Air Mobility’s Never-Ending Surge

Sept. 1, 2006

As of this month, USAF’s mobility system has been running at full-throttle for five straight years—ever since al Qaeda struck the US on Sept. 11, 2001. Air Mobility Command, the supplier of airlift for the joint force, not only has been providing lift for regional combat commands but also has been underwriting USAF’s massive “peacetime” airlift and refueling operation.

AMC has surged its active duty airmen, relying heavily on its newer aircraft, while also getting critical support from Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve forces—some of which are still under soon-to-end wartime mobilization orders.

Mobility activities have been carried out at a level slightly higher than what is sustainable in the long-term, said Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, commander of AMC at Scott AFB, Ill. The “gap” over the past five years has been covered by increasing the optempo of the airmen themselves, he said.

“You’re getting that on the backs of people who are surging,” McNabb said. “At some point, you worry about situating yourself for the Long War.”

With a mix of active duty forces, reserve component volunteers, and day-to-day commercial support, AMC can supply 35 percent of its “max surge” capability without creating long-term problems for the force.

However, the command has been dipping into the other 65 percent, which constitutes its wartime surge capability. This comes through increased optempo, reserve mobilizations, and activation of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, commercial air carriers that agree to transport military payloads in wartime in exchange for a guaranteed level of DOD business in peacetime.

AMC is pushing for a number of reforms, in-house and in conjunction with US Transportation Command, to bring its optempo down to a permanently sustainable level.

“That mobilization authority is starting to run out,” McNabb said, so AMC must “get to the point where we can do this steady state.”

AMC data show that, over the past year, active duty KC-135 tanker and C-130 airlifter crews averaged 141 and 149 days on temporary duty assignments, respectively.

Expeditionary Emphasis

The tasking of the command’s expeditionary combat support forces was especially heavy, as was the case throughout the Air Force. AMC’s explosive ordnance disposal teams were deployed 176 days last year, and security forces averaged 201 TDY days.

Recent humanitarian missions have been stacked atop the regular Long War requirements. Officials note that AMC flew 881 hurricane relief sorties last year, moving nearly 15,000 passengers and 3,000 patients. Asian tsunami relief included 375 sorties to move almost 4,000 tons of supplies and some 3,000 passengers. After the recent earthquake in Pakistan, AMC flew 551 sorties to move more than 2,200 passengers and more than 6,300 tons of supplies.

McNabb noted that AMC is in the process of updating its operational concepts, organizational structure, and technologies to meet its long-term demands. Some of these changes are already bearing fruit. Most fundamental is its work with TRANSCOM to ensure supplies are not airlifted unnecessarily.

Planners need to make “prudent decisions about what you send by air and what you send by sea,” said Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, TRANSCOM commander, in a separate interview. Airlift is expensive, even in relative terms, so it makes little sense to fly concrete or water to forward operating locations. Schwartz said that 40 percent of the shipments from Kuwait to Iraq were moving water, so now Balad AB, Iraq, and other operating locations have on-site water plants.

The “sophisticated” way to operate is with mixed delivery methods, Schwartz continued. Airlift can deliver initial supplies quickly, with the bulk following by ship. Similarly, supplies can be sealifted from the US to Rota, Spain, and airlifted to final destinations from there. These tactics reduce the overall airlift burden, which is important for financial reasons in addition to the relief they provide to mobility forces.

TRANSCOM says a single large cargo ship can deliver the same materiel as 420 C-17 sorties. Rations delivered by sea can cost 15 cents per meal if delivered by ship or $7 if delivered by air. “Maybe the No. 1 issue is not speed,” Schwartz observed.

But sometimes speed is the issue. It can take three to four weeks for goods to arrive by ship or two to three days for the same goods to come via airlift.

Schwartz said Chinook helicopters were airlifted to Pakistan in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake there, and rescue submarines and supplies were immediately flown to far eastern Russia when a mini-submarine was trapped underwater last year.

In both of these cases, time was the critical factor and only airlift would meet the need. Forces “don’t get there on Day 1” without air mobility, noted Brig. Gen. Frederick F. Roggero, AMC’s deputy operations director.

Tweaking the System

Pop-up contingencies, time-critical changes, and preplanned missions are all run at Scott’s Tanker Airlift Control Center (TACC), which serves as the air operations center for AMC. The TACC is the Air Force’s most mature AOC, up and running for 14 years.

The TACC plans missions, tasks aircraft, and executes the operations. It is important to have worldwide ops handled at one place, explained Brig. Gen. Donald Lustig, TACC vice commander, because centralized command allows aircraft availability and crew utilization rates to be centrally monitored.

