Picture a busy Thursday afternoon in the Deployment Control Center. Your installation has been spinning up for a major deployment as part of a Joint Task Force aimed at deterring a major near-peer adversary. You are tasked to deploy 24 fighters with 38 chalks of cargo and passengers to three different operating locations.
You have missed a few LOGMOD DSOE start times, but thanks to some amazing teamwork, you think you can get the final chalk out the door on time. Then, you see the breaking news, the adversary just launched an all-out offensive campaign against the US and allied forces in the region. This is no longer a deterrence mission, you are now deploying forces into a contested combat environment.
A few days later, while your entire package is still in transit, you receive word that two of the three planned deployment locations were damaged in the initial attack. Your wing receives orders to divert its forces to new operating locations. Just as you finish relaying that message to the Commander, you receive word to prepare for a Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO).
You are told to plan for somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 personnel over the coming weeks, some of them require medical attention. Is your installation ready?
In the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis wrote “Today, we are emerging from a period of strategic atrophy, aware that our competitive military advantage has been eroding. We are facing increased global disorder, characterized by a decline in the long-standing rules-based international order, creating a security environment more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory.
Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security.” This marked a significant shift in US military policy and had a direct impact on the daily life of the logistician.
NDS Impact on Installation Readiness
As logisticians, it is important to think about how we prepare for conflict, and the role that our installation exercises play in doing so. Recently, we sat down with Col Patricia Csànk, Commander of the 673d Air Base Wing at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER).
She described this shift as “a call for us to be agile in our thinking about what logistics is, and how we might bring our capabilities to bear.” This mindset is not about just having agile logistics capabilities, but “practicing agility through a larger and more holistic lens where the entire base is itself a weapon system – the pacing unit for all missions operating on the installation.”
With this in mind, we must examine how we train our logisticians to be practitioners of agility, while reflecting on how we operate our systems to enable lethal combat support. We must also incorporate these aspirational concepts and critical thinking elements into our readiness exercise planning process.
At JBER, the installation has created a new exercise task-set to examine our installation readiness. This concept, called Phase III, is specifically scripted to challenge our critical thinking and leadership abilities during an operational shock scenario.
The past 18 years of conflict with violent extremist organizations has created a predictable pattern of exercising at many installations. Logisticians plan for months to execute a Phase I deployment exercise. We conduct and end the exercise 72 hours later when the last of the chalks are “wheels up.” Or, we may move on to conduct a Phase II to exercise our capability to deploy a handful of aircraft and personnel, to then employ them in a contested environment.
We conduct our operations in the “contested” environment for a few days, and end the exercise to evaluate what went right or what failed.
While this pattern fit with the needs of past NDS iterations, we cannot let ourselves think that these exercises are how an “inter-state strategic fight” would unfold. We must prepare ourselves to fully empower our Airman and ready our installation’s capabilities to absorb the operational shock of a more dynamic scenario.
673 ABW Airmen moving cargo during Ex POLAR FORCE at JBER
The NDS is clear: the primary focus of the Department of Defense is to be READY for whatever may challenge our lethality – whether it is an inter-state strategic competitor, disaster response, or some other challenge to base security and defense. We must evaluate how units prepare for this.
It may be difficult to conceptualize the thought of going from steady state operations to a high-intensity strategic conflict overnight. However, it is important to keep in mind that the concept of Phase III is not preparing for a major war, it is about the entire concept of absorbing operational shock.
A Phase III exercise can be built around any operational military or disaster response scenario. The key is to develop ready, resilient Airmen who are capable of facing the operational shock of the initial series of events without breaking the base.
The Installation as a Weapons System
Airmen assigned to JBER will tell you that a massive natural disaster challenging our readiness is not inconceivable. JBER experienced a 7.0 earthquake on 30 November 2018, and since then we have experienced more than 4,500 aftershocks that continue to threaten our mission resiliency.
Any Airman stationed along the Southeastern coast knows the importance of the installation when executing hurricane evacuation plans. These sudden and operationally shocking events occur with little or no warning.
As logisticians, we must treat our installations, and the agile combat support capabilities they provide as weapons systems. This will enable us to deliberately plan how we make our Airmen, processes and infrastructure agile enough to absorb numerous levels of operational shock.
This process starts with developing our Airmen’s leadership abilities. In these large scale scenarios, we need effective mission leaders who can quickly respond to the ever-changing situation and adjust focus accordingly.
The 673d Logistics Readiness Group Superintendent, CMSgt John Smith believes that, “You can bet Murphy will have a say in what you are doing. NCOs must understand that mission priorities will change daily, sometimes instantly, and they have to be ready to adjust fire rapidly when necessary to address new, unexpected challenges.” Phase III exercises focus on this mindset, and enable leaders to develop Airmen who are ready and empowered to act in a variety of situations.
