Transportation Command Acquiring New Equipment to Evacuate Ebola Patients

By Valerie Insinna

U.S. Airmen assigned to the 633rd Medical Group board a C-17

When the Ebola outbreak struck West Africa and U.S. forces were called in to assist efforts to contain the virus, the U.S. military did not have the ability to evacuate an infected person. Within 60 days, that changed, said the head of U.S Transportation Command.

"Our approach was, if we're going to put military members in harm's way, the capacity … was insufficient for what we were asking our team to do,” said Air Force Gen. Paul Selva. “So we put an urgent operational needs statement together and challenged industry and the defense engineering community to come up with an operational solution for it in 60 days."

The requirement was released in October, and a design was chosen in November, Selva said. “Yesterday we started fit testing and flight testing” a prototype system built by St. Louis, Missouri-based Production Products Inc. with cooperation from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services.

That new capability will be available “in the next couple of weeks,” he said.

Selva described the isolation module as a vestibule that separates an infected person from others on the plane, but allows medics to access the patient for treatment. “It has a system of air filtration that prevents any infectious material from coming out of the sealed environment,” including both airborne and bloodborne contagions, he said.

A C-17 has enough space to accommodate four modules, while one module fits on a C-130.

Transportation Command plans to buy a dozen modules. Selva said he couldn’t provide an exact cost per module but that the contract was “relatively lean” and in the “tens of millions.”

"To be honest, I wanted the requirement filled. I wasn't all that interested in how much it cost,” he explained.

The command’s responsibility is to move military personnel, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that this capability could be employed to move civilians on a case-by-case basis, he said.

“It would be a policy decision whether or not we were going to move a civilian on the same airplane,” he said. “We've done that in the past."

This is just one example of the enduring need for TRANSCOM assets, Selva said. The command is also seeing demand increase as the fight against the Islamic State continues.

TRANSCOM is flying in supplies from the United States in support of the Peshmerga — Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq — and Iraqi security forces, which are battling against the terrorist group, he said. The command also works with other countries that are contributing ammunition and supplies to the Peshmerga and Iraqi security forces.

“The necessity to resupply them and to refresh their equipment has gone up,” he said. “It went from a trickle months ago to a pretty regular drum beat of a couple times a week we’re flying into Baghdad.”

The command is also involved in transporting equipment out of Afghanistan as U.S. forces draw down from that country. Some of that equipment, such as ground vehicles, have then been employed in the fight against the Islamic State, Selva said. 

This continued demand may shield Transportation Command from extreme cuts to its budget, he said.

"We're still going to have to go through some fairly hard nosed negotiations on what the priorities in the budget have to be,” he said. "I'm guardedly optimistic that the '16 budget is going to deliver the readiness requirements that we need to keep the force ready to do the work that we're going to have to do.”

Besides being charged with providing the services with air, sea and land transportation, TRANSCOM is also responsible for the military’s aerial refueling capability.

Selva said he is “cautiously optimistic” that Boeing will be able to deliver 18 of its new KC-46 tanker aircraft to the command by its August 2017 target date. The company reworked its test schedule after slips this year.

"What's happened is we've now used up all the slack that we had built into the schedule,” he said. “It was aggressive to start with ... but with the delay in actually bringing the first airplane out and agreeing on this new testing profile, we've consumed the slack that existed."

Boeing plans to fly a test 767-2C aircraft — which will not be equipped with refueling equipment — by the end of this year. “That is a key parameter in moving forward with this contract, is getting this 767-2C FAA certified," Selva said.

Topics: Aviation, Transport Aircraft, Health Affairs, Logistics

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