Hester: Pacific airmen could join ‘surge’
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — More Pacific airmen could deploy to support the president’s plan to increase U.S. military troops in Iraq by 21,500, according to the U.S. Pacific Air Forces commander.
“Possibly,” Gen. Paul Hester said in an interview Thursday morning. “We don’t know the final answer on that as the secretary of Defense is working through some of those answers back in the Pentagon with all the services as to exactly what the impact (will be) of the plus-up that the president has announced.”
That about 1,000 airmen at Misawa could deploy this spring for the next Aerospace Expeditionary Force cycle isn’t indicative of an increased PACAF troop commitment to the war, Hester said.
“With Misawa, we’re going to actually see, probably for the first time, the largest number of people leaving one single base to go into an AEF deployment into the Middle East,” the general said. “This is not unusual in terms of the number of people on alert. It is just a little bit unusual … that they all will be coming from Misawa.”
Misawa’s hefty tasking reflects the needs of U.S. Central Command Air Forces Commander Lt. Gen. Gary North for “this particular cycle over in the desert,” Hester said.
As the war marches on, there is an impact to the budget, Hester said, “and there certainly is belt-tightening.” But the Air Force is finding ways to save money, particularly in energy costs for electricity and fuel, he said.
“Quality of life” won’t be affected, he said, but the Air Force isn’t expanding those programs, either.
“Some could misinterpret our leveling off of the quality of life as meaning we are reducing our commitment to that. That’s simply not the case,” Hester said. “We have reached the point where our quality of life is superb. Our commitment is to stay that way.”
Some Air Force jobs in Japan and Okinawa will remain unfilled until the roster for those skills falls below 90 percent, Hester said, but he added that he didn’t know which career fields would be affected.
The Air Force is slowing down replacements of overseas positions to stem the projected shortfall in the Air Force’s $1 billion budget for permanent-change- of-station moves.
While assignments in South Korea have been filled at 100 percent because of the constant threat of war on the peninsula, Hester said, Air Force officials are reconsidering that threshold.
“The possibility exists that they will in fact take a few more people out of Korea,” he said. “If I said that another way, I would say we would not fill them to 100 percent. We’re not moving people off of the Korean peninsula, but we may in fact choose not to fill them to 100 percent.”
Hester also spoke about future aircraft assignments to the Pacific, including the plan to place seven to 10 Global Hawks on Guam starting in 2009. The unmanned aircraft, used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, will replace the U-2 spy planes stationed on South Korea, Hester said.