Mobility Boom

June 27, 2018

C-5M crew members unload telecommunications towers at Luis Muñoz Marin Airport, Puerto Rico, in response to Hurricane Maria. Photo: TSgt. Larry Reid

The Air Force’s airlift enterprise was pushed hard in 2017 as it responded to multiple domestic natural catastrophes, while continuing to fuel and supply the fight overseas. These demands stretched the command thin—delaying some deployments—and lent great urgency to measures underway to increase Air Mobility Command’s readiness. All this happened as the command also attempts to better posture itself for possible future large-scale combat.

“The world continued to test our ability to respond and deliver airpower, relief, and hope to those in need,” AMC chief Gen. Carlton D. Everhart II said recently.

“We were busy, and we still had combat operations going on in the CENTCOM area of responsibility, and also trying to get after full-spectrum readiness in case we have to go somewhere else on the globe if the nation needs us to do that,” Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Sharpy, Everhart’s deputy, told Air Force Magazine.

The ordeal began as Hurricane Harvey lashed the Gulf Coast and the American South, quickly followed by more hurricanes in the Caribbean—including Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico—unprecedented numbers of wildfires in the West, and an earthquake in Mexico. The disasters signaled the start of months of continuous operations for airlifters and AMC’s contingency response wings inside the US.

Reacting to the calamities, AMC flew more than 3,000 humanitarian assistance disaster relief missions, and throughout 2017, its air operations center was tasked with organizing about 600 sorties per day.

AMC mobilized 60 percent of its capacity to support disaster relief efforts. Of those, 70 percent of the flights were flown by Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve aircraft and crews, Sharpy said. Two thousand sorties were flown solely in response to Hurricane Maria in both Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, he said.

C-130 loadmasters secure the cargo bay after a mission in Southwest Asia. Airlift modernization plans are decentralized, but AMC wishes to harmonize them. Photo: SSgt. Michael Battles

The pace was so high, even generals got short-notice taskings. Sharpy flew to Puerto Rico for the storm response with three hours’ warning, spending three weeks as the joint forces land component deputy commander. Forty-eight states provided National Guard support to the storm response.

Besides aircraft, AMC sent contingency response forces to open airfields for USAF and contract aircraft filled with relief supplies. Typically, such teams are tasked with setting up remote airstrips in combat zones such as Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.

Once the humanitarian need had largely been met, and the pace of anti-ISIS operations slowed, these forces finally had a chance to “reset” and get back to standing by for the next mission.

“For the first time in a long time, our contingency response forces are ready and pulling the alert duties” in case they are “called upon to be responsive across the globe,” Sharpy said.

The disaster response delayed the shipment of equipment to US Central Command for weeks at a time, when the US was building up its presence in Afghanistan and facing an increased requirement for fuel and cargo.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told lawmakers the delays were due to USAF having a “finite number” of transport aircraft. It was “all hands on deck” to help US citizens as gray tails headed to US airfields in the south and in Puerto Rico—instead of CENTCOM—in the midst of the storm response surge, he said.

It took months to alleviate the backlog, as AMC crews and aircraft were already surging to meet validated requirements from combatant commands. The surge lasted into 2018 just to get back on the “glide path” to more normal operations, Sharpy said.

Throughout 2017 in Afghanistan, mobility crews flew 11,166 airlift sorties—moving 84,208 short tons of cargo, 120,552 passengers, and air-dropping 33,423 pounds of supplies. Tankers flew 5,714 refueling sorties, delivering 170 million pounds of fuel. Each of these numbers was a sizeable increase from the previous year.

In Iraq and Syria, mobility crews flew 9,448 airlift sorties, moving 68,537 short tons of cargo, 76,802 passengers, and air-dropping 641,746 pounds of supplies. Tankers flew 13,243 tanker sorties, off-loading 778 million pounds of fuel. More than 90 percent of all tanker flights supporting wartime operations were flown by AMC aircraft, Everhart said.


With demand on airlift unlikely to relax anytime soon, AMC is concentrated on making sure its fleet is healthy and ready for any contingency. This is centered on three “lines of effort.”

These are:

  • Developing a central, overall plan for modernization and recapitalization;
    • Expanding the reciprocal transfer of aircraft between units; and
        Providing a common configuration for the C-17 fleet.

      The first—known officially as the Rapid Global Mobility Recapitalization Plan—aims to harmonize current and future global mobility needs, including airlift and air refueling, into a common roadmap. This information has not been centralized before, divided instead among reports to Congress, Core Function Support Plans, the Air Force Resource Allocation Plan, and other various research reports, AMC spokesman Maj. Korry Leverett said. The command is consolidating these into a single document that will lay out the “desired” way forward.

      “The recapitalization plan is the foundation to the future of fleet management, allowing the command to extend the service life and decrease associated costs,” Leverett said.

      The second step is expanding the command’s ability to more easily move aircraft between units in a strategic way to keep the overall fleet healthy. Aircraft in wings flying excessive hours will be moved to wings flying fewer hours in an effort to balance the wear and tear on the fleet. Those in caustic environments, such as coastal bases subject to damp, salty conditions, will be swapped to dry desert operating locations; again, so some of the fleet doesn’t age more rapidly than the rest.

      C-17s in a unit averaging 500 hours per year would be sent to one flying 1,000, to average them to 750 hours each. “We can then expand the life of that airplane,” Sharpy said. This in turn saves money, because the Air Force wouldn’t have to then buy a replacement airplane because “the other one timed out.”

      AMC announced the initiative in 2017, beginning with the main C-17 training base, Altus AFB, Okla. Globemaster IIIs there that have reached the top five percent of flight hours will be rotated out, and aircraft with fewer hours will be rotated in.

