Politics & Policy

Going North

An interview with the three-star commander of CENTCOM Air Forces.

Lt. Gen. Gary L. North holds three of the most critical warfighting commands in the world. In terms of ongoing air-combat operations, two of his commands are the most critical.

North is the commanding general of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Air Forces (CENTAF), including all U.S. Air Forces (some Navy and Marine air assets) operating over — or coordinating with — CENTCOM’s 27 nations. North also serves as Combined Force Air Component Commander (CFACC), which basically means he is the theater commander for all air-combat operations over Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa. (Yes, there is overlap between CENTAF and CFACC.) And he commands the U.S. 9th Air Force, which includes five fighter wings among other active and Reserve units.

On Friday, I sat down one-on-one with North at his 9th Air Force headquarters office, Shaw Air Force Base, S.C.

As we were discussing Iraq, the “surge,” and the broader war on terror, a captain entered the office. “Excuse me, sir, General Jumper is on the phone,” he said. I stepped out of the office. North took the call. It was four-star Gen. John P. Jumper, who also once commanded CENTAF and served as chief of staff of the Air Force before retiring in 2005.

The two generals spoke for several minutes. Then continuing our conversation, North — a fighter pilot who has flown F-4 Phantoms, F-15 Eagles, and F-16 Fighting Falcons — discussed briefly his personal combat experience. “Yes, I’ve dropped bombs on Iraq,” he said. But he modestly declined to discuss the Iraqi MiG fighter he shot down during the Persian Gulf War. “This is not about me, but our airmen,” he said.

North and I discussed troop morale and what reporters are missing. Following our conversation, I was briefed on CENTAF operations by three of his subordinate commanders and a civilian military analyst.

North begins most of his 18-hour (on average) work days reading morning intelligence briefs, followed by a series of staff meetings, and quite often a bit of traveling. Most of his time is spent at CENTAF’s Middle East regional command center (though I know the country location of the site, it is technically classified). But on this day he took time for an exclusive interview with National Review Online.

W. THOMAS SMITH JR: What is the U.S. Air Force doing in Iraq and Afghanistan that most Americans might be surprised to know?

LT. GEN. GARY L. NORTH: First of all, we — our Air Force, Navy, and Coalition forces — have been flying over Iraq and the Middle East doing combat operations since 1990. So our ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) capabilities have been built over a period of years. And it’s why we are so effective in terms of ISR today.

Air warfare — the way we execute air operations — even in Afghanistan since 2001, is getting more intricate, more detailed, more deliberate, more precise every day we operate.

Every fighter I have that flies right now has a targeting pod on it. That targeting pod allows our pilots to sit and stare to the point where — in coordination with our ground soldiers whether conventional or unconventional — our pilots are able to talk directly to them and tell them what he is seeing. And whatever our pilots are seeing on their targeting pods, the joint terminal attack controller [a ground-based forward air controller] is also seeing on his laptop. So the pilot puts a cursor over on a target, and the controller on the ground can say, “Not there. Next door over.” We literally have pilots now walking ground forces through cornfields and backyards telling them where insurgents are hiding.

Now, when considering Iraq and Afghanistan, you have to understand, they are two completely different wars. As an air force, we execute air operations, and we synchronize and integrate our forces. And the air and space effects are treated the same way by my subordinate commanders and me. But they are two different wars.

Iraq is primarily urban — a counterinsurgency — in and around cities, and the enemy forces melds into the population. In Afghanistan, it’s more of a static field war.

SMITH: Does that make the Iraq war more challenging for the pilots?

LT. GEN. NORTH: I think each has its own unique set of challenges. The overwatch in ISR is functionally the same. The level of effort into each work in that development to go from gathering intelligence to the refining of operations down to the execution where you are synchronizing ground and air operations together is truly fascinating. It is as intricate as any team operations in any major league event you would ever see.

SMITH: Explain how.

LT. GEN. NORTH: Let’s take Abu Musab al Zarqawi [the al Qaeda in Iraq leader targeted and killed by coalition ground and air forces in June 2006] for instance. The synchronization of the development of intelligence over a long period of time through multiple assets of many governments, came down to where we actually called a fighter pilot off of another mission and said, “Stop what you’re doing. Go over here. Here’s a set of coordinates. Use your targeting pod and JDAMs [joint direct attack munitions — “smart bombs”]. And stare at this target.” When clearance was given to hit the target, the pilot put two 500-pounders on it. And we killed one of the most horrible terrorists the world has ever known.

SMITH: What are the greatest threats facing our airmen in Iraq?

LT. GEN. NORTH: We’re always under the consistent threat of our bases coming under attack from isolated events, be it a drive-thru bomb, rocket, or mortar attack. [In terms of pilots and aircrews] light arms, triple A [anti-aircraft fire]. We have a tremendous number of airplanes that fly, so one of the things I personally worry about — as the airspace control authority – is ensuring that our airplanes do not run into each other.

If you look at Iraq and Afghanistan, that’s a lot of airspace. But the airspace over the city of Baghdad is the most congested airspace in the world right now, because you’ve got commercial airplanes, fixed-wing military airplanes, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles. And so airspace deconfliction, which is my job, is one thing I pay particular attention to.

