Air Mobility Command Flexes its Muscles at Revamped Exercise

By Stew Magnuson
A French air force A400 Atlas participates in Exercise Mobility Guardian at Yakima Air Terminal-McAllister Field, Washington.

Photo: Stew Magnuson

YAKIMA TRAINING CENTER, Wash. — No one can remember the last time Air Mobility Command organized an exercise for itself.

“This is the first time in a long time that we have done one for us that exercises all the core functions,” Maj. Gen. Thomas Sharpy, deputy commander of Air Mobility Command, said as a C-17 conducted an airdrop above the sage brush of Eastern Washington.

Two parachutes opened and let the pallets drift down to the desert floor as a crowd of Air Force civilian VIPs and members of the media watched.

Air Mobility Command and its crews participate in many large-scale exercises, of course, but they are normally in support of other organizations’ training. In years’ past, the command conducted a “rodeo,” where the top crews from its air wings, along with international partners, held a competition to determine who was the best at conducting airdrops and other skills. At the behest of Air Mobility Command Commander Gen. Carlton D. Everhart II, the rodeo has been replaced with the more inclusive Exercise Mobility Guardian.

“This is now about readiness. It isn’t about competition,” Sharpy said. “It’s, ‘How do we exercise and improve our capabilities across the mobility command?’”

Mobility Guardian took place in August and utilized four airports in Washington state. Thirty nations and 3,000 personnel participated in what the command touted as “the most realistic, real-world, scenario-driven events the command has ever undertaken.” Sharpy said it took 18 months to organize.

The exercise not only helps the command refine its tactics, techniques and procedures, but also helps inform requirements for new technologies that will help with its four core missions, Sharpy said.

The four core functions are: airlift, aerial refueling, aeromedical evacuation and mobility support operations. Within the latter category is joint forcible entry, where personnel working with Army paratroopers build a new airbase in hostile territory, or re-establish a damaged one in humanitarian relief scenarios.

Joint forcible entry is one of the most difficult and dangerous skills Air Mobility Command personnel must master, Sharpy said. In this case, other military units such as Air Combat Command and Army personnel from nearby Fort Lewis, Washington, participated in the exercise. Jet fighters helped soften up the target and opened up airspace for the transport aircraft to operate in while soldiers established security.
Contingency response teams then go about the work of establishing an airbase, often creating one out of nothing.

Lt. Col. Troy Pierce, 821st contingency response support squadron commander, said the personnel who comprise the teams are on standby as they work at different organizations, so coming together to train is essential.

“This type of teamwork just can’t be done by putting people on a plane and organizing together. You have to train together and this is exactly what we are doing here,” he said.

“Getting the opportunity to prove our ability to get on a C-17, land in a field that has nothing, set it up from scratch and start to run airfield operations out of there has been tremendous. … It really allows the contingency response team to showcase all of its capabilities,” Pierce said.

Since the squadron is intended to be agile, any technology that can help it better perform its mission is needed, he said.

“We want to be light, lean and agile as we get out the door,” Pierce said.

For example, generators are still too large, he said. They take up a lot of space on aircraft. “Any way we can reduce that size would be beneficial,” he added.

Air Mobility Command also needs help making its stateside warehouses “smart,” he said. “How do we get it to where we know what’s on the shelf, when it expires and where that location is so in very short order I can put it on a pallet, optimize the space [and] location and send it out the door in a C-17? We have a good system now, but there is room for improvement,” he said.

He also saw the need for 3D printers for the austere airbases. They could help replace broken parts quickly.

Brig. Gen. Stacey Hawkins, Air Mobility Command director of logistics, engineering and force protection, said, “Additive manufacturing is a huge concept that we are exploring as to how we are going to be able to deal with contingency environments in the future.”

Many of the items on the command’s technology wish list are available today, it’s a matter of hardening and ruggedizing them for military use, he said.

Reverse osmosis systems or seawater conversion technology are also needed, he said.

“Across the world, particularly with the shift in climate, access to potable water resources is going to be a limiting factor particularly as we fight in more austere locations,” Hawkins said.

The command is also looking at predictive aircraft maintenance where it can take already available data from sensors on its aircraft to see what needs to be replaced.

That could make the supply chain more efficient, he said.

Brig. Gen. Lee E. Payne, command surgeon, speaking later aboard a C-17 set up for an aeromedical evacuation exercise, said he is always searching for better equipment to help care for patients during the long flights from war or disaster zones to U.S. or European hospitals.

“We always want to make it lighter, leaner and more life saving,” he said as a U.S. crew with a pair of Taiwanese counterparts tended to two practice dummies. Earlier, the crew demonstrated the ability to put out a simulated fire in the back of the C-17 as it flew.

“Hauling all this stuff around depending where you are is incredibly labor intensive. We are constantly looking for smaller, but more capable equipment,” Payne said.

The command is also doing a capabilities-based assessment on practicing telemedicine as crews tend to patients on long flights. New high-throughput satellites may allow a neurosurgeon in the United States to receive ultrasounds and patient records if there is a complication midflight and to communicate directly with the flight nurses or medics.

The crew could also transmit records ahead of landing so doctors on the ground can prepare in advance for patient care, he said.

“Being able to move more data more quickly is a very important capability,” Payne said, noting that all the medical monitoring equipment in use currently are “smart” devices, so downloading the data from the machines would not be too complicated. It’s just a matter of adding high-throughput antennas to the aircraft to take advantage of the new communications satellites.

“Can we use that data either before we put them on the airplane or after we get them on there to predict how they are going to do?” he asked.

Donna C. Senft, Air Mobility Command chief scientist, said there is always a demand for better communications.

“We are always looking at new communications systems. There is a revolution going on there now with high bandwidths,” she said aboard a KC-10 as it carried out an aerial refueling exercise.

“People can always use more bandwidth. If you give it to them, they can find a way to use it,” she added.

Observing the Mobility Guardian exercise helps her look for areas where new technologies could help the command.

Autonomy could be a key enabler. Robots used in warehouses, for example, could improve logistics. “You want to maximize the space when you put together one of those pallets to suit the aircraft,” she said. A computer could figure out what kind of cargo is on hand and how to pack it on pallets to maximize the space.

“The Silicon Valley companies have shown how to do that with robots,” she said. She took advantage of the trip to Washington to join a group of military scientists on a tour of’s Seattle warehouses to see how this is done.

She is also a believer in additive manufacturing. “We have some old aircraft. You will see knobs broken off. There is no reason why we just can’t [3D] print those plastic parts,” she said.

Sharpy said many of the benefits of the training will come after the event ends as the command takes lessons learned that will help refine its tactics, techniques and procedures.

“As we take those lessons learned, there will be some changes of how we adapt and how we avoid threats and to defeat adversaries,” he said.

That goes for international partners as well.

The French air force and the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force, for example, brought over the relatively new A400M Atlas long-range multirole transport aircraft, which is produced by Airbus.

This was the first U.S.-based large-scale exercise for the Atlas, Sharpy said.

“The more we train with our allied partners, the better we can operate together,” he said. “We learn every time we get together with our coalition partners because they see things through a different lens. Sometimes we evolve our techniques based on their procedures,” he added.

As for the future of Mobility Guardian, Sharpy didn’t know when or where the next one would be conducted. They may be held every other year, he speculated. There are no immediate plans for one in 2018.

“It was the first this was done in a long time, but I guarantee it won’t be the last,” he said.

Topics: Air Power

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