Airmen support counterdrug mission in Manta

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Orville F. Desjarlais Jr.
  • Air Force Print News
America has 1.4 billion reasons to have a base in this Andean country.

That is the amount of drugs -- in dollars -- that did not find their way onto American streets, in part because of counterdrug operations from here.

“The war against drugs is important for everyone, not just the United States of America,” said Col. Pat Richardson, the U.S. Military Working Group commander based out of Quito, Ecuador, about a 30-minute flight north of here.

“It is a menace to the region, and our positive relationship has shown the good that can come from such a positive relationship,” the colonel said.

When Howard Air Base, Panama, closed in 1999, the Department of State lost a large portion of its ability to perform counterdrug operations. After the United States and Ecuador completed negotiations in 1998, the Air Force built Manta Air Base in 1999. It is located in the center of an Ecuadorian air force base known as Eloy Alfaro.

On a typical day, a customs plane lumbers off into the humid air in the early morning, along with a Navy P-3 Orion. It is followed by a Coast Guard C-130 Hercules, an E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control systems aircraft, and a KC-135 Stratotanker for air refueling support.

“We interdict to make it more difficult for drugs to be available in the streets,” said Maj. Chris Armour, an AWACS mission crew commander from Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. “We look for air tracks, which are aircraft that carry drugs, and water tracks, which are like fast-moving cigar boats.”

After spotting what they think may be a drug smuggler, an AWACS crew will contact the U.S. Coast Guard or customs, who will fly in to confirm their suspicions.

With two children of his own, Major Armour believes the mission is extremely important.

“People don’t realize the extent of our mission. We have aircraft and ships taking part in this war on drugs. It’s very extensive,” the major said.

Airman 1st Class Alvin Marlar, an airborne radar technician who repairs the AWACS’ bulbous radar, said he normally flies once a month in Oklahoma. During this 60-day deployment -- his first -- the Mississippi native flies at least once every two days.

“It’s good training and it’s for a good cause,” Airman Marlar said. “I am actually going to dread the day I have to leave.”

There are 13 Airmen stationed here permanently for a year. The rest rotate through during air and space expeditionary force deployments.

There are about 230 people stationed at this base on the western coast of South America. Contractors provide a bulk of the support -- food services, fire department and aircraft maintenance.

The contracted fire department earns a bulk of the attention because they have raised thousands of dollars for local causes. They have also battled major city fires alongside their counterparts downtown. They have 17 Ecuadorian firefighters.

“(The contractors) do a majority of the support mission,” said Lt. Col. Bill Brinley, commander here. “They are as much a part of this team as any person who sits in an aircraft. I’d pit this fire department against any in the world. And the dining hall food is so good we have to keep the gym open 24 hours.”