As commander of U.S. Air Forces Africa, Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward saw the pro-democracy movement sweep across the region after its spark in Tunisia, one of the 53 countries under her area of responsibility. Months later, when Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s crackdown on protesters in Libya prompted an international response, Woodward was tapped to run the U.S.-led air operation -- making her the first American woman to take on such a role.
Even as NATO has taken over the operation, Woodward said she’s still overseeing certain elements.
“We’re responsible for providing personnel recovery assets for the NATO operations [and] for any enduring U.S.-only commitments,” she told National Journal from Germany, where she also leads the 17th Air Force. “We certainly are trying our best to provide as much help and support as we can to our NATO allies in the form of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and analysis work that goes on -- taking all those products and being able to provide situational awareness from them.”
Woodward ran the U.S. air operations in Libya from the beginning. Before the airstrikes began, she was in charge of evacuating third-party nationals out of Libya, and she said she was buoyed by stories of Egyptians cheering upon returning home.
She said the most striking aspect of the mission was the way the coalition came together. “I’m sitting here [in Ramstein Air Base] planning this operation -- really, at the last minute -- and get a phone call from this two-star from England saying, ‘Hey, I’m sending my one-star over to you, he’s landing there in a couple hours and he’s got a target list with him.’”
The British commander arrived that night, and he and Woodward started poring over the list of targets when they were joined by their French counterpart the following morning. “The three of us [were] throughout that day getting phone calls from Canadians, Belgians,” she said. “[It was] almost surreal... to have a coalition come together in that way.”
When the air operation took off, Woodward was charged with stopping Qaddafi’s advance on Benghazi. She said she’s proud of her team, which inflicted considerable damage on the Libyan leader's air defenses and combat air forces. “Qaddafi hasn’t flown since the start of operations [and] the folks in Benghazi are safe, when I think they faced certain massacre,” she said. “We set the conditions that gave everybody time to work through political options that are out there and to enable some choices which wouldn’t have been there if [Qaddafi] had gotten the chance to overrun Benghazi.”
Going forward, Woodward said, “it’s really up to Qaddafi and what decisions he decides to make -- as far as how long things go or what direction it takes.”
Even though she has passed on command of the air operations, Woodward said she’s still quite busy overseeing all Air Force activities in the large swath of territory, spanning 11 million square miles and more than 900 million people. “Issues are happening all around the continent and they’ll never stop.... Events happening in Cote d’Ivoire -- those are [also] of importance to us, we keep our eye on that and events all around the continent,” she said.
When Woodward entered the Air Force in 1983 after earning a degree in aerospace engineering, women were banned from flying in combat. “Honestly, I never thought [flying] wasn’t an option until high school,” she said.
After spending part of her childhood in India and Pakistan, she said it was ultimately a high school guidance counselor who told her the Air Force didn’t let women fly combat airplanes. She responded, “They’re going to change that, because this is my destiny.”
“I just knew,” she added. “It was one of those things. I credit my parents, honestly, for never telling me that it was something that I couldn’t do.”
After getting her wings, Woodward was an instructor pilot on the T-38, a plane that prepares pilots to fly fighter and bomber aircraft. Woodward has since held a diverse set of leadership roles, including commanding and flying in Afghanistan and Iraq. She also commanded the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base just outside Washington, home to Air Force One.