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This obscure, costly air base is the new front in the battle against violent extremism

On a sandy patch of land in Niger, at the edge of the Sahara Desert, lies the Air Force’s newest base. It’s all but unknown to the vast majority of Americans and is shrouded in secrecy, but it represents one of the biggest construction efforts in Air Force history — and a new front in…

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This obscure, costly air base is the new front in the battle against violent extremism

On a sandy patch of land in Niger, at the edge of the Sahara Desert, lies the Air Force’s newest base. It’s all but unknown to the vast majority of Americans and is shrouded in secrecy, but it represents one of the biggest construction efforts in Air Force history — and a new front in the fight against extremist militants on the African continent.

Welcome to Nigerien Air Base 201.

U.S. Africa Command on Nov. 1 announced that the new base in Agadez, Niger — designed to house armed drones and other aircraft that have been operating out of an international airport in Niamey, Niger’s capital — had begun flying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions that week.

Critically located in central Niger, Air Base 201 is positioned to strike terrorist groups and extremist militants — including fighters affiliated with al-Qaida and the Islamic State — in countries throughout the Sahel region, which spans the width of the African continent south of the Sahara and includes parts of Mali, Sudan and Chad.

Air Force Gen. Jeff Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces in Africa, said the site was chosen specifically for that geographic advantage.

“Flexible and diverse postures across the African continent enable us to facilitate operational needs and better support our partners in the region,” Harrigian said in an AFRICOM news release. “The location in Agadez was selected in conjunction with Niger due to the geographic and strategic flexibility it offers to regional security efforts.”

U.S. Africa Command announced Nov. 1 that armed drones had begun flying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions out of Nigerien Air Base 201. (Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson/Air Force)

At a time when the military is shifting its focus to counter aggressive actions by nations such as China, Russia or North Korea, why is the U.S. military expanding its capability to hit small, ragtag groups of locally based extremists?

Gen. Dave Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, acknowledged that seeming contradiction during a breakfast on Capitol Hill Nov. 6. While the National Defense Strategy does emphasize a shift to great power competition, he said, it also doesn’t let the military off the hook when it comes to maintaining campaign pressure on groups such as ISIS.

“You’re going to see us continue to focus on keeping our boot on the throat of violent extremism,” Goldfein said. “The operation in Niger is a key part of that going forward.”

There are currently at least 11 offshoots of terrorist groups operating in that region of Africa, mostly splintered from al-Qaida, ISIS and Boko Haram, said retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense. It’s better to disrupt those organizations before they can damage friendly governments in the area, he said, or even develop into a threat that could strike the United States itself, the way al-Qaida did nearly 20 years ago.

“Most Americans don’t know it, but that area around Niger has really become a bad neighborhood,” Spoehr said.

Extremist and terrorist groups such as ISIS tend to gravitate to places that are ungoverned or weakly governed, where they can set up bases and operate with little to no pushback from the local authorities, retired Gen. Hawk Carlisle told Air Force Times Nov. 5. Unfortunately, he said, there are a lot of those spaces in Africa.

Airmen assigned to the 409th Air Expeditionary Group watch as a C-130J Super Hercules taxis in at Air Base 201 in Agadez, Niger, Aug. 3. The C-130 landing marked the next step in airfield evaluations by starting Visual Flight Rules operations at the base. (Staff Sgt. Devin Boyer/Air Force)

With ISIS’s shocking 2014 blitzkrieg across Syria and much of Iraq still fresh in recent memory, Carlisle said, military leaders believe a fully functional base in Niger is the best way to prevent something similar in western Africa. It’s a lot easier to stop such a group at the beginning of its growth rather than later, after it has dug in deeply in cities and fortified positions, as ISIS did in cities like Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria.

“When we left Iraq, we allowed things to happen — we didn’t have a residual capability,” said Carlisle, who was head of Air Combat Command before his retirement in 2017 and is now president and CEO of the National Defense Industrial Association. “Part of the lessons learned is, the adversary knows what we can and can’t do, to a large extent, and if they see that we’re not engaged in an area, they know they can take advantage of that — and they will.”

Air Base 201 can also provide a significant deterrent effect, Carlisle said, even — or especially — if violent extremists don’t know exactly what might be coming over the horizon. Many activities at the base will be classified to varying degrees, he said.

“At any given moment, the violent extremists and terrorists are not going to know what’s there [at the base] and what we’re doing,” Carlisle said. “It puts doubt in their minds … [and] makes them think twice about what they’re going to do.”

William Meeker, the Africa director for the Center for Civilians in Conflict, said in a Nov. 6 interview that the Sahel region faces a complex web of criminal networks, opposition groups such as ISIS offshoots, and longstanding intercommunal conflicts. Some of these feed on one another, he said, particularly in Mali, where bad actors are stoking the fires of local grievances and producing an alarming increase in violent attacks and massacres targeting civilians.

