Combat operations may have recently decreased for Air Mobility Command, but the Middle East fight still has plenty of thirsty combat aircraft that require fuel, parts, weapons, and personnel movements. In addition to the ongoing anti-ISIS operations, AMC has a new focus on readiness and training at home stations. These competing demands are being flown on the backs of an already stressed airlift fleet.
The drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan was supposed to mean a reset of air operations back home, focusing on proficiency and rest as the Air Force began to mature its airlift fleet and modernize its air refueling capabilities. The shift in operating requirements is bringing forward new challenges the service must address.
“The current pace of today’s operations requires the full effort of our nonmobilized air refueling and airlift fleet,” Air Force Gen. Darren W. McDew, commander of US Transportation Command, told lawmakers during a March hearing. “Should the need arise to respond elsewhere in the world, the mobility resources required could exceed existing capacity.”
During the height of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom the Air Force launched an airlifter every 90 seconds. By 2015 that pace had fallen to one takeoff every 2.8 minutes, but training needs at home are increasing. This will likely require a dramatic overhaul of the command’s key exercises.
“We’ve done 14 years of war tremendously well,” Gen. Carlton D. Everhart II, commander of Air Mobility Command, said at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium in February in Orlando, Fla. “But as we go out and expand out, we need to look at other skill sets. I need to be able to respond globally at any moment’s notice.”
For decades, air mobility crews competed every other year at the command’s crown jewel exercise—the Air Mobility Rodeo. Crews would fly into JB Lewis-McChord, Wash., to compete in all facets of the mobility mission and vie for trophies. The competition was expensive and crews became busy with real-world operations, so AMC canceled the event in 2013 and went back to the drawing board.
Next year, the command will introduce a brand-new training event—designed to be the Red Flag for mobility crews—called Mobility Guardian. The event is scheduled for July 2017.
Mobility Guardian will be an international, scenario-driven event to test mobility airmen at the highest level of full-spectrum training, Everhart said. Tankers, strategic airlifters, tactical airlifters—even aeromedical evacuation crews—will come together to “train as we fight,” he said. International partners are invited, and the plan is to “exercise every one of our core functions,” Everhart said.
Air Mobility Command crews have always supported other aircraft in exercises, air dropping soldiers or refueling combat aircraft. While that will still be a large part of what AMC does, Mobility Guardian will be an opportunity for the command to finally be the focal point, Everhart said.
Joint training will be needed in the future, as continued operations in the Middle East have shown.
Stressed Near Bending
The biggest stress on Air Mobility Command’s fleet has been on its legacy KC-135 and KC-10 tankers. The aircraft put up record numbers in 2015, responding to international refueling needs as part of the coalition war against ISIS in the Middle East, along with training missions abroad and supporting air bridges for aircraft globally.
“Our KC-135 and KC-10 refueling fleet is stressed at a point that’s near bending,” McDew told a House Armed Services subcommittee in March, “and I’m concerned [about] our ability to flex that force to another region of the world if we need to.”
In 2015, the air refueling fleet passed 1.3 billion pounds of fuel in refueling operations, Everhart said. KC-135s deployed to al Udeid AB, Qatar, set a flying-hour record by exceeding 100,000 hours refueling both US and coalition aircraft in the area, including daily operations supporting a Saudi-led effort targeting Houthi extremists in Yemen.
AMC’s tankers provide fuel to “every flying unit in the area of responsibility, which is Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and [we] supported 12 coalition nations,” said Lt. Col. James Murray, 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron operations director, in a press release. “Imagine 12 airplanes flying 24 hours a day. It’s incredible.”
Al Udeid-based KC-135s offloaded 700 million pounds of fuel—more than half the 2015 output of the entire refueling fleet. As of March 1, air refueling tankers have offloaded 132 million pounds of fuel, keeping pace this year.
Changing Airlift Needs
For years, the Air Force overpopulated the C-17 pilot career field to keep crews available to fly operational missions, but for the first time in almost two decades, the pilot manning is about 100 percent, said Lt. Col.
Jaron H. Roux, commander of the 62nd Operations Support Squadron at McChord. Although there is no longer a manning buffer, planners at McChord are working to balance the need for continuation training so pilots can maintain proficiency, while still allowing enough time for office work and professional military education.
“It’s just a different world we are living in,” Roux said. “But the need for airlift has not stopped. So, it’s an adjustment for sure.”
McChord hosts the largest number of the Air Force’s newest strategic airlifters—C-17 Globemaster IIIs. McChord-based C-17s, able to launch within 16 hours and carry cargo across the globe, are a part of every contingency operation that requires quick response strategic airlift.
However, McChord’s ramp of C-17s is getting smaller, while their responsibility is staying the same, Roux said. In May, the base will close the 10th Airlift Squadron and the number of C-17s at the base will eventually fall from 48 to 36. The move comes after McChord’s partner C-17 base, JB Charleston, S.C., inactivated a C-17 squadron.
“It’s not as many sorties, but the strain is on our aircrew—they feel that,” Roux told Air Force Magazine in an interview.
As large-scale Army deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have mostly ended, soldiers at their home bases want to train more, especially with airdrop training, and 18th Air Force is committed to fulfilling that need.
