INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey --- Airmen at this crucial base in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria are feeling a sense of accomplishment after Iraqi ground forces cleared eastern Mosul of the enemy, Air Force Col. David Trucksa, commander of the 447th Air Expeditionary Group, said here.
The group provides air support for Iraqi forces battling ISIS and for Syrian forces confronting the group around Raqqa. "At the height of the East Mosul operation, we were dropping a bomb on an ISIS target every eight minutes, 24 hours a day," Trucksa said in an interview.
The colonel spoke to the press today during a visit by Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Base Plays Key Role in Counter-ISIS Campaign
A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft supported by tankers and intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance assets from the base are a key part of the success of the campaign.
It has been a challenge. Last year, the threat of possible terror attacks against the base meant family members were evacuated. In July, the coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shuttered the base and stopped operations for a short while.
After a period of uncertainty, operations again ramped up and A-10s, supported by KC-135 tankers and ISR assets, took the fight to the enemy.
And then in October the Iraqi offensive to liberate Mosul from ISIS ratcheted up the tempo.
The Air Force deployment schedule causes its own churn. There are only four people on operations that were here in December, Trucksa said.
Yet the training that squadrons receive before coming to Incirlik prepares them well, the colonel said. "We had back-to-back A-10 [deployments] from the Air National Guard, and now have an active duty squadron from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona," he said. "They arrived just over a month ago, so they have been getting their spin up, getting used to flying here."
The obvious difference between Guard and active units is the experience levels. Guard units typically have much more experience flying the aircraft -- thousands of hours versus hundreds. In the current fighter squadron only four of their pilots had ever deployed before, so this operation is their first combat time.
"It's a testament to the training process eight to ten months prior ... to get ready for this, so Day 1, they roll in ready to do the mission," Trucksa said.
And the deployments are demanding. "In my previous experience, you could go weeks before you actually employ weapons," the colonel said. "These guys, the first time across the line, they are actually employing weapons and doing it well."
There is also churn on the tanker side as well. The tankers are centered around a unit from Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, but it is scheduled to finish in a couple of weeks and a new unit is coming in, Trucksa said. Again, he added, training and the deliberate deployment process will mean they are ready to do their jobs on arrival.
'We Are Doing More'
As all these changes occur, the mission grows. "We are doing more," he said. The operation to liberate Mosul began in October and took 100 days to liberate the eastern half of the second-largest city in Iraq.
"January was the highest number of weapons released in Operation Inherent Resolve since the beginning," he said. He noted that airmen dropped 227 bombs on ISIS targets just during President Donald J. Trump's inauguration on January 20.
Even with all the changes and the uncertainty caused by the attempted coup, morale on base remains high. The airmen had a real uplift at Christmas when Americans sent care packages to airmen on the base. "I think our postal center was overrun with folks sending stuff for the troops overseas," Trucksa said. "It was pretty cool and ... a visible show of American pride and patriotism."
But even the holidays didn't slow the work at the base. The missions continued. Morale stayed high because of the progress being made on the ground. "A lot of people didn't want to leave, I got a lot of people who wanted to stay to see this through," Trucksa said. "They felt this was the most rewarding deployment they have been on. I had no problems getting people to work because they believe they are helping."
Moving forward there are many questions -- mostly hinging on what ISIS does. "Will they stand in western Mosul and fight to the death? Will they try to reconstitute back in Syria?" he said. "We just don't know, but we have to be prepared for it all."
Trucksa added, "With our precision munitions we limit as much collateral damage as we can. We're not carpet bombing-the city. We pinpoint the target and kill them as required per the ground commander's request. Right now, we haven't changed the weapons types we've been loading because we think it may be the same as the East."
In Raqqa, the shaping phase of the campaign continues and counter-ISIS forces are surrounding the city. "Once they push into the city, we will see how effective [ISIS's] resistance is," he said. "It's their so-called capital and they have had years to fortify it. We expect them to put up a fight for it."