Aircraft can be quickly retasked according to mission prioritization. Steve Jones of the center’s mobility management group said the TACC follows guidance such as “use four C-5s from Dover.” If one of those Galaxys breaks down, Jones said the TACC will know where to find an alternate. Barrels of capability keep flowing even though the base experiencing the breakdown would probably only know the status of its own aircraft.

Current operations are different from “peaceful” Cold War mobility sorties. Some missions are reserved for aircraft with advanced defensive systems, such as the 35 C-17s with the Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures (LAIRCM) system that can defeat IR-guided missiles. Planning officials expressed a desire to get LAIRCM on as many airlifters as possible, because aircraft have already come under attack from shoulder-fired IR missiles on several occasions.

Tactics have also evolved. AMC operations director Maj. Gen. Quentin L. Peterson said it used to be rare for mobility crews to fly with night vision goggles, but NVG use is now common.

AMC is also trying to improve efficiency “in the system.” Officials found that airmen were not taking advantage of en route down time, noted Brig. Gen. Robert H. McMahon, AMC logistics chief. For example, a C-17 might be sitting on the ground at Ramstein AB, Germany, for 24 hours while its crew rests. There is no reason why airmen cannot do maintenance on that aircraft while it sits.

Similarly, analysis of KC-135 operations for the Joint Staff’s Mobility Capabilities Study found a way to improve use of the Eisenhower-era tankers. “We have a problem with the KC-135E models,” said Maj. Gen. Thomas P. Kane, director of plans and programs for AMC, as some aircraft are grounded and the others are maintenance intensive. (See “Under Lockdown,” p. 54.)

Kane said increasing the crew ratios for the tankers from 1.25 per aircraft to 1.78 per aircraft produces the same number of sorties with a smaller fleet. “By having the right crew ratios, you get a higher utilization rate and you can generate the [required] sorties.”

The Air Force has also invested heavily in improving the throughput at its operational hubs such as Rota and Ramstein. These upgrades are important because “if you clog up the throughput, nothing flows,” Kane said.

Medevac Success

Aeromedical evacuations have also been tweaked with notable results. In Operation Desert Storm, it took 10 days to return injured troops Stateside, with a 75 percent survival rate. Today, the dedicated C-9 Nightingale is gone, replaced by critical care teams with transportable equipment. Any airlifter can now be designated for AE, noted Col. Joseph V. Stephans, AMC requirements chief, and it now takes three days to transport injured troops Stateside, with a 90 percent survival rate.

The C-17 straddles the line between a strategic and tactical airlifter, and its reliability puts it in high demand. To maximize the effect of the C-17 in Southwest Asia without unduly burdening its crews, AMC recently deployed two C-17 squadrons to the theater, where 20 aircraft operate out of three major hubs.

This is similar to the way C-130 Hercules airlifters are deployed in-theater and eliminates much of the constant back-and-forth for C-17 crews, some of which were spending more than 200 days a year on temporary duty assignments. Peterson said there are now more available sorties in-theater and more C-17s available for routine flights Stateside.

All this efficiency comes at a price, however—the Air Force is burning up its C-17 flying hours faster than predicted. Therefore, the service recently asked for seven additional C-17s as a supplement to its 2007 budget request, to serve as backup inventory.

Air Force plans called for C-17s to fly roughly 1,000 hours per year for 30 years, but current usage will use up the flying hours in 24 to 25 years, said McMahon. Both the C-17 and C-130 are being strained with high-stress takeoffs and landings, heavy use of thrust reversers, and lots of wear and tear on the brakes and tires.

The Air Force in June had 22 grounded and 51 flight-restricted Hercs. Two more C-130s will enter restricted status this year, as their center wing boxes become too stressed with age.

There are also 30 KC-135E tankers grounded because their engine struts are out of compliance.

Asked if these aircraft will be grounded forever, McNabb said, “That’s certainly in the best interest of the taxpayer.” The alternative is significant investment in aircraft that will never be as good as newer counterparts.

“I don’t need a lot of analysis to tell me that I’ve got [22] C-130E models grounded today. Those maintenance guys who are stretched pretty thin don’t need to go out and turn the tires and check the interiors of those broken airplanes,” said Kane. “Those are combat ineffective aircraft that we’re maintaining on the ramp.”

Not Worth Doing

There may be a foreign market for the grounded C-130Es. “It may make sense for others to say, ‘I’m going to invest in a center wing box,'” McNabb said, but further investment in these C-130Es is probably not worth it for the US.

With the KC-135Es, “it’s probably not worth doing the struts and all that,” McNabb said, because “if I did repair them, I just wouldn’t get the warfighting capability out of them,” compared to using the money and the maintainers on the KC-135R fleet.

McNabb said the metric most commonly used to measure reliability—the mission capable rate—is misleading. MC rates exclude aircraft undergoing depot-level maintenance. Theoretically, a fleet of 100 aircraft could show a 100 percent MC rate if one airplane was ready to go and 99 were in depot.

