Squarely in the middle of this bucolic scene, however, one finds Joint Base Balad, the largest Air Force hub in Iraq and the focus of support activity for the Multinational Force-Iraq. Out by Balad’s east entry control point, just over a bridge spanning an irrigation canal, a string of watchtowers and checkpoints line the road approaching the base. About 700 locals a day pass onto the facility for work, and all have to be checked and screened by the security forces.
"We keep an eye out for people who come up to the gate who might be injured, and make sure people are where they need to be," said SSgt. Joseph Howard, standing watch at the approach. When not helping manage the arrival of locals, Howard and his security forces teammates keep a steady eye on the farmlands and berms to either side of the entry point. Most days, things are fairly calm, Howard said.
The future and nature of the US combat mission in Iraq has been ceaselessly debated, but violence in Baghdad is down 90 percent from the worst months of 2006, according to US officials. It is down 80 percent across the entire country.
The number of American combat troops in Iraq has returned to pre-surge levels. Another 8,000 troops are scheduled to leave soon. But MNF-I officials report that several vital military and support missions will remain the work of the US and its allies. A reliable logistical infrastructure is needed to support Iraqi security forces, as are high-tech intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance and armed close air support flights. This job falls mainly to US airpower forces.
Operations in Iraq are taking on a new and less violent character. "I would say that ‘weapons dropped’ is probably not the best measure for how we’re performing in this [counterinsurgency] environment," said Maj. Gen. David E. Clary, director of MNF-I’s Air Component Coordination Element.
Clary said coalition efforts in the country demand a wide range of airpower assets—from tactical airlift for Iraqi forces and delegations, to aeromedical evacuation, to the seemingly insatiable need for ISR support.
Key to these efforts are the airmen and aircraft that make up the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Balad, the most forward deployed wing now engaged in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The base exists side by side with the town of Balad, predominantly Shiite, situated on the Tigris about 42 miles north of Baghdad. Balad lies on the edge of the Sunni Triangle—the homeland of former dictator Saddam Hussein and nexus of the Sunni-based insurgency against US forces.
Balad—once known as al-Bakr Air Base—boasts two 11,000-foot runways. Today, Joint Base Balad is the busiest of the Defense Department’s many aerial port operations.
A melange of concrete, trailers, and faded outbuildings remains from the days when Balad was a training site for Saddam Hussein’s air force. In June, the base’s support functions were shifted from the Army to the Air Force, leaving USAF in charge of food service, lodging, vehicle operations, and base construction, defense, and upkeep. This is no small task—the Air Force is now responsible for more than 30,000 troops, contractors, and other personnel.
According to the Air Force, the base on an average month processes more than 950 transport aircraft, 12,000 tons of cargo, and 19,000 passengers. The wing is home to approximately 8,000 airmen performing a wide range of critical missions in the country, from combat search and rescue to tactical airlift, ISR, and close air support.
From a perch atop the base’s main tower, one catches a glimpse of an F-16 fighter taxiing on its way to the far end of the runway. Here, Col. Michael A. Fantini, commander of the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group, explains the daily operations tempo and various missions. Fantini oversees a large portfolio of assets at Balad—F-16s, C-130s, MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, and HH-60 Pave Hawk rescue helicopters. "The big red wheel never stops turning," he said.
For one thing, the base hosts the largest group of CSAR helicopters deployed abroad since the Vietnam War, Fantini noted. On Balad’s south ramp, the high-pitch sound of jet engines indicates another F-16 sortie is heading out for a morning "vulnerability period"—a standard mission over Iraq nowadays. In these "vuls," the F-16s will fly missions ranging from infrastructure protection to armed overwatch and protecting convoy operations.
The CAS Surge
In November, F-16s stationed at the 332nd AEW flew approximately 40 close air support missions a day. But unlike their counterparts in Afghanistan, ordnance drops were a rarity. While bombs may be dropping in much smaller numbers than in the dark days of 2007, the pace of operations remains brisk due to one large demand—the need for overwatch.
Iraq is a large country, and even with 150,000 US troops in place, the demand for intelligence, and the ability to quickly act on it, has not diminished.
