Karl Terry, Portales News-Tribune Managing Editor
This week Lt. Gen. Donald C. Wurster, recently appointed commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, Hurlburt Field, Fla., paid his first official visit to Cannon Air Force Base since taking command in November. He talked with Freedom New Mexico Wednesday in his first press interview since assuming that command.
Q. What brings you to Cannon and how often can we expect to see you here?
A. In AFSOC we have a a couple of groups overseas and we now have two wings, one east wing and one west wing. I hope to get out here routinely but not frequently. I’m sure Col. Timothy Leahy doesn’t need that much help. But it would be my desire often enough to stay in touch with the issues and the things we need to be working on and to pursue the relationships with the local communities that are so important to us.
Q. Give us your impressions of Cannon Air Force Base, its personnel, and its greatest assets for AFSOC.
A. First of all, this is a base that is running on all cylinders. It’s in great shape, it has terrific people, great energy, an excellent location, good facilities, the ramp space will be essential to the types of things we intend to base here. The warrior culture of Air Combat Command is exactly the kind of thing we’re looking for. So there are a lot of good things about Cannon.
The range is probably the jewel. Range space is getting more difficult to access, and having a range that is optimized for our night tactical operations is going to be useful, not only to us but to our sister components that we work with, the Navy Seals and the Army Special Forces and Rangers and the Marine special operators also. I think that the combination of capabilities and infrastructure here at Cannon are perfect for what we’re going to do.
Another really nice thing that you don’t really think about much we tend to keep aircraft for decades, and in this environment, we won’t run into salt water corrosion or things like that. So it’ll help us keep the airplanes in better shape. So there are a lot of positives about Cannon.
Q. In what ways should the people of eastern New Mexico expect to see the base and their communities transformed as AFSOC comes in?
A. I’m not sure that you would see a large transformation of the community. The base will grow over time, probably to about the size it was when the F-111s were here, in terms of population. Our crews are larger. A fighter plane has a single pilot; our crews have up to a dozen people that are part of the crew, some officers and some enlisted. But some of our airplanes just have a couple of people on them. I don’t think we’ll have a significant impact on the community. Our family and children will be going to your churches, they’ll be participating in your schools, they’ll be in your youth organizations, and you know parents will be involved in the types of things that parents do, just like the fighter wing before us and every other base.
There may be some differences that people will notice. They’ll hear the gunships firing at night, much like we do along the Florida Gulf coast. But like jet noise, it’s the sound of freedom, and it’s not intrusive.
Q. How much construction has started on base? How much is planned, and will the impact of that construction have a large effect on the community?
A. There will be some construction that would be required to support C-130-size aircraft. We need to be able to get the (aircraft) in out of the wind and weather when the conditions require so that we can open a fuel cell safely or things like that.
There is some construction that is already ongoing, primarily to get forces we hope to get in here sooner rather than later into a quality temporary posture such that they can continue to do their mission because some of them, as we speak, are directly engaged in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. So there is a program for that that is all subject to the Congressional appropriations and the approvals of the Department of Defense. It will come along, but it’s all stuff that we need; it’s been identified. There will be work for, I suspect, a long time.
Q. How will the personnel assigned to Cannon differ from what we’re used to? Is there a big difference demographically and socially between a fighter pilot and the crews associated with Special Operations?
A. If you send a fighter squadron to a place, you intend for it to be seen. Just it being there is a powerful signal of national intent and national power. So the mindset of projecting power visibly is something that is bred into the culture of the capable fighter community in the U.S. Air Force.
Our culture is slightly different. In many cases we seek to project power, not necessarily in a role that we want to influence the behavior of nations or leaders, but to achieve some specific sub-national objective. In those cases, generally we may be working discretely with a partner who may not have the same capability we can bring to bear with a small number of Air Commandos we send over there.
I think that the differences between us is we are likely to deploy in smaller numbers. We are in many cases more closely connected to the ambassadors of the region.
In any case we still are looking for airmen that are playing heads-up ball that know what the commander’s intent of their deployment is and that are looking to shape outcomes in the interest of our nation.
The maintenance force will be about the same (demographically). The support group are the same people; the medical group are the same people. On the operations side, you will see a larger portion of the population that flies airplanes or rides in them doing other missions.
