Monday, November 30, 2009

CONOP test finding success for Air Force in Iraq

by Mark Diamond, Air Mobility Command Public Affairs

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. (AFNS) -- According to air mobility experts on the ground in Iraq, initial results of the ongoing U.S. Army direct support mission Concept of Operations test there indicate what Air Force and Air Mobility Command officials have said all along: the Air Force supports this mission 100 percent.

The CONOP test began Nov. 5 and will continue through December.

In April, through Resource Memorandum Decision 802, Defense Secretary Robert Gates moved the C-27J program and its related direct support airlift mission from the Army to the Air Force. And since April, the Air Force and AMC have taken a serious approach to building the program.

As part of that approach, AMC officials drafted a Concept of Employment to support the delivery of Army time-sensitive, mission-critical equipment, supplies and personnel into the Commander of Army Forces' area of operations. The plan gives the Senior Army Aviation Authority, or SAAA, tactical control of C-27J Air Force assets, which will be embedded with the SAAA.

That Concept of Employment has now become a Concept of Operations, or CONOP, which is being tested in Iraq via an expeditionary airlift squadron and two C-130 Hercules aircraft since the C-27J aircraft will not be operational until late 2010. According to Col. Gary McCue, the air liaison officer with the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq, the squadron flies one aircraft daily, with the second aircraft on standby for immediate response, if necessary.

During testing, the 164th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, made up primarily of members of the 164th Airlift Squadron, Ohio Air National Guard, is tasked directly by the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade; similar to the system used by the Army's rotary-winged assets, such as the CH-47 Chinook and UH-60 Black Hawk.

According to Colonel McCue, who is also the commander of the 179th Operations Group, Ohio ANG, the test will work out the command and control structure of the C-27 direct support mission and help the Air Force validate requirements. "We want to figure out how best to provide direct support to the Army in addition to what we're already doing," he said. "This has never been done before ... nobody knows where this is going to lead."

Although it's never been done before, Colonel McCue said it gets better with every day and with every mission.

Since the testing began, the team has completed dozens of sorties. Colonel McCue said each day varies, but so far the team has executed several sorties during each mission and, as the test progresses, they expect to add more sorties per mission. He said they are getting into their "battle rhythm," and each day is more successful than the previous.

"Our primary mission is to learn the Army's command and control and scheduling processes," Colonel McCue said. And, he said, his unit is perfectly suited for working with the Army.

"When the call came in asking if we would support this mission, it took us about 3 seconds to answer," said Colonel McCue. "As an Air Guard unit, we work very closely with the Army [National Guard] in Ohio. And since we rolled in here, it's been seamless. The Army wants this to work. They've been asking for this for 60 years. And we're showing them that we're with them 100 percent."

Although there are no set number of sorties each day, Colonel McCue said the team of air mobility experts executes the mission every day with the goal of completing the full day's taskings. So far, they're on track with 100 percent of the sorties executed.

Although this specific CONOP is new to the Air Force and AMC, mobility Airmen have a proven track record of providing direct support to ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. AMC officials said if the Army asks for something, particularly with airdrops, they've been able to fulfill their request 100 percent of the time.

In fact, the Air Force is setting airdrop records month after month in Afghanistan. In June, a record 3.2 million pounds of cargo was airdropped, only to be beaten in July with 3.3 million, then August with 3.8 million and again in September with 4.1 million pounds. As of Oct. 30, mobility aircraft had airdropped about 24 million pounds of cargo in Afghanistan in 2009, directly delivering much-needed supplies and aid to American and coalition warfighters.

The increase in airdrops isn't new. Air mobility forces have doubled their airdrop rate every year since 2006. In 2006 we dropped more than 4 million pounds; in 2007, more than 8 million; and in 2008, the total was 16.6 million pounds of cargo. At the current pace the 2009 total will likely reach more than 25 million pounds.

The record number of pounds delivered also means record numbers of airdrop bundles delivered. For example, in 2007, the Air Force airdropped 5,675 cargo bundles to troops in Afghanistan. In 2009, with an average of about 1,065 bundles a month, the Air Force is on pace to airdrop more than 16,000 bundles -- almost triple the pace of two years ago.

Mobility Airmen have also shown their direct support through intra-theater airlift. Through the end of August, more than 245,000 passengers and 119,000 tons of cargo were airlifted in the Afghanistan theater. In Iraq during the same time frame, it was just as significant, with 570,000 passengers and 92,000 tons of cargo airlifted.

Although the team is using C-130s to test the JCA CONOP, the Defense Department's designated direct support mission aircraft is the C-27J Spartan; what some are calling a "mini Herc."

Air Force officials will field 38 C-27Js to be operated by the Air National Guard. Current plans indicate the C-27J will be based at six ANG bases, including: Baltimore, Md.; Mansfield, Ohio; Fargo, N.D.; Bradley Airfield, Conn.; Battle Creek, Mich.; and Meridian, Miss.