CAMP TAJI, IRAQ -- Colonel Mark Beckler, 29th Combat Aviation Brigade Commander, announced his plans to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars approved by Congress to upgrade and maintain aircraft currently used in the fight against ISIS in Mosul during a meeting with Army senior leaders here on May 1, 2017.
Beckler's announcement was made after the 29th CAB assumed responsibility as the Theater Combat Aviation Brigade from the outgoing 77th CAB. The 29th CAB is deployed in support of both Operation Spartan Shield -- an ongoing mission in the U.S. Army Central Command area of operations -- and Operation Inherent Resolve and includes over 1,500 service members from the Virginia, Texas and Puerto Rico National Guards, the Regular Army, and U.S. Air Force.
"We work with special forces supporting the probable line of contact - the ring around Mosul where the Iraqis are advancing," said Beckler. "We do a lot of deliberate operations - about one every 10 days. We also coordinate between commanders on permissions to fly between Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and Turkey," he added.
Beckler, who previously served at the National Guard Bureau's Army Aviation Directorate, also discussed strategies to take Apache and Blackhawk helicopters out of service for maintenance and upgrades while the Brigade maintains its support to combat operations. He explained how some modifications will be done in theater, while others will require rotating aircraft back to the manufacturer in the United States.
"One billion dollars was allocated and the budget approved from Congress. The modifications will be made to make us more survivable against ground-to-air threats," said Beckler. "There will be 2-3 lines going through modifications which can take between four weeks and two months. UH-60Ms and 47s will come from the states two at a time with aircraft upgrades," he said, referring to the Army's workhorse Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters, respectively.
The brigade supports Operations Inherent Resolve (Iraq and Syria) and Freedom's Sentinel (Afghanistan) with AH-64 Apache helicopters, CH-47 Chinooks, UH-60 Blackhawks, unmanned aerial systems and fixed wing passenger aircraft.
The brigade uses its unmanned aircraft systems for surveillance missions and, in some cases, to attack targets. The latter is done with Hellfire air-to-surface missiles, the inventory of which is closely monitored by higher commands.
The 29th CAB maintains constant accountability of its Hellfire stocks. "We have Gray Eagle and Shadow drones flying every single day," said Spc. Lindiwe Henry, Aviation Operations Specialist, 29th Combat Aviation Brigade. "Units report to us, so we can keep track [of missile status] without micromanaging. We keep the division informed."
Interest in maintaining aircraft readiness levels for the fight in Mosul and getting a first-hand look at the Brigade's operations in Taji drove a recent visit from Task Force Spartan Deputy Commander, Brigadier General John M. Epperly. This was Brig. Gen. Epperly's first visit during this deployment to Camp Taji, a joint Coalition-Iraqi base.
"This is the most complex mission that the 29th Inf. Div. has among the subordinate brigades," said Epperly of the CAB's role in counterinsurgency operations in Northern Iraq.
Beckler, the CAB commander, described his role as akin to a CEO of an airline with responsibilities for schedules, cargo, staff, maintenance, the safe transport of passengers, and accountability for more than a billion dollars' worth of equipment. Like any CEO, his goal is to meet customer expectations.
"Our challenge is to maintain the same level of service as the 77th [provided]…to sustain the expectations," said Beckler. "We are accountable to multiple generals. We keep [the CAB Command Post at] Camp Buehring informed so everyone's aware of what's going on, transport senior leaders to see the fight first hand, send deputies with the active brigades as a good way to 'hug it up,' and brief General Martin how many aircraft and where we fly around Mosul."
Major General Joseph M. Martin is the Commanding General of the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command, Operation Inherent Resolve, who has responsibility for Coalition land forces participating in the fight to drive ISIS out of Mosul. In addition to the command visit with Epperly, Beckler also briefed Martin's deputy, Brig. Gen. William A. Turner, Deputy Commanding General-Support, Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command-Operation Inherent Resolve, later that day.