I doubt that people will feel much of a difference about the base, except that there will be construction going on, there will be some numbers of people flowing into the community and they will hear propellers instead of jets.
Q. Outwardly, how will operations at Cannon differ from the past? Will security be at a higher level? Will people notice more air traffic? Are training exercises any more hazardous for crew or public than we’ve seen in the past?
A. I would say that they’re just different. Pointing a 600-knot aircraft at the ground and shooting until you get close is a pretty hazardous activity, and it takes the world’s greatest pilots to do that.
For us, probably the difference is that we do what we do at night. The technology we use allows you to see things you couldn’t otherwise, but it also dictates how we manage our crews to make sure that we are accomplishing our mission safely.
In the continuous improvement mode, we’ll always seek to make the flightline more secure; we’ll always seek to impede the ability of people to detect what we’re doing. Sometimes just our aircraft leaving is a detectable signature we don’t really want somebody to obtain.
Q. Describe what you expect Cannon’s size to be as we move forward in transition and the phases we might see in that growth.
A. I think the big thing for us is, the people are tied to the aircraft and most of the aircraft in the program are to be purchased over time. We, of course, would like them faster, which would bring the people faster. In the end, the wing will probably be about the size it was when F-111s were at their height. This will be a busy base. We’ll have a lot of people on it.
Q. Cannon is evidently slated to receive some pretty high-tech systems such as the Predator and the Osprey. How are they (particularly unmanned aerial vehicles) transforming what we do on the battlefield?
A. The ability for us to piece together how the enemy is operating through a combination of imagery and human intelligence is probably the most significant change. If you’re going to try and finish a bad guy, you’ve got to fix him, if you’re going to fix him, you’ve got to find him, and we’ve moved into the finding war of detecting how they do business, what their kind of activities are, how are they collecting intelligence on us, how do they do logistics? And each of those signatures is something you can assemble into a picture so that you can find the best ways to intrude in their plans or defeat them.
Q. With the technology changes, are recruiting tactics changing?
A. The Air Force has always been a fairly technical service by comparison, and many of the young people that want to be in the Air Force are inclined that way. Filling those specialties and holding on to those people, because those are the same people industry wants, that’s one reason that our people programs are so important. Getting the airmen into good dormitories and making sure the dining facilities are first rate and that they have places to go and things to do that encourage them to stay in the Air Force.
The Air Force actively pursues retention as a priority. We shoot to keep more than half of the people that sign up.
Q. With our recent deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been a call, in general, to strengthen the numbers in our military. Is that the climate in the Air Force now or will you be using new technology to do more with fewer people?
A. I think that we will have to (do more with less). The dilemma is that with the Air Force being essentially the smallest it’s been since before World War II, if the person doing the job they’re doing now wasn’t important, they wouldn’t be there. We’re past cutting fat out of the Air Force, we’re into meat and bone, and so making sure we have people working at the right priority of the job requirement is probably the most important, but it’s a challenge — our entire Air Force is struggling with it. But as you know, we have got to source the funding to re-capitalize the entire force, I mean we’re fighting the War on Terror, we’ve got to re-capitalize our force, and we’ve got to take care of our people so we don’t have to retrain everyone.
Congressional actions and Department of Defense actions recognize the utility (of AFSOC) and the limited resources we have against our mission set. So there have been a number of actions to, with the support of the Air Force, modernize the force and add capability.
Q. It’s been said that the Special Operations mission that Cannon has received will put the base on the forefront of the Air Force’s growth and direction for years to come. Is it safe and reasonable for the community to assume that is so and why?
A. In a distributive war against a distributed enemy where you can’t necessarily go and strike a target in a peaceful teammate nation, you may need to bring capability to them that allows them to achieve their objectives while satisfying ours. There will be a long-term need for us to put people in the right places to complicate the plans of the enemy across Africa, in Asia, in South America and working with our allies and partners in each of those places because the solution to a terrorist cell in a particular country can be satisfied with a smaller signature and footprint that in many ways the ambassador will be much more comfortable with and the host nation will be more comfortable with but you can still put those guys out of business.
This base has got a future with us.
Interview conducted and compiled by Freedom New Mexico’s Karl Terry.