Saturday, March 21, 2015

U.S., Afghan Leaders to Meet This Week in Washington

By Cheryl Pellerin
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON, March 21, 2015 – President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and other U.S. leaders will discuss a range of issues this upcoming week with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who arrives Sunday on his first official visit to the United States, senior administration officials said Friday.

Among the discussion topics for Ghani and Afghan Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah will be flexibility on troop drawdown in Afghanistan, concerns about the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant gaining a foothold there, and working toward stability in the region.

Jeff Eggers, National Security Council senior director for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Dan Feldman, State Department special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, held a media call to preview the visit.

Ghani replaced Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan’s president in September, and Feldman said Ghani and Abdullah “have expressed consistently and unequivocally their desire to ensure that our bilateral relationship is … strengthened and that we continue to hone and design it to produce the most productive partnership in the years ahead.”

Ghani and Carter at the Pentagon

Ghani, Abdullah and their delegation will spend three to four days in Washington and a day in New York. On Monday, Carter will host them at the Pentagon, where there will be an honor cordon and a meeting chaired by Carter on strategic security issues, Feldman said.

Afterward, the Afghan leaders will travel to Camp David to meet with members of the national security team and key principals, he added, including Carter, Army Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of the NATO-led Operation Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, and members of the National Security Council staff and the intelligence community.

On Tuesday the Afghan leaders will meet with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House. Obama and Ghani will discuss the bilateral relationship, and on Wednesday, Ghani will address a joint session of Congress. On Thursday morning, Ghani and Abdullah will head to New York for United Nations meetings, including a visit with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Feldman said.

Seeking Flexibility

Among the issues Ghani seeks to resolve is his request of Obama to consider flexibility on the planned drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, Eggers said. In a decision reached last May between the United States and Afghanistan, Eggers said 9,800 U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan for the Resolute Support mission until the end of 2015.

Then, for the bulk of the mission in 2016, U.S. troop levels would fall to 5,500, Eggers added. Afterward, the mission would further consolidate to a security cooperation office focused mainly on administering what Eggers called “the very significant and robust security assistance program that we imagine will persist beyond 2016.”

He said the first part of Ghani’s request for flexibility looks to extend the 9,800-troop level beyond the end of this year.

Afghan Threat Assessment

“The discussions that are being held now are taking a look at how much flexibility, how much adjustment … is required, and frankly it’s difficult for us to say right now until we have a sense of the president’s decision on where that will be,” Eggers added.

If their stay is extended, the troops would support a new national security strategy that Ghani has been working on with Afghan National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar, Eggers said, based on their threat assessment and their perceived need to structure their force going into the 2015 fighting season.

One of the threats is the emergence of ISIL in the Middle East, and, he added, “some concern raised with the spread of the Islamic State and its potential emergence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

To respond to Ghani’s request for flexibility, Eggers said, Campbell developed a recommendations to enhance the Afghan National Security Forces train, advise and assist mission, maintain counterterrorism capabilities, and manage the drawdown to prioritize force protection for U.S. personnel in Afghanistan.

Outlining Key Interests

“These recommendations were brought to Washington some number of weeks ago and they’ve been under discussion here,” Eggers added, “to include a meeting [Obama] had with his national security team this week in preparation for Ghani’s arrival.”

Feldman said the United States is looking to Ghani and Abdullah to outline key interests beyond the request for flexibility.

These include issues, he said, “of dealing with their economic transition, on how they can best try to utilize some technical assistance in a variety of areas, [and] on how we will continue to work with the international community to help ensure that a high degree of focus stays on Afghanistan.”

Another issue for discussion this week will be how the Afghan government will reconcile with the Taliban, Feldman added.

Window of Opportunity

Feldman said Ghani and Abdullah have courageously opened a window of opportunity to try to incentivize direct talks with the Taliban. Though there is nothing to announce right now, he added, “they have taken some important steps to demonstrate the seriousness of their government to … providing a long-term, sustainable resolution to this conflict.”

He said the United States stands by the same red lines for reconciliation outcomes “that we’ve had for the last five years in terms of supporting a process that ultimately results in the Taliban renouncing violence and breaking from al Qaida and embracing the Afghan constitution, including its rights for women and minorities.”

Eggers said the potential for talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban is being pursued regionally and also directly between Kabul and Islamabad in Pakistan.

Afghan Outreach to Pakistan

Feldman said the role Pakistan plays in Afghanistan is particularly important and that the bilateral relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan has grown stronger over the past six months, due to outreach by Ghani and Abdullah.

This included a visit by Ghani to Islamabad and numerous visits to Kabul by Chief of Army Staff of the Pakistan Army Gen. Raheel Sharif, Director-General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Gen. Rizwan Akhtar, de facto Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz and others, he added.

