September 14 Defense Department Briefing

By The Pentagon, The Pentagon - September 14, 2011

                 MR. GEORGE LITTLE:  Good morning.  I'd like to welcome to the Pentagon Briefing Room for the first time Major General Russ Handy, the Commander, 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Iraq, and Director, Air Component Coordination Element-Iraq. 

                General Handy has served in Iraq for the past 13 months.  With his two positions, he is the senior U.S. Air Force representative in Iraq, and represents the Combined Forces Air Component commander to the commanding general, U.S. Forces-Iraq. 

                He'll make an opening comment, and then we'll take your questions.  And with that, I'll turn it over to the general.  Thank you. 

                MAJOR GENERAL RUSSELL HANDY:  Thanks very much, and good morning, everyone.  I am Russ Handy.  As the senior airman in Iraq, I represent the commander of United States Forces-Iraq, General Lloyd Austin, as we complete Operation New Dawn, as his senior airman. 

                It's a very exciting yet challenging time to serve in Iraq -- exciting because we're afforded the opportunity at this point to see the results of years of progress by many, many Americans -- hard-earned progress.  Iraqis, coalition partners have come before us as we assist the men and women of this free nation of Iraq rebuild their capacity on a path to be able to stand alone as a stable, self-reliant and unified nation.  It's challenging because, as we continue to establish this enduring strategic partnership, we are re-posturing or redeploying some 50,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, and civilians from Iraq, and transitioning bases, facilities and infrastructure to the government of Iraq and our U.S. embassy partners. 

                The airmen I have the privilege of leading in Iraq now through this challenge have a very important role in the transition, as we continue to perform all the roles and missions that you know we've been performing for a number of years in Iraq, such as over watch of our forces with intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance; close-air support; air mobility, including airlift and air refueling; aerial port operations; personnel recovery; air base management.  We're doing all of that while we're also re-posturing all of our forces -- so, again, a challenging time. 

                And in addition to these traditional air component tasks, you'll find airmen working together with their joint partners in just about every area in the country, to include engineering analysts, logistics specialists.  And just about everywhere you go in Iraq, you'll find airmen working with their joint partners. 

                An officer I respect greatly once told me that he thinks of every challenge as an opportunity, and we certainly have many opportunities in Iraq right now.  As I walk the ground in Baghdad and I think back when I came into the Air Force, what this country was, the brutal regime that these men and women were living under, being ruled really through fear and intimidation, each small achievement gives me great hope. 

                When I return to Iraq from this short trip, from the States, for example, and visit the air traffic control facility that's in Baghdad, I won't find very many Americans in the room.  These controllers, Iraqis, helped by their contractor partners -- Iraqi men and women, by the way -- are largely all Iraqis controlling their civil air space.  And when the secretary of the Air Force, our Air Force, visited Iraq recently and I took him around to show him Iraqi Air Force units doing intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, or airlift or aircraft maintenance, the airmen briefing him were not Americans; they were Iraqis.  If you did this about a year ago, you'd find Americans briefing many of those functions.  And these were proud, young, energetic young Iraqi airmen, very proud of their nation and what they represent. 

                Our Air Force personnel who've helped the Iraqi Air Force and the Iraqi Army Aviation Command progress to where they are now have much to be proud of. 

                These advisers have been very successful, extraordinarily so.  If you think about it, in the last five years, that force -- that Iraqi air force, Iraqi Army Aviation Command team has grown tenfold.  And from our active air adviser role, we've had American airmen resident in all of those units. And as the Iraqis are moving forward and we're transitioning, we are handing more and more of those functions completely over to the Iraqis.  And those proud young Iraqi airmen I spoke of still give us great hope. 

                Despite some amazing progress, as you know, Iraq remains a dangerous place.  We know that and we prioritize force protection for our people  There are those out there that would still seek to do us harm and do the Iraqis harm.  There are those out there that would love to do their best to weaken the government of Iraq and diminish their resolve.  Given recent events in the region, though, and understanding of just how important Iraq is to regional security, our airmen know that this is worthy work.  They know how important the stability of this country is to the region. 

                And now I want to talk about what you want to talk about, so without further ado, I'll let -- turn the microphone over to you for questions.                               

                CAPT. JANE CAMPBELL:  (Off mic.) 

