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Jim Garamone, American Forces Press Service
SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill., Oct. 29, 2008 –
There is more to flying a mission than just hopping on the aircraft and cranking the engines. Air Mobility Command’s 618th Tanker Airlift Control Center here is the nexus for the global air mission for the U.S. military.
“We plan missions, resource the crews and the aircraft, task the missions to the wings and command and control the missions from here,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Mark Solo, the center’s commander, said.
The 618th reports to 18th Air Force and is the hub for planning and directing tanker and transport aircraft operations. The air operations center is responsible for around-the-clock centralized command and control of both Air Force and commercial-contract air mobility aircraft.
When fully mobilized, Air Mobility Command has 1,322 aircraft it can call on. “We’re not at full mobilization right now,” Solo said during an interview. “On a typical day, we command and control about 450 aircraft all over the world, flying 6,000 passengers a day and 2,000 tons of cargo.”
The center plans about 900 sorties a day, including alert missions that often don’t have to launch. Aircraft are affected by weather and by maintenance, and the enemy gets a vote. “We typically fly about 80 percent of those [900 sorties] day in and day out,” Solo said.
The command is always leaning forward, the general said. “There are days when I wake up and see something on the morning news and I say, ‘Oh, boy. We’re going to be busy for the next few days,’” he said. This happened most recently during hurricane season when, Gustav and Ike were bearing down on the United States.
In August, Air Mobility Command had to move Georgian troops from Baghdad to Tbilisi when Russia invaded their homeland. Solo said an agreement with the Georgian leadership included a quick move back to the capital if necessary. “The move was something we knew was possible ever since they deployed with us,” he said.
Georgia’s nearly 1,800 troops in Iraq were serving in several locations around the country. In the agreement, the United States promised to redeploy the troops within four days at Georgia’s request should the troops be needed for an emergency.
When the Russians invaded, “it was pretty safe to assume that Georgia would be recalling their troops,” Solo said. “So we started looking at what we might do, should that call come, and it did come.”
Launching that mission was a display of Air Force know-how, Solo said. Planes and crews came from around the area. They needed fuel to fly the mission. An air field needed to be identified in case a mission needed to be diverted. Crew rest, security, overflight privileges and more went into flying the Georgian troops home. Meanwhile, Russian troops were near the Georgian capital, and it was an active combat zone. The Georgian troops and their personal gear loaded aboard the C-17s, and all the troops were delivered within the four-day deadline.
Hurricane season also provides challenges. Airmen participate in planning conferences throughout the winter and spring with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Transportation Command, state officials and others to ensure everyone is in the loop. During the past hurricane season, the command helped plan missions for aeromedical evacuation, pre-positioning supplies and getting people out of the path of the storms.
Solo said an operation the size of the control center comes with its fair share of worries for its boss, but “I have such great folks working here that I’m rarely surprised to a large degree and a large scale.”
“The folks are very good at what they do,” he said. “The people who are here are here because they love this mission and because we are launching our nation’s airlift and air refueling and see the impact that it makes. I don’t have many sleepless nights.”
The air refueling mission is crucial to the American military’s global reach and success, Solo said. The command off-loads an average of 5 million pounds of fuel a day. The KC-135 Stratotanker still is the workhorse of that effort, though the average KC-135 in the fleet is 48 years old.
“In order to accomplish that mission, you have to do an awful lot to maintain and upgrade the aircraft … so that they’re certified to fly in the international air traffic environment we’re in today and they are able to deliver the fuel that we need in the volume that we need it,” Solo said.
The maintenance personnel have so far been up to the job, he said, “but it is a tremendous effort.”
The Air Force wants a new tanker, and though the contract has been mired in controversy, that doesn’t mean the aircraft isn’t needed. A new tanker not only would improve the fleet’s reliability, but also would give Air Mobility Command more capability, Solo said.
“The tanker we’re asking for would not only have ‘stiff boom’ capability that we require for [refueling] Air Force fixed-wing assets, but would provide the basket refueling for Navy and Marine partners and our foreign partners,” he said.
Any new tanker not only would haul gas, but also would be designed to carry a good amount of cargo, and could be fitted to carry wounded servicemembers home. Any new aircraft also would have to have the legs to make a flight from Afghanistan to Washington without refueling, the general said.
The work at the center doesn’t stop. “We have a mission that we’ve got to support every day,” Solo said. “There are two wars that we must support, plus hotspots around the world. We’re providing support to theater engagement plans to combatant commanders around the world, and support to exercises.”
But in addition to caring for the command’s aircraft, the general said, Air Mobility Command leaders also must remember that the mission tempo also results in wear and tear on people.
“After so many years of conflict now, that tends to take a toll on people over time,” he said. “We need to be concerned with their needs and make sure they have their needs -- the family and professional development.”
Finally, Solo said, the command has to keep an eye on the future.
“I know darn well that how we do things in 10 years is going to be different than what we are doing today,” he said. “I have to look out there and see what’s available technology-wise that will help us better be able to command and control and execute this mission in the future.”