USAF on the GroundThis time last year, for the first time in its nearly 60-year history, the US Air Force (USAF) was employing ground troops to take the fight to the enemy in Iraq.
While the USAF has long had its own security personnel and other ground forces, such as forward air controllers, Task Force (TF) 1041 is the Air Force's first unit trained and equipped specifically for offensive ground combat operations. With its 223 personnel, TF 1041 was tasked with disrupting the activities of anti-Iraqi forces around Balad Air Base, near the Tigris River, during operations that lasted from Jan. 1 through March 4 of last year. According to Capt. Kyle Hurwitz, who served in Iraq as part of TF 1041, the unit executed over 69 joint combat patrols (with the US Army and Marines), 495 USAF offensive combat patrols, 109 "hasty" raids, and three counter-intelligence missions. The result: a 95% reduction in attacks on Balad AB.
Before TF 1041 began operations early last year, Balad AB found itself a frequent target of attacks by Iraqi insurgents – in fact, on average, three indirect-fire attacks each day, Capt. Hurwitz said. At one point, the Air Force even considered stopping flights out of Balad, but the service later decided "to go find the bad guys that're threatening our personnel," he said.
Though technically part of the USAF's 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, TF 1041 was usually under the tactical control of the Army's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (which is now handling TF 1041's mission on its own). This cooperation between the two services also included training of USAF snipers at the Army Sniper School (Ft. Benning, GA).
But the most important cooperation between the Air Force and Army, as well as the Marines, took place out in the field on missions. As Capt. Hurwitz explained, Iraqi insurgents would cross the Tigris to get close to Balad AB, launch an indirect-fire attack, and then escape back across the river. US Marines in boats, he said, were frequently called upon to stop the insurgent traffic over the Tigris. Capt. Hurwitz also recounted one instance in which US Army Kiowa helicopters from the 1-17 Cavalry Regiment, 82nd Airborne, were called in to provide air support in order to stop one boat in particular, which led to an USAF first – the first time the Air Force had ever captured a boat.
TF 1041 was also very successful in capturing the insurgents themselves, including what Capt. Hurwitz called "18 high-value targets, three with national import," as well as six weapons caches. "We use focused intelligence," Capt. Hurwitz said, "to find the bad guy and hopefully capture or kill him."
Not bad for a service that almost always fights from the air, but perhaps even more impressive was the number of casualties suffered by TF 1041: zero.