Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Right Men in the Right Place

In an earlier post, we cautioned against reading too much into current U.S. military moves in the Persian Gulf. Nothing we've seen (so far) suggests that President Bush has made a decision to attack Iran. However, the Commander-in-Chief is wisely keeping his options open, in the event that a strike becomes necessary.

The most likely impetus for that scenario remains the Iranian nuclear program, or more specifically, hard evidence that Tehran is about to acquire--or has actually acquired--atomic weapons. Readers will note that most "official" U.S. estimates put that timetable toward the end of this decade. Those assessments may be based (in part) on information provided by that recent Iranian defector, who reportedly spied for the west for more than four years.

However, there are other events that might prompt a U.S. military strike against Iran, including attacks against our naval vessels and oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, or a "mass casualty" event among American troops in Iraq that can be traced to Tehran.

While we don't see anything in the tea leaves that would suggest that military action is imminent (on either side), it is interesting to note some of the moves the Pentagon is making, just in case. In some instances, these preparations have been widely publicized, such as the decision to send more Patriot missile batteries to the Persian Gulf Region. Those weapons would be vital in defending airfields, ports, logistics centers and troop concentrations from Iranian air and missile attacks.

In other cases, moves are being made at the "micro" level, to ensure the right leaders are in place--if the balloon goes up. Consider the recent announcement that Air Force Brigadier Generals Larry Wells and Burton Field are being reassigned to head Air Expeditionary Wings in the United Arab Emirates and Iraq, respectively.

While such rotations occur on a regular basis--both positions are one-year "remote" tours, it's no accident that General Wells and General Field were selected for those assignments. Both are experienced wing commanders; Field's currently leads the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley AFB, VA, the Air Force's first F-22 unit. He also served a tour as commander of the 8th Fighter Wing (located at Kunsan AB, Korea), and has decades of experience as an F-16 pilot. Just the sort of guy you'd want as commander of the 332nd Wing at Balad, the base that serves as our primary fighter hub in Iraq--and could be a potential staging base for operations against Iran.

General Wells is also an experienced F-16 driver who most recently served as Assistant Director of Operations for the Air Force Air Combat Command (ACC). Before that, he was Commander of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale AFB, California, home of the Air Force's U-2 fleet, and key elements of the intelligence architecture that support that aircraft and our UAVs. As it happens, General Wells new assignment will put him in charge of an organization (the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing) that "owns" much of our air refueling and reconnaissance capability in the Persian Gulf. The 380th is located at Al Dhafra, AB, a facility used by U.S. forces since the first Gulf War.

Obviously, the assignment of two Air Force brigadier generals to lead these units is not a harbinger of imminent hostilities against Iran. But as our stand-off with Tehran nears a critical phase, it's clear that USAF leadership wants its most experienced commanders to lead front-line units, just in case.

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