By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
June 9, 2008 - America's war on terror would grind to a halt without the contributions of the Air Force, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today. "Every day, amazing airmen are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan," Gates said. "Beyond that, you support all the services worldwide."
Gates praised the airmen for their mostly unsung combat role and support of deployed servicemembers. He noted that on average, 25,000 airmen serve in the U.S. Central Command area of operations. Last year, the Air Force flew about 1,300 air strikes in Iraq, a three-fold increase from 2006 that represented 90 percent of all coalition air strikes.
The number of unmanned Predator sorties has more than doubled in the past year, and ground commanders continue to ask for more, he said.
"The timely, precise and persistent surveillance and close-air support provided by the Air Force over the battlefield has saved countless American lives, the lives of innocent civilians, and left terrorists and insurgents little room to operate," the secretary said.
Airmen also are on the ground in the combat theater. More than 6,000 are performing in place of soldiers or Marines on the ground in Iraq, covering everything from detainee security to explosive ordnance disposal to convoy security. And Air Force trainers are working to build the Iraqi and Afghan air forces.
Air Force officers and enlisted airmen are working on provincial reconstruction teams in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and Air Force personnel make up large parts of the personnel assigned to Joint Task Force Horn or Africa and the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Zamboanga, Philippines.
"Little of that is widely known or appreciated," Gates told Air Combat Command airmen here. "But I can assure you that I value everything you are doing in support of our nation. And every soldier and Marine on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan is profoundly grateful you are overhead watching out for them," Gates said.
Gates said that while most Americans are aware of the stresses and strains on soldiers and Marines, airmen, too, are affected. Since the Persian Gulf War, Air Force personnel have deployed to Central Command flying missions over the "no-fly zones."
"In fact, you have been forward-deployed, and at war for 17 years," Gates said. "Your families have also borne this burden, and the Air Force has its own fallen heroes – often struck down while serving alongside our soldiers and Marines. We know this, and are working to ease the burden. For example, I intend immediately to stop further reductions in Air Force personnel."
The Air Force has steadily reduced in size since the Gulf War, and current reductions were slated to result in an end-strength of 328,600 airmen by October 2009.