and approved by Brig. Gen. Scott Hanson, the ITAM-AF director during 2010.

While images of flying aircraft are great signs of progress, the BTT concept of operations lays out a philosophy of responsibly transferring air base operations from U.S. forces to their Iraqi counterparts. At the core is a model that revolves around three concepts: assessment, execution, and sustainment.

In the assessment stage, Iraqi requirements and capabilities for a given air base are defined across the full spectrum of air base operations. With a solid idea of what the given mission will be and current capabilities, the actual execution to transfer requisite air base functions, along with training, ensues.

Never satisfied to just "give and forget," ITAM-AF and IqAF continually sustain organic capabilities with an eye towards constant improvement through spiral development. The cycle exists and repeats in parallel for all air base operation functions until U.S. forces depart the base.

Performing the heart and soul of air base transfers are ITAM-AF's BTTs.

Operating under the 321st Expeditionary Mission Support Advisory Group within ITAM-AF, BTTs are ideally composed of six Air Force members representing a variety of functional specialties.

Retaining the ability to reach back to ITAM-AF and beyond, the BTT mission is simply to transfer the space, infrastructure and responsibility of/for airbases from U.S. to Iraqi Air Force control.

ITAM-AF currently oversees six teams based at Kirkuk Regional Air Base, Tikrit Air Base, New Al-Muthana and Hawk bases on Victory Base Complex, Camp Taji, Ali Air Base, and a traveling BTT to cover emerging Iraqi Air Force basing considerations.

Kirkuk Regional Air Base
At Kirkuk Regional Air Base, also known as Al-Hurriya Air Base, the BTT has worked on a number of projects, to include life support and operational support capability. In some cases, BTT advisors have specific skills they teach their Iraqi counterparts. Tech. Sgt. James Rila, a combat communications specialist, taught the Al-Hurriya communications unit how to use laptops to program their land mobile radios, resulting in more than 50 radios being used for command and control of the base. The IqAF communications section is now able to independently and successfully program their radios without assistance.

In other cases, BTT advisors draw on education and experience to assist in areas completely outside their career field. Most recently, the Kirkuk BTT logistics advisor, Capt. Tyson Daw, and Senior Airman Andrew Knapp, an airborne communications specialist, advised and assisted the Iraqis as they completed construction of a water purification and bottling plant.

The result was a working water bottling plant, providing quality drinking water to the nearly 1,000 IqAF members assigned to the base, and eliminating dependence on U.S.-provided water. Small steps are quickly adding up to the IqAF ability to conduct fully independent operations and contributing to Iraq's ability to defend itself.

Tikrit Air Base
Tikrit Air Base is the traditional home of the Iraq Air Force College. The re-opening of the IqAF College coinciding with the start of Operation New Dawn was a source of national pride for cadets who are groomed for future leadership positions.

Yet, much work has, and continues, to occur behind the scenes to transfer Tikrit to the IqAF. The BTT worked closely with the local army garrison to identify and prioritize which facilities were needed for the college.

Following the Foreign Excess Personal Property and Tiered-Authority processes, the Tikrit garrison has completed the physical transfer of more than 30 buildings and associated real estate to the Government of Iraq.

"With each successive transfer, our partners take on greater responsibility for themselves and see even more potential for educating and training their cadets," said lead college advisor, Lt. Col. James Hall, a U.S. Air Force Academy aeronautics professor.

Advising on basic life support, BTT member Staff Sgt. Bryan Evans works with his Iraqi partners as they operate and maintain generators to keep their living and eating areas powered.

"Here you know you're making a difference - that is very rewarding for advisors and our partners," explained the power production technician deployed from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.

As Tikrit Air Base prepares to transfer completely to the Iraqis by the end of 2011, advisors will continue to work issues ranging from security to air traffic control to medical care, continually building partner capacity.

New Al-Muthana Air Base
Flying C-130 cargo and King Air 350 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft is the primary operational mission for the IqAF based at New Al-Muthana Air Base located within the Victory Base Complex surrounding Baghdad International Airport.
Transfer, refurbishment and new construction of facilities are on-going at NAMAB, enabling the Iraqi Air Force to fly missions.

"We've worked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the garrison, our own air expeditionary groups and whomever we need to in order for the Iraqis to develop mission capacity," explained NAMAB BTT Chief, Capt. James Ford, a logistician by trade.

And while the glamorous piece of the mission can be flying, the Iraqis have learned to tackle basic issues such as medical care and garbage disposal. To that end, the BTTs interact on a near- daily basis with senior Iraqi base leadership. In some cases, it presents unique challenges for Airmen like Tech. Sgt. Amy Everhard, a communications NCO serving on a 365-day deployment.

"As a woman in a patriarchal society, I was initially worried about how I would be perceived," she said. "But, as I interact with the Iraqis from junior to senior levels, I am respected for my knowledge and expertise."

Camp Taji
About 20 miles to the east of NAMAB lies Camp Taji where the Iraqi Air Force hosts its Air Force Training School and Iraqi Army Aviation Command flies the bulk of their helicopter missions.

With the majority of the infrastructure having already been transferred to the Government of Iraq to meet these mission sets, the Taji BTT has worked closely on new construction projects totaling $21 million.

Iraq's newest hangar for its fleet of Mi-17 helicopters will have its ribbon cutting in January, and a new $1.2 million squadron operations building will open in March this year.

"Great new facilities are coming on line, but the Iraqis are always looking to refine their capabilities too," added Capt. Chris Beaver, Taji BTT lead.

From supply to facility maintenance, the BTTs do more than just work daily tactical issues. The teams also take the long term view, advising Iraqis to develop solutions for immediate needs while anticipating future concerns. Such a focus will remain vital as Taji continues to transition to full Iraqi control.

Ali Air Base
In less than six months from concept to first mission, the IqAF moved its fleet of seven CH-2000 aircraft and associated ISR mission from Basrah to Ali Air Base. Without the due diligence of the Ali BTT, its sister unit the 407th Air Expeditionary Group, and a determined U.S. Army Garrison, it is unlikely this air base transition would be anything more than a concept.

"With little funding on either the U.S. or Iraqi side, I am impressed that a group of U.S. Airmen from different bases and a wide variety of Air Force specialty codes provided Iraqi leadership advice and support on airfield management, facility maintenance and basic life support," said Capt. Jimmy Hernandez, Ali BTT member. "We got to solve problems. We challenged the Iraqis to solve problems and the mission is up and running. Now, that is rewarding."

After transferring 50 containers of excess U.S. materiel, 39 buildings and associated support equipment, the Iraqis now have their initial "air patch" at Ali Air Base. Over the remainder of 2011, the Iraqi Air Force will assume full control of Ali Air Base.

The challenge: Advise - Train - Assist - Equip. Finding the balance within those four areas, laying out the pieces and parts such that the Iraqi Air Force and Iraqi Army Aviation Command are ready to conduct sustained air operations on their air fields will define the final year of Operation New Dawn.

ITAM-AF using the BTT concept of operations and BTTs will facilitate the transition confidently, knowing the IqAF / IqAAC will have the tools, equipment, training, and knowledge to conduct the full spectrum of air base operations.