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Air mobility teams work to bring in “heavies"

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. (USTCNS) --- Before the U.S. military could get the "heavy metal" of airlift aircraft into Baghdad and other Iraqi airfields, a small group of air mobility warriors was on the ground making sure the conditions were right.

That group was an AMC Assessment Team, or AT, a key component of the emerging Air Force Chief of Staff's Global Mobility Concept of Operations and the open the base force module.

As Air Force refines the Global Mobility CONOPS, Air Mobility Command has the lead for both the CONOPS and base opening force module. There are two elements to the base opening module, ATs and Tanker Airlift Control Elements. The TALCEs, deployable units that set up and operate airfields at either established or bare-bones bases, are tried and true. For almost three decades they have set up airlift operations around the world.

According to Col. Walt Tomczak chief of the AMC's Operations Plans Division in charge of Global Mobility CONOPS and Base Opening Experimentation for the command, the ATs are new to base opening. The small six-to-eight member teams made their operational debut during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The small teams are multi-capable with core specialties of force protection, civil engineering, fuels, tactics and communications. The teams can also expand to bring in other specialties if necessary.

The team one, led by Col. Fredrick Martin, commander of the 615th Air Mobility Operations Group at Travis AFB, Calif., went into Southern Iraq March 26, successfully completed its mission within two days, then went on to assess and prepare for the opening of the next airfield. Almost simultaneously, team two, lead by Col. Greg Cook, commander of the 621st AMOG, McGuire AFB, N.J., was assessing potential airfields within Western Iraq.More recently, Col. A. Ray Myers, deputy commander, 621st AMOG, McGuire AFB, N.J., led team three into Iraq to prepare for the arrival of mobility and other aircraft at Baghdad International Airport.

The ATs deploy in advance of the TALCE to assess and receive the airfield "hand off" from seizure forces, those "kick down the door" on-the-ground soldiers, Marines or special operators. The team can also reach back to AMC to make recommendations on the suitability of the airfield and what the TALCEs and other follow-on forces need to bring in. Once the team makes their assessment, accepts the hand-off and passes command and control over to the TALCE or follow-on forces, it's on to the next air strip.

Lt. Col. Kevin "Critter" Kreps, chief of AMC's Mobile Command and Control Branch and the TALCE lead for AMC, said the base openers deployed as soon as the need was identified.

"The requirement came so quickly, the teams were out the door before the CONOPs were finalized, so we're simultaneously fielding an operational capability while we are experimenting with the concept" he said. The assessment teams right now come from the TALCEs who deploy from the 615th and 621st AMOGs.

Colonel Kreps said the TALCEs picked up the assessment mission because for years they've fielded a light, lean and multi-capable force. In addition, no matter what the follow on mission, humanitarian, fighter, refueling or other operations, the first aircraft on the ground will likely be an airlifter to bring in the necessary people and equipment to support that mission.

"One of the first operational assessments is what kind of AMC aircraft can get in there, how much and how fast, he said. "Once that's determined, one of the first follow-on elements is the TALCE to take over initial command-and-control for those airlift assets to keep track of cargo and passengers. The assessment team then moves forward," he said.

Lt. Col. Jerry Szpila, chief of AMC's Combat Operations Division, is responsible for the AT CONOPS and plays a key role in getting the teams into the field. "Assessment teams came about from direct lessons learned after Afghanistan. There was a base for Marine combat operations we didn't open fast enough for us and for the users," he said.

That led to the development of the small teams that could deploy to the airfield and quickly establish communications with AMC to relay information and recommendations on the suitability of the airfield for air mobility operations.

Another lesson learned from Operation Enduring Freedom included the need to bridge a communications gap with the seizure forces, who needed an airman's perspective on opening the base.

Colonel Szpila said the other services may not look at what the Air Force needs in an airfield. For example, if the Army says an airfield is secure, they mean very close-in operations where security focuses on the perimeter.

"When we think it's secure, we're also looking at the fact we need a corridor that can get us in there and get the mobility aircraft in to begin operations," said Colonel Szpila.

Other issues included the best placement for everything from living quarters to weapons storage areas.

One highly effective solution was simple: Develop a joint Army -Air Force transition checklist.

"Even the Army admitted they weren't quite sure what information we needed to provide us when they hand off the airfield to the Air Force," said Colonel Tomczak. "So we've developed a checklist, it's the key. The faster you figure out what the current airfield situation is, where forces are located and where you're going to put everything, the faster AMC aircraft can land and the base will be up and running."

He said representatives from AMC and from the 82nd Airborne Division of the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, N.C., worked out the checklist identifying what information would passed to the Air Force assessment team.

Another key issue is pre-assessment and working out the details with the seizure forces ahead of time. So far, there have been three experiments, or exercises, to work out the details of the Base Opening CONOPS. Phoenix Readiness exercises at the Air Mobility Warfare Center in New Jersey was the venue for the first two experiments. The third was in March with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg and Pope AFB, N.C., where Air Force C-130s inserted 500 Army personnel to seize an airfield followed by an AMC Assessment Team. Col. Pete Gray, 615th AMOG deputy commander, is in charge of team four for the exercise. The next experiment will be at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., in May.

"When we were at Pope for the experiment, the assessment team met with the soldiers who were going to be on the ground after the seizure," said Colonel Tomczak. "Our teams did it both in the exercise and later in real-world operations in Iraq. We found if you meet ahead a time, and if you know what kind of aircraft will be using the base, it adds to the success of the mission. We exercised A-10s coming in at Pope, and if you look at the first base we opened in Southern Iraq, it was A-10s."

He said the meetings and pre-assessments based on mission and satellite imagery made both the exercise and real-world handoff go smoothly.

"At Pope, our guys got off the airplane and met up with their Army counterparts who they had already met. They went through the checklist, and the Army was able to provide the information we needed," said the colonel. "The handoff only took 30 minutes. They've been doing the same in Iraq, so there have been parallel efforts. And the Assessment Team here in the United States has been passing information back and forth to the teams in theater."

AMC now has four assessment teams, three involved with operations in Iraq, the fourth working the base opening experiments with the Army. Together, the teams are proving and refining the open the base CONOPS.

"We're building the concept for the long term. We exercise, we get lessons learned from operations and we write everything down," said Colonel Tomczak. "We have observers, including observers watching out for doctrine issues, so we'll know what needs to be changed."

The experiments allow for a methodical approach that can be documented. The lessons learned from the war and those learned from the experiments will then be combined to compile the best practices for opening a base. Colonel Tomczak said that will lead to combined Army-Air Force CONOPS and eventually to joint doctrine.
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