Wednesday, November 22, 2006

FROM THE PUBLISHER >>General who served here runs mobile war center

A group of airmen inside a metal building near the flightline at Little Rock Air Force Base were talking shop while they stood near several covered pallets of cargo last week, when Gen. Scott Gray, commander of Air Mobility Warfare Center at Fort Dix, N.J., walked in.

As soon as the airmen saw the general enter, they saluted smartly, and he told them, “At ease.” They were taking part in an exercise to test the most advanced cargo delivery system in the world, using global-positioning to guide parachutes and their cargo within a few feet of their target, but from a much higher altitude, which makes it safer for crews delivering their payload since they’re farther away from potential hostile fire.
Like smart bombs, the GPS-guided pallets almost always hit their targets. “It will save American lives,” Gray said.

Ten active-duty, as well as National Guard and Reserve units, had come from across the country to learn about the joint precision-aerial delivery systems (or JPADS) and improved container-delivery systems (ICDS) under the command of Gen. Gray’s Air Mobility Warfare Center.

A joint effort by the Air Force and the Army, the systems are a giant leap from 50-year-old technology to the satellite-driven delivery system. The military appears ready to switch to the new system for delivery of weapons and supplies to troops on the ground, relying less on trucks traveling in convoys in war zones, including Afghanistan and Iraq. Gen. Gray, former commander of the 463rd Airlift Group at LRAFB, told us the system was successfully tested in Afghanistan, and the Pentagon is accelerating the program, pushing it up five years ahead of schedule.

“We took it to Afghanistan last summer and dropped ammunition in combat,” Gray said in an interview at the 34th Combat Training Squadron, which hosted the exercise under the command of Lt. Col. Jeff Szczepanik.

The pallets landed while there was a firefight on the ground. The plane was out of harm’s way because it wasn’t anywhere near where hostilities were taking place. The state-of-the-art system works from altitudes as high as 25,000-35,000 feet, in all kinds of weather and under the most adverse conditions, the general said.

“It’s totally irrelevant if you can see the ground,” said Gray, whose direct manner reminds one of Gen. Curtis LeMay, the longtime head of Strategic Air Command. “This is still a test program,” Gray added, but he is certain the system will be implemented soon. The smallest system is listed at $65,000 for each plane, although those that can guide bigger loads will probably cost much more than that.

The exercise at Little Rock Air Force Base included flights to rural areas in C-130 and C-17 Globe-master cargo planes. For the first time, crews here used the global-positioning systems and steerable parachutes, with the planes dropping their cargo thousands of feet from their targets.

“This is fitting that this training is being done at the home of the Hercules and C-130 Center of Excellence,” Gray said. “This is another historic first for Little Rock Air Force Base.”

Gray’s Air Mobility Center is the incubator for the new military technology. The center also teaches thousands of airmen about landing in hostile areas, setting up bases almost overnight and making sure they’re well supplied.

“We’re like a university,” the general explained. “We teach 13,000 students a year. We offer a full-spectrum of courses, including a master’s degree.” Students learn about air mobility, logistics and supply and about how to establish an air base from scratch. The war center teaches students “how to deploy and employ forces.”

“We help a wing commander run his base anywhere in the world,” Gray said.
From 1997-98, when he was still a colonel, he was commander at the 463rd Airlift Group at Little Rock Air Force Base, which will become a full-fledged wing at the base, with additional personnel and C-130Js.

Gray held several important posts before he took command of the Air Mobility Warfare Center. From 2003-2005, he was the commander at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, which is home to Air Force One.

It was there that he greeted President Bush and his wife Laura as they traveled around the world. (C.J. Wax, another former commander at LRAFB, was in charge of Andrews during the Clinton presidency.) Gray recalled the arrangements for Ronald Reagan’s funeral in 2004. The former president’s casket was flown to Andrews Air Force Base. Scores of dignitaries also landed at the base and were driven to Washington. Reagan’s casket lay in state at the Capitol Rotunda, while thousands of mourners passed by. “The sun was shining when he arrived,” the general recalled. “Skies were gray when he left, and it started to mist. My wife (Jackie) and I were the only ones on the flightline, I got to represent every American military member.”

Looking out the window toward the flightline at Little Rock Air Force Base, where cargo planes landed every few minutes, Gray said Ronald Reagan did more to defeat communism than anyone else in the world. “Ronald Reagan and (former British Prime Minister) Margaret Thatcher were created to bring down communism. We didn’t think it would happen.” It was raining here, too, just as it was on the day Ronald Reagan’s casket flew back home to California.