Treating our installations as weapons systems will help drive the way we think, and shape how we exercise our capabilities to better perform our operational resiliency and readiness.
Going beyond the traditional Phase I and Phase II exercises will present an opportunity to focus on the specific and implied mission tasks that may arise during a sudden operational shock. Whether an installation faces a contingency response, natural disaster or base defense scenario, it is important to train with a Phase III mindset because each installation will still have an agile combat support mission to execute after we deploy our tasked forces.
The installation weapons systems must be ready for whatever that scenario will be. Exercising in this capacity will push decision making, risk management, critical thinking, and mission command skills down to the lower levels of your unit.
Going further, it is important that we prevent Phase I, II, and III labels from lulling our Airmen into a chronological event mindset. The concept of Phase III allows us to consolidate instances where multiple scenarios collide in an unpredictable chain of events.
Think back to the DCC scenario, the team had started to deploy forces across the theater (Phase I), but the situation dictated a mindset shift from initial deployment to the operational shock of full-scale conflict in a rapidly changing and dynamic environment (Phase III).
In Col Csànk’s words, “we may deploy and accomplish the mission in contested areas downrange, but the home station mission will persist and likely morph.” When these scenarios happen in the real world, your wing may have significant portions of the team at RED FLAG, or a similar TDY off station. Or, you may have just sent 20% of your Airmen on an AEF rotation. Despite these obstacles, what matters is how the Airmen on the ground, at that moment, can respond and adapt to the challenges ahead.
673 ABW Airmen refuel RSAF C-130 during Ex RED FLAG – ALASKA
How to Build a Phase III Exercise
The traditional way of thinking about an exercise is rooted in looking at the unit’s most stringent O-Plan tasking, and testing whether the installation could meet that requirement. The Phase III concept goes a step further, by asking, “what’s next?”
After the Airmen and equipment have deployed in support of the conflict at hand, we must focus on the resiliency and readiness on the installation so that we do not break the base. Installation requirements will continue, and the Phase III concept looks at this and identifies the gaps and blind spots in the planning process. This forces installation leaders to examine where we may break, and how we can mitigate those risks to the mission.
673 ABW Airmen defend the base during Ex POLAR FORCE at JBER
One of the answers we have started to pursue at JBER is the concept of cross-functional Airmen; members able to perform tasks outside their core AFSC. This concept will enhance the effectiveness of our Airmen on the base, and be ready to fight. Another area we addressed was local contract support.
We looked at vendors in and around Anchorage to fill potential gaps in food services, shelter and other joint logistics requirements that may arise during a contingency. Finally, we are revamping the Wing’s Base Support Plans.
According to to Maj John Harding, 773rd Logistics Readiness Squadron Commander, it is important we organize how we capture our capabilities, “As a mission partner on JBER, it’s essential we have a common understanding of the installation’s joint requirements. The 673 ABW is a weapons system that offers the Joint Warfighter a wide range of agile combat support options. As we deliberately exercise them, it is important that we also consolidate the installation’s capabilities into a comprehensive Joint Base Support Plan.”
The concept of Phase III will look different for every base, and for every unit. However, the principle theme will remain the same — we must be ready to execute our deployment mission and maintain the base as an effective weapon system.
For Col Csànk and JBER, this centers on “making our Airmen resilient, mission ready, and deliberately training our people to be exceptional leaders.”
When looking at these scenarios, the response is paced off the ability for logistics and base support to handle the operational shock. It is essential we advocate for an installation level O-Plan review that examines what happens when you pace every action off the ability for the installation to support it. If you deploy all of your Airmen tasked to that O-Plan, could you still support your remaining and follow-on mission sets with logistics, maintenance, engineering, security, services, medical, etc.?
We need to organize, train, and equip ourselves to initiate a rapid and effective response. This is not just for the Port Dawgs pushing pallets, or the Knuckle-Busters generating sorties, this is true for every installation Airmen.
If we are to execute the 2018 NDS, we must be more agile and ready to respond to a large scale conflict. This begins with the truth that the USAF must redefine the installation as the weapon system…the pacing unit that enables all other missions. When lives depend on a rapid and agile logistics response, will your installation be ready?
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Col Kirk Peterson is a 23-year Air Force logistician who has served as both an APS/CC and a LRS/CC and is currently the Commander of the 673rd Logistics Readiness Group at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER), AK.
Capt Douglas Ruark is a Logistics Readiness Officer stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER), AK. He is currently the Vehicle Management Flight Commander for the 673rd Logistics Readiness Squadron.