A more accurate measure is “fleet availability,” McNabb said—the percent of a total fleet that is mission capable.

Fleet availability numbers reveal significant trends. The C-5A has 40.8 percent availability; the new C-17s register 72.7 percent. C-130Es show 50.8 percent availability; the new C-130J is at 74.4 percent. And the KC-135E fleet is 46.8 percent available, while the KC-10s are at 67.6 percent.

“They all follow about the same,” said McNabb. “If you built them in the ’60s, they are going to be in the 50 percent [availability] range. If you built them in the ’80s, they’re going to be in the 65 percent [range.] If they’re recent, they’re going to be in the 75 percent” range.

Operational reliability for older aircraft comes “on the backs of the maintainers,” he said. Once you get the aircraft out of depot, mission capable, and on the flying schedule, “they work pretty well,” he observed, with en route reliability in the 95 to 96 percent range across the board—with one glaring exception.

“Our problem right now is the C-5,” McNabb said. “If I put that in the system, it breaks.” On June 20, three of 28 mission C-5s were unexpectedly “not mission capable,” such as one stuck at Incirlik AB, Turkey, needing flight-control work. June 20 was actually a good day for C-5s, because the six-month average was 20 percent off-station.

“The hidden cost of an aging fleet is direct loss of warfighting effect,” said McNabb. “This gets lost in the debate. … It tells you why recapitalization really makes a difference.”

McNabb noted that the Mobility Capabilities Study specified a requirement for 292 to 383 strategic airlifters—but did not specify an exact mix, because the C-5 and C-17 were found to have “roughly the same warfighting effect.”

Not coincidently, when the MCS was completed, USAF had 180 C-17s on order and a fleet of 112 C-5s awaiting modernization to C-5M status with new avionics, engines, and other upgrades. One C-5 subsequently crashed at Dover AFB, Del., leaving the Air Force one strategic airlifter short of the MCS minimum.

Tankers, Not Airlifters

Schwartz said there is an opportunity cost to buying additional C-17s, and the marginal value of new tankers is higher at this point. It is also possible for the Air Force to buy too many strategic airlifters, he noted. Eventually the current operations will end, and flying and maintaining a huge fleet of cargo aircraft could be to the detriment of the much more cost-effective Civil Reserve Air Fleet.

What’s the sweet spot for C-17s? Schwartz told Air Force Magazine his view is “it certainly isn’t at 220. … It might be slightly above 180.”

Several officials expressed the view that 187 C-17s is probably the correct number because that purchase, combined with possible foreign C-17 buys, will allow the manufacturing line to remain open until AMC knows if the C-5 modernization program will be successful.

MCS assumed the success of the C-5M program, McNabb said. (See “Rising Risk in Air Mobility,” March, p. 28.) Whether this pans out will not be known until around 2009, however. The first C-5M flew this year.

The program of record is for all 111 C-5A and C-5B aircraft to be converted to C-5M configuration, which will hopefully increase Galaxy reliability to a level comparable with AMC’s other aircraft.

“If we get that increased mission capable rate,” the effect is the same as getting 10 additional C-5s, said Brig. Gen. Scott E. Wuesthoff, Kane’s deputy. This will “bring more warfighting effect to the table,” as there are still some missions involving outsize cargo that the C-5 does best.

If the C-5 modernization plan does not deliver the expected reliability, the Air Force may decide to cancel the Reliability Enhancement and Re-engining Program for the older A model aircraft and redistribute the $5 billion in funding, said Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley.

“We have some opportunities inside the mobility portfolio that are playing out, like continued C-130 acquisition for [Air Force Special Operations Command], the KC-X, the Joint Cargo Aircraft,” Moseley told reporters this year. “The $5 billion … may be helpful for those three programs, but I don’t know yet. We still have the [C-5M] test ongoing.”

Multimission aircraft such as the the C-17 are at a premium, a lesson the Air Force is applying to its search for a KC-135 replacement, dubbed KC-X. Both Schwartz and McNabb said they desire a new tanker with “floors, doors, and defensive systems,” so that it can also haul troops and cargo.

The Air Force has issued the KC-X request for information, and a winning contractor is expected to be named next year.

“I am looking for versatility—single-mission airplanes don’t give that,” Schwartz said. “The Secretary of Defense went to Baghdad in a C-17. Would I send [him] to Baghdad in a C-17 if I had a KC-X? Probably not. I would use the C-17 in a better way.”

A properly configured multimission tanker also “offers a little bit of insurance” against a failure of the CRAF network. “Three of my CRAF carriers remain in bankruptcy—the airline industry is fragile,” Schwartz observed.

“I constantly worry about CRAF,” McNabb added, because long-haul providers are becoming more international, leaving fewer domestic options.

