Gen. Mike Minihan knew his first year in command would be busy — but not this busy.
For nearly a decade, Minihan was entrenched in the daily work of military operations in the Pacific and — with building urgency — debating how to counter China’s power and influence.
He was the No. 2 officer at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command when he landed the top job at Air Mobility Command in 2021. It would be the four-star’s first time working outside the region since he was a colonel in 2013.
“You’ve come out of the Pacific wondering, [what does everybody else think] when it comes to the priority of China?” Minihan told Air Force Times in a recent interview.
The career transport jet pilot planned to put his INDOPACOM expertise toward preparing the Air Force’s mobility enterprise to outpace China on its home turf.
But last summer, Afghanistan was falling to the Taliban, and America’s airlift pilots were flying a desperate mission.
Minihan watched as Air Mobility Command pivoted from the work of withdrawing American troops and equipment at the end of the 20-year war there, to a sudden need for hundreds of aircraft to evacuate thousands of Afghans in danger of being hunted by the Taliban.
“When you think about the operational ability of a team to go in, pull 124,000 people out in 17 days, one runway, incredibly challenging operational factors — from everything that the Taliban was delivering, to the long distances, to the quick nature, to whether the intel had the best insights — all that stuff came together,” Minihan said. “The biggest takeaway … was that the air mobility team can do big things quickly.”
Minihan left INDOPACOM in August 2021, and formally took command of AMC in October. That month, Russia sparked fears of an invasion when it began amassing troops and military equipment along its border with Ukraine.
With the Afghanistan evacuation just two months behind them, AMC began to ask, “What’s our role going to be for this Ukraine-Russia thing?’” Minihan said.
“We knew early that this was not going to be a short-term thing,” he said. “We instantly started saying, ‘OK, if this becomes the new normal, how do we keep everything going?’”
But the airmen and their planes were tired. The Air Force last year ramped up C-5 Galaxy operations and called on more civilian and commercial flights so its C-17 Globemaster III crews and airframes could recharge after leaving Kabul.
“We want to make sure we tidy up the airplanes and get them the service that they need and get the crews the rest and recovery and, frankly, the additional training on other missions that they weren’t focused on,” Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, then the AMC commander, said in September 2021.
Minihan indicated that a year of unrelenting operations has continued to take its toll on the fleets.
Airmen have resorted to “aggressive maintenance actions” to keep up the fast pace of mobility operations, as airlifters and tankers face the “normal ebb and flow of issues” of going hard for months, Minihan said.
“When it comes to the gray tails, we are always looking to [optimize] the distribution to ensure that we’re not running the energy and the life out of a platform inappropriately,” he said. “When it comes to our [Civil Reserve Air Fleet] and our civilians, [integration] is needed now more than ever.”
The Civil Reserve Air Fleet, a group of commercial airlines that supplement military airlift in times of crisis, can take some pressure off the planes that would normally handle those missions. For example, AMC as early as January began delivering explosives to Ukraine on commercial jets via Air Force bases in the U.S.
Leaning on the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard has also helped delegate some missions for the swamped active duty units.
“Did I have concerns about people’s ability to get after the Ukraine portion or any other portion after the evac? The answer is no,” he said.
Still, Minihan knows what his airmen do is hard. In lieu of being able to take a break from world events, he has encouraged troops to periodically decompress through therapy or sports and other hobbies.
“Global ops never stops,” Minihan said. “The shock absorbers for that are … the humans.”
On Jan. 28, Minihan posted to social media a screenshot of a calendar entry for an upcoming appointment at a mental health clinic.
“Warrior heart. No stigma,” he tweeted, earning praise for setting a positive example.
A month later, Russia began its military campaign to topple the Ukrainian government and claim territory from the former Soviet satellite nation. Air Mobility Command’s units braced for the long haul.
Spinning up for Ukraine
Operation Allies Refuge gave mobility airmen a crash course in the value of having several locations that can support aircraft and their cargo in a crisis, from maintenance facilities to communications hubs that connect each so-called “lily pad.” That paid off when planning operations in support of the NATO alliance and Ukraine.
“As we went into the possibilities for Ukraine, we really tried to pay attention in advance to the enablers ahead of the task that needed to be in place,” Minihan said.
First came the task of moving the 82nd Airborne Division and others from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to Europe. Then came several billion dollars’ worth of munitions, surveillance drones, long-range precision rocket systems and other materiel that Air Mobility Command have helped ship from the U.S. to Ukrainian troops.
The U.S. Air Force first posted pictures of airmen loading Lockheed Martin-made shoulder-fired Javelin anti-tank missiles, launchers and other supplies onto commercial jets Jan. 21-22. Those units, the 60th Aerial Port Squadron and the 436th Aerial Port Squadron, are respectively based at California’s Travis Air Force Base in California and Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base.
AMC is also responsible for the aerial refueling planes that are in high demand as the U.S. and NATO add more and more fighters to police the skies over Europe.
The war has offered a chance to continue proving out the new KC-46 Pegasus tankers while the troubled planes await crucial fixes to their refueling system, expanding its peacetime use to INDOPACOM and possibly U.S. Central Command.
Design problems may keep the Boeing’s new tanker out of combat operations for the next few years, but aircrews are making sure it can perform multiple kinds of missions and helping NATO in the process.
“It’s got much more capacity than just passing the needed fuel off of it. It has a connectivity link that has been very successful,” Minihan said. “It did [transatlantic aeromedical evacuation] missions. … It showed us that our integration among partners and allies could be done.”
AMC is also exploring whether a single pilot and a refueling boom operator could handle missions on their own in an emergency, instead of flying with a copilot as usual. That way, another pilot-and-boom operator pair could sleep in the back and be ready to switch out to continue the mission, rather than land to change crews.
‘Until we win’
Six months into the war in Ukraine and one year after U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan, Minihan wants to sustain the current pace of operations in Europe for as long as needed, while figuring out how to work smarter in the Indo-Pacific.
“When you go into these high op tempo portions of your life, you always have to have a team focused on what’s next,” he said. “How do we sustain this operation? When is this squadron done with this surge? Who’s the next squadron coming in? How am I keeping my eye on what’s happening in six months, 12 months, 18 months?”
Add in airlift and tanker missions to support a presidential trip to the Indo-Pacific in May, plus growing tensions between China and Taiwan, and there’s plenty of challenges for air mobility planners to navigate.
For his airmen who carry the responsibility of those missions, Minihan said he’s invested in creating predictable work schedules and removing barriers to good work, like red tape and IT woes. He also knows soaring housing costs and understaffed childcare centers hurt the force at home.
“We have to really take a hard look at everything,” Minihan said, pointing to how often families are asked to move. “Do we truly mean it when we say that … you can stay an extra year to get a kid through school, [and] that your spouse’s employment is important?”
Aerial port squadrons, the units responsible for the movement of military cargo around the world, have experienced the most stress this past year, the general said. He general estimates that mobility airmen are working on 50% more missions than is typical.
“You’re not winded, but you’re certainly not rested for the majority of the time,” he said.
How long can Air Mobility Command keep up that pace?
“I’m meeting all my readiness models,” Minihan said. “I can sustain it, at this point, indefinitely.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.