Bagram Airfield will handle the bulk of troops and supplies leaving Afghanistan, including 30,000 vehicles. (Colin Kelly / Staff)
Vehicles and other cargo are parked at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, waiting to be transported back to the U.S. Mobility command is likely to move 35-65 percent of personnel and cargo returning to the states by December 2014. (Colin Kelly / Staff)
Lt. Col. Manuel Perez, commander, 451st Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan (Colin Kelly / Staff)
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — On an icy day in January, a half-dozen Humvees the color of the Afghan desert sat on the port yard here, lined up like toy trucks against the cavernous opening of a C-5. Aircraft roared intermittently overhead.
It was, perhaps, the calm before the storm.
President Obama pledged Feb. 12 to bring half of the 68,000 troops still in Afghanistan home within a year. From the planners and analysts who work out the intricacies of a drawdown in the midst of an ongoing mission, to the maintainers, loadmasters, aerial porters and pilots, Air Mobility Command will play a vital role in the next 22 months.
At bases like Bagram and Kandahar Airfield, among the most strategic and vital in Afghanistan, airmen are laying the groundwork on aerial port cargo yards.
Bagram is already the busiest aerial port in the Defense Department, moving about 100 more tons a day than Dover Air Force Base, Del. They do it with half the personnel — just more than 200 — and without mechanized equipment.
Kandahar moved 168,000 tons of cargo in 2012 — more than twice as much as Dover — and almost a quarter-million passengers.
"We have [about 700] days between now and December 2014," said Lt. Col. Luther King, commander of the 455th Expeditionary Aerial Port Squadron. "That's how you have to begin thinking about it. We're postured. We're prepared for whatever comes down."
Lt. Col. Manuel Perez, commander of the 451st Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron at Kandahar, said the aerial port is working to double the capacity of its cargo processing facilities. That includes using space on the airfield for outgoing cargo.
"It's typically very uncommon," Perez said, "but the leadership understands the importance of keeping aircraft coming, filling up and leaving as fast as they can," he said.
The base has already added 30 additional aerial porters to get ready for the influx of cargo. "More are coming," said Perez.
Bagram will handle the bulk of the troops and supplies, serving as a last stop out of country from forward operating bases in the eastern half of Afghanistan.
This base alone will handle 30,000 vehicles, King said.
Because one C-17 can haul about three vehicles at a time, that means at least 10,000 flights just to move the vehicles. At Bagram, about 14 C-17s come through each day, King said.
To prepare for the drawdown, King started with the port's capabilities: equipment, people and space on the cargo yard.
"Essentially, you begin with the resources you have. The No. 1 task is to try to increase capacity and real estate. Those are the things you home in on. We knew that as we got closer to leaving the country, there will be an increased demand on our ability to move the cargo. Each day, we're looking at velocity. We closely monitor that on a daily basis."
For now, an average day brings 100 missions and sees the movement of 1,300 passengers and 500 tons of cargo.
The port is primed to move 2,000 passengers a day. It can clear the entire cargo yard — the size of 2½ football fields — in 72 hours.
Congress approved an Army request for a 4,000-man team called the Central Command Retrograde Movement Element that will stand ready, Perez said.
"We are currently in the works for additional manpower across the logistics spectrum: vehicle operators, vehicle mechanics, supply technicians, equipment specialists, et cetera. This is not unique to Kandahar. This planning effort, this level of detail, forecasting additional manpower is going on across theater. We're going through the exact motions, trying to get it right," he said.
This is not the Berlin Airlift.
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan after a dozen years of war will prove far more complex for Air Mobility Command than sustaining West Berlin during a Soviet blockade six decades ago.
"This mobility Air Force team is as consequential to supporting national defense as I've ever seen it," said Tanker Airlift Control Center commander Maj. Gen. David Allvin, who oversees a fleet of more than 1,300 aircraft supporting combat delivery and strategic airlift. "We play a critical role in a very, very large and important undertaking for our country."
More than 750,000 so-called major end items such as aircraft, boats, vehicles and weapons have accumulated in Afghanistan, according to a December Government Accountably Office report on drawdown preparations. What isn't destroyed or taken elsewhere will come home.
It's also not Iraq.
In Iraq, that was relatively easy: Most equipment rolled out of the country to neighboring Kuwait, where it could be brought back by ship. But Afghanistan is landlocked and rugged. Ground routes into Pakistan are dangerous and unreliable. A system of railways and truck lines known as the Northern Distribution Network stretches thousands of miles from Central Asia through Russia and the Baltic republics — a slow, tenuous and costly course.
At least a third of the cargo could leave the country on airplanes.
"There has got to be a key air component to this to make this retrograde happen successfully," Allvin said.
More mobility airmen will be called on.
"There will be more work. No doubt about it," he said.
"I've heard that, ‘Wow, this is going to be sort of like the Berlin Airlift,'" Allvin said. "If the Berlin Airlift was like throwing a football through a tire swing, or maybe a couple of tire swings, and making sure you could get as much velocity through there as you could, this is like throwing a football through a dozen tire swings, but they're all swinging at different times, so the holes don't always line up."
Mobility airmen already can spend up to 230 days away from home in a given year. The average is between 140 and 160 days. The drawdown will rely heavily upon AMC's fleet of C-5s and C-17s, Allvin said.