“They’re seeking to knit their two countries together in a variety of channels,” Feldman said, including economic and trade, and cross-border military and counterterrorism issues.

Continuing the Conversation

Even after this week’s discussions, Eggers said the United States must continue the conversation with the Afghans about how the joint partnership will evolve over the years and how the United States will continue to support Afghanistan.

“But,” he said, “it will increasingly be financial and diplomatic in nature, as the troop level continues to go down. Our commitment to Afghan stability will remain strong but it will manifest increasingly through … other forms of financial and diplomatic support.”

Generating Airpower: Egress express

by Staff Sgt. Derek VanHorn
35th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

3/19/2015 - MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- (This article is part of a series featuring the 35th Maintenance Group on their ability to generate airpower for the 35th Fighter Wing's Wild Weasels. The 35 MXG is compiled of 22 career fields that support the mission of the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, the only SEAD wing in Pacific Air Forces.)

When an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot walks into Misawa's egress work bay, it might not be such a strange thing -- egress is responsible for maintaining the seats and canopies for every F-16 Fighting Falcon here. But when a pilot walks in with his entire family trailing behind him, it's rare.

So rare, in fact, that in Master Sgt. Thomas Hakala's 18-year career, he has only experienced it six times. But every time it happens, it's a good thing -- it means his shop did their job.

It also means a pilot cheated death by way of ejection; that for whatever reason, a last-ditch effort to escape a plummeting fighter jet was successful and the pilot survived to live another day.

Although well worth it, the ejection process is revered as a brutal experience. Staff Sgt. John Herrmann, 35th Maintenance Squadron egress systems craftsman, said when the handle is pulled, the pilot gets "beaten up pretty bad."

The ejection pull ignites an incendiary process that sends ballistic gas pressure through multiple hoses and components that reach detonation lines that essentially explode the canopy off the jet, Herrmann explained. The canopy is designed to release off the jet to the left, but realistically it's left to the mercy of the wind. The next step - and the most painful - is the actual ejection.

The pilot leaves the jet at around 14 G-forces, compressing the spine a full half inch. It's a large reason the Air Force only allows two ejections before a pilot loses flying status.

"I know I wouldn't want to sit in that thing when it goes off," Herrmann admitted, further explaining that the seat essentially turns into a human jetpack upon ignition.

"There are two rockets on the bottom to help keep them stable at the same trajectory so they're not flipping over and twirling around through the sky," he continued.

Once the airborne pilot and seat approach a certain distance from the ground during descent, an internal computer Hermann called "the brain" will initiate a deployment sequence that separates the pilot from seat and deploys a parachute.

By the time this happens, the hope is the pilot has regained consciousness. Hakala said most pilots black out for a few seconds.

"The force just drains all the blood out of their head," said Hakala.

While landing a parachute poses a challenge, it pales in comparison to being rocketed out of a moving jet. Because of the diverse missions Misawa's Wild Weasel pilots carry out, they have to be prepared to traverse all types of landscapes if things go haywire. Thankfully, egress is one step ahead.

Along with tediously inspecting and maintaining canopies and seats, they're also responsible for installing pilots' survival kits. The kit contains a multitude of things prepared by aircrew flight equipment; including pyrotechnic signaling items, life sustaining items and life rafts that deploy after water submersion.

"Our guys work a lot of hours to get these jets perfect," Hakala said, "and the only time our system is tested is during an emergency by a pilot."

It leaves zero room for error.

Every ejection Hakala has been associated with has been successful, and he said the best word to describe his feeling of that is "satisfying." Once safe, the "thank you" trip back to egress usually takes some time - mainly due to the recovery process after undergoing an ejection.

When pilots come through for the visit, it's a mini-celebration.

"Some have come back with their whole families," Hakala said. "They write us thank you letters, their kids draw us pictures to put up and they'll walk us through the entire process."

It's a fascinating process, and sometimes almost surreal.

"We had one pilot eject who said while he was airborne from the ejection, his plane was flying around him in circles," Hakala remarked. "He said it was the weirdest thing not being in an aircraft but watching it fly around unmanned."

In the summer of 2012 Misawa had its most recent ejection, and the pilot made it back safe after being rescued from the Pacific Ocean by a Japanese research vessel alongside civilian and military vessels from the U.S. and Japan that responded to the incident.

Herrmann was at the office the day that pilot came through to thank egress for their effective work that kept him alive. He said he distinctly remembers how beat up the pilot was, but was left with a stronger feeling of accomplishment.

"It definitely made the job more real," he said. "After talking to the guy, I can tangibly understand how important we are. That was probably the moment everything came to a head."

