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Master Sgt. James Pentergast, left, 37th Airlift Squadron C-130 flight engineer, shows the cockpit of one of the U.S. C-130s to members of the Botswana Defense Force.
Master Sgt. James Pentergast, left, 37th Airlift Squadron C-130 flight engineer, shows the cockpit of one of the U.S. C-130s to members of the Botswana Defense Force. (Marcus Maier/Courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — A new unit is taking U.S. military air operations in Africa under its wing.

The 17th Air Force officially stood up in October at its Ramstein Air Base headquarters. With close to 150 airmen already on board, the unit will direct airlift on the continent while striving to help African nations improve air safety and security, according to 17th Air Force officials.

The focus of the air component of U.S. Africa Command, known also as U.S. Air Forces Africa, is on supporting existing U.S. government initiatives to help African nations in conflict prevention, according to the 17th Air Force commander, Maj. Gen. Ron Ladnier.

"I get frustrated when I hear people say … that’s militarizing foreign policy," Ladnier said.

"We’re already there. We’re already doing these things," he said, pointing to a paper illustrating hundreds of U.S. military flight arrivals on the continent since January 2003. "All we’re doing is putting it under one house so we can focus our efforts."

Prior to AFRICOM’s activation on Oct. 1, U.S. European Command, U.S. Central Command and U.S. Pacific Command divided responsibilities for military activities in Africa.

The 17th Air Force is primarily taking over air component duties from U.S. Air Forces in Europe and 3rd Air Force.

And it’s doing so without any permanently assigned aircraft to call its own.

"It is unique," Ladnier said of the unit’s wingless organizational structure. "We have pilots … navigators and loadmasters, but they’re on staff in desk jobs.

"We do not have enough airplanes to go around, period," Ladnier said. "Even some of the airplanes we do have are so old, we can’t work them as far as we’d like to sometimes."

But 17th Air Force will still have aircraft at its disposal from other units. Two C-130s arrived this week with aircrews and maintainers from Dyess Air Base, Texas, for a temporary deployment, swapping out with a pair of Hercules aircraft from Little Rock, Ark.

While at Ramstein, the aircraft and crews fall under the newly formed 404th Air Expeditionary Group and its subordinate 42nd Expeditionary Airlift Squadron.

Most airlift to Africa involves transporting supplies and/or people, with flights departing almost daily from Germany, according to the 404th Air Expeditionary Group commander, Col. Lida Dahnke.

Recent missions include delivering a C-130 engine to Ethiopia and showing maintainers there how to perform an engine change and teaching night-vision goggle tactics.

The 17th Air Force is also coordinating 34 Theater Security Cooperation events in fiscal 2009 geared towa

rd promoting air safety and security on a continent where the rate of air accidents is high.

Needs identified already include C-130 maintenance and parts, improvements in air traffic control and air field security, and obtaining real-time weather information, said Col. Don Kochanski, 17th Air Force’s director of plans and programs.

However, he said, "We don’t know what their greatest needs are yet. We’re still asking them what they need. I think every country is different."

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