F-15C Eagles receive fuel over Morocco in April 2018. With Nigerien Air Base 201 becoming operational, violent extremists are not going to know what’s there and what we’re doing, said retired Gen. Hawk Carlisle, former head of Air Combat Command. (Senior Airman Malcolm Mayfield/Air Force)

The Air Force is remaining largely mum about what will be flown out of Air Base 201. MQ-9 Reapers will be based there — at times, flying armed missions in addition to ISR flights — and sometimes fighter jets as well. C-130s have also conducted resupply missions into the base as part of limited flying operations that began Aug. 1.

But beyond that, AFRICOM spokesman Col. Chris Karns declined to say which specific aircraft are operating at Air Base 201, due to security concerns.

USAFE-AFAFRICA spokesman Capt. Christopher Bowyer-Meeder said Air Base 201’s sole runway, which is 6,200 feet long, can support “light fixed-wing aircraft, including C-130s, C-17s and some DV [distinguished visitor] airlift.” But it is not built to support F-16s, bombers or tankers, he said.

“The U.S. military is at Nigerien Air Base 201 at the request of the Government of Niger,” said Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of AFRICOM, in the Nov. 1 news release. “We are working with our African and international partners to counter security threats in West Africa,” said Townsend, who visited Niger in September to meet with President Mahamadou Issoufou. “The construction of this base demonstrates our investment in our African partners and mutual security interests in the region.”

Bowyer-Meeder said there are now no plans to expand the runway there.

But in an email, Carlisle said that might eventually change, allowing a larger class of aircraft to use the base.

“6,200 [feet] is not long enough for sustained ops for fighters, bombers, tankers, or big wing ISR,” Carlisle wrote. “It is a piece of concrete long enough for diverts or emergencies, and [the] plan is to eventually (hopefully, sooner rather than later) extend the runway to 10,000” feet.

U.S. and Nigerien flags are raised side by side in April 2018 at the base camp for airmen and other personnel supporting the construction of Nigerien Air Base 201. (Carley Petesch/AP)

Spoehr said moving air operations out of the civilian airport in Niamey is a great advantage. The capital is located in the southwest corner of Niger, and Air Base 201’s central location provides much better access to more locations, Spoehr said.

It also will provide a lot more operational security, Spoehr said. Anyone watching the Niamey airport could see when a Reaper or other military aircraft was taking off and find out that a military operation of some kind might be going on, he said. But with takeoffs occurring at a military location, he said, it’s much easier to keep those operations under wraps.

Air Base 201’s facilities are also specially built for military operations, sized correctly for drone operations and with the proper fuel and weapons storage, Spoehr said.

“It’s not terribly easy to do at an international airport, strap on Hellfire missiles and that kind of thing,” he said.

It will also be easier to manage the airspace without having to schedule flights around civilian airliners taking off from or landing at the international airport, he said.

Hanging over the military’s ongoing Niger mission and the opening of Air Base 201 is the tragic loss of four U.S. Army soldiers and their Nigerien allies in an October 2017 ambush near the village of Tongo Tongo, on the southwest border with Mali.

A sand storm descends on the air base in Niger. (Airman 1st Class Thomas Jamison/Air Force)

A devastating Pentagon report on the battle found that the soldiers that day didn’t have a drone flying overhead at the time of the ambush — or any air cover, for that matter. An RPA could have provided them with recon information to alert them to the vastly superior enemy forces nearby. The first unarmed ISR drone arrived on the scene an hour and a half after the battle began, and two French Mirage fighter jets arrived shortly thereafter, performing show-of-force flyovers that drove off the enemy fighters.

Having Air Base 201 in the area, providing more ISR information, will help troops on the ground — whether U.S. special operators or simply Nigerien forces — better prepare and understand the battlespace they’re walking into, Carlisle said.

The base will likely be able to provide some kind of combat search-and-rescue and medevac capability to more quickly get wounded troops off the battlefield and into treatment, hopefully within the so-called “Golden Hour” when wounded have the best chance of survival, Carlisle said. He would not comment on what kind of medical facilities are at Air Base 201 but said any base will have some capacity to respond to medical emergencies.

The opening of Air Base 201 could lead to the U.S. taking a more offensive posture, ready to use armed drones against bad actors, Meeker said. The U.S. should improve its ability to track and mitigate harm done to civilians as a result of drone operations, he said.

But conversely, Meeker said, the increased use of ISR platforms there also could reduce civilian casualties by helping forces on the ground sort out groups of civilians from armed enemies.

