Hawk deployment an eye opener

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany -- The men and women of the 23rd Fighter Squadron and Aircraft Maintenance Unit deployed to Joint Base Balad, Iraq, in support of air expeditionary forces from September 2009 through January 2010. From day one, the resounding sentiment was "this is not the way it was last year."

When members deployed with the same unit in the same timeframe just one year prior, weapons load crews were extremely important to the mission. The majority of bombs loaded on F-16 Fighting Falcons at the time were dropped, and it was up to our weapons crews to expediently replenish the munitions on aircraft in time to fly for another munitions drop.

Bombs, missiles and bullets were not the focus for this rotation and were not the weapons of choice for the vast majority of missions flown in Iraq during this deployment. In fact, the use of munitions was looked at as a last resort to be used only if ground teams needed kinetic support or a "show of force" to deter enemies on the ground.

So if we were not dropping bombs, why were fighter aircraft deployed rather than a remotely piloted aircraft like the MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper? The bottom line is the war will not be won by taking out individuals with munitions.

The requirement has largely shifted from destroying targets with precision munitions to watching targets and looking for suspicious activity. We gave tours of our area to several Army units while at Joint Base Balad, and when we talked with soldiers about their jobs it was apparent our eyes in the sky have been incredibly valuable to them. We can communicate directly with ground troops if we see any hazards from the air as they take their convoys through population centers.

During the deployment, our pilots identified not only hazards in and around the roads, but also around facilities which led to the capture of several valuable targets. Those targets tell ground forces, to include U.S., Iraqi and allied forces, where their "friends" live. We, in the sky, supported those follow-on operations as well.

The value to the people of Iraq is that collateral damage is minimized while the "bad guys" are taken off the streets and any weapons in their possession are removed to ensure they can't be used to incite terror or hurt anyone. Having a fighter in the area rather than an RPA gives more flexibility to ground forces with possible munitions or weapons that could be employed if necessary.

The key to keeping up spirits of maintainers, especially weapons builders and loaders who enjoy launching fully-loaded aircraft and watching them come back empty, was ensuring they understood our purpose and the good we did without dropping bombs.

"The munitions flight workload has shifted from building a high volume of munitions to continual maintenance on the many that are flown every day. Munitions were not designed to be flown over and over; they were designed for a one-time use," said Master Sgt. Paul Lueth, 52nd Equipment Maintenance Squadron Munitions Flight maintainer.

The message for any leader is the value of communication - people will go the extra mile for you if they know where it will take them. Without clearly communicating purposes, goals and impacts, motivation diminishes and that extra mile turns into the extra quarter mile or just enough performance to get by without getting in trouble. Some of the best maintainers in the Air Force deployed with us, and we won the awards to prove it. I couldn't be prouder to be a 23rd Fighting Hawk.