Air wing plays major role in buildup for Mosul campaign
By CHRIS CHURCH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 31, 2016
A major U.S. air expeditionary wing in Southwest Asia has had to significantly increase its operations to ensure all necessary cargo is getting into theater to support the coalition against the Islamic State group, sometimes in the face of danger, officials said.
The 386th Air Expeditionary Wing, which runs U.S. Central Command’s largest aerial port in Southwest Asia at an undisclosed location, has quadrupled the amount of cargo and personnel it transports since the start of campaign.
The spike is partly due to the challenges of transporting equipment by the ground through Iraq. While the Islamic State has lost much territory over the past year, aerial supply runs remain a vital means of quickly getting equipment and people to and from the theater.
Since last year, the U.S. has boosted its forces in Iraq to over 5,000 members, including special forces, military advisers to assist Iraqi forces at the brigade and battalion levels, and logistics and infrastructure-support troops. Some of the airstrips now used for resupply are located very close to active combat zones, including Mosul.
Prior to commencing operations against the Islamic State in August 2014, the 386th transported an average of about 500 tons of cargo and about 1,000 passengers a month, 386th Air Expeditionary Wing commander Col. Charlie Bolton said. The numbers saw a large climb and peaked out earlier this year at about 2,000 tons of cargo and around 4,000 passengers.
“We provide the bulk of the passenger and cargo movement for this specific operation,” Bolton said. “We fly a lot of lines every day. The amount of people that are here, directly supporting that fight has increased dramatically over the past couple of years. We are very important to the current fight.”
The 386th delivers a wide range of cargo, such as vehicles, ammunition, food and water, in its C-130s and C-17s, Bolton said. The passengers are primarily coalition military personnel transiting in and out of Iraq.
The C-17s can move larger equipment, while the C-130s are small enough to go into smaller and more difficult airstrips.
The wing’s proximity to the fight is a major advantage, Bolton said. Assets can reach locations in Iraq quickly, ensuring the component commanders have what they need when they need it.
However, the harsh Middle East environment provides challenges and risks.
During this summer, these planes and the wing’s approximately 4,000 personnel operate in a dusty environment in 120-plus-degree temperatures. Both elements can take a toll on personnel and equipment. The rough landing fields present a further difficulty.
“You’re going into airfields that are austere,” Bolton said. “They don’t have the normal lighting scheme, the normal support that you would have, say, if you could imagine landing in Dallas, Texas.”
“We fly ready to be engaged at any second, Bolton said. “So that’s always a challenge for us to manage that risk with meeting commander’s intent.”
Fortunately, enemy forces in Iraq and other conflict zones in the Middle East haven’t displayed any long-range anti-aircraft capabilities. Still, crews have observed small-arms fire during missions and have performed evasive maneuvers to mitigate the threats.
The 386th provides support elsewhere in the CENTCOM area of responsibility, including Afghanistan. Besides resupply missions, the wing provides electronic attack support, drone operations, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations in theater.
“We are being asked to continue a mission no one wanted to come over for ... and we are doing a pretty good job of it,” Bolton said.