It’s likely that Air Base 201 will have a constant ISR presence in the form of Reapers and other drones, and possibly manned ISR aircraft, Carlisle said. But one of its biggest advantages will be the flexibility it provides to rapidly send in different kinds of aircraft to respond to whatever events may unfold in the region.

“It’s not going to be Al Dhafra, Al Udeid,” Carlisle said. “I don’t think you’ll have a permanent presence. I don’t think you need that. But there’s a lot of different things you could do.”

A security forces airman with the 824th Expeditionary Base Defense Squadron keeps watch at Nigerien Air Base 201 in November 2018. (Screen grab from video by Staff Sgt. Daniel Asselta/Air Force)

For example, Carlisle said, the Air Force could launch an aircraft from a base in Europe — or potentially even the United States — and rather than having to turn around and go home immediately after the mission is done, Air Base 201 could serve as something of a way station. That aircraft could land there, refuel, rearm, get maintained, and swap in a fresh, pre-positioned crew, he said, and then perform additional missions before flying back home.

It could also serve as a forward operating location, if necessary, Carlisle said — one a lot closer to regions of West Africa than Aviano Air Base in Italy.

“It gives commanders options,” Carlisle said. “Aviano to [Camp Lemonnier in] Djibouti is a long freakin’ flight. I don’t think people realize how large Africa is.”

Nigerien Air Base 201 can be run with a relatively light manpower footprint, Spoehr said, with most of its drones capable of being flown by pilots back home in the continental United States.

But keeping it running will still require airmen — particularly maintainers, logistics airmen, air traffic controllers and munitions specialists, Carlisle said. The tricky part is that some of those key jobs, especially in maintenance, are ones which Air Force has struggled to keep fully manned in recent years.

“Our problem today, one is capacity, and now we put another drain on the capacity,” Carlisle said.

To fill those gaps, Carlisle said the Air Force will have to get help from its sister services, as well as contractors and allied nations.

During his discussion at the breakfast, Goldfein specifically saluted France for its cooperation in fighting extremism in North Africa.

“Violence flourishes where governance is low,” he said.

The completion of the air base, about a year overdue, has been a major undertaking. Not only is it the largest Air Force-led construction project in the service’s history, its price tag has likely topped $110 million. In addition, it will cost an estimated $30 million each year to run the base, totaling $280 million by the time the 10-year agreement to use the site expires in 2024.

Building the airfield — particularly its joint-use runway, capable of accommodating both U.S. and Nigerien aircraft — has been extremely complicated. Karns, the AFRICOM spokesman, described it as “a historic civil engineering feat.”

Doing a quality construction job that will last over time is complicated in that part of the world, Carlisle said. There’s not a lot of infrastructure, materials or skilled labor of the kind needed to build an airfield to Air Force specifications, he said, which means more transportation to get those resources to the construction site at Agadez.

Carlisle said that while the base will, most of the time, have a fairly small footprint, it needs to be able to quickly expand in response to unfolding situations. That means the base needs facilities that, even if they’re unused most of the time, can quickly be put into action to handle incoming airmen and other personnel.

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US sends mechanized troops back into Syria

Bradley fighting vehicles have headed back into eastern Syria, the Pentagon announced Friday, a move that comes after a tense encounter with Russian forces left four U.S. troops lightly injured last month. The return of mechanized units also comes as the U.S. military deployed Sentinel radar and increased the frequency of fighter jet patrols over…

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US sends mechanized troops back into Syria

