Civilian leaders learn strength of U.S. air power in Europe

Civilian business and community leaders got firsthand and sometimes hands-on exposure Sept. 23 to U.S. Air Forces in Europe's multiple missions of supporting warfighters, building partnerships and strengthening its historic NATO ties.

U.S. Air Forces, Europe, or USAFE, is as critical to U.S. national defense today as when it was established as the 8th Air Force in 1942 and flew heavy bombardment missions over the European continent during World War II, Air Force Maj. Gen. James Hunt, its director of air and space operations, told 47 participants in the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference.

"For 66 years, U.S. Air Forces, Europe, has provided responsive forward presence, humanitarian and peacekeeping support and decisive airpower to the United States and its allies," Hunt told the group.

U.S. European Command's air component is far different from the organization that stood up during World War II, then went on to play a key role in the Berlin Airlift and as an important deterrent to a large-scale conflict across the Fulda Gap. "This is not the organization of the Cold War," Hunt said.

Today a streamlined USAFE organization - five bases and nine forward operating bases, 250 aircraft and about 25,000 airmen - directs air operations in a theater spanning 20 million square miles, 91 countries and covering a quarter of the world's population, he told the group.

While that's down from 25 bases, 750 aircraft and more than 65,000 airmen in 1990, he said it's no indication of a lesser role. "The mission for USAFE is bigger than ever," Hunt said, citing its transformation into an expeditionary force and the breadth of the missions it now conducts.

Hunt called support to warfighters - airlift, refueling, close-air support and casualty evacuation - a top USAFE priority. "Our job is to make sure the force on the ground gets what they need," he said.

But USAFE's mission goes beyond the current fight, he said. Its focus extends to security cooperation throughout the region - not just with traditional NATO allies, but also with new NATO members and partners. During fiscal year 2007, USAFE had more than 900 engagements in Europe and Asia, all aimed at improving mutual cooperation and helping nations that seek to build capability in their air forces.

Capt. Curt Dougherty, a Strike Eagle pilot, described a recent cross-training exercise in Eastern Europe, calling it as valuable for him and his squadron as for the Bulgarian and Romanian pilots they were training. "It's a great opportunity because you get to train against aircraft you wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to train with," he said. "You really do take a lot of concepts out of the experience."

The JCOC participants kicked off their visit at nearby at RAF Mildenhall, where they got a demonstration of some of the capabilities USAFE brings to the fight.

Five 321st Special Tactics Squadron combat controllers conducted a high-altitude, low-opening jump, dropping from an MC-130H aircraft at 10,000 feet and waiting until 3,500 to open their parachutes to land on an "enemy airfield" without detection.

F-15C Eagles and F-15E Strike Eagles, F-16 Fighting Falcons and A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft roared overhead followed with explosions on the ground simulating the precise firepower they would deliver to take out enemy elements. Once the targets were eliminated, an MC-130 aircraft delivered more paratroopers to secure the airfield.

"What you saw out there is an example of what airpower is today, and it's not Goose or Maverick," Col. Lawrence Reed, vice commander of the 48th Fighter Wing, told the visitors, referring to the lead characters in the movie, Top Gun. "It's a very precise and very disciplined operation to put things on bad guys and protect the good guys."

At RAF Lakenheath, the JCOC participants got more hands-on exposure to USAFE's weapons systems and equipment and the opportunity to meet the airmen who operate them.

The group watched weapons teams go through the step-by-step process required to load munitions aboard F-15s for close-air-support missions. "When you are on alert and you get a call, the jet has to be loaded as fast and as safely as possible," Senior Airman David Ross told the visitors. "You need to be fast because of the tempo downrange."

The civilians climbed into the cockpits of F-15 aircraft, quizzing the pilots about the controls and their combat experience. Capt. Curt Dougherty, a Strike Eagle pilot who's deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan and is preparing to return for an upcoming deployment, described what his squadron and other Air Force assets bring to the fight.

"We are the on-call close air support, supporting the commanders in the theater," Dougherty said. "What we do supports the guys on the ground and helps to keep them safe."

The group moved from station to station, learning about the workings of the F-15 engine and the KC-135 Stratotanker, talking with special operators about their equipment and tactics watching a working-dog demonstration.

At one station, Airman Jason Jeffers demonstrated how he and his fellow "battlefield airmen" use robots to disable and destroy improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan. "A lot of people don't know that we're out there on the ground," said Jeffers, who is preparing for an upcoming deployment to the combat zone. "What we are doing allows forces to get through roads to complete their mission. We are going down there and we are saving lives."

A highlight for many was taking the controls of an F-15 simulator to experience the kind of training pilots go through to prepare for real-life missions. "We had them flying two F-15s side-by-side, running an intercept and trying to conduct an air-to-air engagement," explained site manger Spike Hafermann. "They're having a lot of fun," he said. "But they are also getting to see the realism of the training device and the type of technology we use to prepare our combat flyers before they go downrange."

As they compared stories about how well they'd done, or how quickly they'd "crashed," the JCOC participants shared impressions of what they'd witnessed during their USAFE visit.

"It was just fabulous," said Darrel Flanel, managing director for Merill Lynch Global Markets in New York. "I come away from this really impressed with extensive knowledge. The depth of intellect and the enthusiasm I saw, it's pretty amazing."

Reed said he welcomed the opportunity to show the civilian leaders what he called "the heart of who we are, our enlisted force," and the responsibility they carry in supporting the mission and U.S. national defense. "We're making demands on them every day, and every day, they are exceeding everything we asked of them," he said.

Brad Bulkley, president of Bulkley Capital in Dallas, said his experience at USAFE confirms the deep appreciation for the men and women in uniform he has developed this week as the JCOC group visited USS Iwo Jima near Crete and U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Dallas in Rota, Spain.

"A glaring irony strikes me as we go from location to location on this trip," Bulkley said. "It is the fact that as we greet the troops and they act impressed with our group's corporate credentials. What they don't realize is that we are the ones who truly in awe of them.

"Our men and women of the armed forces are very impressive, from their leadership [and] teamwork, to their visible, unbreakable spirit, even in the face of danger. You can read about them in books or the press, but I've now seen the real armed forces and met the best of the best. They are our enlisted."

The JCOC group is continuing its visit to military activities throughout U.S. European Command.

The first U.S. defense secretary, James V. Forrestal, created the JCOC program in 1948 to introduce civilian "movers and shakers" with little or no military exposure to the workings of the armed forces. Nearly six decades later, it remains DoD's premier civic leader program.

[Source: By Donna Miles, American Forces Press Service, Royal Air Force Lakenheath, Gbr, 24Sep08]

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