To do that, McChord needs to find the time and money to train pilots and loadmasters so they are proficient to fly airdrops for the Army. Then the base must send those airmen to Fort Bragg, N.C., for flights with the 82nd Airborne, Roux said. “That’s the conundrum we find ourselves in, to find pilots and loadmasters able to go provide the training the Army needs.”
Within the past year, that requirement has increased almost threefold—McChord-based C-17s are now dropping about 10,000 parachutes each month, Roux said.
Air Mobility Command recently instituted a new method to track Active Duty force readiness called “health of the wings,” including regular open forums with wing commanders. The forums give them an opportunity to bring up readiness issues that may not come up with standard data reporting, said Col. Nathan A. Allerheiligen, AMC’s assistant director of operations. As of early April, AMC had gone through the first cycle and was beginning the second.
The challenges facing a wing could vary based on mission sets and resources. Some places have issues with facilities, while others have equipment or manpower resources problems, said Allerheiligen. So far there doesn’t really seem to be a specific trend across the command, he said.
For example, one unit that was going through a manpower conversion was concerned it did not have the proper skills in place for its emerging mission. “This venue allowed us to make sure we got them the manpower they needed [for] their mission. It opens up the conversation on an informal basis,” said Allerheiligen.
Keeping the Fleet Modern
Air Mobility Command is in the early stages of developing one of the Air Force’s highest-profile acquisition programs, the KC-46A Pegasus. The new tanker will eventually replace the oldest and most problematic batch of Eisenhower-era KC-135s with 179 aircraft expected to fill the fleet. However, there is worry the tanker may not deliver on time.
The Defense Contract Management Agency on March 25 said it expects Boeing will miss its August 2017 deadline to deliver 18 KC-46As by seven to 14 months, a delay that could have a ripple effect through current operations by keeping KC-135s flying longer.
“That airplane is 50-plus years old, the KC-135,” McDew said. “It was old when I flew it, three decades ago. … That recapitalization effort must stay on track, and at the rate they’re doing it, we’re going to have to fly the current fleet of KC-135s 30 more years, so that’s a potential problem.”
The KC-46 may capture most of the headlines, but AMC also needs to balance other acquisition and modernization programs with operations.
The service is relaunching a two-phase modernization program for its legacy C-130H fleet. The first phase, dubbed AMP 1, will make sure the aircraft are compliant with Federal Aviation Administration requirements and enable the C-130 to fly stateside beyond 2020. The second phase of the program will provide flat-panel glass cockpit displays, like those in the C-130J, and will begin shortly after AMP 1 is done.
The command is working with both the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command to create a schedule for AMP installation that will not impact one unit more than others, Allerheiligen said.
“AMP one and two don’t change the structural integrity of the aircraft, but they do bring updated avionics that will make the platform more reliable from a sustainment standpoint. … It will extend the viability of the aircraft in terms of utility of the warfighter,” he said.
The command, which uses the most fuel in the Defense Department, must keep a close eye on fuel efficiency and consumption, said Everhart. A recent study found that Air Force fuel prices quadrupled between 2004 and 2012.
In light of this fact, the first C-130H to receive an engine upgrade kit took to the skies in February, and the command is “going to get these airplanes up to speed. We’re looking at all aspects. … Fuel efficiency is big to me,” said Everhart.
Everhart said AMC is considering re-engining older C-17s. Pratt & Whitney delivered the last F117 engine for the C-17 in January, about two months after Boeing officially ended the C-17 production line in Long Beach, Calif.
The C-5M could be a model for the C-17, with new engines letting the massive Super Galaxy take off in 6,000 feet and fly nonstop from the East Coast to Turkey on an airframe that first flew in 1970. That’s about half the runway required for the C-5A. “We’re doing it all the time … and that’s based off the engine and the fuel efficiency we get,” Everhart said.
The Air Force and Boeing are searching for a way to reduce the C-17’s drag, which would in turn reduce fuel costs. The Air Force Research Laboratory completed the first phase of the C-17 drag reduction program in March, when testers studied the effects of placing vortex control technology finlets on the aft part of the fuselage. The testing also will determine whether the modifications impact the C-17’s current capabilities.
“Our end goal is to reduce fuel consumption while maintaining military utility,” said project manager Steve Salas of the 418th Flight Test Squadron at Edwards AFB, Calif., in a press release. “This program has the potential for significant savings in C-17 fuel costs, helping the Air Force stretch its budget even further while maintaining force readiness.”
War, Training, and VIPs
AMC’s missions include a not-insignificant amount of high-profile transport—VIP operations that take place regardless of what other demands the command is facing. In addition to supporting US Central Command, McChord-based C-17s also assist presidential and other VIP travel; respond to humanitarian crises, such as a hurricane, tsunami, or the Ebola response in Africa; and handle the large increase in domestic tasking for Army training, Roux said.
For example, the VC-25 flying the President requires a flight of C-17s, from bases such as McChord, to enable the travel.
The Presidential Airlift Group at JB Andrews, Md., in charge of Air Force One operations, launched 200 missions to 75 countries in 2015 alone, at a 98.4 departure reliability rate, according to the 89th Airlift Wing. This includes Pope Francis’ visit to the US last September. Its responsibilities this year have encompassed the March-April Nuclear Summit in Washington, D.C., of several world leaders; repatriation of American prisoners abroad; and the historic March 20 trip to Cuba, the first time a US President visited the country in almost 90 years.