RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — The accomplishments of 17th Air Force over the last three-and-a-half years were lauded Friday in a ceremony to mark the unit’s inactivation.
There was the first of its kind African air chiefs’ conference held in Africa last year; the creation of a comprehensive language and cultural training program for airmen and others; the first bed-down of U.S. fighter aircraft in Africa in over 40 years.
At the top of the list was successfully leading the air campaign in Libya last spring.
With such a resume, one of two four-star generals to speak at the ceremony posed an obvious question: “OK, folks, after hearing all these great things … do we really want to inactivate 17th Air Force?”
“No,” was the audible answer from some in the audience to Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, U.S. Air Forces in Europe commander.
“No,” Welsh echoed, “but it’s got to be done.”
The Air Force last year under former Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that it would inactivate 17th Air Force as part of a larger reorganization across the service to cut costs. For 17th Air Force, with origins in North Africa dating to 1953, it was time once again to roll up its flag, after a brief but notable run.
The unit was last inactivated in 1996, when it was based at Sembach Air Base, Germany. The Air Force brought it back in October 2008, reactivating the unit at Ramstein Air Base as U.S. Air Forces Africa, to serve as the air component for the newly established U.S. Africa Command.
At its peak, the new air unit grew to about 320 airmen and civilians, according to Air Force officials. In addition to overseeing U.S. military air operations in Africa, the unit also worked to promote air safety, security and development on the continent. It conducted activities with 36 countries, with some of its more active partners being Ghana, Senegal, Morocco, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Botswana, Uganda and Rwanda, Air Force officials said.
Its mission, Welsh said, isn’t going away. USAFE will assume the staff functions of 17th Air Force, while 3rd Air Force and the 603rd Air Operations Center at Ramstein will now direct air operations for AFRICOM, officials said. Third Air Force vice commander, Maj. Gen. Mark R. Zamzow, assumed command Friday of U.S. Air Forces Africa from Maj. Gen. Margaret H. Woodward, who led 17th Air Force and U.S. Air Forces Africa since June 2010.
Woodward during Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya became the first woman to oversee a U.S.-led air war, officials said Friday.
The successful campaign was a defining moment in the most recent chapter of 17th Air Force’s history, said AFRICOM’s commander, Gen. Carter F. Ham. But Ham revealed during his remarks Friday that at the outset and lead-up to Operation Odyssey Dawn, “there were questions, there were concerns; there was anxiety.”
“Are we really ready to have a woman” lead the Air Force in a combat operation? he said.
Ham said Welsh, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and U.S. Navy Adm. Samuel Locklear, the commander of Operation Odyssey Dawn, expressed full confidence in Woodward, who more than met their expectations, he said.
Woodward, who next will become the special assistant to the deputy chief of staff, operations, plans and requirements at U.S. Air Force Headquarters at the Pentagon, said commanding 17th Air Force was “the greatest privilege of my life” and thanked her airmen for their dedication to the unit’s mission.
“When you look back on your time here, never forget that while others were reading history, you were writing it,” she said.