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Air Commandos build bonds with African country

by Capt. Tom Montgomery
Air Force Special Operations Command Public Affairs

9/30/2005 - HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. (AFPN) -- A select team of combat aviation advisors from the 6th Special Operations Squadron here recently deployed to the edge of the Sahara desert to train with the fledgling Niger Air Force.

Because the 6th SOS has been to Niger numerous times, the air commandos understand how to adapt to living and working in one of the world’s poorest countries during the joint training exercise. The air commandos are also culturally and linguistically trained.

“The goal of the training during this deployment was for both air forces to enhance their already solid working relationship and promote an open exchange of ideas,” said Jerry Klingaman, 6th SOS director of strategy and plans.

Niger, located in the middle of the Trans-Saharan region of Africa, is an important ally in the fight against international terrorism, said Gail Dennise Mathieu, U.S. ambassador to Niger.

In the past, terrorist organizations have been able to exploit the remote, harsh terrain and use the Trans-Sahara to their advantage. Terrorist groups and their supporters have funneled cash, recruits and weapons across the vast stretches of the Sahara -- a desert as large as the continental United States, Mr. Klingaman said.

Niger’s air force, less than two years old, has about 300 airmen and 10 operational aircraft, including a C-130 Hercules and a Russian built Mi-17 multi-role helicopter. The air commandos from Hurlburt Field can fly and maintain both aircraft.

“Our air force is very small, but we are improving, and we are learning,” said Nigerian Col. Hassan Mossi, Niger Air Force vice chief of staff. “It is extremely important for us to continue working with the U. S. Air Force. We love working with these guys because they understand our needs as airmen, they understand our national culture and they make an effort to speak our language.”

French is Niger’s official language.

The air commando team and Nigerians flew the C-130 and Mi-17 extensively during the exercise, practicing tactical skills such as low-level navigation and remote-landing-zone infiltration.

“We learned a lot about crew coordination, which is very difficult,” said Nigerian Capt. Amirou Abdulkader, a Mi-17 pilot.

The exercise wasn’t all about flying, however. In addition to pilots and navigators, the 6th SOS brought along other aircrew members, maintainers, medical personnel, security forces, flight engineers and engine mechanics.

“I wish I could have (the 6th SOS) in every country every day of the week,” said Air Force Gen. Robert H. “Doc” Foglesong, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe during his visit to Niger. During his visit, the general flew with the air commandos and the Nigerians aboard the C-130. General Foglesong is responsible for air operations in Europe and most of Africa.

“(These Airmen have) an ability to lash-up with these partner nations in such a way as to be very user friendly,” General Foglesong added. “We must remember that we can’t fight trans-national terrorism individually. Collective security is vital to the next decade of democracy.”

The U.S. government is currently engaging in a multi-faceted effort, called the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative, to deny terrorists any safe haven they may have enjoyed in the region. The initiative’s goal is to improve the capabilities of Trans-Saharan governments so they can effectively prevent or remove terrorist threats themselves. The military component is called Operation Enduring Freedom - Trans Sahara.

The exercise kept Airmen from both air forces busy in the air and the briefing rooms. At the end, the two air forces had practiced numerous aviation tactics, aircraft and perimeter security, airbase defense, detailed maintenance procedures, search and rescue operations and a full-scale mass casualty scenario that involved the national hospital, emergency response teams, and the C-130 and Mi-17.

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