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Roads, seas and skies: The joint transportation of a multimodal stage

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – The United States military has a presence in forward operating locations around the globe. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, Airmen, sailors, soldiers and Marines are in the fight, delivering hope, saving lives and providing protection to those who need it most. What may be lesser known, however, is the expanse of logistics behind ensuring troops and equipment are always in the right place at the right time.

How do combat units, along with their gear, vehicles, aircraft, weapons and other necessities travel quickly and efficiently to high-threat areas around the world?

A key answer is the multimodal stage: a complex and demanding movement requiring seamless participation between joint partners.

A multimodal stage transports cargo and personnel via multiple means in order to deliver them where they need to go in the most timely and efficient manner possible. To initiate a stage, U.S. Transportation Command balances the cost of transportation versus the timeliness, practicality and necessity of delivering various strategic assets. Then, the best flow of transportation is determined using the capabilities of the Army’s Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, the Navy’s Military Sealift Command and the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, along with additional support from the Joint Transportation Reserve Unit and the Joint Enabling Capabilities Command.

In short, resources from every service and a number of contractors are combined to develop the fastest and most efficient route in and out of the fight.

As the owner of 18 C-5M Super Galaxies, Travis Air Force Base, California, is a key component of AMC’s capabilities in a multimodal operation. The C-5M has the largest cargo capacity both in weight and volume of any aircraft in the Air Force’s inventory. Its large cargo box allows cargo to be loaded in a more “ready” state, requiring less disassembly and reassembly on either side of air transportation.

“The C-5M can also load (and) unload from both the front and the back simultaneously, allowing us to load pallets from the rear while we load helicopters from the front, for example,” said Capt. Adam Smith, 22nd Airlift Squadron pilot and a C-5M aircraft commander on a recent multimodal operation. “This expedites ground times, resulting in fast ‘turns’ of the jet, or the time from when a jet lands until it is ready to take off again.”

Three active-duty and Reserve aircrews and two ground support personnel from the 22nd and 312th Airlift Squadrons at Travis recently contributed to a joint U.S. TRANSCOM multimodal operation alongside C-5Ms and personnel from Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, March 21 to April 6.

The operation’s mission was to swap the deployment of the Army’s 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, 7th Infantry Division, with the redeployment of the 1st Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division. The swap-out was part of a larger air movement to U.S. Central Command’s forward operating locations in Afghanistan in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.

The cargo and personnel demands of the mission combined with the need for a rapid turnaround made a multimodal stage the preferred method of transportation.

“In our multimodal, shipping each chalk (cargo load) via air from the U.S. to the forward operation location would (have meant) transiting the Northern Atlantic many times, costing a large amount of money, man hours and undue wear and tear on the aircraft,” explained Capt. Kevin Simonds, 22 AS pilot and another aircraft commander in the operation. “A far more effective way of delivering the warfighting equipment (was to) move them to a port, put them all on a singular cargo ship, sail them to a port close to the destination (and) then fly them to their final destination.”

Using various transportation modes is even more effective when dealing with large cargo loads. Cargo ship transportation can be planned in advance to save time, and then immediately loaded onto waiting aircraft. The more cargo that can load into one aircraft, the less flights are required – making the C-5M the preferred air component for the movement, said Simonds.

The cargo has quite a journey before arriving at the waiting ramp of a C-5M. First, it is manifested, or identified and inventoried, by the sender – in this particular operation, the Army. It is then transported, usually by truck, train or domestic air to a port where the Navy takes control, conducting an additional inspection before loading it onto a cargo ship. In this particular operation, the cargo ship headed for Rota Naval Air Station, Spain.

Once off the ship and before being loaded onto the aircraft, a final inspection is conducted by a joint inspection team while C-5Ms and aircrews from Travis and Dover arrive and are staged to transport the load.

“No cargo is loaded on an aircraft unless it has been inspected for air worthiness, an important safety measure for successful cargo transportation,” said Chief Master Sgt. John Steggell, a 22 AS flight engineer participating in the movement.

Then, the cargo is ready to be loaded onto the aircraft and airlifted to its final destination. To aid in efficiency and a more rapid turnaround, a duty load team from the 709th Airlift Squadron loaded and unloaded cargo from each aircraft, allowing the aircrew to go into crew rest faster and be ready to launch again sooner.

“This practice adds to the efficiency of the air bridge, keeping aircraft and aircrews moving faster,” said Smith.

Finally, the cargo and personnel arrive at the forward operating location. Cargo is unloaded, processed and transferred to a cargo yard by the local aerial port squadron, ready for use. A final delivery release to the user is all that’s left as the C-5Ms are reloaded for their return back to the stage location.

In a multi-day, 24-hour operation with countless moving parts, communication is essential. Travis and its joint counterparts excelled in this aspect during the Rota stage, resulting in a successful mission that exceeded standards.

“Communication was one of our keys to success,” said Capt Mike Zeleski, 22 AS instructor pilot and a stage manager in the operation. “The effective flow of information between the Army load teams, our aircrews and the stage management staff enabled us to complete the movement two days earlier than planned. This effort increased our cargo loads efficiency and was one of the leading factors allowing for safe mission execution and the timely completion of the movement.”

Representatives from the Army, Air Force, Navy and various contractors met daily and ad hoc at each point in the operation, ensuring information and plans were consistent throughout. The hard work paid off; ultimately resulting in 42 missions completed and 51 sorties flown in 16 days, with 29 sorties and 237 hours flown by Travis aircrew.

“This crew (from Travis)comprised one half of the total operation’s aircrew force, and they airlifted an astonishing 1.4 million pounds of warfighting equipment, flying 57 percent of the operation’s sorties and 54 percent of the operation’s flight hours,” said Smith. “Their individual effort delivered more than $1 billion worth of Combat Aviation Brigade equipment ahead of schedule.”

In total, the joint team transported 82 helicopters, totaling almost 2.5 million pounds of cargo and 17 passengers to and from the CENTCOM area of responsibility ahead of schedule. Their hard work resulted in an 86 percent reliability rate for logistics departure and a 92 percent reliability rate for maintenance departure, ensuring the assets were delivered on schedule and ready to accomplish the mission.

“The team achieved success through extraordinary planning and the incredible drive and determination of all participants,” said Zeleski. “None of this would have been possible without every professional here working in unison together. Our success rates either outperformed the AMC standard or that of previous stage operations, and speak volumes about the hard work of the total force.”

The combined small logistical details in the multimodal stage had a large effect on the mission of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. The deployment swap-out and delivery of critical cargo enabled Army aviation missions to foster security and stability in the area, train local soldiers and conduct counterterrorism operations against in-country extremists. By using the multimodal method, operators, support personnel and equipment could cycle in and out of the CENTCOM AOR without leaving a gap in support to the units fighting in the area.

The operation also saved more than $50 million in transportation costs.