      The plan is to not only move aircraft between squadrons, but also between components. For example, Active Duty units with aircraft that have a high flight-hour total could trade with a Reserve unit with a lower total. AMC is finalizing the “business rules” of these trades to ensure that both the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve are willing to participate. Everhart and Lt. Gen. Maryanne Miller, chief of Air Force Reserve Command, in February signed a memo outlining the way forward.

      This effort is “key to overcoming mobility enterprise challenges,” by maximizing the health and service life of the overall mobility fleet, Air Force Reserve spokesman Col. Bruce Bender said. Going forward, it’s necessary for AFRC to “maintain synchronicity” with AMC not just in fleet management, but also in facilities and weapon systems to “minimize risk against emerging threats,” he said.

      At an undisclosed location, SrA. David Tiradeau relays information to the air terminal operations center. AMC wants to balance out the wear-and-tear on USAF’s C-17s. Photo: TSgt. Jonathan Hehnly

      The Air National Guard also has expressed interest, but there isn’t “across-the-board” support, Sharpy said. AMC is working to make sure both ANG and the Air Force Reserve trust the process. Aircraft identified to be swapped will move as they come out of depot maintenance, and the Guard and Reserve will receive these just-serviced aircraft instead of being left with older aircraft with a big backlog of write-ups.

      “One of the things we have to do is … validate the concept,” Sharpy said. “It’s really about trust. Once we show that we’re actually going to take airplanes out of depot with the most recent upgrades and give them back to our Guard and Reserve partners, they get a better product.” That builds “trust that will help us to do this on a routine basis.”

      AMC’s focus on its fleet also seeks to emulate best practices from private industry aircraft practices. The command has reached out to airlines to learn how they use data from their jets to predict when maintenance will be needed. For example, United Airlines data can predict that an aircraft’s engine will fail within 30 hours, so the company plans to land that aircraft in a location where it can be fixed within that time span. The Air Force doesn’t have that capability, Everhart said.

      AMC’s third effort centers on the Globemaster III. The C-17 fleet, at 213 aircraft, is the backbone of AMC’s airlift enterprise, but those jets are in multiple configurations, depending on when they were built. This poses challenges in maintenance, training, and the plan to swap the aircraft. AMC is studying “unit capability necessities,” to guide future fleetwide modifications. The idea is to get to a common baseline configuration while “ultimately extending the service life of the … C-17 fleet,” Leverett said.

      The push for AMC fleet maintenance doesn’t just build mission capability rates, but aims to ensure the fleet of heavy, slow aircraft can survive in combat zones.

      Prepping for Huricane Maria relief efforts, aerial porters load cargo onto a C-17, providing a Contingency Response Element in Puerto Rico. Photo: TSgt. Liliana Moreno


      The command in 2017 conducted a High Value Airborne Asset Study to look at aircraft vulnerabilities in war zones and what equipment or techniques may be needed to enhance their survivability in a “denied” environment. This study, modeled after the Air Force’s Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan, found three major capability areas requiring more development: secure communication, battlespace awareness, and self-protection systems.

      “We are committed to doing the hard and necessary work to ensure the guaranteed persistence tankers have always delivered in the past and apply capabilities to ensuring success in the future,” Everhart said in unveiling the plan.

      AMC needs to use “both proven and existing capabilities,” as well as new and emerging technologies that will be fielded in the next several years, said Everhart. “Many of our systems, training, and how organizations function will look different by 2030 as we continue to evolve,” he said.

      The command is looking to partner with industry and Defense Department labs to advance its communications systems. For example, Everhart said tankers should add Link 16 data systems, which have long been in use in fighter and bomber aircraft, to be able to securely communicate with other aircraft, beyond line of sight.

      For battlespace awareness, AMC is examining existing Radar Warning Receiver technologies that can provide a detailed view of the threat environment for aircrew in real time. For self-protection, AMC wants to join with industry to develop relatively inexpensive systems, hoping to demonstrate a capability on current aircraft in the next few years.

      While many of these efforts focus on the aircraft themselves, AMC, like other commands, is struggling to retain its seasoned pilots. The entire Air Force, including mobility and fighters, is short about 1,800 pilots, and the problem is only projected to worsen. The Air Force is taking a number of steps in this area, but AMC has some ideas of its own.

      SrA. Eric Pashnick inspects the engine on a C-17 Globemaster III. Photo: SSgt. Christopher Stoltz

      Early in 2017, Everhart asked for ideas from within the ranks and in response received more than 700 unique replies. While some were not that helpful, many deserved more study and some are coming to fruition. In addition to steps seeking to increase pay and flying time, AMC is taking the lead on potentially developing a “flying only” career track for officers. This would allow pilots to skip staff assignments in favor of flying for their entire USAF career.

      “That has been a question mark” for a century, Everhart said in announcing this step at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference last September. The idea answers those pilots who insist, “all I want to do is fly.”The move would keep pilots flying, but not in “gray tail” operational airlifters and tankers—C-130s, C-17s, KC-135s, etc. Instead, they would move to “white tail” aircraft, such as VIP transports like the C-20s, C-21s, and C-37s. Or, the pilots could become instructors, he said.

      Everhart is also reaching out to the airline industry for help, since private companies are the ones wooing pilots away from service with a promise of more stability and higher pay. A large part of the “gray tail” fleet is in the reserve component, and much of the pilot force there splits their time with airline jobs, as a way to continue serving. During a September speech to the Regional Airlines Association, Everhart promised more predictability for these pilots. However, “the world always has a vote,” he said.

      Demands on USAF’s airlift assets never end. Military, domestic, or international crises will always require an air mobility response.

      “The recent string of hurricanes and the earthquake in Mexico may require reaching out short-notice for support,” Everhart said. “It’s important this is also understood.”