During the troop surge of 2010, about 103 C-17s flew per day, most to supply the surge. An average of 28 C-5s flew each day. By comparison, in 2012 about 88 C-17s and 14 C-5s flew each day, moving 317,313 tons in overseas contingency operations — a period mobility leaders consider a lull.
"We know that it's going to be complicated. We know it's going to require agility and flexibility. That's right in our wheelhouse in air mobility," Allvin said.
Airmen may expect to deploy more during the withdrawal. But the length of those deployments will probably remain the same, said Brig. Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, vice commander of the Air Force Expeditionary Center.
The service will rely, as it always does, "on the full spectrum of total force airmen: active duty, reserve, guard and our civilians, [of] which there are many, many out there," she said.
"I would say right now we are operating at a very good tempo and capacity along our planned schedule. If we have to expand our capacity, we would bring in small groups, additional crews or additional port personnel but nothing major. This is our normal capacity across our worldwide fleet," Van Ovost said.
Retired AMC commander Gen. Arthur Lichte said he would still expect the command to feel the stretch.
"It will still put a burden on the command to figure out how to do this and how not to impact the rest of the force as they continue to surge, [such as] getting Guard and Reserve to help with some of these surge periods to get the equipment going," Lichte said.
Brig. Gen. Roy Uptegraff III, the Air National Guard adviser to the commander of AMC, said the Guard would likely be called on to augment the active-duty force to avoid breaking "dwell time" of two months at home for every month active-duty airmen spend deployed.
"I really think that the deploy-to-dwell ratio is a great barometer to see just what level the Guard as well as the Reserves will play," Uptegraff said.
One way airmen from the Guard might be used would be to deploy for several months and help with trans-Atlantic flights or with moving cargo to collection points within theater, he said. Guardsmen could also volunteer for shorter tours.
"I would imagine you would have, for example, airline pilots who might be able to take a week or two or such that they can put in some time to do those things," Uptegraff said.
But deployments of less than that can be problematic.
"It's possible to take a crew for three or four days. You could do that, but the only problem there — and a problem we've had in the past — is if you have an aircraft malfunction or a delay or something else comes up, it's tough on them because the duration is so short, they don't have much recovery."
Mobility airmen will, as always, be the last ones to leave — just as they are the first ones to arrive, Van Ovost said.
"We bring people in and we clean up after them and we bring them out," she said. "We are the backbone. … We like to be in the shadows and making a difference every day out there to ensure ground commanders, and all our military on the ground, are taken care of. We do this in Afghanistan, and we do this around the world."
At the end of 2014, Van Ovost said, "we're going to have one of the most experienced and capable forces we've ever had."
The military calls it retrograde — bringing home cargo troops did not deploy with, like mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles.
"These are the things a unit didn't necessarily bring with them, but these are things taxpayers paid for, so we're going to bring them back and use them in the future," Allvin said.
An estimated $36 billion worth of equipment has amassed in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion, according to DoD. Gear came in but never went out, at least not fast enough to avoid the stockpile now complicating the drawdown, the GAO said.
It could cost $5.7 billion to transfer or return it, possibly more, at least in some cases, than the equipment is worth, according to the report, since none of the services has performed a cost-benefit analysis.
The price of moving one vehicle or one container out of the country ranges from $8,000 to $153,000, according to the report. There are 72,000 vehicles and trailers, and 125,000 shipping containers in Afghanistan that will either be brought home or placed strategically around the world in case they are needed for another war, according to the U.S. Transportation Command.
The cheapest way out is by land and sea. The most expensive is by air and sea — what's known as multi-modal. While TRANSCOM estimates between 35 and 45 percent of cargo will leave the country by air and sea, the GAO estimated it would be closer to 65 percent.
When final decisions on the withdrawal are made in Washington, TRANSCOM will figure out how to get cargo where it needs to be.
For now, bases in Afghanistan are figuring out what they have.
"We inventoried every chair, desk, printer, refrigerator and, on top of that, all of the items we would normally track in the Air Force," said Perez, who commands the logistics readiness squadron at Kandahar.
A property book keeps an accounting of the major equipment. "Then there are assets that are not on that tracker. This conference table, for example, is expeditionary," he said, pointing to a long table in his Kandahar office space. "It's probably not wise to send it home. But certainly there are plenty of items that do need to make that trip home. Generically speaking, that will usually be items that are lethal. Military equipment. Sometimes high-dollar or one-of-a-kind pieces of equipment. A refrigerator, for example, is not critical to the Air Force mission. That may stay behind. There are some items we use for calibrating aircraft equipment or vehicles that in fact may go home," Perez said.
So, too, will MRAPs and anything else that could either pose a security threat later on or that the Afghans cannot sustain.
Item and equipment managers decide whether it stays or goes.
"If it goes, where does it go? Could it be moved to another position in the country, maybe given to the Afghans?" Perez said. "Because Afghanistan is a logistical challenge, a landlocked country, we have only a few means to exit. Our main focus is flying cargo from here to the nearest sea port. Then it gets transferred to a seagoing vessel. Then it floats back to the U.S."
The logistics squadron meets weekly with U.S. Air Forces Central, U.S. Central Command and foreign aid representatives to coordinate the effort.
"[We've seen] everything from helicopters to regular unit equipment, down to both battle-damaged vehicles and vehicles that need to go back to the depot and get overhauled. I've seen us upload armored bulldozers. You name it, we've moved it."
And it will only get busier.