This is the Air Force as you’ve never seen it before. Masks on faces. Latex gloves. Enforced social distancing. Livestream events rather than all-hands calls. A global stop-movement order blocking most training, moves, and travel.
Yet, the show goes on. Despite the stop-movement order through June—and its possible extension beyond that—Air Force units maintained momentum, responded to needs, and met mission demands all around the globe. Airmen stepped in to make masks or use their tools and training to solve problems.
COVID-19 changed routines, but not objectives.
Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist said once the viral risks subside, the military will have to begin to reset gradually. “We’re going to need to change and adapt because even over the coming months, the virus isn’t going to go away,” Norquist said. “We’re going to have to operate in a COVID environment, which means, ‘how do you train? How do you prepare? How do you deploy?’ … We have adapted in the past. We will adapt in this environment.”
Major commands cut back on flying, curtailing exercises and canceling some, such as Red Flag-Alaska, entirely. Travel restrictions forced Pacific Air Forces to get creative with partner engagements, said Maj. Gen. Scott Pleus, Pacific Air Force’s director of air and cyberspace operations.
“We’re going to need to change and adapt because even over the coming months, the virus isn’t going to go away.”Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist
Core missions such as Operation Noble Eagle, which keeps fighters and tankers on alert to defend the continental United States, Guam, Alaska, and Hawaii, continued unabated.
Despite travel restrictions, Airmen continued to train, taking off from their respective air bases and meeting in international airspace to train.
Mobility units surged to meet an uptick in demand for medical supplies and equipment.
A C-17 from Air Mobility Command’s (AMC’s) 618th Air Operations Center flew three highly contagious COVID-19 positive patients—all U.S. government contractors—from Afghanistan to Germany for treatment, using specially designed isolation pods to protect the crew in flight. A team of aeromedical evacuation specialists, Critical Care Air Transport Team members, infectious disease doctors, and technicians launched within 24 hours of receiving orders from U.S. Transportation Command.
The Transportation Isolation System was developed in 2014 during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, but the April 10 mission was its first operational use. Anticipating demand for the systems to grow, AMC designated Joint Base Charleston, S.C., to be the hub for training medevac Airmen to use the system.
Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) is also developing a new Portable Bio-Containment Module to transport long-term infectious patients. The Air Force anticipated testing the newer, more advanced system before the end of April, according to AFMC.
Getting the Job Done
Through dozens of other missions, AMC moved people, gear, and equipment, including urgently needed COVID-19 test kits and ventilators, around the globe. C-130s moved personnel and field hospital equipment to New York and the state of Washington, and other AMC crews flew to Honduras, Colombia, and Panama to help evacuate hundreds of civilians stuck there when flights out of those countries were suspended.
AMC changed operating patterns, isolating and screening aircrews to keep them healthy, and maintenance shifts were staggered to minimize the risk of passing on infections.
AMC Deputy Commander Lt. Gen. Jon Thomas said during an April 3 briefing that command and control operations centers, communications support, and cyber security teams are reporting for duty but the command was cutting support for exercises and partnership efforts to focus on mission-critical capabilities.
Beating the Virus
At Aviano Air Base in northeast Italy, less than 200 miles from the heart of the Italian COVID-19 outbreak, Airmen and aircraft maintained a normal schedule while increasing social distancing and finding new ways to be flexible.
“Projecting combat air power is our primary mission, and that is a way we’re going to contribute to beating this virus,” said Capt. Claire Bieber, an F-16 pilot with Aviano’s 510th Fighter Squadron. “I know that sounds like it’s not correlated, but it is important to make sure that both Americans and everybody else knows that this isn’t going to beat us and that we’re going to continue to be ready, no matter what hazard or threat is thrown our way.
“We’re working really, really hard to minimize the risk and minimize the exposure,” Bieber said. “We’re taking really, really careful precautions to ensure the safety of all of our members and their families. But it can’t be understated how important it is that we’re still projecting air power.”
The base also hosts the 555th Fighter Squadron “Triple Nickel,” which saw its Middle East combat deployment extended as part of the stop-movement order.
The deployment meant more space for the 510th to work and more time to fly. The squadron had been practicing Agile Combat Employment prior to the pandemic, but returned to focusing on basics once stop-over visits elsewhere were no longer an option.
“We’ve kind of changed our turn pattern around pretty significantly, but still flying as much as we were before, and maybe a little more,” Bieber said.
Units reordered routines so pilots could fly two to three times per day, then stay home in isolation on days they weren’t flying. Before COVID-19, regular operations meant about 12 F-16 flights each morning and 10 in the afternoon. Now, the schedule is typically eight sorties in the morning, eight in the afternoon, and eight overnight. Pilots used to have 10 to 15 fly days per month. Now it’s just four or five, but each includes three sorties.
“That makes for some pretty long debriefs,” he said, noting that they aren’t done in person, but remotely.
“We’re taking really, really careful precautions to ensure the safety of all of our members and their families. But it can’t be understated how important it is that we’re still projecting air power.”Capt. Claire Bieber, an F-16 pilot with Aviano’s 510th Fighter Squadron
Medical staff embedded in the squadron perform daily check-ins, and Airmen are encouraged to stay home if feeling unwell. Beyond that, “there’s hand sanitizer literally all over the place.”
Aviano’s 56th and 57th Rescue Squadrons (RQS) are limited in how they can train; prior to the pandemic, the 56th regularly flew with NATO allies Croatia and Slovenia, but pilots now remain in the mountain areas around the base or fly out over the Adriatic Sea, said Capt. Samuel McNell, a pilot with the 56th RQS. That includes jumps for pararescuemen, “so we’re still maintaining combat mission readiness,” said Capt. Jordan Nichols, a combat rescue officer with the 57th Rescue Squadron.
As elsewhere, Aviano Airmen who can are working from home and conducting video meetings online.
Aviano Airmen who live off base had to receive special permission and documents in order to travel to work. Some recent arrivals have been stuck in temporary lodging, unable to seek a home off base. Schools are closed, children need to be home-schooled, and spouses can’t leave the house when Airmen need to report to work.
“We just miss each other,” Nichols said. “You don’t get to see your best friends every single day. It does help out having WhatsApp chats, having Zoom meetings so guys can razz.”
DOD Extends Stop-Move Through June—for Now
The Defense Department extended its Stop-Move order through June. The decision will be reviewed biweekly and could be extended or lifted early, said Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Matt Donovan.
The new policy eases some restrictions on deployments and redeployment to home location, while extending the overall order by seven weeks.
“We don’t want to do anything that places the health of our force at risk,” said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley during a live-streamed town hall April 9. “If that means further delay, then that means further delay.”
Delays mean sacrifices in training and readiness, Milley acknowledged. The intent of any decision is “keeping you and your family safe.”
Rampant unemployment and devastation across the airline industry will have an impact on both recruiting and retention. Interest in joining, extending, or staying is rising as opportunities outside the Air Force contract.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said the Air Force would likely ease restrictions on the amount of leave Airmen may carry over to the next fiscal year, and will allow some who had planned to retire or separate to delay those actions. Goldfein himself could be extended past his planned retirement in July if there is any delay in confirming his relief, Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., who is currently commander of Pacific Air Forces.
Members on Active duty, whether in the Active, Guard, or Reserve forces typically cannot accrue more than 60 days of leave and must typically burn leave within eight months of exceeding the 60-day cap. Goldfein said a plan is in the works to allow Airmen to carry some extra leave into 2021.