Friday, November 26, 2010

Ret. gen. reflects on standing up Kandahar wing

Today, by trying Google News for A-10 news on a daily base, I found the following important interview, already published online by Air Force Times on November 1, 2010:

By Bruce Rolfsen - Staff writer
Air Force Times
Posted: Monday Nov 1, 2010 9:29:49 EDT

Brig. Gen. Guy Walsh had his work cut out for him.

He had to stand up an expeditionary wing in Afghanistan a year ago last summer, the same time the surge ordered by President Obama hit a fever pitch.

The 451st Air Expeditionary Wing would operate out of Kandahar Airfield, a hub for NATO air operations in southern Afghanistan but 300 miles from Bagram Airfield where the Air Force kept most of its fleet.

To back up the 30,000 additional soldiers and Marines flowing in, the wing would have a squadron’s worth of A-10 Thunderbolts, C-130J Hercules and MC-12 Liberties to put in the air. The numbers of remote-controlled airplanes and combat search-and-rescue teams would grow. And hundreds of aerial port airmen would arrive to handle cargo.

Walsh, commander of the Maryland Air National Guard’s 175th Wing, one of the few stateside units home to A-10 and C-130J squadrons, managed to get the job done. He stayed as commander of the 451st until July 21, which was 12 months and three weeks after the wing stood up.

Today, Walsh is retired. He talked with Air Force Times in October when he was in Washington, D.C., visiting the National Guard Bureau.

Q: As you prepared for command of the 451st, what was the wing’s overall direction?

The decision by [Air Forces Central Command commander] Gen. Gary North and others to stand up a wing at Kandahar was to reduce response times for close-air support and make aircraft more immediately available for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

We needed [aircraft] to be there as quickly as the ground commander called for it. The time goal was immediate.

Q: When did you arrive at Kandahar and how long did it take to get the wing operational?

We flew in and landed on the first of July. The standup of the wing was on July 2, 2009.

We had about two dozen airplanes [C-130Js, HH-60s Pave Hawks and remote-controlled Predators and Reapers] and about 500 folks. Col. John Cherrey was already there as the group commander. He had been on the ground for about three weeks. And we had one chief master sergeant.

Q: What were challenges for the new wing and yourself?

The first piece is the realization that as a wing commander, you were at a NATO base and you had the U.S. Army as the lead base agency. It was all about building relationships, since I wasn’t the senior airfield authority. That was the first piece that was different from my previous experience as a wing commander.

Second was the idea of trying to expand our footprint at Kandahar. It was going to grow to about 2,100 folks and eight or nine types of airplanes — over 80 airplanes total. Communications, infrastructure concrete were immediate things with timelines.

A majority of the airmen were living in tents, in an area called South Park. There was no cell phone coverage or wireless [to contact airmen quickly]. We didn't have fire protection down there. Accountability of airmen and communication with airmen was almost impossible.

As we established a large footprint here, we needed to establish the right force protection and know where our airmen were and protect them against the rocket attacks.

Q: When did the A-10s arrive?

We bedded down the A-10s in mid-July. Literally, as A-10s were taking off from the United States, we were laying the ramps where they were going to park.

There was a prioritization based on "What is the most immediate piece?"... The most immediate was getting the A-10s in here and reducing response times for close-air support that was primarily coming out of Bagram at the time.

As we stood up additional capabilities, specifically the MC-12, the HC-130 and landed airplanes, within 24 to 36 hours we were turning combat missions. That takes a lot of hard work.

Q: How did you create the right command environment for a new wing and make airmen, most there for six months or less, understand their roles and your expectations?

It's got to happen at the squadron level and having the right mix with the squadron commander, the first sergeant and the command chief in that unit. [The Air Force] gave us the right commanders, the right chiefs. ... That certainly makes your job as a wing commander quite a bit easier.

A huge part of the success of the wing was the leadership on the senior NCO side.

Command Chief Master Sgt. Steve McDonald and I met with every airman who came in at "right start" briefings. ... We shook the hands of every airman. At least once a week we had mentoring sessions. We'd sit down in groups with first-term airmen, the E-4, 5, 6, the top-3. Then we'd sit down with the first sergeants, probably on a quarterly basis. It was simply a discussion session. The chief's talk was about leadership. ...

The guidance I gave to my group and squadron commanders was all about communication. ... We all play different roles.

Q: As the senior Air Force official at Kandahar, what was your role working with your Army, Marine and NATO counterparts in southern Afghanistan?

They knew they could turn at a general officer level and say, "Here is where I need the air assets, here is where I need the close-air support." We are able to funnel that back up [to the Combined Air Operations Center] and have real time information. ... That integration piece was huge.

We were able to better use air-power because there was trust built with the ground commander and the ground forces that we could go forward and be very precise and very surgical. ... We were sitting across the table looking at each other, saying, "I can do that with airpower and do that every effectively. ..."

We knew a concern was always collateral damage. So we pushed forward really hard with some of the low-collateral damage weapons we brought in — the GBU-38 Version 4.

Q: You put a lot of emphasis on face-to-face talks as a way to command.

To me, it's the enjoyable part when I get to go out and spend a lot of time with airmen. My computer skills aren't quite there, so since I try to avoid the computers, I go out there and talk with the airmen.

You get to know folks very well. ... The greatest privilege of being a wing commander was how many airmen you go to meet and learn something about them. It wasn't just about turning a wrench; it was learning how their fiancée was coping or how their uncle back home sent 20 packets of coffee.

Q: How often were you able to fly and why was that important to you?

I tried to go out and fly with each of the units.

As soon as I got there, the first missions I flew were with the C-130 folks. When you go out on airlift or airdrop missions, even if you're just sitting there in a jump seat and talking with these guys, they understand you've been there and done that before and you understand the challenges they had. That set the tone pretty quick.

Q: What was it like ending your flying career on a combat mission?

I'm a graduate of the [Air Force Academy] class of '79, so when I flew my 79th mission on the Fourth of July, I said there probably was no better way to end 31 years of flying airplanes. You never want to end but stopping at 79 was the right way to do it.


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