Bradley fighting vehicles have headed back into eastern Syria, the Pentagon announced Friday, a move that comes after a tense encounter with Russian forces left four U.S. troops lightly injured last month. The return of mechanized units also comes as the U.S. military deployed Sentinel radar and increased the frequency of fighter jet patrols over U.S. forces in that part of Syria, according to U.S. Central Command spokesman Navy Capt. Bill Urban. “These actions are a clear demonstration of U.S. resolve to defend Coalition forces in the [Eastern Syria Security Area], and to ensure that they are able to continue their Defeat-ISIS mission without interference,” Urban said in an emailed statement. “The Defense Department has previously deployed Bradleys to northeast Syria pursuant to these goals.” Bradleys from the 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team were last sent to Syria in late October 2019 to guard oil infrastructure from Islamic State militants, officials said at the time. They were quietly pulled out after roughly a month when combined patrols with Turkish forces “never materialized” and the “mission requirements changed,” a military official in the region previously told Army Times. The armored vehicles sent back this month belong to 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, out of Fort Bliss, Texas. The unit is deployed to the Middle East in support of Operation Spartan Shield, which is based in Kuwait. Sign up for the Army Times Daily News Roundup Don’t miss the top Army stories, delivered each afternoon (please select a country)United StatesUnited KingdomAfghanistanAlbaniaAlgeriaAmerican SamoaAndorraAngolaAnguillaAntarcticaAntigua and BarbudaArgentinaArmeniaArubaAustraliaAustriaAzerbaijanBahamasBahrainBangladeshBarbadosBelarusBelgiumBelizeBeninBermudaBhutanBoliviaBosnia and HerzegovinaBotswanaBouvet IslandBrazilBritish Indian Ocean TerritoryBrunei DarussalamBulgariaBurkina FasoBurundiCambodiaCameroonCanadaCape VerdeCayman IslandsCentral African RepublicChadChileChinaChristmas IslandCocos (Keeling) IslandsColombiaComorosCongoCongo, The Democratic Republic of TheCook IslandsCosta RicaCote D’ivoireCroatiaCubaCyprusCzech RepublicDenmarkDjiboutiDominicaDominican RepublicEcuadorEgyptEl SalvadorEquatorial GuineaEritreaEstoniaEthiopiaFalkland Islands (Malvinas)Faroe IslandsFijiFinlandFranceFrench GuianaFrench PolynesiaFrench Southern TerritoriesGabonGambiaGeorgiaGermanyGhanaGibraltarGreeceGreenlandGrenadaGuadeloupeGuamGuatemalaGuineaGuinea-bissauGuyanaHaitiHeard Island and Mcdonald IslandsHoly See (Vatican City State)HondurasHong KongHungaryIcelandIndiaIndonesiaIran, Islamic Republic ofIraqIrelandIsraelItalyJamaicaJapanJordanKazakhstanKenyaKiribatiKorea, Democratic People’s Republic ofKorea, Republic ofKuwaitKyrgyzstanLao People’s Democratic RepublicLatviaLebanonLesothoLiberiaLibyan Arab JamahiriyaLiechtensteinLithuaniaLuxembourgMacaoMacedonia, The Former Yugoslav Republic ofMadagascarMalawiMalaysiaMaldivesMaliMaltaMarshall IslandsMartiniqueMauritaniaMauritiusMayotteMexicoMicronesia, Federated States ofMoldova, Republic ofMonacoMongoliaMontserratMoroccoMozambiqueMyanmarNamibiaNauruNepalNetherlandsNetherlands AntillesNew CaledoniaNew ZealandNicaraguaNigerNigeriaNiueNorfolk IslandNorthern Mariana IslandsNorwayOmanPakistanPalauPalestinian Territory, OccupiedPanamaPapua New GuineaParaguayPeruPhilippinesPitcairnPolandPortugalPuerto RicoQatarReunionRomaniaRussian FederationRwandaSaint HelenaSaint Kitts and NevisSaint LuciaSaint Pierre and MiquelonSaint Vincent and The GrenadinesSamoaSan MarinoSao Tome and PrincipeSaudi ArabiaSenegalSerbia and MontenegroSeychellesSierra LeoneSingaporeSlovakiaSloveniaSolomon IslandsSomaliaSouth AfricaSouth Georgia and The South Sandwich IslandsSpainSri LankaSudanSurinameSvalbard and Jan MayenSwazilandSwedenSwitzerlandSyrian Arab RepublicTaiwan, Province of ChinaTajikistanTanzania, United Republic ofThailandTimor-lesteTogoTokelauTongaTrinidad and TobagoTunisiaTurkeyTurkmenistanTurks and Caicos IslandsTuvaluUgandaUkraineUnited Arab EmiratesUnited KingdomUnited StatesUnited States Minor Outlying IslandsUruguayUzbekistanVanuatuVenezuelaViet NamVirgin Islands, BritishVirgin Islands, U.S.Wallis and FutunaWestern SaharaYemenZambiaZimbabwe Subscribe × By giving us your email, you are opting in to the Army Times Daily News Roundup. “The mechanized infantry assets will help ensure the force protection of coalition forces in an increasingly complex operating environment in northeast Syria,” said Col. Wayne Marotto, spokesman for the Inherent Resolve mission. “The coalition forces remain steadfast in our commitment of ensuring the enduring defeat of Daesh [ISIS].” U.S. and Russian officials traded blame in late August after troops from both countries collided in northeast Syria while on patrol. A Russian vehicle sideswiped a light-armored American one, injuring four U.S. troops, while two Russian helicopters flew about 70 feet over top the altercation, U.S. officials said following the incident. For their part, Russian officials said U.S. troops were blocking their ground patrol and Russian military police “took the necessary measures to prevent an incident and to continue the fulfillment of their task.” Though the U.S. and Russian militaries have protocols to prevent such incidents, there have nevertheless been less worrisome altercations periodically over the past year. Russian forces are in the country backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and have long called for U.S. troops to leave. “The United States does not seek conflict with any other nation in Syria, but will defend Coalition forces if necessary,” Urban added in his statement. Despite the loss of ISIS’ territorial caliphate and the slaying of its leader last year in a U.S. raid, the extremist group has continued to launch deadly attacks in Iraq and Syria. There are roughly 500 U.S. troops in Syria’s northeast guarding oil fields from ISIS and working alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces.

