WASHINGTON --- Mobility aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan are helping keep soldiers, airmen, marines and sailors out of harm's way.
During the Air Force Association's 2006 Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition here Sept. 26, Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, Air Mobility Command commander, said C-130 Hercules aircraft are now performing missions that used to be performed by military members on the ground.
Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the commander of U.S. Central Command, had asked AMC to help find a way to get supply convoys off the roads, General McNabb said. The much-needed, slow-moving convoys have proven easy targets for insurgents in Iraq. The general told conference attendees AMC had a solution.
"We started using the C-130s," he said. "We are going to carry everybody by air now. We are not going to do any buses. We had 63 C-130s in theater and they just started doing all the routes that used to be done traditionally by ground convoy or buses. Then we said we'll get C-130s to carry passengers and we will institute theater direct delivery."
According to General McNabb, by using C-130s to move cargo that used to be moved by ground convoys, the Air Force has taken some 9,000 personnel a month out of harm' way. General McNabb also said AMC has started using C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster III aircraft to move heavy equipment formerly moved on the ground. The Air Force now has used its cargo aircraft to move as much as 63,000 tons of armored vehicles.
The Air Force also placed two C-17 squadrons -- about 20 aircraft -- on 120-day rotation in the United States Central Command Air Forces area of responsibility, General McNabb said.
Those C-17s now are experiencing more wear and tear than would be expected under normal operations. While flying time has started to decrease, the number of landings and take offs has increased to almost three times that of what was expected. General McNabb said Congress has recognized the increased usage and responded.
"The Congress just (approved) that appropriation of the 10 C-17s, because we made that case," he said. "The wear and tear on the C-17s is very real. It is the wartime use that really got us."
At the same time the Air Force is preventing loss of life by finding new, safer ways to move cargo, it also is saving lives by finding more innovative ways to move the military people who do get injured back to the United States.
In the past, the Air Force used dedicated aircraft to move injured people out of theater. Today, special support pallets are used for patients. Those pallets can be loaded on any available aircraft that is headed home. That increased flexibility has improved the chances that injured personnel will survive.
"Now we get them to the doctor or a facility, maybe the only place in the world where you can save their lives," General McNabb said.
During the Vietnam conflict, it took as many as 30 days to move injured patients back to the United States. During Desert Storm, that time was reduced to 10 days. Today, that time has been reduced to just three days. "Time is what saves people," General McNabb said.
Getting aircraft from all services into theater is one of the key missions of AMC. Many aircraft use the nearly 9,000-mile "air bridge," maintained by AMC tanker aircraft, to get to the CENTAF area of responsibility. General McNabb said the refueling mission is important to the joint fight, so it is critical the Air Force move to recapitalize the tanker fleet.
"It's one of those things only our country can do, but what an amazing difference it made," General McNabb said. "AMC tankers bring the fuel to the fight and enable global power, there is no question, and that is why this new tanker becomes so important."
The new tankers the Air Force wants will bring more than just refueling to the mission. The replacement tanker will have cargo capacity, situational awareness, self-defense capability and the ability to conduct both probe and drogue refueling during the same sortie. The new aircraft also will be able to give and receive fuel, General McNabb said.
"Right now, when a KC-135 Stratotanker has taken care of all its customers, it will bring its (remaining) fuel back," he said. "We have a number of KC-135s that land with between 35,000 and 40,000 pounds of fuel on the airplane."
General McNabb said he would like to find a way to keep that fuel up in the air and "in the fight," instead of bringing it back home. While the Air Force does have some 60 KC-10 Extender aircraft that can take on extra fuel from a KC-135, the general said he'd like to increase the number of aircraft with that capability.
"If we have a number of new tankers with that capability, you can imagine how we change our concept of operations," he said.
Finally, General McNabb addressed the Joint Cargo Aircraft, a program it is developing hand-in-hand with the U.S. Army. The JCA will have about half the cargo capacity of the C-130 aircraft, but will be more agile.
Both the Air Force and the Army agree the JCA will bring three capabilities to the fight. First, the JCA will be able to do short takeoffs and landings. Second, the JCA will provide "persistence." Because of its smaller cargo capacity, it can more efficiently move smaller loads of supplies and people to forward locations. Third, the JCA will fill a need revealed during relief efforts in New Orleans -- it will have the ability to react quickly and operate from unimproved runways.
"The JCA fits a niche I think kind of evolved over time because of what we are doing in the GWOT," General McNabb said.