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Airmen provide air base defense in northern Iraq

QAYYARAH WEST AIRFIELD, Iraq (AFNS) -- Giulio Douhet's military concept states, "the only effective way to counter airpower is to destroy its bases on the ground."

As such, air base defense serves as the core of Air Force security forces' doctrine. It's the foundation from which the career field planted its roots.

"The history books of security forces are riddled with examples of how air bases, when defended by the Army, weren't sufficient," said Capt. Scott Hlavin, the 821st Contingency Response Group defense force commander. "Not because the Army personnel weren't trained or capable. They just weren't air minded. That's where the security forces defender comes into play."

Today, defenders assigned to the 821st CRG are on the front lines in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, providing air base defense for Qayyarah West Airfield in northern Iraq.

Situated just 30 miles south of Mosul, Qayyarah West Airfield is a strategic launching pad and frontline resupply depot. It is one of the northern-most hubs for coalition airpower in Iraq.

The contingent of defenders here is responsible for the security and safeguarding of a five-kilometer airfield.

Hlavin said, “Our mission is threefold, it includes working with our joint partners (Army), our Iraqi brethren, and the one we take most personally, defending this air base to allow for unhindered air operations.

"An airfield is vulnerable," he said. "We have the world’s greatest Air Force. When we are in the air no one can touch us, but when we are on the ground we are just as vulnerable as the next guy. Our aircraft are too valuable and too important as strategic platforms in the fight against (ISIL) or whoever the enemy may be. It's our mission to ensure our air base is ready to go."

Since the 821st CRG's arrival in mid-October, security forces personnel have secured an additional kilometer perimeter around the airfield; hardening defenses and enabling security resources to be freed up for supplementary operations.

"This is definitely something you read about in history books and never think you will be part of it," Hlavin said. "A lot of times we are behind the front lines. But here at Qayyarah West, our core principles of integrated air base defense are alive and well."

CRG defenders

The 821st CRG is highly specialized in training and rapidly deploying personnel to quickly open airfields and establish, expand, sustain and coordinate air mobility operations in austere, bare-base conditions.

"Our forces set the stage for that gap between the Army seizing an airfield and our follow-on forces setting up an even more in-depth posture to protect our assets on the ground," Hlavin said. "In order to achieve that end state, you have to maximize your efforts, your firepower, your weapon systems and you have to have the right people."

Hlavin added that while his defenders are young, they have grown during their time at Qayyarah West.

Senior Airman Jonathan Sorber, an member of the 821st CRG, is on his first deployment and is one of those Airmen. His duties situate him on the edge of the fight against ISIL. In full kit and armed with a M240B, where he scans unimpeded terrain surrounding the air base; he is the first line of defense for the sprawling airfield.

"My mission here is to support the opening of the air base and provide elite airfield security," Sorber said. "We work every day, providing security on the front lines. Ultimately, we are the ones between the bad guys and our guys, and at the end of the day when everyone makes it home safe, we know we did our jobs."

Defenders bear the responsibility for the safekeeping of their fellow Airmen. They are the "sheep dogs." The hours are unforgiving and the shifts often isolating, but their mission remains essential to the overarching objective of projecting superior airpower within the region.

"It’s not easy joining up to go to war," Hlavin said. "You find yourself thrust in your first deployment here in the middle of Iraq. It’s not easy. But seeing the troops actually grow and learn, watching them grow out here in the real deal is humbling; coming back with smiles on their faces knowing they kept the base safe on their shift."

Developing relationships

In addition to air base defense, an essential function of the 821st CRG Defenders' role at Qayyarah West remains increasing interoperability with their Iraqi counterparts.

"Our end goal is to start furthering our training with our Iraqi partners," Hlavin said. "We want to get them up in the towers, out on the berm and running their own security. We want to ensure that when we hand this base off to them they have the power projection capability to defeat future threats"

Although the language barrier remains an obstacle, Hlavin said relationships continue to develop.

"You see that they aren't much different than we are," he said. "Many of them are young, have families and are fighting for the future of their country.

"It's exciting to watch and see what the future of Iraq is. We have a lot of friends who started this over a decade ago feeling as though their sacrifices were for nothing. Today, we are here watching them have their airplanes flying and fighting a common enemy. It’s a humbling experience to be a part of."