Air Mobility Command is losing aircraft tails, squadrons and people. But don't think that means fewer missions and less work for those flying and maintaining the Air Force's airlifters and tankers.
"Our ops tempo is not going down one bit," Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Spencer said in a July 22 interview with Air Force Times. "Yet there's clamor to have the resources go down. So you've got the lines on the chart going in opposite directions."
Over the past two years, Air Mobility Command has lost almost 8,000 people. But from December to April, the command saw a 25 percent increase in its total sorties. The Air Force sends a mobility aircraft on a mission every 2.8 minutes, every day, year-round to deliver supplies, passengers or fuel worldwide, according to the command.
Over the past year, the command has flown 78,891 sorties, transporting 974,387 passengers and moving 5,682 patients and 444,064 short tons of cargo during 306,715 total flying hours. And officials say those numbers will rise.
"Everywhere we go, we see people that are tired, that are working hard," Spencer said. "As you know, after Desert Storm, Desert Shield, we never came back. Southern Watch, Northern Watch, I mean, we've been into this grind and this constant deployment for decades."
'Beats you up'
The increased burden in the face of declining resources can be seen on the flightline of one of the command's busiest bases, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. There are fewer pilots, maintainers and tails available on the tarmac in the shadow of Mount Rainier, while the base is seeing more orders come in.
"We are shrinking deliberately; it's going to make everything else have a high burden," Lt. Col. Brian Wald, the deputy group commander of the 62nd Operations Group at McChord, told Air Force Times during a visit in May.
McChord and Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, are the command's two main bases flying the C-17 Globemaster III. The bases alternate deploying crews to the Central Command area of responsibility, where they are responsible for the retrograde from Afghanistan and for airlift in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the coalition battle against the Islamic State group.
Late last year, the 62nd Airlift Wing at McChord had more than 30 of its crews deployed on a 75-day rotation. In the meantime, the crews at home were tasked with presidential support and training whenever possible.
"Our burden was immense. … That just sort of beats you up on day-to-day operations — so bad that January was a stand-down month, where we had to recover our training programs," Wald said.
In January, the base picked up an extra C-17 for training flights to try to recover capability that was lost while crews were deployed. For example, if pilots and loadmasters aren't regularly flying night airdrop missions, they might lose proficiency and need to fly to regain that ability.
"The mobility mission is only a portion of what we have to be ready for," Wald said. "We have to be ready for night one combat ops. Our readiness is based on our guys being able to fly combat operations."
Additionally, the base will close the 10th Airlift Squadron next year. This means the wing will lose more pilots and maintainers. Instead of 144 crews on base, there will be 90. Overall, there will be two and a half active aircrew for every C-17 on base; previously there were three.
The remaining crews also piled up leave while they were deployed, but they need to train to be ready for any mission that could be ordered on a moment's notice, Wald said. This means commanders need to try to balance training their airmen without overworking them.
"If you're overly busy, you can see it in their eyes because they are exhausted," Wald said. "If they are under-busy, you can see it in their hearts because they want to go out and fly."
The ops tempo was so high that earlier this year AMC Commander Gen. Darren McDew canceled the command's premiere training exercise and competition, the Air Mobility Rodeo at McChord. The rodeo, which last took place in 2011 and cost about $2.5 million, included dozens of units across the command competing in their mission sets.
"During these challenging times, we need to be good stewards of our very limited funds and our Airmen's time," McDew said in a statement. "It's unfortunate, but given the circumstances, this is the right decision. We're looking forward to the possibilities of tailoring future Rodeo events, to ensure we're getting the most training and international partnership building value from this event."
Going forward, Air Mobility Command is going to give the Rodeo a complete makeover. Instead of a competition, the command will use the money and time to exercise real-world scenarios that mobility crews are likely to face — supporting civil authorities and humanitarian assistance missions such as the August 2014 airdrop of supplies to stranded Yazidis on Mount Sinjar in Iraq.
"It's going to be an exercise driven with a [mobility air forces]-centered focus," Col. Michael Zick, the command A3 deputy director of operations, said in a July 23 interview. "We are not going to be a supporting player, we are going to be the supported player. It's going to be very much like a Red Flag. We will have some friendly rivalry, but we are shifting to exercising joint capabilities."
For the past 15 years, Air Mobility Command has been a supporting role in exercises and real-world deployment, executing missions such as carrying ground personnel and refueling combat aircraft. But as the global situation has changed, and airlift has been a focal point in many missions such as humanitarian relief, the command wants to exercise that ability, said Terry Johnson, the director of staff for the command's A3 operations directorate.
"The input we get is we spend so much time in a supporting role ... we have not had the opportunity to train in those mission sets we believe will be vital to national security in the future," Johnson said.
Where the Rodeo was explicitly a competition among units, the command now wants units to train and fly together. The exercise will take place in 2017, though it isn't clear if it will return to McChord.
"It's based on real-world activities," Zick said. "Responding to the ops tempo day-to-day that our airmen are experiencing right now. We are looking to focus on an exercise primarily geared toward them and the capabilities they bring to the warfighters out there."
The budget constraints will continue across the force, outside of just exercises, especially if sequestration returns in 2016. The Air Force is the smallest it has been in its history, and officials have said the force is too small for the missions it is asked to do.
"We're in a unique period in history where there's a demand for resource drawdown based in part on the debt and deficit that we have; based on, in part, to this notion that we're sort of drawing down, if you will, in Afghanistan and we left Iraq, that it's time to draw down, if you will, because the wars are over," Spencer said. "Well, first of all, the war is not over, but the more important issue for me is the threats are increasing."
In addition to deployments to Central Command, Air Force mobility crews were tasked with response to the Ebola crisis last year in Africa and with humanitarian assistance for Operation Sahayogi Haat following the earthquakes in Nepal.
McChord is also involved in one of the most unique missions in the service, Operation Deep Freeze.
A McChord C-17 and crew is deployed to support National Science Foundation activities in Antarctica. While the normal Deep Freeze mission lasts from September to December — summer time on the continent — this year crews are flying resupply runs in winter. In mid-July, C-17s flew night landings at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Crews in the mission face 24 hours of darkness and colder temperatures to help resupply the station, which is being rebuilt.
The base is relying on its most experienced aircrews, including reservists, said Lt. Col. Rob Schmidt, commander of the 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron.
"It's one of the most sought-after missions; we get the most experienced folks to do it," Schmidt said.
Stephen Losey contributed to this story.