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It’s been a bad week on social media for military appreciation

For a nation enamored with yellow ribbons, PDA for men and women in uniform, and shouting “Support Our Troops” into the void until our lungs collapse, we sure seem to know very little about the individuals being supported. At least that’s one takeaway from a series of recent military-themed social media gaffes on the part…

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It’s been a bad week on social media for military appreciation

For a nation enamored with yellow ribbons, PDA for men and women in uniform, and shouting “Support Our Troops” into the void until our lungs collapse, we sure seem to know very little about the individuals being supported. At least that’s one takeaway from a series of recent military-themed social media gaffes on the part of accounts run by government departments and U.S. officials. Friday yielded multiple mistakes of the sort when, first, the U.S. Department of State extended the U.S. Air Force a happy 73rd birthday wish that was accompanied by an image featuring F/A-18 Hornets flown by the Navy’s Blue Angels. The image, which depicts the obvious blue and gold color scheme unique to the Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, includes one plane that even shows the underside of its wings, a part that universally includes “US NAVY” painted in size 11-million block font. The U.S. Navy Blue Angels demonstrate the capabilities of the F/A-18 Hornet at the 2019 Marine Corps Air Station Miramar Air Show on MCAS Miramar, Calif., Sept. 28. (Pfc. Mackson/Marine Corps) Echoing the State Department, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., sent the Air Force some birthday well wishes that, again, were accompanied by the Navy’s world-renowned team. Never a state to be outdone, Texas Congressman John Carter ramped up the Air Force birthday-Blue Angels whoops parade with a jumbled image featuring an F-22 Raptor, the Blue Angels, and his campaign insignia. Even the mistakes are bigger in Texas. Sign up for the Early Bird Brief Get the military’s most comprehensive news and information every morning (please select a country)United StatesUnited KingdomAfghanistanAlbaniaAlgeriaAmerican SamoaAndorraAngolaAnguillaAntarcticaAntigua and BarbudaArgentinaArmeniaArubaAustraliaAustriaAzerbaijanBahamasBahrainBangladeshBarbadosBelarusBelgiumBelizeBeninBermudaBhutanBoliviaBosnia and HerzegovinaBotswanaBouvet IslandBrazilBritish Indian Ocean TerritoryBrunei DarussalamBulgariaBurkina FasoBurundiCambodiaCameroonCanadaCape VerdeCayman IslandsCentral African RepublicChadChileChinaChristmas IslandCocos (Keeling) IslandsColombiaComorosCongoCongo, The Democratic Republic of TheCook IslandsCosta RicaCote D’ivoireCroatiaCubaCyprusCzech RepublicDenmarkDjiboutiDominicaDominican RepublicEcuadorEgyptEl SalvadorEquatorial GuineaEritreaEstoniaEthiopiaFalkland Islands (Malvinas)Faroe IslandsFijiFinlandFranceFrench GuianaFrench PolynesiaFrench Southern TerritoriesGabonGambiaGeorgiaGermanyGhanaGibraltarGreeceGreenlandGrenadaGuadeloupeGuamGuatemalaGuineaGuinea-bissauGuyanaHaitiHeard Island and Mcdonald IslandsHoly See (Vatican City State)HondurasHong KongHungaryIcelandIndiaIndonesiaIran, Islamic Republic ofIraqIrelandIsraelItalyJamaicaJapanJordanKazakhstanKenyaKiribatiKorea, Democratic People’s Republic ofKorea, Republic ofKuwaitKyrgyzstanLao People’s Democratic RepublicLatviaLebanonLesothoLiberiaLibyan Arab JamahiriyaLiechtensteinLithuaniaLuxembourgMacaoMacedonia, The Former Yugoslav Republic ofMadagascarMalawiMalaysiaMaldivesMaliMaltaMarshall IslandsMartiniqueMauritaniaMauritiusMayotteMexicoMicronesia, Federated States ofMoldova, Republic ofMonacoMongoliaMontserratMoroccoMozambiqueMyanmarNamibiaNauruNepalNetherlandsNetherlands AntillesNew CaledoniaNew ZealandNicaraguaNigerNigeriaNiueNorfolk IslandNorthern Mariana IslandsNorwayOmanPakistanPalauPalestinian Territory, OccupiedPanamaPapua New GuineaParaguayPeruPhilippinesPitcairnPolandPortugalPuerto RicoQatarReunionRomaniaRussian FederationRwandaSaint HelenaSaint Kitts and NevisSaint LuciaSaint Pierre and MiquelonSaint Vincent and The GrenadinesSamoaSan MarinoSao Tome and PrincipeSaudi ArabiaSenegalSerbia and MontenegroSeychellesSierra LeoneSingaporeSlovakiaSloveniaSolomon IslandsSomaliaSouth AfricaSouth Georgia and The South Sandwich IslandsSpainSri LankaSudanSurinameSvalbard and Jan MayenSwazilandSwedenSwitzerlandSyrian Arab RepublicTaiwan, Province of ChinaTajikistanTanzania, United Republic ofThailandTimor-lesteTogoTokelauTongaTrinidad and TobagoTunisiaTurkeyTurkmenistanTurks and Caicos IslandsTuvaluUgandaUkraineUnited Arab EmiratesUnited KingdomUnited StatesUnited States Minor Outlying IslandsUruguayUzbekistanVanuatuVenezuelaViet NamVirgin Islands, BritishVirgin Islands, U.S.Wallis and FutunaWestern SaharaYemenZambiaZimbabwe Subscribe × By giving us your email, you are opting in to the Early Bird Brief. (Screengrab @JudgeJohnCarter) Navy officials eventually caught on to the trend of gross misidentification. “Happy birthday @usairforce, but we’re not giving you the @BlueAngels,” the Navy Chief of Information account tweeted. “Aircraft carriers are also only @USNavy.” Most of the proofreading-free accounts wisely deleted their misguided well-wishes once they arrived at the realization that a plane in the air does not automatically