The combat mission in Afghanistan may technically be over, but the Air Force still flies missions every day in support of the roughly 9,800 U.S. troops who remain in the country.
Politicians and the media don't talk about Afghanistan much anymore, but for the airmen and ground-pounders still there, the war continues. The bases that U.S. troops operate from still come under rocket and mortar fire. On June 8, Defense Department civilian Krissie Davis was killed in an indirect fire attack on Bagram Airfield.
"Afghanistan is still a very dangerous place and force protection is a topic that is literally an ever-present way of life here," said Brig. Gen. Mark Kelly, commander of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing, based at Bagram Airfield. "We will do everything we can to make sure we end the day with the same number of airmen we started with. I owe that to their families."
Another threat facing airmen is the possibility of a "green-on-blue" attack, in which Afghan security forces turn their weapons on U.S. troops, as they did in August when an Afghan soldier killed Army Maj. Gen. Harold Greene and wounded 18 others. That's why the wing makes sure that it has adequate physical security where airmen live and work and that airmen have the skills needed to defend themselves, Kelly said.
Despite the drawdown of U.S. forces, there's no letup in the need for the Air Force in Afghanistan. Whenever U.S. troops go outside the wire to advise Afghan security forces, the Air Force has their backs, Kelly said.
"We're there to ensure they have the over-watch they need, whether that be ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] or CAS [close air support] or whatever effects they need from us," Kelly told Air Force Times. "Our job is to put out there kind of a blanket of steel, technology and courage."
About 1,600 airmen with the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing are based at Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar airfields. They provide air power including flying aeromedical evacuations, moving people and cargo, running the theater hospital, providing intelligence to U.S. commanders, and putting ordnance on target when needed.
Another 220 airmen with the Train, Advise, Assist Command-Air operate out of Kabul and Kandahar to help train the Afghan air force, which plays a crucial role in getting wounded Afghan troops and police to the hospital.
The 455th AEW has an F-16 squadron for close-air support, a C-130 squadron for airlift, an HH-60 Pave Hawk/Guardian Angel rescue squadron, an aeromedical evacuation squadron and an EC-130 Compass Call electronic combat squadron. It also has E-11 aircraft and MQ-1B Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones.
Because moving supplies via ground convoys is risky, the 455th AEW makes sure that U.S. ground forces have all the beans, bullets and Band-Aids they need, Kelly said.
"It's the most challenging environment in the world," he said. "The daily logistical and engineering efforts alone dwarf most locations."
In addition to training and advising Afghan security forces, the U.S. is conducting a separate counterterrorism mission against al-Qaida in Afghanistan. While the Air Force plays a role in this mission, too, Kelly declined to say how.
"The details of how we operate and the specifics of our operational guidelines, literally, are our playbook that the insurgents would give anything to have," Kelly said. "We keep the operations — and what we and do and don't do and with who and when — fairly close hold because we owe that to the American people to provide them with the best counterterrorism force possible."
If U.S. troops in Afghanistan are ever wounded, the medical group at Bagram makes sure they get the best possible medical care and then are evacuated as quickly as possible, Kelly said, recalling the August attack.
"It is not a scene you ever want to see: MEDEVAC helos lined up waiting to move forward; nor our airmen sprinting to get the injured out of there," he said. "But it's also not a scene you'll ever forget.
"If you watch an airman first class reset a tourniquet or you watch a senior airman assist with a chest tube, watch the focus of our surgeons with all the chaos in the background; then, later that evening, observe a CCAT [critical care air transport] team, carefully load that same son or daughter in a C-17 headed for Landstuhl [Regional Medical Center in Germany]. You'll never see a better example of teamwork and leadership. I can tell you, with all confidence, it will change you."