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U.S. steps up air adviser work with European, Asian air forces

Apr. 27, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Capt. Justin Rex, 435th Contingency Response Group air adviser, describes elements of the flightline to Capt. Nikolay Mateev, Bulgarian air force aeronautical engineer, during a recent course to introduce members of the Bulgarian air force to methods of installation planning and development.
Capt. Justin Rex, 435th Contingency Response Group air adviser, describes elements of the flightline to Capt. Nikolay Mateev, Bulgarian air force aeronautical engineer, during a recent course to introduce members of the Bulgarian air force to methods of installation planning and development. (Air Force)
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Capt. Justin Rex, 435th Contingency Response Group air adviser, describes elements of the flightline to Capt. Nikolay Mateev, Bulgarian air force aeronautical engineer, during a recent course to introduce members of the Bulgarian air force to methods of installation planning and development. (Air Force)

A year and a half before Russia’s March annexation of Crimea resurrected Cold War fears in Eastern Europe, U.S. airmen began a series of security cooperation activities with countries across the region.

They have aided air forces in Poland, Slovenia, Lithuania and a dozen other Eastern Europe and Western Asia nations in aerospace terminology, search and rescue, mobility aircraft maintenance, expeditionary air capability and base security — among others.

In the coming months, the specially trained air advisers assigned to the 435th Air Ground Operations Wing at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, will work with Azerbaijan on NATO-compatible airbase planning and air traffic control. They’ll assist Latvia with airfield management and restricted airspace development.

“The U.S. military has been doing this historically since the 1800s,” said Maj. John Sherinian, chief air adviser. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated “a need for a standing force.”

The air advising program in Europe stood up in August 2012, said Master Sgt. Simon Merfeld, superintendent of the air adviser branch.

Eighteen full-time air advisers, usually working in teams of three to five, assist nations that just two decades ago were emerging from the Cold War.

“Their entire line of aircraft has changed. They’re wanting to build up. They’re basically starting from scratch. We help facilitate building these [air forces] for the long-term,” Sherinian said. “It’s a long-term investment ... a low-cost, high-impact way of building partners for the long term.”

It’s also an opportunity to exchange information, Merfeld said, “to take away what we can from their best practices and learn something else about our capabilities.”

The concept is based in the age-old proverb that if you give a man a fish, he can eat for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime, he said.

“People think air advising is done in areas of contention and conflict. Most regard Europe as a peaceful area. Conflicts can happen with little to no warning,” Sherinian said.

That proved true at the end of February, when Russian forces snatched the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.

“Unlike other air advisers around the world, we’re forward, capable and ready right now, and we can execute these missions for combatant commanders,” Sherinian said.

And their mission is growing, though that is due to a growing capability rather than the current tensions in Eastern Europe, Merfeld said. The air advisers have completed 17 of 38 projects scheduled for fiscal 2014 — about 50 percent more than the year before.

“These were events that were planned, programmed and paid for up to about two years ago,” Sherinian said. “Unless something changes ... we’re here to execute what we’ve got.”

The advisers represent 24 Air Force specialty codes and are considered subject matter experts, he said. All attended a monthlong course on culture, language, history and politics at the Air Advisor Academy, although that could change.

Funding to the academy is set to run out in September as part of “budget saving initiative,” Capt. Lauren Wright, an Air Education and Training Command spokesman, said in written responses to questions from Air Force Times. “However, there are ongoing senior leader discussions that may allow the ... academy to continue to support current operations in [fiscal 2015] and beyond until full funding can be restored.”

The advisers also receive formal classroom training and training on evasion and conduct after capture, “a weeklong course similar to survivor training for a peacetime environment,” Sherinian said.

“Because we are here in Europe ... we get to meet with high-level individuals. I’ve met the chief of staff of two nations. As a major in the United Stated Air Force, you don’t get that opportunity very often. It’s a great opportunity for airmen to fill this type of role for the Air Force.”

Stephen Losey contributed to this story.

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