DEBORAH AMOS, host:
In Iraq, the U.S. Air Force is playing a smaller role than in any other conflict. The strategy crafted by top General David Petraeus calls for slow and targeted work on the ground. Air strikes are much less common than during the Vietnam War or during the 1991 Gulf War.
So the Air Force is working to reinvent its mission, as NPR's defense correspondent Guy Raz reports from the Balad Air Force Base north of Baghdad.
(Soundbite of machinery)
GUY RAZ: Heavy earthmovers are filing giant sandbags. The bags called Hescos, and they provide additional cover from the mortars that sometimes fall inside U.S. bases in Iraq. But it's not the Hescos that are the story here; it's the men and women filling those Hescos. They're airmen led by a young captain, Brad Bucholz. And they're building a perimeter around a special forces compound inside a larger military base.
Captain BRAD BUCHOLZ (U.S. Army): What we're doing is we're coming through. We're tearing out their whole compound and putting in a 14-foot-high and 14-foot-wide new barrier.
RAZ: If you thought the Air Force was all about planes, think again. Most of the airmen in Iraq rarely get near an airplane. There's a reason why. Lieutenant General Gary North, the regional air commander here, says that the nature of the Iraq War doesn't lend itself to the use of heavy air power.
Lieutenant General GARY NORTH (U.S. Army; Regional Air Commander, Iraq): Unlike Afghanistan, where the enemy will mass in 10s, 20s, 30s, 40s, 100 people at a time, in Iraq you've got a very mobile enemy that moves around in twos, threes, fours, fives, 10s.
RAZ: Which, he says, limits what the Air Force can do from the sky. And where airplanes are required, more often than not they're flying without pilots.
(Soundbite of airplane)
RAZ: This is a Predator. It's one of the hundreds of unmanned airplanes that fly over Iraq 24 hours a day. Predators carry sophisticated surveillance gear that can track high definition details on the ground. They also carry Hellfire missiles. The planes aren't even controlled from within Iraq. They're actually flown by pilots at an airbase near Las Vegas. And they're linked up to the plane via satellite.
Lieutenant Colonel ANDY HECHT (U.S. Air Force): Okay, this is the F-16. It's a Block 40 model...
RAZ: Lieutenant Colonel Andy Heck inspects his F-16 fighter jet shortly before a mission. The Air Force has sent about 36 of these jets to Iraq. They fly around the clock over the skies...
(Soundbite of a jet)
RAZ: One of the pilots, Colonel Charlie Moore, explains that in combat operations F-16s do sometimes drop bombs, but they're mainly used now to harass suspected insurgents or unruly crowds on the ground.
Colonel CHARLIE MOORE (U.S. Air Force): We'll come in at low altitude. We'll make a lot of noise. Sometimes it will dispense flares. And we're trying to send a very clear message to the enemy when we do that.
RAZ: But Charlie Moore and the other pilots here see the writing on the wall. Unmanned planes now vastly outnumber manned planes flying over the skies of Iraq. And in just a few weeks, the Air Force will deploy an unmanned bomber ominously called the Reaper. This pilot-less plane is designed to carry as much weaponry as the F-16, but it too will be controlled by pilots sitting at desks in the deserts of Nevada.
Over the past four years, the department of the Air Force has been feeling the heat over its comparatively limited role in Iraq. While the Army and the Marines are now awash in extra funds to grow, the Air Force faces severe cutbacks. It's the second largest service branch, about a quarter of the overall active-duty military. But airmen make up only about five percent of the total troop presence in Iraq and less than one percent of the total number of casualties here. Those numbers have prompted Pentagon bean counters to shift Air Force money away to the other service branches.
In Iraq, an Army soldier will serve an astonishing 15-month tour - the longest, by the way, since the Second World War. But the average airman comes to Iraq for four months. Senior commanders are now quietly considering whether to extend Air Force tours of duty to six months.
Here's Air Force General Burt Field.
Brigadier General BURT FIELD (U.S. Air Force): One of the things that we have to look at is what's the right tour length in order to sustain this effort over time.
RAZ: But while the Army will not be able to sustain that effort over time, at least at the current levels, the Air Force, with more than 340,000 personnel, will either have to fill some of that gap or face even more calls to drastically shrink its size.
Guy Raz, NPR News, Balad Airbase, Iraq.
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