"The biggest difference is the lack of kinetics," said Lt. Col. Miles DeMayo, an F-16 pilot deployed from Shaw AFB, S.C., and commander of the 55th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron. "Whether it’s counter-IED [improvised explosive device] missions [or] armed overwatch, ... we’re the eye in the sky [but we also] have that rapid response capability" for when someone needs help fast.
Back in the summer of 2007, when the surge began squeezing enemy forces in Iraq, CAS strikes peaked with 303 drops against insurgents in July. Today, that number has dwindled to a handful.
Two days before a reporter’s visit to Balad, an F-16 dropped GBU-38s onto enemy fighters hiding in a building near the town of Baqubah, where they were firing rocket-propelled grenades at coalition forces. It was the first such air strike that week.
"We track convoys, ISR stuff, [and] we make sure, if there’s any threat behind or in front of convoys, we know what it is," said Capt. Adam Hafez, an F-16 pilot deployed to Balad with the 55th EFS.
In short, pilots spend much time making sure that ground commanders and coalition officials know where the bad guys are at all times. And "armed overwatch" means the aircraft can quickly deliver ordnance on an enemy’s head, if that is required.
Keeping ready a fleet of fighters and weapons in the middle of a harsh desert brings inherent challenges. Aircraft are prone to malfunction in Iraq’s extreme climate and dusty conditions.
"The dirt and sand get everywhere," said TSgt. Jason Fitts, an armaments crew member with the 55th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Unit. "We [may not] fire a lot of rounds and drop a lot of bombs [these days, but] we still have to upload" munitions and still have to take them off and return the weapons to storage.
"We tear [munitions] down and build them up on a 180-day cycle," said Capt. Mark Ashman, a munitions flight commander deployed from the 23rd Wing at Moody AFB, Ga. "That constant vigilance we’re maintaining is not going away."
Fitts said that, despite the sometimes halting process of loading, maintaining, and constantly checking for foreign object damage, airmen at Balad are taking a lot away from their time on the ramp. "Back home, we load practice bombs," he said. "Here, you actually see how it works, day in and day out."
Keeping a fighter’s sensitive electronics in working order presents its own set of challenges in this harsh environment. Radios and targeting pods are indispensable tools for the pilots, mission planners, and commanders on the ground.
SrA. Jeffrey Haviland, an avionics specialist with the 55th EAMU, said his shop works a great deal with the components of the ARC-210 radios and the Sniper targeting pods, items that are critical to exchanges of information between the pilot in the cockpit and joint terminal attack controllers on the ground. Pilots say they could not fly effectively in Iraq without these tools.
"There will always be component failure with electronics," said Haviland, but they’ve been able to handle things. "We get on top of problems quickly."
The Air Force fighters at Balad are teamed up with the war’s most sought-after aircraft—the MQ-1 Predators. These multimission UAVs were joined last summer by MQ-9 Reapers of the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance and Attack Squadron. Down the flight line from the fighter shelters, a Reaper, engine humming, was positioned for takeoff on a combat air patrol mission.
USAF now is flying over Iraq more CAPs than ever, said Maj. Tim Bolen, commander of the 46th ERAS, which is responsible for launch and recovery of Air Force UAVs over Iraq. There are more than 21 combat air patrols over Iraq as of November 2008, he said.
The Air Force’s unmanned attack assets have been game changers in the skies over Iraq. The nearly constant surveillance of high-value targets and convoy routes—and the ability to strike targets at a moment’s notice—has created unending demand for the aircraft in theater.
"What we need is more ISR," wrote Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno in an article published just prior to his promotion to commander of MNF-I in September. Odierno has said that armed UAVs are a bonus, but that systems such as the Reaper should not be used primarily as attack platforms until the larger ISR shortfall ends.
Sometimes the aircraft are monitoring suspicious sites or tracking groups of terrorists seen digging in a road late at night. And they circle and watch.
"You go through checks, you watch them placing wire, placing IEDs, and then you see them putting something in, and then the adrenaline kicks in," said Maj. Nathan Titus, the operations director for the 46th ERAS. "The whole process can go fast. You’re up close and personal with these guys."
