Air Force Prepared for Action in Iraq At A Moment's Notice

By Valerie Insinna

As President Barack Obama mulls options of how to counter the violence in Iraq, the Air Force's top civilian said June 18 the service stands ready to execute orders “within hours, not days, not weeks."

“The Air Force is fully engaged in the planning efforts and we are standing by with our sister services,”  Deborah Lee James told reporters at a breakfast in Washington, D.C. “No decisions have been made. This is an important military situation, but there are political factors, there are other ramifications which also need to be dealt with, and that is what the president is doing. He's trying to bring in all those factors to be able to make a decision." 

The service could bring to bear capabilities such as strike, airlift, command and control, aerial refueling and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, she said.

The Air Force already has a range of aircraft in the Middle East on rotational deployments, exercises and to support operations in Afghanistan, James said. Among the aircraft stationed in the region are: F-15E, F-16 and F-22 fighter jets; KC-135 tankers; A-10s, which provide close-air support to ground forces; B-1 bombers; C-17 and C-130 transport aircraft and a variety of unmanned aerial systems.

“Of course we have others that could be moved within a matter of a fairly short period of time should that be asked of us,” she added.

After the militant terrorist group known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, descended upon Iraq and took over several major cities in the country's north and east, Obama called on his national security team to provide military options. They include sending equipment to the Iraqi army, conducting air strikes or deploying special operations forces, reports indicate. He is meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) today to discuss the crisis.

As the civilian head of the Air Force, James is not involved with contingency planning. She would not comment on what air defense threats ISIS could pose should the Air Force be called on to strike the organization. She also declined to comment on reports that the terrorist group has gained control of American-made weapons such as Stinger surface-to-air missiles that can down aircraft.

James insisted the Air Force would be able to quickly begin operations to support Obama’s decision, but conceded that maintaining that level of readiness has been a struggle given current fiscal constraints.

Congress has not been supportive of Air Force efforts to save money through base closures or retiring fleets of aircraft such as the A-10 Warthog, she said. 

"What we have said to the opponents of the proposal is if we're not allowed to retire the A-10 ... please, please please, you must give us the money to add back [into funding that fleet]. And by the way, when you find the money, please don't take it out of readiness. We really, really need to get our readiness levels up."

In order to keep the Air Force ready for operations, it needs money to fund flight hours, other training and repairs to aircraft, equipment and ranges where pilots practice new skills, James said.

If Congress chooses to fund the A-10 by diverting funds from accounts that dictate readiness such as operations and maintenance accounts, “it will exacerbate that atrophy," she said.

Both the House and Senate Armed Service committees have put money for the A-10 into the fiscal year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. The House used overseas contingency operations money to fund the fleet, while the Senate reallocated funding from operations and maintenance accounts, James said.

The House Appropriations Committee took funding for the A-10 out of the NDAA, but lawmakers could add an amendment to the bill when it comes up for debate today.

Topics: Aviation, Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Leadership, International

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