It’s January 2012. A convoy of SUVs ferrying American diplomats to a meeting with Iraqi politicians runs over a roadside bomb. Several of the passengers inside are seriously injured. They need to be rescued, now.
But the U.S. military left Iraq on Dec. 31. Which means the only call for help has to go to a team of mercenaries employed by the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. They’re the only guys left in Iraq who are running medical evacuation operations — or any other complex air op.
The State Department has already requisitioned an army, part of the roughly 5,000 private security contractors State is hiring to protect diplomats stationed in Iraq. Now, State is hiring someone to provide a little help from the air: an “Aviation Advisor” responsible for “Search and Rescue (SAR), medical evacuations (ME), transporting Quick Reaction Forces (QRF) to respond to incidents, and provid[ing] air transportation for Chief of Mission personnel.” It’s not a familiar job for the diplomatic corps, which is why State is seeking to bring in someone from the outside.
The State Department put out this notice on Nov. 4. That’s 58 days before the withdrawal of U.S. troops. 58 days before State has the skies over Iraq to itself.
There are lots of contractors with long experience in search and rescue and other air operations. The secretive Virginia company Blackbird Technologies, staffed with U.S. special operations veterans, won an $11 million contract in 2010 to rescue missing or kidnapped U.S. troops in Iraq, one of the military’s most important missions.
State has also contracted out for air support in the recent past. Its former principal security company in Iraq, Blackwater, kept a fleet of Little Bird helicopters at the ready in case diplomats in trouble couldn’t get hold of U.S. troops. In an August 2009 internal email acquired by Danger Room, the State Department’s David Adams explained that Blackwater’s aircraft in Iraq were used for “quick reaction forces, search and rescue/medical evacuation, reconnaissance and escort, disabled aircraft recovery, VIP missions (Codels [congressional delegations]), contingency operations, and aerial transportation of personnel and cargo.” The video above shows a Blackwater helicopter in 2007 rescuing a Polish diplomat.
Managing Blackwater’s small helicopter fleet in Iraq was a warmup. This is the main event: a complex structure of transit, support and even “Quick Reaction” (that is, combat) “fixed wing aircraft, light lift helicopters and medium lift helicopters,” on a “24 hour” basis. The Aviation Advisor will not be able to call upon the U.S. Air Force to bail him or her out of a jam.
“Any operation of any aircraft of any type into the sovereign airspace over Iraq after [Dec. 31] would need to comply with Iraqi laws and policies,” says Capt. Mellisa Milner, the chief spokeswoman for the Air Force in the region. “We are not aware of any special arrangements or exceptions for any aircraft, and are not aware of any ongoing discussions with MoD [Iraq's Ministry of Defense] on the matter.”
Air operations are not as simple has hiring skilled pilots to put well-maintained machines in the skies. The military has long-standing procedures in place for designing and executing aerial missions. An experienced chain of command maintains order, discipline, coordination and success. This is what the military does.
It’s not what the State Department does. Only a relatively few officials go into the U.S. diplomatic corps to oversee security operations. And in practice, the department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security doesn’t run those operations itself, it hires contractors to run them. And it’s the part of the department that appears the least functional, with performance or financial scandals ensnaring its contractors ArmorGroup, DynCorp, and of course Blackwater.
Inevitably, things will go wrong in these complex air operations. A functioning chain of command exists to minimize those mistakes and mitigate their impact. The State Department still does not have someone atop that chain, with fewer than 60 days before it finds itself alone in the skies. No wonder the State Department’s own inspector general warned in May that a “lack of senior level Department participation dedicated to the [Iraq] transition process” contributed to a transition plan where “several key decisions have not been made, some plans cannot be finalized, and progress is slipping in a number of areas.” (.pdf)
Until State can figure out its chain of command for air operations, its employees in Iraq — some 17,000 of them, according to current plans — had better hope they don’t need air support. There’s not much time to put one in place.