Titus, a former KC-10 pilot, points out that, for the UAV community, deployments are different. In Iraq, there is no shortage of targets or missions. Predator and Reaper crews, which include sensor operators and pilots who operate the vehicles from back in the United States, develop their own targets. "We come here to be the enabler to help the guys back home," Titus said.
The UAV crews at Balad perform the critical task of getting the aircraft aloft and back down on the ground, using a line-of-sight application that takes over flying from US-based pilots. At the Stateside ground stations, there is often a two-second delay from the satellite link. That is manageable for flying and launching weapons, but would prove devastating while landing.
Things don’t always go right. The new UAVs are temperamental and don’t have the benefit of a human being who can, with a head turn, see what is going on around the aircraft. Several have been lost due to landing mishaps, but crews have also managed to keep the Predators and Reapers out of the way of the many manned aircraft flying over Iraq.
"It’s busy and we learn a lot from operations [here]," said A1C Alexandra Wright, a sensor operator with the 46th ERAS.
Airmen are quick to point out the other vital part of in-country airpower—tactical airlift.
Balad is home to the 777th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, known to airmen as the Triple Seven. The "dirty south," as the mobility ramp is referred to, was home this fall to about nine C-130s from the 19th Airlift Wing, Little Rock AFB, Ark., and the 153rd Airlift Wing, Wyoming Air National Guard. The Wyoming Air Guard Hercs were flown by the active duty airmen of the 30th Airlift Squadron, which in 2006 became the first active duty associate unit.
The C-130s parked on Balad’s ramp average a sortie per day across Iraq, performing duties from hub-and-spoke air/land missions to distinguished visitor airlift.
The C-130s also fly "top cover" sorties. For these, crews install a pallet that accommodates four radio operators, making the airplane an analogue of a more traditional airborne battle management aircraft. The sortie provides communications relays for ground convoys and maintains connectivity if problems arise, such as after an IED explosion or breakdown, explained Lt. Col. Ken Kopp, the 777th EAS operations officer.
The hub-and-spoke system—set up at airfields from Basra in the south all the way up to Kirkuk and Mosul in the north—moves everything from detainees to vehicles and personnel across Iraq.
This is the kind of transport that was once performed by ground convoys. Since the inception of convoy reduction operations in early 2006, the 777th has taken the equivalent of 6,274 trucks (each lugging eight tons of supplies) and 5,457 buses (each with 40 passengers) off Iraq’s dangerous roads, where they were vulnerable to sniper fire or attack from IEDs or car bombs.
"It’s a lot different now than back in 2003 or 2004," Kopp added. "We do a lot of short hops as opposed to long drags."
Capt. Steve DeHaas, a veteran of several Iraq deployments and currently assigned to the 61st Airlift Squadron at Little Rock AFB, Ark., said there is one big advantage of flying airlift here: "There’s not a lot of need for short fields in Iraq." In Afghanistan, tactical airlift teams often use short dirt strips for resupply.
Airdrops are relatively rare in Iraq, because it has decent airfield infrastructure, which allows mobility airmen to operate with relative ease inside the country—albeit with the constant danger of attack from the ground.
Balad was formerly Logistics Support Area Anaconda (on the Army’s side) and Balad Air Base (for the Air Force). Just a few years ago, however, the troops called it "Mortaritaville."
That was when rocket and mortar attacks were the norm—until Air Force security forces initiated Operation Desert Safeside in 2005, which sought out and eliminated threats to the base through direct attacks and targeted raids.
Today, mortar attacks are a rarity at Balad. In October, the Air Force assumed responsibility for in-depth base defense and, with the stand up in July of the 332nd Expeditionary Security Forces Group, took over base defense from the Army.
The 332nd runs every aspect of Balad’s defense, including the Joint Defense Operations Center, a new quick reaction force that hunts threats outside the wire, tower supervision, and manning the entry control points.
Lt. Col. Anthony Maisonet, commander of the 532nd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron, noted that his airmen are regularly tasked to go "outside."
From countering indirect fire to working with local leaders in the nearby villages, security forces are now taking a proactive approach to defense of the base. "We have airmen protecting airmen now," Maisonet added. "Everyone feels that we’re a part of something new, a special mission."
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