August 30, 2005

U.S. General Says Iraqis Will Need Longtime Support From Air Force



WASHINGTON, Aug. 29 - The Air Force's top general said Monday that American warplanes would have to support Iraq's fledgling security forces well after American ground troops eventually withdraw from the country.

Gen. John P. Jumper, who is to step down this week as the Air Force chief of staff, predicted that American fighter and reconnaissance aircraft would continue flying missions over Iraq for a long time, until Iraqi forces are capable of fighting insurgents on their own.

"As I see the transition into the hands of the Iraqi military, I will continue to see the need for them to require the support from the air until they're able to set up their own ability to support themselves," General Jumper told reporters at the Pentagon. "And that's going to take a while, even after some future withdrawal of ground forces."

In an interview earlier this month, General Jumper was even more explicit when asked about the Air Force's future in Iraq. "We will continue with a rotational presence of some type in that area more or less indefinitely," he said.

"We have interests in that part of the world and an interest in staying in touch with the militaries over there."

American and other allied combat aircraft, including remotely piloted Predator drones, now fly about 50 close-air support and armed reconnaissance missions every day. Iraq's tiny air force consists of just a few cargo and reconnaissance planes; the main allied effort has been to rebuild the Iraqi ground forces.

A small number of the American planes are in Iraq, and if they remain there, they would have to be protected, probably by United States ground forces. But many American warplanes also fly missions over Iraq from other countries in the region.

In the wide-ranging interview with reporters on Monday, General Jumper said the loss of access to an important air base in Uzbekistan could be offset without hurting combat operations and relief missions in Afghanistan.

"We have plenty of alternatives," he said, without identifying them. "From a political point of view, I'm disappointed we've been asked to leave. From a mission point of view, we're going to get the mission just fine."

He also said that despite a decision last week by the military base-closing commission to keep Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota open and to delay the closing of Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, as well as to restore some proposed shifts of Air National Guard units, the panel approved about 70 percent of the Pentagon's recommendations affecting Air Force bases.

"That's still a considerable amount of change," General Jumper said. "I don't look at it as a severe blow. I look at it as getting actually most of what we asked for."

Four previous commissions each endorsed about 85 percent of the Defense Department's recommendations to close, consolidate or shift military sites. A Pentagon spokesman, Glenn Flood, said Pentagon analysts were still calculating the results of the panel's decisions last week.

General Jumper, 60, whose first day at the office as chief of staff was Sept. 11, 2001, will be succeeded Friday by the Air Force vice chief of staff, Gen. T. Michael Moseley.