Amid shortage of troops, airmen given new jobs

Thousands in Air Force deployed as prison guards, interrogators


WASHINGTON -- Straining to find troops to maintain force levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon has begun deploying thousands of Air Force personnel to combat zones in new jobs as interrogators, prison sentries and gunners on supply trucks.

The Air Force years ago banked its future on fighter jets and billion-dollar satellites. Yet the service that has long avoided being pulled into ground operations is now finding that its people - rather than its weapons - are what the Pentagon needs most as it wages a prolonged war against a low-tech insurgency.

Individual branches have spent decades carving out their roles within the U.S. military, and Air Force officials say the redeployment of their airmen is temporary. Still, the reassignments of Air Force personnel are another sign that the Pentagon is struggling to meet the demands of what military officials have begun calling "the long war."

As part of the effort, more than 3,000 Air Force troops are being assigned new roles. And airmen are being dispatched to combat zones for longer tours of duty, up to 12 months rather than four.

The situation is a reversal of sorts for the Air Force, which played a dominant role in recent conflicts, including the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In the peacekeeping efforts in Afghanistan and the fight against insurgents in Iraq, the Army has been the dominant branch, said Steve Kosiak, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Air Force officials said they expect to commit 1,000 more airmen to missions such as prison guards and truck drivers over the next few years but don't plan to make the jobs "core competencies" within the Air Force.

Pentagon planners think counterinsurgency efforts such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan could become the norm for the U.S. military. And, with the Pentagon engaged in a top-to-bottom reassessment of the U.S. military's missions, Air Force officials said there is a chance that the high-flying service could be spending more time on the ground in the years ahead.

One urgent problem being addressed by the Air Force is the shortage of trained interrogators to question the thousands of detainees being held in U.S. military prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The first Air Force interrogation teams were deployed to Afghanistan this year. They went without receiving special training because most were members of the Air Force's internal investigative service and had experience questioning suspects. But subsequent Air Force interrogation teams are being drawn from unrelated jobs, and members are undergoing 16-week interrogation courses at the Army's intelligence academy at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

Several thousand sailors are performing what the Navy calls "nontraditional" roles in Iraq, Afghanistan and at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Navy operates the prison for accused terrorists at its base at Guantanamo, and sailors soon will be guarding detainees at Fort Suse in Iraq - another move to free up Army personnel for counterinsurgency missions.

By summer, the Navy expects to have retrained 3,000 to 4,000 sailors as prison guards, cargo handlers and other jobs that have traditionally fallen to the Army.

Recently, 500 sailors completed training by the Department of Agriculture to become customs inspectors in Iraq and Kuwait - sifting through military cargo and personal gear that troops send back to the United States.

Airmen are beginning to spend more time in combat zones. Air Force officials said that although 85 percent to 90 percent of airmen still deploy on four-month tours, a growing number are spending six months or a year in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Army officials expect to have one Air Force class in interrogation training at Fort Huachuca almost year-round. Most will likely be assigned to higher-level prisons such as Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca in Iraq, said Thomas Gandy, director of human intelligence for the Army.

Mark Mazzetti and Greg Miller write for the Los Angeles Times.

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