For Herrmann, the confidence of his work now outweighs the nerves, but knowing his work can mean the survival of another human being is always in the back of his mind.

"The nervousness doesn't ever go fully away," he said. "It keeps you sharp. I'm more confident after all these years and never second guess myself."

That mindset is adopted throughout the shop of about 15 Airmen. It comes with the territory, and their motto is: When all else fails, Egress prevails!

"It's a no fail mission for us," Hakala said. "Zero discrepancies. These seats are made within tolerances of perfection; there can be no damage on them. We take pride in giving pilots confidence that our work will save their lives."

AGOW refines new mission skills

by Staff Sgt. Kris Levasseur
86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

3/19/2015 - CAMPIA TURZII, Romania -- Airmen from the 435th Air Ground Operations Wing departed Ramstein Air Base, Germany, March 10 for what seemed like any other training mission; however, this mission known as Dacian Warhawk is unlike any other they have participated in.

During the bilateral mission at Campia Turzii, Romania, the 435th AGOW was afforded the opportunity to execute four of their distinct mission sets, which make the wing unlike any other. These mission sets include, expeditionary airfields on demand, multi-theater sustainment and support, joint airpower integration and building partnership capacity.

Prior to Dacian Warhawk, these capabilities were executed individually as the wing's groups performed their core missions. Dacian Warhawk became a way for these AGOW units to come together and begin forming a plan to streamline these capabilities efficiently.

Beyond incorporating the majority of the AGOW mission sets, Dacian Warhawk also tested one of the wing's expeditionary capabilities in a new way.

When providing expeditionary support, the 435th AGOW travels to austere locations to establish an air base or airfield so mobility aircraft can safely land and deliver follow-on forces. The mission is usually short-term and the wing hands over control to the operational forces on arrival. However, due to the nature of Dacian Warhawk, the support mission continued throughout the nearly three-week event. Their goal is to be able to perform these mission sets as turnkey operations to provide the best operational support to fighter units possible.

"We have a tremendous amount of capabilities within the 435th AGOW ... within the 435th Air and Space Communications Group, 4th Air Support Operations Group and the 435th Contingency Response Group, but we've never operated like this before," said Col. Steven Edwards, 435th Contingency Response Group commander. "The Dacian Warhawk mission is providing us an opportunity to expand the capabilities of the 435th AGOW and work through our current procedures and establish new procedures to be able to support this type of mission in the future."

Expanding the capabilities of the wing required some units to operate in ways they never have, such as security forces personnel providing continuous defense of the base and assets, but the AGOW was prepared. Though the 435th AGOW Airmen have never operated in this manner, they have been preparing for this type of mission for quite some time. According to Capt. Craig Towlson, 435th AGOW chief of wing plans and programs, Dacian Warhawk is the culmination of approximately a year of brainstorming and six months of planning.

"Through internal planning and guidance from the wing commander, we developed a concept to first bring the wing together, which started as a table-top exercise in October 2013." said Towlson. "With the three groups being operationally successful on their own, we wanted to achieve success as one organization in order to provide our combatant commander an option no other wing can provide. Built around Dacian Warhawk 2015, the 52nd Fighter Wing's flying training deployment, we planned a proof-of-concept training mission to capture the AGOW's capabilities in direct support to fighter operations."

Because 435th AGOW leaders saw the need to actively exercise the wings full capabilities to set up and maintain airfield and communications operations for short-term missions, they also needed a way to plan and evaluate their efforts.

"The wing plans and programs office was set up to track and plan current and future operations like Dacian Warhawk," said Towlson. "We leverage the expertise within each group and squadron to bring the wing together, eliminating redundancies of our capabilities across the wing. Being on the ground here in Romania will help us refine our proof of concept and allow us to provide direct support to fighter squadrons in the future."

The plans and programs office is continuing to gather lessons learned and refine 435th AGOW procedures to better suit mission needs, but according to Towlson, so far this mission is a success.

"It's an outstanding feeling watching these Aircraft launch and realize that we had a part in making it happen," said Edwards. "Whether it was our aerial porters downloading vehicles and supplies, our medical personnel supporting Airmen, our mobile aircraft arresting system personnel protecting the jets, our joint terminal attack controllers on the range, or our communication specialists establishing connectivity, we all had a part supporting the flying mission."

Edwards added that without the help of the other Dacian Warhawk participants, the 480th Fighter Squadron and Romanian Airmen at Campia Turzii, the mission would not have gone as well.

As Dacian Warhawk continues, Airmen of the 435th AGOW will continue to provide mission support to the 480th FS, while working closely with the Romanian airmen to increase interoperability between both nations.