Hundreds of airmen and dozens of F-16 jets and their pilots began departing South Carolina Monday on a mission to back up U.S. ground forces engaged in a new kind of warfare in Afghanistan.
"We've been training for months for this," said Lt. Col. Ken Ekman, who will be in the cockpit of the first Fighting Falcon leaving today in the second wave of a two-day deployment.
More than 200 airmen, pilots and support staff left a rain-soaked tarmac Monday on chartered aircraft. Several hundred family and friends filled a hangar as they bid the members of the 79th Fighter Squadron and its support units farewell.
It is the first time such a package of warplanes and their aviation specialists has deployed from the central South Carolina installation for a mission in Afghanistan, said Ekman. For security purposes, Ekman declined to specify exactly where they will be based for the next four months.
Ekman said in a telephone interview his unit had to adjust for its new mission of "irregular warfare" under the U.S. commander there, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
Instead of battling a foe's air force head-on amid the clouds, Ekman said his unit will fly to protect the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine units conducting military operations on the ground.
"It's a very nuanced job, called air support for counterinsurgency. We had to have a whole new training program," Ekman said. "We've been training for months for this."
Ekman said he and his squadron's several dozen aircraft will hopscotch across the globe, stopping to rest at air bases in Europe and the Mideast before joining their home unit in Afghanistan.
"Very shortly after arriving, we transition to conducting 24-hour combat operations. We have to be ready to go from the first day," he added.
Ekman said his unit includes extra pilots, experts in maintaining the F-16CJs, intelligence specialists, logistics units and even some civilian contractors.
"The temptation is to focus on just the pilots and the airplanes. But there is so much more to it, to sustain these airplanes" and the men and women who work to put them in the air, Ekman said.
It will be a little more than a week before all elements in the group come together in Afghanistan, the commander said.
They deploy as President Barack Obama has begun a high-level review of his administration's war policy for Afghanistan.
McChrystal sent Obama a critical assessment of the effort, reportedly warning Washington could fail to meet its objectives of causing irreparable damage to Taliban militants and their al-Qaida allies if the administration did not significantly increase American forces.
While the Pentagon has so far locked away specifics of McChrystal's troop request, he is widely believed to want to add between 30,000 and 40,000 to the current level of 68,000.