TACOMA — Hundreds of Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers are heading to Afghanistan this spring to control the country's southern and western skies in what could be the war's final days.
The soldiers in Lewis-McChord's 16th Combat Aviation Brigade should arrive in time for Afghanistan's national elections next month. That's a key date that could determine how many U.S. troops remain in the country after this year, and how long they will stay.
No matter the outcome of the vote, brigade Commander Col. Paul Mele says the Lewis-McChord aviators will play an important role protecting troops on the ground and in helping reduce the Western presence.
"Our mission remains the same: Provide world-class support and solutions to the ground force commander whatever the mission may be," he said.
He's deploying with about 1,200 soldiers from Lewis-McChord in units that fly AH-64 Apache and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters. They'll be joined under Mele's command by an Alaska battalion that flies CH-47 Chinook helicopters and one from the Tennessee National Guard that contains OH-58 Kiowas.
The White House last month announced it's preparing to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan this year because U.S. and Afghan leaders have not reached a long-term security pact.
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai or his successor still could sign a bilateral security agreement with President Barack Obama that would lay the groundwork for a modest U.S. presence there after Jan. 1.
News reports on the negotiations suggest any agreement would call for fewer than 10,000 U.S. troops.
About 34,000 U.S. military service members are stationed in Afghanistan today, down from about 100,000 in 2011.
Mele said the shrinking presence would not change the pace of operations for the local aviators.
He commanded an aviation battalion in Iraq in 2010, and he was on an air mission protecting an U.S. convoy on the day the Iraqis officially took back control of their country.
He remembered thinking his mission was just as important because "the enemy didn't care" who was in charge.
In Afghanistan, steep mountains make helicopters vital for moving troops and gathering intelligence.
Mele said his soldiers will be asked to fly reconnaissance missions to inform ground commanders about threats around them, medical evacuations, assault missions and close air support assignments.
At times, they'll also back up Afghan government forces.
The Chinooks, meanwhile, will have a hand in repositioning troops and equipment so they can be moved out of Afghanistan.
"I believe the (operational tempo) will be the just as demanding" as any previous aviation brigade deployment, he said.
The 16th Combat Aviation Brigade is a new headquarters at Lewis-McChord. It was built up here in 2012 with aviation units that were stationed at Lewis-McChord, Fort Wainwright in Alaska and Fort Hood in Texas.
It has a split mission this year with one squadron stationed in South Korea. Mele visited soldiers in that unit, the Kiowa-flying 4th Squadron, 6th Air Cavalry Regiment, earlier this month.
For the most part, aviation soldiers deploying to Afghanistan will fly helicopters already stationed there.
The brigade is taking two dozen of its own Apaches, however, because they are the latest models. The helicopter, known as the AH-64E, has additional power, capabilities to work with unmanned aircraft, and better resources to fly in clouds than its predecessors.