render it an Air Force plane. But thanks to Politico editor and dad joke connoisseur Dave Brown, there remains a treasure trove of commemorative screenshots. Aim high pic.twitter.com/VUsN1TOfO8— Dave Brown (@dave_brown24) September 18, 2020 Still, the Air Force’s birthday was just another example of a profound lack of basic military understanding by those who so often boast of military adoration until blue in the face. A campaign arm of the Republican National Committee and President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, for example, recently circulated a “Support Our Troops” graphic featuring silhouetted Russian soldiers — one holding a Russian-made AK-74 rifle and another a German-made G36K — underneath three Russian MiG-29 fighter jets, a slip-up first reported by Politico. In theory the sentiment is not incorrect, since there was no specification on which troops are being supported. Still, it was just one of the litany of military-related social media fallacies to emerge during this week alone. The image, which was poached from a Shutterstock photo, was created by Russia-based photographer Arthur Zakirov, who confirmed to Politico that the campaign image was “a completely recreated scene from various photographs of mine.” “Today you hear about the Kremlin’s hand in U.S. politics,” he joked. “Tomorrow you are this hand.” In Soviet Russia, troops support you. The image marked another foreign service miscue for the administration, which, in 2015, tweeted a campaign graphic featuring Nazi Waffen SS World War II reenactors in the bottom right corner. [email protected] has deleted the tweet (finally) but here’s the pic, Waffen-SS very clear at bottom pic.twitter.com/Kv1GsdKQkw— John Schindler (@20committee) July 14, 2015 But don’t fret about a politicized slant on military-themed miscues — these inaccuracies on the part of politicians are a bipartisan pastime. Presidential hopeful Joe Biden made headlines recently for exhibiting a concerning pattern of recounting military stories that never actually happened. In 2019 Biden recalled a harrowing tale of a Navy captain in Afghanistan that was flooded with acts of extraordinary valor. “This is the God’s truth,” Biden told the meeting hall in New Hampshire. “My word as a Biden.” Interviews conducted by the Washington Post of more than a dozen troops, commanders and Biden campaign personnel, however, revealed that nearly every detail of “God’s truth” was false. Biden, the Post reported, appeared to combine portions of three separate events into a single story. Then there was 2012, when the Democratic National Convention showcased glorious footage of Russian ships steaming powerfully across open seas as a way to honor U.S. troops and their service. (As our friend Paul Szoldra over at Task and Purpose points out, there truly is a tweet for all occasions.) No surprise. @DNC displayed Russian ships in tribute to vets http://t.co/Q6BpWj0I Did they mean to honor the Russians?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 12, 2012 Military-centric miscues on social media may occur relatively often, but seldom is the source of the mistake the military itself. On September 16, the U.S. Army’s official Twitter account tweeted a composite graphic featuring a soldier flanked by the words “I will never quit,” a line taken from the service’s Soldier’s Creed and Warrior Ethos. The U.S. Army tweeted and deleted this graphic from its official account on September 16, 2020. It features a British soldier, a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter (center), and several South African helicopters (background). The text of the tweet asked, “How do you live the #WarriorEthos?” Twitter users may have found the message more inspiring if the soldier, or any of the helicopters, actually belonged to the U.S. Army — or even the United States. Thanks to the blue patch on his right shoulder and the bullpup-style –– a distinct design in which the rifle’s magazine is located behind the trigger assembly –– SA80 assault rifle, Twitter users quickly identified the figure in the foreground as a British Army soldier. Noting the helicopters in the image, Darren Olivier, a South African military analyst and director of the African Defence Review, tweeted that that “the foremost helicopter is a USMC CH-33 and the helicopters in the background are all from a South African Air Force flypast featuring two Oryxes, two Rooivalks, three A109s, a BK-117 and a [South African Air Force Museum] Alouette III.” The Twitter account Angry Staff Officer, a semi-pseudonymous page operated by Maine National Guard officer Jonathan Bratten, tweeted, “A photo of a British soldier, a USMC helo, and some other foreign rotary winged aircraft? C’mon y’all, this isn’t that hard.” “Sometimes people make mistakes, and that is what happened in this case,” an Army spokesperson said in reference to the since-deleted tweet. Sgt. Maj. Mike Lavigne, sergeant major of Army Public Affairs, responded to the gaffe, saying, “Thank you for the dozens of DMs and tags. This is not the way the Army does business. 99% of our social media game is strong, but when it’s not, someone is held accountable and from today on, that’s me. See something wrong? I’m your POC.” Lavigne might be your POC for social media mishaps, but if you need articles that elicit a response of, “This isn’t news,” I’m your huckleberry.