Tactical Missions

Also on the horizon is the Air Force version of the Joint Cargo Aircraft, a small intratheater transport being procured with the Army. Current plans call for each service to buy approximately 75 JCAs for missions such as delivering three pallets to troops in the field in Afghanistan. These small payloads are commonly delivered today by larger (and sometimes largely empty) aircraft. USAF should take delivery of its first JCA in 2010. (See “Washington Watch: Air Force, Army Shake Hands Over JCA,” August, p. 8.)

AMC has also established six contingency response groups, which consist of a standing, trained force of 112 airmen that can deploy and establish an airfield within 72 hours. Aerial porters, air traffic controllers, and civil engineers set up the base before handing it over to follow-on expeditionary combat support forces.

Although 11 airfields were expanded and three others opened from scratch within 10 days of 9/11, a better way was needed to open airfields. The Air Force “needed to be better, faster, and more prepared for opening expeditionary air bases anywhere in the world,” said Col. James G. Kolling of the AMC installations and mission support directorate.

The CRGs have already deployed several times, for the Pakistan earthquake and hurricane response in the US last fall.

Peterson noted that having six CRGs would allow multiple bases to be opened simultaneously, all in a matter of days.

TRANSCOM is building on this formula to develop task forces for the larger port-opening mission. Airlift is but one part of the equation for opening a new supply pipeline, Schwartz said, so TRANSCOM’s Joint Task Force-Port Opening (JTF-PO) teams will bring together USAF and Army units that previously operated independently.

“When the stuff comes off the ramp of the airplane, the mission’s not done,” Schwartz said. “What we need is a capability that’s bigger than each of the particular modes of transportation.”

The mission last year to save the trapped crew of a Russian submarine demonstrated the responsiveness of today’s military mobility forces. On Aug. 4, 2005, the Russian Priz-class AS-28 mini-submarine became trapped in fishing netting 625 feet under the sea off the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Russia lacked the equipment to save the seven sailors aboard the submarine and, learning from the 2000 Kursk tragedy in which 118 Russian sailors died, immediately put out a call for help.

Last Active Duty Starlifters Retire

Nearly five years of support for the Global War on Terrorism have resulted in cumulative mobility totals that are, in some cases, difficult to comprehend.

Overall, since 9/11, AMC has flown more than 788,000 sorties, moved 6.44 million passengers, and delivered 3.9 billion pounds of fuel.

On June 28 alone, AMC had 950 sorties scheduled. The six-month average was 825 sorties per day—more than one takeoff every other minute, around the clock.

Airlifted cargo recently surpassed the Berlin Airlift total from 1948 to 1949. By June in the Long War, 1.86 million tons of cargo had been airlifted; Operation Vittles saw the movement of 1.78 million tons.

Finally, current-operation flying hours are as much as Berlin and Gulf War I combined. The Long War has been supported by 1.36 million flying hours. The Berlin Airlift and Desert Shield-Desert Storm required 587,000 and 657,000 flying hours, respectively.

TACC vice commander Lustig said visibility into the transportation system allowed officials to “snatch a rested crew” and assign it to this high-priority mission. The TACC identified a C-5 in flight over North Dakota, which was returning to the US from Spain, as the mission aircraft.

They diverted the C-5 to NAS North Island, Calif., where two Navy Super Scorpio rescue subs, gear, and all the necessary personnel and aircrew were loaded.

Several C-17s from around the country were quickly tasked to bring another submersible, loaders, and supplies. A KC-10 and three KC-135s performed four en route aerial refuelings.

The United Kingdom also sent a rescue submarine, “on a leased C-17, by the way,” Schwartz said. “The Brits got there first, we got in a couple of hours later. They were ahead of us,” so the US airmen helped unload the British aircraft.

The British rescue sub, assisted by US Navy divers, freed the trapped Russian submarine. The seven Russian sailors were saved before their oxygen ran out.

Squadron Leader Keith Hewitt, captain of the RAF’s mission aircraft, said the UK is “now able to reach farther points of the globe rapidly and effectively” with the C-17. “Perhaps the event that sums up its capability most graphically was the Priz rescue.”

As this case shows, however, it was not just equipment—flexible personnel and tactics were also needed for the mission. “When the mini-sub got off the airplane and onto the ramp, it didn’t do anybody any good,” Schwartz noted. “It had to go over to the adjacent port,” not a task the Air Force was prepared to perform.

When the rescue submarine got to the port, “do you think the driver of that 18-wheeler had a clue how to crane that mini-submarine onto the ship that was then going to go out to the incident site? No,” Schwartz said, saying the incident highlights the importance of joint port opening capabilities.

The location of the next contingency is unknown, but it will come, and AMC and TRANSCOM will be expected to keep things moving.