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Rethinking the Last Tactical Mile:
Adaptive Air Logistics in Africa

Airlift operations in Africa face unusual political and infrastructure challenges.
The author believes that exercises provide opportunities to test new solutions,
such as the use of contracted commercial aircraft.

Military air logisticians expect flexibility in air power when it comes to the rapid movement
requirements of medical evacuations, natural disaster relief deployments, and contingency operations. It has become second nature for the U.S. military to plan for its aircraft to flexibly meet imminent requirements around the globe. However, when it comes to the austere African environment, system “flexing” is often not enough to accomplish the mission.

The C−17 from the Heavy Airlift Wing in Papa, Hungary, landed in Entebbe, Uganda, for its first successful entry into East Africa. Exercise Atlas Drop provided a low-threat opportunity to blaze diplomatic clearance trails for the new wing, which will pay dividends for AFRICOM
in the future. (Photo by Maj. Joe Gaddis, USAF)

The two main challenges for air logisticians in Africa are access to suitable airfields near the area of operations and prompt procurement of aircraft that can travel to the designated location. Just as the military has adapted its strategy for fighting the war on terrorism from conventional warfare tactics to nonconventional methods, so too must air logisticians adapt to nonconventional
methods to operate in the relatively undeveloped conditions found in much of Africa. Exercises like Atlas Drop ’11 in Uganda provide low-threat developmental opportunities for air logisticians to rethink
tactical airlift and develop effective long-term solutions to the tyranny of time and distance in austere environments.

U.S. Army jumpmasters and U.S. Air Force loadmasters push low-cost resupply bundles onto dropzones at Olilim, Uganda. (Photo by Maj. Joe Gaddis, USAF)

Problems During Natural Fire ’10
U.S. Army Africa (USARAF) first experienced the challenges of using conventional U.S. military airlift
methods in Africa during exercise Natural Fire ’10. In that exercise, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM)
C−130 Hercules transports were unable to use the “suitable but unusable” airfield in Gulu, Uganda, because of the limited weight-bearing capability of the last 1,000 feet of the runway. This
airlift shortfall generated a requirement to transport three 11th Aviation Company CH−47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters from Fort Knox, Kentucky, to Gulu, Uganda, which required a $3 million increase in the exercise’s budget.

During redeployment from the exercise, the U.S. Air Force C−17 Globemaster III cargo planes allocated for the operation were subsequently reassigned to support higher priority missions. The multinational Heavy Airlift Wing C−17 unit from Papa, Hungary, was unable to provide an alternative because of problems with its diplomatic clearance request processes. After these two redeployment plans failed, a 3-week wait ensued while AFRICOM obtained diplomatic clearances for its C−130s to finally recover the troops and equipment from the exercise.

USARAF logistics planners and staff had the choice of accepting this as the norm for working in Africa or changing the dynamics of tactical airlift to meet the logistics needs of future exercises. Atlas Drop ’11 provided an opportunity to change the dynamics by using contract aviation.

Soroti Airfield in Uganda served as the primary location for exercise Atlas Drop ’11. (Photo by Maj. Joe Gaddis, USAF)

Working With
Uganda’s Air Force

In the past, Atlas Drop exercises focused on joint, multinational airborne operations with North African nations. However, 2011 presented an opportunity to transform the focal point of the exercise to spotlight joint aerial resupply. The Ugandan military welcomed this exercise as a chance to integrate platoon-sized resupply into its operations.

As the lead U.S. component for the exercise, USARAF chose to use aircraft and airdrop systems that
are similar to the capabilities currently accessible in Uganda. Those air platforms included the Ugandan Peoples Defence Air Force (UPDAF) Bell 208 Jet Ranger and Russian-made MI−17 helicopters. USARAF contracted for a Cessna 208 Grand Caravan light transport to mimic the capabilities of the UPDAF’s small aircraft resources, like the Chinese-made Y−12, Russian-made AN−2, and Italian-made P−92 utility aircraft. The U.S. Air Force provided a C−130, which has capabilities similar to the Russian-made AN−12 transport and the L−100 transport (the civilian variant of the C−130), for which the UPDAF routinely contracts.

The four aircraft not only provided redundancy for the exercise, but they also demonstrated solution sets that the UPDAF could immediately use in their military operations. Contracting airlift in Atlas Drop ’11 provided USARAF the opportunity to experiment with new methods of air delivery without the diplomatic and airfield restrictions that often accompany the operation of U.S. military aircraft in Africa.

