Air Force operates air wars from afar

ON AN AIR BASE IN THE MIDDLE EAST — Towering above Lt. Col. Andrew Brabson were four large video screens, two that showed maps glowing with blue dots for every combat jet flying in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Another screen displayed black-and-white real-time footage from surveillance cameras aboard three unmanned aerial vehicles high above Afghanistan as they track suspicious persons on the ground.

Brabson is hundreds of miles away from the aircraft, inside the Combined Air Operations Center, a well-guarded warehouse-like building that serves as the brains behind numerous air missions supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rows of airmen stare intently at their computer screens, processing data that their commanders will use to determine when and where fighters and cargo planes, including those from McChord Air Force Base, will go.

Data on jet locations, target analysis, weather conditions, and intelligence on enemy activity are processed around the clock.

“You’d think that we’d have a link to every cockpit and know what every pilot is thinking, but we don’t have that quite yet,” said Brabson, CAOC chief of combat operations.

The CAOC (pronounced KAY-AWK) is on an air base near the Persian Gulf. Military officials asked that its exact location not be reported as a diplomatic courtesy to its host country.

Rarely do unauthorized civilians or reporters get a look inside the $60 million command center, wired with 67 miles of fiber optic cable and staffed by troops from several nations, including the United Kingdom and Australia.

Unmanned vehicle

As Brabson gives a tour of his division to reporters Monday, an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, moves closer to the person it is monitoring on the ground in Afghanistan, where enemy attacks against coalition forces recently have increased. Another officer signals that something is about to happen. Brabson orders the incoming video to be turned off.

“That’s classified,” he said.

Across from the combat division is the air mobility division, where airmen are routing cargo planes, including the workhorse C-17 Globemaster III’s, to pick up and deliver equipment and supplies.

There are 12 C-17s and 46 of the older C-130s, which have about three times less cargo space, operating in the region.

Airlift operations have grown increasingly important as the military tries to replace ground convoys in Iraq with air transportation, which is faster and reduces the risk of soldiers being exposed to explosive devices on the ground.

“Nothing we do here is more important than the airlift mission,” said Maj. Gen. Allen Peck, deputy commander of the CAOC who began his career as an F-15 fighter pilot.

Major workload

But ranking the needs and requests of soldiers in two war zones, plus the demands of recent humanitarian missions, is a formidable challenge, said Lt. Rich Trzaskoma, a McChord-based airman and Olympia resident who coordinates airlift missions.

“It’s like putting together a 10,000-piece puzzle every day and then taking (it) apart and starting again,” he said.

Decisions are based on commanders’ operational priorities while taking into account needs such as wounded soldiers who need to be hauled out of theater for medical care, COAC officials said.

Humanitarian missions also are coordinated through the CAOC, such as the relief effort in Pakistan after that country’s devastating earthquake in October. Air crews flew 279 sorties, made four air drops and delivered 5,524 tons of supplies in Pakistan.

The U.S. airlift capabilities are unmatched.

If the historic Berlin Airlift of 1948 had been conducted with today’s massive, technologically advanced cargo jets, it would have taken half the time, said Brig. Gen. Darren McDew, CAOC director of mobility forces and former commander of the 62nd Operations Group at McChord.

“We can be anywhere tomorrow and sustain ourselves,” he said.

McChord on the move

Reporter Scott Gutierrez,29, is accompanying airmen out of McChord Air Force Base on their mission to deliver equipment and troops to and from Iraq. He'll be reporting this week from air bases in Iraq, Qatar and Germany and from aboard a military C-17 Globemaster III aircraft.