RAF's Gulf Commander Looks to the Future
(Source: UK Ministry of Defence; issued June 23, 2008)
As the UK's Air Component Commander in the Gulf and Air Officer Commanding 83 Expeditionary Air Group, Air Cdre Mike Harwood has a sizeable task. With over 1,300 RAF personnel under his command, deployed in five different countries, operating from a raft of fixed and ad hoc sites, not to mention a whole range of aircraft including Tornado, Royal Navy Merlins, and the new kid on the block, the RAF's Reaper Unmanned Aerial Vehicle at his disposal, he is a busy man.

Talking to him, however, you soon realise he is also somebody with a true grasp of both the capabilities and the limitations of modern Air Power and what it can contribute to military campaigns. He also recognises that the UK is having to work with, and fit into, what is a huge multinational effort:

"Our relationship with America is more important than anything," he says firmly. "We work very efficiently together. But each nation (in the coalition) brings its own ideas about why it's playing the game here, what is it doing, what is it prepared to offer, how much resource is it going to put into it such as people, aeroplanes etc and they all have different rules so it's a real challenge to sit down at the table and discuss these issues. We have to make sure we understand each other.

"The Air environment, because of its nature and because all the airmen speak English, means we can fly together, which is fantastic, and we cooperate far more easily than people do in other environments. It needs people at all levels to work through the issues and keep talking, all the time."

Some tough decisions have been made in recent months to ensure the RAF's Air assets are being deployed as efficiently as they can be. That has meant moving some assets around, much like you might do pieces on a chess board. For Air Cdre Harwood, though, it has been essential:

"We've got quite a big presence here because we've moved out of other locations," he explained. "So we've withdrawn some aircraft types, for instance from Iraq, so as the situation changes we can afford to move to different places. On purely cost grounds we try and minimise the number of bases we operate from out of. In Air terms the RAF's contribution is between five and ten percent of the whole effort here and that's a decision that's been made politically and militarily, and that's good enough for me."

Having his personnel dispersed across a wide geographical area means he spends a lot of his time travelling to various locations across the Middle East and beyond to meet them and find out what they are thinking. But what are the issues his people raise with him when he sits down for a cup of tea and a chat with them in, say, Camp Bastion?

"We're all the same in that we miss home and our families, we miss greenery, because we're in a very different part of the world," he says with a genuine sense that he understands the difficulties all military personnel experience when they deploy overseas for a prolonged period. He has enough experience of it himself having spent considerable time on deployed operations during his RAF career, including the role of Deployed Operating Base Commander in Kuwait during Op Telic in 2003:

"Contact is really important and we make every effort to make that something which our people can do easily," he continues. "Everybody gets their free thirty minutes a week to phone their families. Invariably we also often have access to the Internet which is the world's godsend which allows people to communicate regularly. That is really important because the ability to 'chat', even 'on line', helps us feel like we are still in touch with our loved ones.

"As an airman you always want to do more if you can but all the time you're trying to find better ways to do things. We've learned to innovate because if you don't, you will lose. Even with a small amount you eek it out, and it's terrific watching what all the characters do with what they have.

"Each role that we perform, from command and control to Intelligence gathering, air transport, the tankers, strike forces, all sorts of different types of aeroplanes, it's one hell of a challenge. I think we contribute enough; if we could do more we would, but we do what we must."

With the Reaper Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) hitting the headlines recently after firing its first missile in anger in Afghanistan, Air Cdre Harwood acknowledges the value UAVs, which he controls, are making to the wider military campaign:

"Most of the time our UAVs are silent and high, and unseen, and they get on with their job of Intelligence gathering. So the less anybody on the ground knows about what they are doing the better. It will always be slightly cloak and dagger, which for me is great.

"What has it brought? Well they are using far less fuel petrol than the aeroplanes and so they are much more cost effective and they can stay up for a long time, sometimes 15-20 hours. And you can put them in places you might not put human beings. I tend to treat them very carefully as I don't want to lose them, but it's nice that when you have threats out there, you can put one up and if it gets shot down, nobody has got hurt."

Although he believes the end game in both Iraq and Afghanistan is always about finding a political solution, Air Cdre Harwood recognises the gradual move by the coalition and its adversaries in both Iraq and Afghanistan towards what he describes as "irregular warfare", with both sides using asymmetric tactics; the Taliban and Iraqi militias have adopted improvised explosive devices and suicide bombs as their weapons of choice while the coalition is using air power to try and seize the initiative:

"We have the ability, with precision weapons, to hit anything we like these days," he concluded. "But it's not just about boots on the ground it's about politicians, diplomats and spiritual leaders and their 'political boots'; it's about businesses and street markets and 'economic boots'; and it's about boots in the Air, Land, Sea, Space, and Cyberspace; and, of course, when we are only guests in someone else's country, those boots need to tread lightly, carefully and even silently if we are to be a success."

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