                Q:  Raghubir Goyal, India Globe and India Today.  My question is that, like you said, recent events in the region -- I am sure you mentioned about maybe Afghanistan.  What I'm asking you, two questions.  One, what generals or people on the ground in Afghanistan or Afghanis can learn from Iraq as far as progress in Iraq is concerned?                

                And second, you said still a dangerous place, Iraq, despite all these years.  Where this danger is coming from?  You think that still Iran has any hand as far as supporting the terrorists or Taliban or al-Qaida? 

                GEN. HANDY:  Well, the second question first.  I think that Iran does contribute to the violence we're seeing in the region.  Iranian-backed militia groups are really our primary source of violence, against both U.S. forces and Iraqi forces, and I want to make that point very clearly.  Many of the individuals that are targeted in these attacks are Iraqis.  These groups are breaking the law, groups like Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kata'ib Hezbollah, Promise Day Brigade, clearly receiving some backing from Iran.  And that's a very serious issue to us.  

                I think there are those in Iran that would like to see the government of Iraq weakened and not strong and not sovereign and not self-reliant, clearly against the objectives of the government of Iraq.  So I believe that is a very important thing that we need to keep in mind. 

                You mentioned al-Qaida.  Al-Qaida is still a threat.  Again, lately our stronger threat has been from these Iranian-backed militias, but we're still seeing al-Qaida try to disrupt, I believe, government formation initially and now to potentially discredit some portions of the Iraqi government through attacks.  All of those are very significant. 

                To get to your second question, from an Afghanistan perspective, as you know, Afghanistan and Iraq are very different places; very different political dynamics in Afghanistan and Iraq, very different potential, natural resources, form of government, if you will.  But one thing my colleagues and I talk a lot about between Iraq and Afghanistan now are the lessons we're learning about transitioning to a redeployment, a re-posture mode while at the same time we continue operations.  

                So there really are a lot of just basic logistics and infrastructure issues.  How do you transition an airfield, for example, to another government while you still operate out of there, and how long can you operate out of there?  Can you operate out of that airfield while that host nation operates it?  What are the limits -- the capabilities and the limits of the U.S. embassy in the country where you are, and how much operations can they take?  Because we're working very much on a parallel path.  As we transition to the government of Iraq some capabilities, there are many capabilities transitioning to the embassy, who will be there for years to come. 

                Q:  Can you update us on the Iraqi request to buy F-16s? 

                GEN. HANDY:  Very promising.  I do not have any word yet that the letter of offer and acceptance is signed, but as you probably know, we did have a senior member of the Iraqi government visit Washington.  There was some great work done on that.  Everyone that I talk to at every level of government in Iraq is convinced that that's the right approach for them. And so we're very encouraged by those words and we feel that we're very close to them signing that letter of offer and acceptance. 

                As you know, they are seeking to buy a larger number of F-16s than they had originally, up to 36.  This first letter of offer and acceptance is for 18 of them.  And so we hope to hear a very soon that that's signed, but no word -- final word yet on that. 

                Q:  There would have to be a subsequent letter if there -- obviously if there were going to be additional sales? 

                GEN. HANDY:  There would, there would.  And actually we could -- I think the Iraqis could have done it either way.  They could have marched forward and done a letter of offer and acceptance for all 36.  But I think what they discovered was, since we'd already done the work for that first 18, it was going to be a quicker way to process through and get those F-16s moving through the assembly line, if you will.  And so they made the decision to sign one for 18 as opposed to taking that extra delay and going for all 36. 

                Q:  And then just finally, what sort of timeline would that sale sort of play out on?  What sort of training and U.S. force -- U.S. personnel would be required to carry it out in Iraq? 

                GEN. HANDY:  The good news about the -- an F-16 purchase is, they purchased a complete package or will purchase a complete package, assuming that they do sign this.  So it includes training.  There are 10 pilots in the United States now training as we speak that initial cadre of -- and it takes about two years to produce an F-16 pilot when you look at the basic training.  English-language training, quite frankly, is sometimes the hardest thing in that first step before they enter the rest of the training pipeline.  And so we're looking at about a two-year process.  Some of those pilots may actually finish F-16 training before F-16s arrive in Iraq, and so the Iraqis are looking at ways of mitigating that.  Other nations have been known to buy flight time, for example, and fly F-16s elsewhere to stay current. 

                But to answer your first question directly, I can't give you an exact date.  I wouldn't want to speak for Lockheed and for -- and for the whole assembly line, but we believe that it's probably somewhere in late 2013 or early 2014 before they would see some initial capability within the country.

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