With nearly all U.S. troops scheduled to leave Afghanistan in little more than a year, Brig. Gen. David David Julazadeh is planning in "excruciating detail" when to withdraw aircraft and airmen while continuing to provide air support for the shrinking U.S. footprint.
"That, for me, is the greatest challenge," said Julazadeh, commander of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing in Afghanistan. "It is difficult to maintain the right balance of forces to execute the mission while we simultaneously reduce our mandated manpower."
Julazadeh took command of the 455th AEW on July 1. The wing's roughly 1,600 airmen support U.S. troops who operate independently or embed with coalition or Afghan units, he said. The wing is a composite of airmen and aircraft from units from the U.S. in Europe, including the 555th Fighter Squadron from Aviano Air Base, Italy; the 317th Airlift Group at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas; and the 41st Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona.
The U.S. presence in Afghanistan is expected to go from about 9,800 troops on the ground now to about 5,500 in May 2016 and then down to about 1,000 by the end of the year, Julazadeh told Air Force Times. Media reports have indicated U.S. commanders want to keep a larger number of troops in Afghanistan, but no change to the drawdown plan has been announced.
"As we roll into May, that's where I have to very carefully balance the workload," he said in an Oct. 8 interview. "As we shrink the manpower footprint, we'll reduce commensurately the number of airborne assets that have in theater. So as long as we do that in the right sequence, it should not be difficult – but it's just determining that sequence that is critical."
Timing is everything, he said. U.S. aircraft and personnel have to be withdrawn in the right order or else the 455th AEW won't have what it needs for its mission in Afghanistan.
"Every time that I decrease one airplane, I can move a number of bodies and a number of pieces of equipment out of theater — but I've got to do that in the right order in order to ensure that I don't break a system, or I don't break a squadron, or I don't break the mission," Julazadeh said.
It has been a difficult time for the 455th AEW. On Oct. 2, a C-130J crashed at Jalalabad Airfield, killing six airmen: Four from Dyess Air Force Base, Texas; and two from Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts.
"There are no words that express the depth of sorrow and pain we feel for those six airmen we lost as well as the five civilians and the three Afghans, but they gave their lives contributing to a free and stable Afghanistan, and for that I'm eternally grateful," Julazadeh said.
Still, the airmen in Afghanistan remain focused on the job at hand, he said.
"We pulled together to comfort and console each other," Julazadeh said. "The first couple of days were incredibly challenging but our airmen are very, very focused. They know that they have a combat mission — a very important mission — day-to-day. They recognize that; they're ready to go; they're fully back in the saddle doing the job."
Julazadeh said he was unable to talk about what might have caused the crash because the incident is under investigation. Nor could he talk about an errant airstrike on Oct. 3 that is believed to have hit a hospital in Kunduz, which is also being investigated.
"That's kind of outside of my realm," Julazadeh said. "I do know that Headquarters Resolute Support, they've got a multinational investigation. The U.S. military has opened a formal investigation headed by a general officer."
Rarely has so much been done by so few as is the case with the 455th AEW in Afghanistan, said Julazadeh, who has been inspired by how his airmen find new ways to do all that is asked of them.
"We're operating a wing that is essentially minimally manned because of force management level restrictions and these young airmen are coming up with innovative solutions to execute the missions every day," Julazadeh said. "It just blows my mind."
One maintainer has figured out how to change every tire on an F-16 by himself – a job that normally requires four airmen, said Maj. Tony Wickman, a spokesman for the 455th AEW. Other airmen have found also ways to have one person do tasks that normally take several airmen at home station, he said.
"The fact that we can execute the mission with the number of people we have and do it with such high precision and quality amazes me," Julazadeh. "They inspire me, just watching them work. They're tireless."