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January 16, 2008— Incorporating advanced technology continues to play a vital role in defeating anti-coalition elements in Afghanistan and Iraq, but can also be a limiting factor in operations if coalition partners do not grow in capability commensurately, Lt. Gen. Gary North, the top Air Force general in the region, said Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

For example, take Link 16, he said, referring to the digital system that allows pilots to share information easily between cockpits and with command centers and ground personnel. With it, they can have a common understanding of the air and ground picture.

“That catch is, if you are in a coalition fight and you don’t have Link 16 or Link 16 compatibility, you are behind the power curve,” North said while speaking Jan. 15 as part of the 2008 Air Force Defense Strategy Seminar Series. “It is more difficult for air component commanders and the joint force commander to integrate those people that are lacking this capacity into the battleplan. They can hinder operations and they can slow it down.”

Indeed, he said, “it may be even that, in the near future, if you don’t have the link, then the air component commander with either put you on the side of the fight or relegate you to the back 40. So the bottom line is that we have got to work the link because it is one of those key enabling steps for the future.”

Such issues are why building partnership capacity and sharing technology in the region is so important, said North, who has led US Central Command Air Forces and 9th Air Force since February 2006 and is responsible for managing the coalition air campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Horn of Africa.

Theater security cooperation, he said, is “most important fruit that we can pull from the tree.” Allowing partners in the Middle east access to US technology helps these nations to prepare to defend themselves and allows them to train and fight effectively with the United States, he said.

It also goes a long way toward building bonds of friendships and trust with these nations, which is “extremely vital” to relationships in the Middle East, he said.

When asked if he had concerns about the pending sale of Joint Direct Attack Munitions to Saudi Arabia, North said he had “none whatsoever.”

“They are incredible aviators,” he said of his Saudi counterparts. “I am proud to serve alongside them as part of the greater coalition.”

Building Air Forces
North also said the Air Force continues to assist the fledgling Afghan and Iraq air forces in their buildup and modernization.

“We the Air Force, have never really since Vietnam, had the capability to work with nations on the scale of which we are doing,” he said.

About 200 airmen are in Iraq today in four locations involved in these activities under the Combined Air Force Transition Team, North said. By year’s end, that number is expected to double.

Roughly120 airmen are doing similar work in Afghanistan under the Combined Airpower Transition Team, he said. The Air Force is programmed to increase this force to 200, if required, he said.

The Iraqi Air Force is already conducting combat sorties with its own equipment and supporting Iraqi ground forces and flying overwatch of critical infrastructure, North said.

The Iraqi government intends to earmark about $1 billion a year for its air force starting next year as its solidifies its long-term plans, he said. The Iraqi approach is to develop an airlift capability and airborne ISR platforms initially. The next step would be to field light attack aircraft and then, perhaps around 2011 or 2012, some type of fighter aircraft, he said.

Already the IAF flies Cessna 208 ISR airplanes and is taking delivery of eight Beechcraft King Air 350 airplanes, also for surveillance. The Air Force is working with the Iraqis to weaponize these platforms, North said.

New Systems + Eyeballs
In other matters, CENTAF also is looking forward this spring to the introduction of the Laser JDAM in the theater so that US aircraft have the means “to strike with precision something that is moving extremely fast,” he said.

North said he expects to have B-1Bs in theater equipped with targeting pods that will be able to stream live video down to air operations centers and ground-attack controllers.

Since full-motion video is a bandwidth hog, there remains the need to come up with ways to create more of it or make more efficient use of the existing supply, he said.

But as important as FMV is, it is the intelligence analyst who goes through the images and assigns value to them that is key, he said.

“Despite all of our technology, it still takes the human eye and the inquisitive source to be able to make the difference. We have not yet found a substitute for the Mk. 1 eyeball.”

North also said counter-IED efforts are having an impact.

“IED attacks are down by half,” he said. “Effective attacks are down by half. Casualties are down by half over what they were six months ago.”