Mobility airmen are flying an average of 530 sorties a day this year, and given the security challenges around the world, they won't be getting more time home any time soon, said the vice commander of Air Mobility Command.
"We don't see a letup over the next year or so," Maj. Gen. Wayne Schatz Jr. said. "We see kind of a continuous drumbeat and we're watching it closely and doing our best to manage it. We spread the workload across our transportation enterprise the best we can and balance the need to be out there and answer the nation's call as well as not burning out our airmen."
AMC has lost about 8,000 airmen over the past two years, but the number of missions mobility airmen fly keeps going up.
"We're busy," Schatz said in a Sept. 11 interview. "We're operating right around max capacity from a sustainment-type level in our tanker fleets and also in our airlift fleets."
As long as the U.S. remains committed to fighting the Islamic State, reassuring Eastern European allies and pivoting to the Pacific, Air Mobility Command will be operating at a wind-sprint pace, especially as the Defense Department relies more on forces based in the U.S. instead of forward-deployed units, he said.
"That means any time that we need to engage overseas, we have to get there," Schatz said. "So that puts a larger demand on our transportation, our mobility system. The F-35, F-22 … they still rely a lot on our tanker fleets in order to make sure we can reach the targets that we need to."
AMC tries to distribute the workload among its "large team" of active-duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve airmen to give mobility airmen enough time at home station to recuperate and train, Schatz said. Sixty percent of AMC's forces come from the Guard and Reserve.
Commercial airlift also carries 90 percent of passengers and 50 percent of cargo during surge operations, Schatz said. This fall, more units will be headed to and returning from downrange, so AMC has asked for increased help from the commercial side as well as the Guard and Reserve.
"That allows us to not overly surge our active-duty fleet of aircraft and our airmen," Schatz said. "It allows them to balance that time at home versus time on the road doing the active mission. It allows us to do the training and also focus on the resiliency, and give some family time and back-in-garrison time to our airmen."
Sometimes, AMC asks the combatant commanders if they can delay exercises because mobility airmen are busy supporting U.S. Central Command, he said. Other times, AMC will ask U.S. Transportation Command to consider sealift instead of airlift.
"We can't move everything all at once, but we can generally move everything over a period of time," Schatz said.
It is important for both airmen and aircraft to have some down time because it allows AMC to make sure it has enough planes ready to go if a major crisis arises, he said.
"That's why we don't give all of our capacity out on a continuous basis," Schatz said. "It's really a constant battle … the balance of supporting today's fight, supporting current operations, but then balancing the future. There's some element of modernization there and keeping our eye on the future, making sure that we always have enough capability — I call it 'in the can' — to respond if the nation asks to turn somewhere else in times of crisis."