Mobility Aircraft, Airmen Practice For New Ways of War

ALPENA COMBAT READINESS TRAINING CENTER, Michigan—Air Mobility Command wants to overhaul how it operates so it serves as more than the “bus drivers” for combat forces, and it’s practicing how to do that right now across the upper Midwest.

Exercise Mobility Guardian 2021 is underway at multiple locations in Michigan and Wisconsin, with about 1,800 personnel across all of AMC’s mission sets. This includes 18 mobility aircraft and 57 aircrews, contingency response Airmen, aeromedical evacuation Airmen, and others, plus combat aircraft support from A-10s and F-16s. The blue force is going against adversary aircraft, cyber teams, and ground opposition forces in a three-phase “war” bringing new tactics, operational structures, and technologies as they test out a potential new type of mobility air force.

“We’re looking 10 or 15 years in the future when, ‘OK, what are we going to need in that future fight?’” said Lt. Col. Brian Thomasson, MG21’s exercise director. “The U.S. military is really good, obviously, at the skills we’ve been practicing in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past few decades, but our potential adversaries have watched us operate. They know how we act … and so we need to make sure we’re ready for the future fight, whatever that could look like, and that we’re preparing new technologies, new ways of organizing our force, etc., so that we’re ready for that.”

This is the third Mobility Guardian, which first started in 2017 as the command looked to move away from the previous “mobility rodeo” competition toward a large-scale exercise in which mobility forces were the focal point instead of the supporting force. The 2019 event was much larger than the current iteration and included dozens of partner nations in an exercise that focused on the global mobility mission. The 2021 exercise is U.S.-only and is focused on future tactics and emerging technologies.

For about two weeks, ending May 27, the mobility and combat crews are operating from three separate locations—airlifters at Alpena; fighters at Volk Field, Wisconsin; and tankers at Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport, Michigan—plus five other operating locations across the region.

The “war” is playing out over four phases, designed to practice key mobility mission areas along with tasking them in some roles not typically handled by airlifters and refuelers.

The groundwork for the exercise, dubbed “Phase 0,” started with contingency response Airmen arriving and evaluating the airfields for operations, offloading of equipment, and setting up the basic infrastructure at the “bare bases.” In Phase 1, mobility aircraft took off in radio silence, and fighter aircraft flew against threat emitters in the region. Mobility aircraft contributed to offensive operations by evolving two new capabilities, both of which came from the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System demonstrations and are continuing to evolve.

  • Airlifters carried an Army High Mobility Artillery Rocket System and used its capabilities onboard to retarget the system after rolling it off.
  • A C-17 carried palletized munitions in another step toward firing the systems from the back of the airlifter.

The second phase focused on sustainment operations, with aircraft flying “dynamic taskings,” including on-call airdrops and close air support. A special operations force infiltrated using an expeditionary airlift package. During this phase, the exercise simulated a mid-air collision of aircraft and a downed pilot, forcing tankers to stay on station and help coordinate with A-10s for a rescue operation.

The third phase included aircraft and Airmen at the different locations practicing “agile combat employment” tactics to continue operations. This included a C-130 carrying a fuel bladder and munitions to reload and refuel A-10s quickly. Another C-17 offloaded fuel from its wings into a truck, which then quickly refueled F-16s.

Throughout the operations, adversary cyber teams targeted communications systems. Exercise participants were forced to operate with unreliable connections to higher ups, with a major goal of Mobility Guardian to practice “mission-type orders.” This means an aircrew would have a commander’s intent of what to accomplish, but they would not have a typical air tasking order or regular communication with an air operations center for direction. Instead, they would have to make operational decisions on the fly.

“You may not be the person expected to make those decisions currently, but maybe in the future you might be, so we’re training those people under mission-type orders to take and leverage some of the authority that they’ve been given and then, with agile combat employment, they’re going to actually move their forces and maneuver their forces,” said Capt. Alexander Hutcheson, the lead air planner for the exercise.

As part of the push for more agility, the exercise built a different structure for its operating locations. Forces are under the umbrella of an air expeditionary wing overall, with individual exercise groups at the three main bases. There, forces are organized as “mission generation squadrons” with all the Air Force Specialty Codes needed for operations. For example, instead of individual squadrons for maintenance, intelligence, logistics, operations, etc., Airmen from those specialties are assigned together into one “MGS” to build and sustain aircraft ops.

“What we’re challenging for the next echelon of command below the wing level is for that squadron commander to present, in almost an autonomous capability: ‘Hey, if I need to move this capability around the theater, I can do that in a package type of way and still produce rapid global mobility,” said Col. Scott M. Wiederholt, commander of the 305th Air Mobility Wing at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, who is serving as the commander of the exercise’s 443rd Air Expeditionary Wing.

Most of the Airmen involved in the exercise haven’t worked under the ACE construct or used some of the new technologies involved, which is why the exercise is designed so that failing is OK. Individual scenarios are run through multiple times, so if it doesn’t go well the first time, Airmen can iterate and fine-tune until it works.

After the exercise wraps later this month, AMC will work through the lessons learned to shape new training and eventually new guidance for how to operate.

“Airmen are going to leave this exercise with a deeper understanding of where we are going as a Mobility Air Force and some of the … critical thinking skills that we are asking Airmen to think about and challenge,” Wiederholt said. “’Why do I do this this way? Is there a better way for us to do that?’ This will energize those thought processes when they’re back in their home station and they’re going through their own evolutions of training and exercises.”