A National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency map shows Soroti in east central Uganda.

Impact of Airfield Restrictions
As with Natural Fire ’10, the U.S. Air Force faced airfield restrictions in Atlas Drop 11 with the basing location at Soroti, Uganda. The last 1,000 feet of the runway did not meet the weight-bearing load requirements for the C−130, and not enough time was available to request that the necessary experts recertify the airfield as an “assault landing zone,” which has less restrictive surface requirements. Consequently, the U.S. Air Force C−130s provided tactical airlift to Entebbe,
Uganda, while smaller contracted Cessna and Beechcraft aircraft provided airlift into Soroti. Compared with the $3 million cost of moving three CH−47s from Kentucky during Natural Fire ’10, the total price tag for all commercial tactical airlift was only $57,000.

USARAF again invited the Heavy Airlift Wing C−17 unit to participate, this time in a not-mission-critical role. Their successful involvement during the exercise opened the door for reliable use of that unit in East Africa in the future. USARAF designed the exercise around multiple sources of airlift, which eliminated single points of failure and capitalized on the flexibility and capabilities of different aircraft.

Turning to Commercial Freight Companies
Instead of using military airlift to move equipment to and from the exercise, planners used commercial freight vendors. This provided exercise participants with door-to-door delivery service and eliminated the need for extra personnel to channel the equipment through freight and customs areas. The Small Commercial Cargo Program provided reliable commercial channel flight schedules and allowed equipment to be delivered in less than 10 days.

U.S. Army riggers load low-cost aerial delivery systems (LCADS) onto the Heavy Airlift Wing C−17 in preparation for the following day’s airdrop. Not only was this the first time the wing landed in eastern Africa, it was its first use of LCADS. (Photo by Maj. Joe Gaddis, USAF)

Providing In-Transit Visibility
Not only was Atlas Drop a test bed for commercial tactical airlift, it also offered the opportunity to test new in-transit visibility (ITV) technologies. To date, very few radio frequency identification (RFID) reading systems are on the continent of Africa, rendering RFID tags useless once cargo departs the United States or Europe. Alternative methods of ITV are in late developmental stages, but their reliability in Africa is unconfirmed. These new technologies include satellite tags, iridium phone systems, and cell phone systems. But the company cell phone of the truckdriver is still
the most reliable and, since volume is low, often the best option to use.

As the lead component for surface movement and ITV in Africa, AFRICOM formally tasked USARAF
logisticians to “write the book” for ITV use in Africa. USARAF subsequently drafted a command instruction on the subject. Exercises like Atlas Drop provided proof-of-principle opportunities to compare different types of ITV systems.

Ugandan Peoples Defence Force soldiers retrieve airborne-delivered materiel during exercise Atlas Drop ’11. (Photo by SFC Brock Jones, 128th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, UTARNG)

USARAF used satellite tags for the first time during Atlas Drop. The web-based satellite tag customer interface provided responsive feedback similar to RFID systems in Europe and the United States without the same robust infrastructure requirements. Aircraft interference testing with these satellite tags had not been finalized, so use of the system required the follow-on trucking contractor to activate the systems after they arrived by aircraft.

Contracting for Airlift in Africa
Approved contract airlift in Africa is not easy to find. According to Department of Defense (DOD) Instruction 4500.53, DOD Commercial Air Transportation Quality and Safety Review Program, DOD can only contract for air transportation services with companies that are approved by a U.S. Transportation Commandappointed panel of flag officers or Senior Executive Service members known as the Commercial Airlift Review Board (CARB).

The CARB sends a team of inspectors to examine a company’s maintenance, operations, and safety programs to ensure that a risk-appropriate decision is made when choosing civilian air carriers. The inspectors compile a report that goes to the CARB, which is then responsible for approving or disapproving each air carrier.

With only a handful of CARB-certified air carriers working in Africa, the number of available companies shrinks significantly. Contract leadtimes are lengthy, and air advisers are needed to properly identify the desired effects in performance work statements that can be agreed on by the contractor in order to protect both sides legally. However, this cumbersome legwork can be settled early by organizing blanket purchase agreement (BPA) contracts ahead of time.

