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Airmen Fill the Gaps in Wartime

Thousands of Air Force personnel are being sent to Iraq and Afghanistan to perform low-tech roles and help the Army keep up force levels.

October 11, 2005|Mark Mazzetti and Greg Miller | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Straining to find ground troops to maintain its force levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon has begun deploying thousands of Air Force personnel to combat zones in new jobs as interrogators, prison sentries and gunners on supply trucks.

The Air Force years ago banked its future on state-of-the-art fighter jets and billion-dollar satellites. Yet the service that has long avoided being pulled into ground operations is now finding that its people -- rather than its weapons -- are what the Pentagon needs most as it wages a prolonged war against a low-tech, insurgent enemy.

Individual branches have spent decades carving out unique roles within the U.S. military, and Air Force officials insist that the redeployment of its personnel is temporary. Nonetheless, the reassignments come as another sign that the Pentagon is struggling to meet the demands of what military officials have begun calling "the long war."

As part of the effort, more than 3,000 Air Force personnel are being assigned new roles. And they are being dispatched to combat zones for longer tours of duty -- as much as 12 months rather than four.

The changes within the Air Force, even if temporary, run counter to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's overall vision of the military as a lighter, faster and more lethal force that relies on technology and efficiency to accomplish national security goals more quickly.

The situation also represents a reversal of sorts for the Air Force, which had played a dominant role in recent conflicts, including the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the war to expel Serbian troops from Kosovo.

"At that point the Air Force looked to be the dominant service," said Steve Kosiak, a military analyst at the independent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

"That has changed."

In the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, Kosiak said, the Army has been the dominant branch.

"It's been the Army, and the Air Force has played a supporting role," Kosiak said.

Air Force officials said they are expecting to commit another 1,000 airmen to missions such as guarding prisons and driving trucks over the next few years, but they don't plan to make these jobs "core competencies" within the Air Force.

Pentagon planners believe that the counterinsurgency battles being waged in Iraq and Afghanistan could become the norm for the U.S. military. And, with the Pentagon engaged in a top-to-bottom assessment of the U.S. military's missions -- an exercise known as the Quadrennial Defense Review -- the high-flying service could be spending more time on the ground in the years ahead, Air Force officials said.

One urgent problem now being addressed by the Air Force is the shortage of trained interrogators to question the thousands of detainees being held in U.S. military prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Reeling from a shortage of personnel specializing in military intelligence as well as from abuse scandals in the treatment and interrogation of detainees, the military is in the midst of a major overhaul to deal with the issue. In the next five years, the Pentagon plans to add 9,000 military intelligence personnel, including more than 3,000 new interrogators.

"The demand side is that there are people being put into the system that need to have folks talk to them," said Col. Steven Pennington, commander of the Air Force Operations Group. "I don't think any of us thought there would be this amount of demand."

The first Air Force interrogation teams were deployed to Afghanistan this year. Most belonged to the Air Force's internal investigative service, had experience questioning suspects and didn't require additional training. But subsequent Air Force interrogation teams, drawn from an array of unrelated jobs, are undergoing 16-week interrogation courses at the Army's intelligence academy at Ft. Huachuca, Ariz.

"They are not necessarily operating too far outside their basic skill set, but they are operating in an environment they're not normally trained to operate in," said Maj. Brenda Campbell, an Air Force spokeswoman.

The first class of 50 Air Force students arrived at Ft. Huachuca during the summer, and are scheduled to complete the course this month.

During one recent class, an Army instructor was giving his Air Force pupils an overview of interrogation "approaches" designed to get prisoners to talk. He spent the better part of an hour describing such psychological ploys as "fear up" and "pride and ego down," which are designed to prey on prisoners' anxieties and feelings of inadequacy.

But many students were still struggling with more elementary aspects of the job, such as how to manage the physical space of an interrogation booth.

"Do you allow your source to move?" one airman asked.

Only to the extent that their movements reveal something about their mind-set, the instructor replied.

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