Aviation brigade strengthens Iraqi army
An Army aviation brigade from Fort Riley, Kan., deployed to Iraq this March to provide mobility and security for ground forces here, but one of the unit’s unofficial missions is possibly its most important: maintaining a healthy, visible relationship with Iraqi army aviators.
While there are no policies requiring partnerships between U.S. and Iraqi army aviation units, a senior Army aviator serving at U.S. Forces-Iraq recently called them “essential to the success of Iraqi aviation.”
The Enhanced Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division is a full spectrum brigade that flies attack, reconnaissance, medical, utility, and cargo helicopters. In seven months of deployment, the brigade has conducted everything from air assaults to medical evacuations.
Their partnership naturally revolves around assisting the Iraqi army in the aviation realm, but has also expanded to include weapons training, air traffic control, and aircraft and vehicle maintenance.
“Our overall mission now in Operation New Dawn is to advise and assist, and as an aviation brigade, we take a look at Iraqi aviation,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Jim Thomson, the brigade’s senior noncommissioned officer.
“Aviation is a very large organization that requires not only skill in flying aircraft, but in the logistics arena, the maintenance arena, and all those support elements such as air traffic control and medical care.
“We have those expertise within the brigade, and we are partnering up in each of those areas to help advise, train and assist our Iraqi counterparts, so that they’re better able to provide security for their country,” he said.
The Iraqi army has followed the U.S. military’s model by assuming control of the military’s helicopter units, which were formerly assigned to the Iraqi air force.
Small teams from the Air Force are officially responsible for training the Iraqi pilots. Army aviation’s involvement with the Iraqi aviators is primarily focused on sharing knowledge and experience.
Units are organized by region, much like U.S. Army National Guard units. On Camp Taji, the eCAB, 1st Inf. Div. is partnered with the Taji Wing. The wing is comprised of four flight squadrons and two support units. Much like their U.S. counterparts, each squadron has a specialized mission; U.S. battalions and Iraqi squadrons have been partnered according to these missions.
The 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 1st Aviation Regiment, one of the eCAB’s battalions, is partnered with the Taji Wing’s 2nd Squadron. The battalion recently completed its fourth joint mission with that squadron.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Damon Hutton, a pilot and safety officer with the battalion’s Company A, flew the mission.
“The aviators we dealt with are very good pilots, and very ready to take control of their country’s airspace,” said Hutton. “They were all for working with us. Everything about the partnership has been very mutual.”
The mission was a routine, low-level flight around the Baghdad area, and was focused more on team-building and a public display of partnership than training, Hutton said.
“The biggest thing we’ve been able to show them is the detail with which we plan our missions,” said Hutton.
Lt. Col. Kenneth Chase, commander of the 1st Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, another of the eCAB’s subordinate units, has also flown a joint mission with the Iraqi aviators. The mission, Operation Handshake, was the brigade’s first partnership event.
“We flew low so the Iraqi people could see us flying as friends,” said Chase. “It’s the same thing that we do with our strategic partners around the world.”
“We’re continuing to build that relationship, not just with the Iraqi army or the Iraqi people, but fellow pilots who enjoy doing what they do.”
Chase emphasized that the partnerships were focused primarily on “cementing a strong bond between our two forces,” and that the Iraqi army is already a fully capable force.
“This is their home, their backyard, and they’ve got a familiarity with it and a way of doing missions that makes it very obvious that they know what they’re doing,” said Chase.
“They are doing unilateral operations by themselves everyday without us, and really at this point we’re focused on maintaining a friendship with our fellow aviators.”
Personnel working in Camp Taji’s air traffic control tower have a similar relationship with the Iraqi army. The tower is manned 24-hours a day by controllers from the brigade, the Iraqi army, and contractors from the Washington Consulting Group, which specializes in international air traffic management, operations and training.
The Iraqi military follows the standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization, while the battalion’s controllers adhere to the Federal Aviation Administration’s standards. Therefore, the official responsibility for training the Iraqi controllers lies with the WCG contractors, said Sgt. Larry Sanders, a controller working in the tower.
The battalion’s troops do, however, help assist the Iraqi controllers in some of the universal aspects of air traffic control.
“Our focus is on running the tower, but working with them every day, we naturally help with the training,” said Sanders.
Sanders said that the biggest challenge in training the Iraqi controllers is the language barrier, but added that this has become less of an issue since the beginning of the deployment.
“Our relationship with them has always been really good. They’re always ready to work, and we get the job done,” said Sanders.
While the brigade’s primary intent of the partnering with the Iraqis is to forge a strong relationship between their organizations, some of the brigade’s troops are directly involved in training Iraqi soldiers.
Soldiers from the 601st Aviation Support Battalion are training mechanics from an Iraqi maintenance unit in vehicle maintenance and other hands-on trades.
“This is why we’re here right now, to help the Iraqis take over their own country without our support,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jeffrey Turner, a senior automotive technician who regularly trains with the Iraqi army.
Mechanics from the battalion train Iraqi mechanics three days a week, said Turner.
“For guys like me, who were here at the beginning of the war, it’s good to start closing things up by training the Iraqis to be independent,” said Turner.
Soldiers from the brigade’s headquarters company trained Iraqi soldiers on the fundamentals of marksmanship with the M16 rifle this summer. The troops schooled their Iraqi counterparts on the basics of shooting and cleaning the weapon in a continued effort by the Army to replace the Iraqi military’s arsenal of older AK47s with new weapons.
"For their first time, they shot very well, even compared to some U.S. Soldiers," said Sgt. Kevin Averre after the training.
The eCAB is scheduled to redeploy to Fort Riley this March, but will be replaced by another aviation brigade.
“We will continue to stress the importance of our partnerships while we are here, and I hope that we can successfully pass the mission on to our replacements,” said Thomson.
Article by Spc. Roland Hale, Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division