The first Atlas Drop ’11 airdrop contract took more than 60 days to complete, from initial solicitation
to award. Conversely, it took only 1 day to arrange the movement of personnel using a Combined Joint Task Force−Horn of Africa BPA air contract with the same civilian company. USARAF is now establishing BPA-type contracts for surface movements to capitalize on this highly responsive avenue for logistics supply in Africa. U.S. Air Forces Africa will lead the effort for air safety and contract air for common users, while the AFRICOM Deployment and Distribution Operations Center will prioritize the effort and make the major intermodal decisions.

U.S. Army jumpmasters familiarize Ugandan Peoples Defence Air Force and Phoenix Aviation
aircrews with fixed-wing airdrop techniques in Soroti,Uganda. (Photo by Maj. Joe Gaddis, USAF)

The Diplomatic Clearance Hurdle
A major question facing logisticians in Africa is whether the legwork of contracting airlift outweighs the challenges often associated with traditional methods of using U.S. military aircraft in Africa, which include lengthy processes to obtain diplomatic clearance. Carrying out a mission into most countries often requires 14 to 21 days of leadtime. For the Hungarybased C−17 unit, this process can be as long as 30 to 45 days.

When working with operations in landlocked countries, diplomatic over-flight clearance leadtimes reduce the flexibility of the DOD airlift system. Domestically registered contract aircraft do not have these clearance issues. Their simple country clearance process enables them to plan a flight in less than a day.

Foreign civilian carriers operating in Africa (including U.S.-registered carriers) also face less diplomatic redtape and do not require the same lengthy clearance process as the U.S. military. Building clearance equities among foreign civilian carriers and the U.S. military in Africa supports AFRICOM’s strategic Adaptive Logistics Network, which by definition flexes to meet the widely varying logistics needs in Africa. (See a related article, “The New Spice Route for Africa,” in the March−April 2012 issue of Army Sustainment.)

A Soldier from the Utah Army National Guard finalizes the low-cost aerial delivery systems on the Heavy Airlift Wing’s C−17. (Photo by Maj. Joe Gaddis, USAF)

Using Austere Airfields
After clearance timing, the next major advantage to using contract airlift is access to austere airfields. Of the more than 3,300 airfields documented by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, only 303 have been surveyed by the U.S. Air Force. One-third of those surveyed are not routinely used by the Air Force, and the surveys have consequently expired. Of the remaining 158 airfields that have current surveys, half have weight limitations that make them impractical for
operating a C−130 or larger aircraft.
Most airfields in Africa are not usable by U.S. Air Force C−130 Hercules transports.

The practical effect is that the AFRICOM C−130s can only fly into one or two airfields in any given country in Africa. The question for the component commander then becomes, “How do we get the last tactical 300 nautical miles?” The answer is either a nail-biting, backbreaking, multiple-day truck movement or contract air.

While the strategic airlift hubs in Africa have received adequate attention and funding from DOD,
the bulk of operations in Africa are not conducted in and around these hubs. To date, there is no effectivene-stop shop to which DOD customers may turn for air logistics solutions. As AFRICOM develops, the solution will emerge. DOD simply cannot afford to fix thousands of airfields in Africa to have them meet U.S. Air Force requirements.

The U.S. Air Force requirements could be changed to survey the airfields as assault landing zones rather than as fully operational runways. This would allow C−130s to use significantly more airfields, but it would also impose heavy workloads on already over-tasked special tactics teams or contingency response groups to perform the recurring survey work.

Access to austere fields and aircraft asset availability will always be difficult factors facing the U.S. Air Force in competing on the tactical level with contract air. The simpler, more immediate solution is for the CARB to approve more commercial air carriers operating in Africa. This process allows local companies to prosper through DOD funding while promptly meeting the customer’s needs at a fraction of the cost.

Exercises like Atlas Drop provide opportunities for component commands to test the waters, learn the best practices, and form future policy by writing the how-to book for AFRICOM. By frontloading the contracting process with BPAs from a wide variety of CARB-approved commercial carriers, DOD operations in Africa can get closer to the 24-hour reaction time to which the U.S. military has grown accustomed.

Major Joseph D. Gaddis, USA F, is an air mobility liaison officer for the 621st Contingency Operations Support Group, 621st Contingency Response Wing, based at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. He is stationed in Vicenza, Italy, where he provides U.S. Army Africa with air mobility expertise in employing U.S. Transportation Command’s air assets. He holds a bachelor of electrical engineering degree from Auburn University and a master’s degree in theological studies from Liberty University and is a graduate of the Squadron Officer School and the Air Command and Staff College.

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