Total number of sorties we fly is 250-300 per day in Iraq. Those numbers increase during major combat operations. And we’re flying 80-90 over Afghanistan.

For the two countries, I may have 30 KC-135 tankers airborne in a day, and they will deliver 3.5 million pounds of fuel to over 220 receivers. So we might put two fighters up, and they’ll stay up for six to eight hours and go to the tanker four or five times for gas. That way they can stay over a working area, providing cover for our ground forces for a longer period of time.

SMITH: What about Afghanistan-specific threats?

LT. GEN. NORTH: In Afghanistan, there is the same threat of ground-based attack. We’ve got great airbase defenses: counter-mortar batteries, ground combat units. If we get fired on, we know exactly where it came from, we can zero out and return fire. We have UAVs and fighters overhead.

SMITH: Thoughts on the Iraqi air force.

LT. GEN. NORTH: We destroyed their air force, so this is building from the ground up. By the end of the year, we will have 400 U.S. airmen embedded in the Iraqi air force, helping training, teaching, facilitating. There is a program out to 2012 that will rebuild their air force. Their first requirement of course is utility lift [transporting troops and equipment]. Also developing their ISR capabilities.

SMITH: Isn’t it fair to say it’s more difficult to stand up an air force than it is to stand up an army?

LT. GEN. NORTH: It certainly takes longer. You can basically train a soldier in about 10 weeks. For pilots and mechanics — with very technical requirements and skill-sets — it takes longer.

SMITH: The “surge” in Iraq: Is it working?

LT. GEN. NORTH: The surge is working. We’re seeing great progress. And look at western Iraq, out in Al Anbar Province — a huge success story — and as the enemy is seeing that they are not welcome in the west, they are bumping back up against the western sectors of Baghdad and meeting huge resistance.

SMITH: And Diyala?

LT. GEN. NORTH: Absolutely, many of the enemy have moved out into Diyala Province. There’s quite a lot of fighting going on there right now. Some major operations, and that’s working well for us also. But war takes patience. There are some of our world partners who have said to me, “You know, from your Revolutionary War through your Civil War, it took you about 100 years for you as a nation to gel.” So it takes time. We have to be forward looking. There is a lot of progress going on in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. And understand, that in this fight — militarily — we are doing fabulously.

SMITH: What about the broader war on terror?

LT. GEN. NORTH: The enemy is determined and deliberate and this is big stakes for him. He is patient and deliberate. Where he finds weakness, he probes. Where he finds strength, he draws back. We cannot be short-sighted about this. Our grandchildren are going to be fighting this war. It’ll be different. But we are going to fight this one way or another, around the world or here at home.

SMITH: What are reporters missing?

LT. GEN. NORTH: I think the American public has come to accept that we are always going to put things on time and on target, and we do. But it is because our Air Force is so good at what we do. Just last night, the secretary of the Air Force mentioned that we haven’t had an enemy air force strafe a U.S. military position since 1953. When you look at our win-loss record in our air-to-air fights over the years, we make it look so easy that the expectation is that the bomb is always going to go right down the smoke stack. Delivery is going to be perfect. And that it is easy. But it’s not easy.

I sit in my air operations center in the Middle East and watch, and from a command-and-control perspective we put our people out to do combat operations, and we can divert them in a heartbeat.

One night, we had a young lieutenant on his first combat deployment. He was overhead flying overwatch for a ground takedown on an enemy stronghold on a riverbed in Iraq. As our ground forces came in by helicopter, hit the objective, and went in the front door, three or four insurgents ran out the back door. They jumped into the river and began swimming downstream.

Our young lieutenant F-16 pilot overhead with his targeting pod, was watching the whole thing and talking directly to the ground forces.

SMITH: So where relative to the ground forces was this lieutenant?

LT. GEN. NORTH He was three-miles overhead flying at 350-400 knots, watching and talking and directing the ground forces, which were going after the insurgents. He was talking to the second-echelon quick reaction force, and guiding them as the main force was taking down those people who did not escape.

So here we had these enemy swimmers. They were swimming for their lives. They thought they had gotten away. They were about two miles downstream. But when they came up out of the river, they were met by our forces.

That’s the battlefield synchronization and integration I’m talking about.

SMITH: Is morale still high among our troops?

LT. GEN. NORTH: When I go visit our wounded warriors in the hospitals, they don’t say, “Sir, I’m done. I want to go home.” I’ve talked to airmen, soldiers, sailors, and Marines; some without arms, legs, or eyes. They get up from their beds — and sometimes put their arms around me — and say, “Sir, how do I get back in the fight?”

SMITH: But the antiwar crowd will say, “Of course they do” because you are a three-star general.

LT. GEN. NORTH [shaking his head]: I don’t buy that at all. I’m looking in the eyes of these young Americans. I know them, and they know what’s at stake.

SMITH: What keeps you up at night, general?

LT. GEN. NORTH: When I put my head down, I rest pretty easy because of the people under my command. But I do ask myself if the air component is doing everything we and I can for the synchronization, integration, and execution of the air battle and how that wraps up into the total battle.

SMITH: So there’s really nothing that worries you?

LT. GEN. NORTH: I’m worried all the time. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be a commander.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, and in Iraq. Smith is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications. He blogs at “The Tank.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues. He has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq, and in Lebanon. ...


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