As Air Force Col. Daniel Tulley assumed command of the 6th Air Mobility Wing in a ceremony at MacDill Air Force Base on Friday morning, the importance of the base and its mission was highlighted by events taking place nearly 7,000 miles away in Iraq.
About two hours before Tulley took over from the retiring Col. Scott DeThomas, U.S. Central Command, headquartered at MacDill, ordered a strike against Sunni insurgents in Iraq, who have been overrunning Iraqi government troops. Just before 7 a.m., two F/A-18 Hornets dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece near Irbil, according to the Pentagon.
“ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) was using its artillery to shell Kurdish forces defending Irbil where U.S. personnel were located,” said Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby in a statement.
At about the time the MacDill ceremony was concluding, additional attacks were carried out, said Kirby.
The decision to drop the bombs was made by Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III, the Centcom commander, under authorization granted to him by President Barack Obama, Kirby said.
The scores of airmen who turned out to bid farewell to their old commander and welcome their new one have another strong connection to the events in Iraq. The wing, which has a fleet of 16 KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling jets, has aircraft and crew in the region supporting the on-going U.S. mission in Iraq, said Col. Andre Briere, the wing’s vice commander.
Briere, speaking after the ceremony installing Tulley, would not specify how many aircraft, how many crew or where they are, but said they have been part of U.S. efforts in Iraq where special operations forces have been assessing the advance of the militants and the ability of Iraqi forces to staunch them.
Just as the change of command ceremony was concluding, the military was conducting two additional air strikes “to help defend the city where U.S. personnel are assisting the Government of Iraq,” Kirby said. “Shortly after 10 a.m. remotely piloted aircraft struck a terrorist mortar position. When ISIL fighters returned to the site moments later, the terrorists were attacked again and successfully eliminated,” Kirby said.
About 80 minutes later, four F/A-18 aircraft “successfully struck a stationary ISIL convoy of seven vehicles and a mortar position near Irbil,” said Kirby in a statement. “The aircraft executed two planned passes. On both runs, each aircraft dropped one laser guided bomb making a total of eight bombs dropped on target neutralizing the mortar and convoy.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, among those in attendance at the MacDill ceremony inside the newly refurbished Hangar 1, called for Congressional debate on any extended combat role in Iraq.
“I think it would be in order for folks to go back and debate it if it goes on for a weeks time,” said Castor, a Democrat from Tampa. “The President has the authority to protect the brave men and women in Iraq, but if this goes into an extended engagement, Congress has the responsibility to debate it and ensure that forces have the resources they need or say we don’t agree with the direction.”
Castor said it was too early to say whether U.S. combat troops will return to a nation they left in 2011 after Obama and Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki could not reach a Status of Forces Agreement, said Castor.
“The American people really don’t have an appetite for extended engagement,” said Castor. “So that’s why it’s necessary to debate what is happening and understand what is at stake in the Middle East.”
Saying it is “outrageous” that insurgents are using U.S. equipment left behind for Iraqi forces, Castor laid the blame for the current unrest on the shoulders of Maliki.
“I am extremely angry and I fault Maliki, this leader we helped come to power in Iraq,” said Castor. “He made certain representations that he was going to be inclusive. Instead of being inclusive, he played to his Shiite faction and did not build an Iraq that was envisioned that would have helped us avoid this.”
Castor said she did not think that having U.S. combat troops leave Iraq in 2011 contributed to the current situation.
“It was the weakness of Maliki,” she said. “He has failed his people. He has failed his country, which is now disintegrating. Hopefully he will be gone in short order.”
Centcom commander Austin, who is in charge of U.S. military operations in Iraq and 19 other nations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, has a great deal of experience leading troops in Iraq and was responsible for overseeing the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011 as commander of U.S. Forces-Iraq. In 2006, he became, commanding general of XVIII Airborne Corps, where he commanded Multi-National Corps-Iraq from February 2008 to April, 2009.
For Tulley, a command pilot with more than 3,700 flying hours, taking command of MacDill’s host unit and serving as the defacto mayor of the only military base in the world with two combatant commands — Centcom and U.S. Special Operations Command — this marks a return.
In 2000, he was a captain at MacDill.
Before taking command at MacDill Friday, he led the 43rd Airlift Group at Pope Army Airfield in North Carolina. He was in charge of a group responsible for the rapid, strategic deployment of forces assigned to the Joint Special Operations Command, the 18th Airborne Corps and the 82nd Airborne Division.
In addition to providing support for Austin and Socom commander Adm. William McRaven, who himself will be replaced later this month by Army Gen. Joseph Votel, Tulley is responsible for more than $2.8 billion in base property and capital assets, and controls an annual budget of about $250 million. The 6th Air Mobility Wing performs air refueling, airlift and contingency-response missions for U.S. and allied forces. Aside from the Stratotankers, the wing flies three Gulfstream C-37A executive transport jets. More than 15,000 personnel are assigned. Aside from Centcom and Socom, the base is home to the 927th Air Refueling Wing, the Joint Communications Support Element and 37 other units.
DeThomas’ retirement comes two years after taking charge at MacDill, a 5,700-acre base that pumps about $5 billion a year into the Tampa Bay area economy. DeThomas has said he and his family will stay on in Tampa.
The mission in Iraq, he said, is part of a long-standing Air Force presence there.
“The Air Force is once again engaged in aerial combat over the country of Iraq,” he said in delivering his farewell remarks. “The Air Force has been engaged in that part of the world since the late 1980s. Your Air Force has been delivering unsurpassed airpower (there) for 25-plus years.”