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Special tactics airman drowned after ‘buddy pair’ system not followed in 2,000-yard swim

The training swim test in which a special tactics airman drowned March 19 was conducted without the usual “buddy team” system typical for such swims, an Air Force investigation found. The report did not reach any conclusions about exactly what caused Airman 1st Class Keigan Baker to drown in St. Andrews Bay, Florida, near Panama…

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Special tactics airman drowned after ‘buddy pair’ system not followed in 2,000-yard swim

The training swim test in which a special tactics airman drowned March 19 was conducted without the usual “buddy team” system typical for such swims, an Air Force investigation found. The report did not reach any conclusions about exactly what caused Airman 1st Class Keigan Baker to drown in St. Andrews Bay, Florida, near Panama City, while attempting to swim 2,000 yards. But, it said, the rules of the combat dive course stipulate that such 2,000-yard swims should be conducted with each swimmer paired up with and tethered to another swimmer of comparable ability to ensure a swimmer doesn’t get separated and into trouble. That was not done in this case. Baker had also taken two Unisom, an over-the-counter sleep aid, the night before the swim without medical authorization, in violation of Air Force instructions and the dive class policy. Its ingredients were still present in his blood at the time of his autopsy, the report said. Baker, 24, was a combat controller who enlisted in the Air Force in June 2018 and was assigned to the Special Tactics Training Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Florida, in January 2020. He was originally from Longview, Washington, and received a bachelor of arts degree from Eastern Washington University. He was on temporary duty to the Air Force Combat Dive School at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center at Naval Support Activity Panama City, Florida. The dive school, officially known as the 350th Special Warfare Training Squadron, Detachment 1, teaches students basic diving, advanced rescue diving principles and advanced combat diving fundamentals. Students at the dive school are required to finish a 2,000-yard surface swim — more than a mile — in simulated combat gear, to check each student’s swimming ability. Like his classmates, Baker wore a mask, a load-bearing vest with a pair of 2-pound weights to simulate ammunition magazines, a personal flotation device, a dive tool and a rubber AR-15. The swim in which Baker drowned took place on the fourth day of his class. Baker and his classmates took part in multiple physical activities, including a 1,000-yard surface swim while wearing gear, during the first three days. 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This surface swim was supposed to begin at 6 a.m. March 19, but a fog forecast prompted instructors to push it back three hours. Baker’s classmates said he appeared to be in good spirits, and they noticed nothing out of the ordinary, aside from mentioning soreness in his hip flexors the previous few weeks. During this swim, eight instructors and a safety diver took part — two more instructors than the minimum requirement. But there were a few changes from standard procedure, the report said. The ammunition pier that usually serves as the finish point was under construction, so the instructors instead used a floating barge about 100 yards east of the ammo pier to drop the buoy marker that served as the finish line. They also shifted the starting buoy marker 100 yards to the east of its usual location. There was also a privately owned, 65-foot yacht anchored in the swim path, the report said. An instructor checked to make sure there were no fishing lines coming from the yacht, and did not ask the yacht to move. There was also more boat traffic than usual during the swim, which the report said was attributed to the later than usual start of the swim, as well as people trying to get out on the water due to the coronavirus stay-at-home restrictions. At one point, an instructor on a boat broke away from the group of student swimmers to stop two civilian boats from entering the training area. Another instructor on a boat also directed a fishing boat away from the swim lane, and later directed swimmers around the 65-foot yacht. The students began the swim at about 10:15 a.m. Almost immediately, the swimmers noticed the current was pushing them northwest, though it wasn’t strong enough to present a safety risk. The student who was closest to Baker said he seemed to be having no trouble swimming, but after about 100 yards, that student lost track of who was swimming near him. Another student swimmer followed Baker, who was the stronger swimmer, for a while without noticing anything wrong. Baker pulled away from that student around the time they approached the yacht, and the student lost sight of him. One by one, a little after 11 a.m., the students began to reach the finish