Pandemic Offers Opportunity for USAF’s New Joint Task Force

One of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein’s pet projects has evolved into a joint task force tackling the coronavirus pandemic.

In his first address as Chief at the Air Force Association’s September 2016 conference, Goldfein listed the goal of building joint leaders within USAF among his top three focus areas for the years ahead. That initiative made it possible for 9th Air Force at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., to stand up a joint task force when needed by combatant commanders.

Then came COVID-19.

U.S. Northern Command, which handles military operations for North America and supports civilian agencies in the U.S. for natural disasters and similar situations, tapped the joint task force at Shaw to help manage the flow of military medical personnel and facilities to some cities hit hard by the pandemic.

“What made this different was that this was affecting the entire United States all at the same time, which presented a huge command and control problem,” 9AF Commander Maj. Gen. Chad Franks said.

It’s the first time 9AF has been used as part of a joint task force in the real world, though it was also considered to lead the response to Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas last year. Ninth Air Force manages a range of fighters, attack aircraft, helicopters, and intelligence platforms for combat operations overseas. Its JTF carves out some Airmen to focus on a separate mission, like humanitarian aid or a unique combat need.

If the Pentagon wants a joint task force to address a particular problem, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Joint Staff asks each service whether they have the ability to take that on. Franks said the Air Force isn’t offering them much that’s different from the other services, but the 9AF task force is smaller and could move faster than other parts of the military.

“Right now, it’s mostly the Army and the Marines that get tasked for those types of operations, and [Goldfein] just wanted to be a contributor to the joint force,” Franks said.

When NORTHCOM came calling, 9th Air Force stood up Task Force-Southeast on March 31 to run military command and control as the only Air Force unit under Army North boss Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson. The task force supports FEMA Regions 3 and 4, which span Alabama, the District of Columbia, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

The JTF includes 190 Active-duty, Guard, Reserve, joint, and coalition service members, according to 9AF spokeswoman Maj. Docleia Gibson. About 110 of those are Airmen.

“The service members hail from 75 units located at more than 37 U.S. installations,” the Air Force said in a recent release. “Additionally, the unit commands and controls a response force of 281 Title 10 service members and DOD civilians within their area of operations.”

A task force’s makeup depends on its mission: “If it’s a response to a pandemic, you’re going to require different types of capabilities as opposed to doing a small conflict in the middle of Africa,” Franks said.

In this case, the military needed to send in medical professionals and overflow facilities to supplement local hospitals.

“We were looking at all those and monitoring where are those hotspots going to be, which ultimately ended up being why we sent a team into Pennsylvania, because they got to the point where it was exceeding their capability,” he said. “We sent an 85-person urban augmentation medical task force, and they had an alternate care facility of about 250 beds … for when the hospitals couldn’t maintain bed capacity.”

The Philadelphia-area team only had around 10 patients that used the overflow facility, which Franks attributed to the local health care system ramping up their bed capacity and managing the situation well. Philly wasn’t as overwhelmed as data indicated it might be, he said.

Franks said the team’s work was wrapping up the weekend of May 16 because demand was subsiding enough for local hospitals to handle on their own. He said no other states had asked the task force for help so far.

“We prepared for the worst and it never got to that point,” he said. “I have to give it to the civilian healthcare professionals. They did a great job of increasing their bed capacity tremendously.”

Launching the inaugural task force during the pandemic was an unexpected way to prove its worth, after years of practicing combat scenarios that don’t involve a global health crisis. Ninth Air Force’s joint capstone exercise in Iceland was canceled in April, following 13 other exercises from November 2017 to February 2020. Those covered humanitarian assistance, evacuation operations, defense support of civil authorities, and more for U.S. Southern Command, U.S. Africa Command, U.S. Central Command, U.S. European Command, and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

“We got just as much out of this as we would have gotten out of that exercise,” Franks said of the capstone. “It’s not really about the type of operation that you’re doing. It’s the fact that we go through a joint planning process, … coming up with concepts of operations, and putting out order and those kinds of things.”

9AF became ready to start offering joint task force options in December 2018 but still has more work to do to reach full operational capability. Franks said other missions the task force could handle include humanitarian response for situations like the 2011 Japanese tsunami, delivering food during a shortage, or establishing no-fly zones. 

“We’re really getting healthy on our Active-duty manpower this summer,” he said. “They’re going through the process right now of hiring [Guard and Reserve] … personnel that will be part of this headquarters, so in the future, when we would get tasked, it would be partly Active duty, and it would be partly Guard and Reserve that would go all together and go forward somewhere to be that headquarters.”

Goldfein wrote in 2016 that the service would look to expand the ability to act as a joint task force headquarters to other Numbered Air Forces once 9AF was up and running. Franks said no decision has been made about which organization could work on that next, but his team could serve as a model for collaborating across the armed forces.

“Getting through those cultural barriers is probably the No. 1 thing, but that normally only takes about a few days,” he said. “From our perspective, it was pretty smooth.”