US, African air forces find common ground on retention, extremism fight
RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — The U.S. and African air forces assembled near the Ramstein flight line have varying capabilities, but they have at least one challenge in common: retaining their best people in the face of commercial competition.
Just as the Air Force faces a pilot shortage, airmen from among seven African nations said they face difficulty keeping personnel, they said during the African Partnership Flight program at Ramstein Tuesday.
“Many people find more money, more benefits and less stress in the civilian airlines,” Senegal air force Maj. Mamadou Wathie said. “We need to recruit and train young Senegalese, but we also need to make the airman’s job attractive.”
Retention - as part of overall force development - along with the fight against Islamic extremism and general aviation, are among the common ground being covered between the U.S. airmen and 34 African representatives during the program, which began Monday and runs through Friday.
The African Partnership Flight began in Ghana in 2012. Most of the meetings – typically about two are held annually – take place in Africa, hosted by USAFE-AFAFRICA and at least one African nation. This time, airmen from Mali, Chad, Gabon, Malawi, Uganda, Mauritania and Senegal came to Ramstein.
On a day when the temperature felt Sahara-like, airmen sweated their way through a tour of U.S. aircraft maintenance facilities.
They glimpsed into the cockpit of an idle C-130J and stood inside a warehouse packed with tens of thousands of spare aircraft parts, from propellers to giant tires. They also asked questions, all with the goal of bringing back useful information to their developing air forces back home.
Regarding retention, one airmen asked Lt. Col. Douglas Warren, 86th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander, how he kept his maintainers from “running to American Airlines or Delta.”
Warren pointed to a formidable-looking blue knight painted on the wall, representing the squadron’s “Blue Knights” nickname.
“If I can get them to think like this and they know I care about them, because now they have pride and now they know that their leaders care,” Warren said.
“I still lose people to American Airlines and Delta,” he added, “but those airlines are better for it because I provided them with some very skilled labor.”
At higher levels, the Air Force is also examining several incentives to retain airmen and especially pilots. The Air Force said earlier this year that it’s about 2,000 pilots short of full strength. Air Force officials have also blamed burnout due to placing the deployment burden on too few people, among other factors.
Other suggestions include giving enlisted servicemembers more authority, which is a common issue among services in developing nations.
Senior Master Sgt. Dethie Diouf, 48, an air ground equipment technician and instructor in the Senegal air force, said he was surprised to hear of a squadron at Ramstein that had hundreds of enlisted airmen and fewer than a dozen officers.
“In Africa, officers have all the responsibility,” which sometimes can be a problem, because unlike senior enlisted leaders in the U.S. Air Force, they often “stay in their offices” and don’t have a lot of on-the-job experience, he said.
“Here in America … they respect enlisted people and give them a lot of responsibility,” he said.
Improvements in force structure tie in to the foremost goal of the program -- increasing overall aviation capability. The effort has a hoped-for secondary effect of improving security in Africa.
“Many of these countries are fighting violent extremists in their own countries right now,” said Brig. Gen. Dieter Bareihs, director of plans and programs for U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa. “If we can increase their capability and capacity, that will help improve security overall on the continent. We have common security goals and so we need to work together to achieve these goals.”
Co-hosting the training with USAFE-AFAFRICA was Senegal and Mauritania, two countries that already had the training being given at Ramstein.
Wathie said that prior to the first African Partnership Flight in 2012, “there was not much regional cooperation” in Africa.
“We needed to have the U.S. to come and put us together,” he said.
Security challenges in the Sahel-Saharan region make working together critical, Wathie said.
“To know if you have a problem, you can call (a neighboring country’s air force) and they will assist you, that has no price,” he said.