17th Air Force Gaining Altitude and attitude

Airmen from Seventeenth Air Force have proudly donned their 17th AF patches since their activation Oct. 1 at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Out of garrison, they also proudly don their “U.S. Air Forces Africa” patches.

In the first 30 days since declaring initial operational capability, aerial missions on the continent have coincided with continuing administration and logistical work in building the new unit, said Col. Keith Cunningham, 17th AF chief of staff.

“We’re now the lead element in air operations supporting Africa Command,” he said. “We are receiving support from other agencies and we couldn’t do it without them, but we’ve taken the lead.”

The chief of staff explained that ongoing progress is multifaceted, including gains in operational as well as command and control and administrative capabilities. People continue to arrive as the unit moves toward a total end strength reaching nearly 400 Airmen at its Ramstein headquarters. The members of 17th AF and AFAfrica are excited about taking on a more direct role in support of Africa Command, he said.

“We’ve already established a pretty robust Theater Security Cooperation program in sync with Africa Command’s strategic engagement program,” Colonel Cunningham said. “And during the buildup of this organization, we’ve not only been working in cooperation with U.S. European Command and U.S. Air Forces in Europe, but U.S. Central Command and Air Forces Central as we take over air responsibility for the entire African area of responsibility.”

For now, the unit is focused on airlift on the continent. Soon after the ceremonial guidons were secured following activation, the unit received two C-130 Hercules aircraft and crews, deployed from the 19th Airlift Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark. Seventeenth then quickly formed an organizational structure to properly employ the aircraft in support of U.S Africa Command, said Col. Bob Holba, the first commander of the newly-formed 404th Air Expeditionary Group. The 404th, and its subordinate 42nd Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, stood up Oct. 6.

“The mission of the 404th is simple – provide dedicated intra-theater airlift in
support of U.S. Africa Command taskings,” Colonel Holba said. “We don’t have an independent staff but have been leveraging great support from our 17th AF staff, U.S. Air Forces in Europe, Third Air Force – especially the 603rd Air Mobility Division – the host (86th Airlift and 435th Air Base) wings at Ramstein, and from the C-130s’ parent 19th Airlift Wing back in the states.”

Because U.S. Africa Command has combined areas of responsibility formerly belonging to the U.S. Central and European Commands, air operations on the continent have begun transitioning to this new structure, Colonel Holba said.

“The structure and function of the 404th and 42nd is similar in many ways to a setup that exists under 3rd Air Force and EUCOM here at Ramstein, where deployed aircraft support some of the intra-theater airlift requirements within Europe,” Colonel Holba said. In both structures, personnel and aircraft are made available to the commands on recurring rotations.

The two C-130s assigned to the 42nd EAS arrived with aircrew and a very lean maintenance and support personnel team including Maj. Jason Havel, who reports to Colonel Holba as the commander of the first operational flying squadron under Air Forces Africa. Major Havel and his troops are focused on conducting airlift missions into and throughout the African continent.

“We’re very excited to be here and to be part of the stand-up of Air Forces Africa and to support the mission of Africa Command,” Major Havel said. “We’ve received outstanding support from 86th and 435th as well as from Seventeenth Air Force staff and from our home unit. It took an incredible amount of coordination to become fully operational, flying missions into the continent, in such a short time span.”

The consolidation of operational responsibility under AFAfrica has included the move of the 449th Air Expeditionary Group at Camp Lemonier, Djibouti, central to Horn of Africa operations.

“The 42nd has flown sorties in support of the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa, and is currently supporting the multi-lateral military training exercise Flintlock in Mali and Operation Enduring Freedom – Trans Sahara in Northwestern Africa,” Colonel Holba said. The unit has already flown 29 sorties, moving 59.5 tons of cargo.

“Having an independent airlift capability, although small, allows U.S. Africa Command and us to better identify requirements and establish enduring relationships with our military and civilian partners,” Colonel Holba said.

Airlift is not the only support AFAfrica has been providing on the continent. Members of the 17th AF Plans Directorate have begun coordinating more than 30 Theater Security Cooperation events for fiscal year 2009. Two events, in Nigeria and Morocco, have already taken place.

This kind of cooperative effort is directly in-line with the component’s mission of promoting air safety and security, said 17th AF Commander Maj. Gen. Ronald R. Ladnier.

“Supporting Africans in building sustainable air safety and security means hands-on training and personal interaction,” the general said. “Through these events, we are actively engaged on an interpersonal level in helping our partners in Africa to develop these capabilities.”

While TSC events have been a facet of U.S. military activities on the continent for years, the new structure and focus under Africa Command makes it possible to expand the program, the general explained, noting the number of TSC events is expected to increase further in 2010.

“We are now engaged and continuing to march toward full operational capability this time next year. As of right now, we are actively supporting not only Africa Command, but our partner nations on the continent, the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development and the African Union in their larger efforts,” General Ladnier said.

“We’re proud to have reached this point but very determined to keep pressing forward. We’re beginning to make a difference on the continent, and that is our ultimate objective.”

Jim Fisher


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