point. The instructors first realized something was wrong when two students still had yet to report their times, but only one student could still be seen swimming. The instructors took head counts, but Baker was nowhere to be found. The instructors began looking for him, and soon called the dive school superintendent to report a student was missing and ask for search and rescue help. In all, 87 personnel on 18 boats, a police helicopter, and a C-130 — including five dive teams and assets from the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Bay County Sheriff’s Office — searched for Baker for hours. A Fish and Wildlife Conservation boat ultimately detected something underwater on sonar at about 4:15 p.m. A diver soon found Baker’s body, which was then recovered. He was declared dead at 4:30 p.m. His dive gear was intact, the report said, and there was no sign he tried to activate his personal flotation device. There was also no sign of trauma or broken bones. The report concluded there was confusion among the dive school staff on the necessity of the buddy-pair system during 2,000-yard surface swims. The rules say buddy pairs should be used, and “buddy lines” are standard training equipment, the report said. But some instructors at the school felt swimming in pairs was inappropriate when they were supposed to be individually evaluating students. Two weeks before Baker’s death, the report said, several dive school instructors discussed using buddy pairs, and the “prevailing sentiment” was that they should be used for the 2,000-yard swim. Two days before the fatal swim, an instructor briefed the students on surface swims. The approved slide presentation listed buddy pairs and buddy lines, but the instructor told the students neither would be used for surface swims. This contradiction during the briefing contributed to instructors’ confusion, the report said. An instructor brought it up with the staff superintendent, who confirmed that buddy lines would not be used for surface swims and that they were to be individual assessments. The report said Baker was in good physical and mental health, though he was reported to use over-the-counter medication to help him sleep. He had some musculoskeletal problems common to special warfare airmen, the report said, but performed well at the fitness test and swims conducted earlier that week. “As a community, special warfare operators are driven, highly motivated individuals who strive to push themselves to the limits of their physical abilities,” the report said. Baker “was no exception, and fellow classmates classified him as one of the smartest and strongest in the class.” The report does not reach a firm conclusion as to what caused Baker to become incapacitated and drown, but lists several factors that may have contributed to it. Baker told an instructor that morning he had taken two Unisom capsules the night before the swim, and commented at breakfast that morning that he felt fatigued, the report said. His autopsy showed he had diphenhydramine levels in his blood of 54 nanograms per milliliter, the report said, more than the levels required to produce sedative effects. Diphenhydramine, or DPH, is the active ingredient found in Unisom. However, the report acknowledged that post-mortem changes can affect blood concentrations of substances between the time someone dies and the autopsy, and the blood measurements cannot reliably indicate the actual levels of DPH in his blood at the time of his death. Baker wore a full wetsuit during the swim for increased buoyancy, the report said. The wetsuit also would keep swimmers warm in cold conditions, but carried the risk of the swimmer becoming uncomfortably warm when swimming aggressively in warm weather. The weather and water conditions that day were mild, the report said, but an exertional heat injury could not be ruled out as a potential cause of his incapacitation. Exertional heat injuries typically happen when someone is strenuously exercising in a warm environment, the report said, as well as when loaded up with clothing, equipment and protective gear. The possibility of a heat injury can be increased by drugs and other substances that impair sweating, the report said. “Development of fatigue from exercise in the heat is multifactorial and associated with several physiologic processes, but the probability is amplified when combined with gear that both inhibits heat release and adds weight/drag, substances that can alter thermoregulation and psychomotor performance (antihistamine), and drive to perform at maximal effort,” the report said. Baker’s autopsy found no signs of head trauma, bone fractures or trauma to anything other than his lungs, which showed the effects of drowning. There was no evidence he had suffered a heart attack, stroke, or pulmonary embolus, had a seizure, or vigorously struggled while drowning, the report said. The autopsy findings did not support a diagnosis of heatstroke, the report said, but heat could not be ruled out as a factor.

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