Most assessments of a nation’s military power focus on the “pointy end of the spear,” the combat platforms, weapons systems and munitions. Less publicized and often poorly understood is the contribution of the rest of the spear, the shaft, to the overall mission which is successful delivery of the spear point to a target. In modern military organizations the shaft of the spear consists of all the supporting functions, but primarily the transportation, logistics and sustainment capabilities that not only deliver a combat force to the theater of conflict but sustain it while it is there and brings it home again when the mission is over.
A great example of a supporting function that is vitally important to the operation of the U.S. military forces around the world is air lift. The United States maintains by far the world’s largest fleet of transport aircraft (primarily C-5s, C-17s and C-130s) and aerial refueling tankers (today the KC-10 and KC-135 but soon the new KC-46) most of which belong to the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command (AMC). The U.S. military could not project power into distant theaters without the air bridge provided by AMC. Virtually every combat sortie conducted during America’s conflicts over the past several decades has required aerial refueling, often several times.
On an average day in Afghanistan, AMC tankers conduct upwards of a thousand sorties, offloading millions of pounds of fuel to Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Coalition aircraft. Similarly, Air Force transports deliver tens of thousands of tons of cargo to main operating bases and forward outposts in that country every month. One little known fact is that so far in 2012 Air Force transports have conducted around 100 airdrops of supplies, many to Army units that could not be reached in time or without excess risk by ground transport. Aeromedical evacuation has brought some 21,000 individuals out of the war zone since conflict began there in 2001.
Air lift and resupply is not solely the responsibility of Air Mobility Command. The Navy operates some 35 C-2 Greyhound Carrier On-board Delivery (COD) aircraft. The COD fleet moves high-priority cargo and passengers between the Navy’s aircraft carriers and shore bases, allowing the battle groups to operate longer at sea and at a great distance from resupply bases. The Marine Corps also operates around 40 KC-130 tankers that provide aerial refueling for other Marine Corps aircraft.
The private sector is a major partner in providing air lift and support to U.S forces. The Civil Reserve Air Fleet program allows the military to gain access to commercial transport and even refueling aircraft to supplement military platforms. Virtually all the military personnel deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade were carried on commercial aircraft. In addition, the Department of Defense has contracts with private companies such as UPS and DHL to move mail and cargo to and from overseas bases. In some instances, usually small deployments, the Pentagon has relied entirely on private contractors for aerial resupply.
As the White House, DoD and Congress consider the implications of a declining defense budget for the size and character of the U.S. military, they should take into consideration the support provided by AMC to the joint force. Almost every operation the military will conduct over the next several decades will be an away game. Consequently, the demand for air lift will remain high.