SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- The Department of Defense has challenged Air Mobility Command to play a central role in the Southwest Asia troop rotation by moving 250,000 troops in 60 days. It's roughly the equivalent of the number of passengers who can be seated in 720 wide-body commercial aircraft, or the population of the city of Louisville, Ky.
Defense officials have called the troop movement a historic feat, and the largest troop movement since World War II. The task for Air Mobility Command is to redeploy the forces serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and bring in fresh troops.
The rotation began Feb. 1. As of March 11, 90,000 servicemembers, primarily Soldiers and Marines, have moved into the theater, and 44,000 have returned home.
At the hub of airlift operations for the massive troop rotation is the 18th Air Force at Scott AFB, a new organization reactivated Oct. 1 as AMC's warfighting component. In less than six months, 18th AF has found itself taking on a huge challenge for the command. Eighteenth Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. William Welser III said the Total Force job of moving an extraordinary number of people is going smoothly, based on lessons learned from past operations.
"One of the things I'm most proud of, and impressed by, is how we have learned from our lessons, not only from (Operations) Desert Shield and Desert Storm, but also from Afghanistan and Iraq, and now as we go into the next phase of rotations, to improve our processes, tactics, techniques and procedures," said General Welser. "Here we are, a little more than 900 days since (the terrorist attacks of) 9/11. In those 900 days, we've learned a lot."
Some of those lessons learned include better scheduling, better integration of resources within the Defense Transportation System, and better accounting of cargo and people through improved and integrated information technology systems for in-transit visibility.
The general said integration has been key for U.S. Transportation Command components to leverage their unique missions. The effort has been aided by another new organization, the U.S. Central Command Deployment and Distribution Operations Center. The team of DOD logistics experts led by USTRANSCOM and the Defense Logistics Agency deployed into the USCENTCOM area of operations to provide better coordination of surface and air troop and cargo transportation with the warfighting commanders.
He said as the USTRANSCOM air component, 18th Air Force is a streamlined organization which provides a unity of command. Previously, the command had two numbered Air Forces that were many times disconnected from emerging operations launched through the Tanker Airlift Control Center at Scott AFB. Now, the 18th AF has three supporting organizations: the TACC, the 15th Expeditionary Mobility Task Force at Travis AFB, Calif., and the 21st EMTF at McGuire AFB, N.J.
"The 18th AF commander is involved at the same time as the AMC commander, and the same time as the J-3 (USTRANSCOM director of operations) and the same time as the TACC commander. And we immediately have the EMTFs engaged, because they're the one's putting people on alert to move them forward in Tanker Airlift Control Elements. There's much more unity of effort and much more communication and coordination among those people early on," said General Welser, who served as the USTRANSCOM J-3 and also commanded the TACC.
The TACC is the 18th AF global air mobility operations center. Brig. Gen. Paul Selva, TACC commander, said AMC has surged to make these movements through the end of March possible, a period which will see the highest number of airlift passengers.
"Our part is to sequence and schedule all of the air movement, which means, essentially, the Air Force has flexed its airlift and tanker fleet to a higher state of readiness and availability," said General Selva. "Our requirement is to move substantial numbers of primarily soldiers and Marines through a relatively small infrastructure, two bases...accepting 3,000 people a day inbound and 3,000 people a day outbound over a short period of time. To characterize this as one of the largest logistics undertakings in modern warfare hits the target dead center."
The Air Force airlift fleet is heavily tasked to support the effort, but that's not all. "In addition, we have tapped our KC-10 fleet and a portion of our KC-135 fleet to move passengers, which is not their characteristic air refueling role," General Selva said. Add to the mix AMC's commercial airlift partners, who have provided 40 aircraft just about every day, moving passengers east bound into the area of operations, or west bound toward home.
The taskings are apparent on the "floor" in the TACC. General Selva calls normal TACC and airlift operations a "relative term."
"If you had come to the TACC and watched the air transportation function prior to 9-11, you'd see an average of 200 to 225 aircraft a day moving in the system," said General Selva. "As we completed the combat operation in Afghanistan and started the rotation of forces into what appeared to be a steady state, the average had grown to almost 300 airplanes a day, with spikes to 350 not uncommon. In this rotation, it is not uncommon to see the total posted in the low 400s...nearly double the activity level that existed here pre 9-11, around a 50 percent increase over what has become to be the new normal of about 300."
Part of the challenge is not only tracking the military aircraft, but also the commercial contract aircraft carrying 90 percent of the passenger load. Contract troop carriers are designated with military mission numbers.
General Selva said he gets "more bang for the buck" for the number of airplanes through an aerial port by using commercial airplanes. A C-17 carries about 96 passengers, but a commercial wide-body passenger aircraft which occupies the same parking space can carry 285 to 350 people.
With commercial carriers taking on requirements for passenger travel, and commercial sealift responsible for moving up to 85 percent of the cargo, General Welser said military airlift is not stretched as thin, increasing the ability of the DOD to provide airlift into hostile territory and to respond to emerging international crises.
As for the Air Mobility community, General Welser credits the total force partnership for the command's ability to get the job done.
"I've never seen a more pumped up willing group of people to get there and do the mission of Air Mobility Command, said General Welser. "They are an exciting group to be with. I'm talking about active, Guard, Reserve and our civilian force. (We have) a partnership, a team, a family, that is really accomplishing our mission. Add to that the contribution of our commercial partners, and you truly have a total force team."
(Some information provided by American Forces Information Service and U.S. Transportation Command News Service)