Air Mobility Command Gets it Right with Mobility Guardian Exercise

Seven C-17 Globemaster IIIs prepare to depart the McChord Field flight line May 17, 2016, to conduct air land and air drop operations as part of a Large Force Exercise at the Mountain Home Range Complex, Idaho. Mountain Home F-15 Strike Eagles provided a detached escort and reactive close air support, a first for McChord local training missions. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Naomi Shipley).
Seven C-17 Globemaster IIIs prepare to depart the McChord Field flight line May 17, 2016, to conduct air land and air drop operations as part of a Large Force Exercise at the Mountain Home Range Complex, Idaho. Mountain Home F-15 Strike Eagles provided a detached escort and reactive close air support, a first for McChord local training missions. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Naomi Shipley).


Without catching a natural break to ease the task of doing so, Air Mobility Command (AMC) has managed to quietly reform one of its long-standing traditions to bolster training for the high-end fight absent new resources.

For many years, AMC’s “Rodeo” brought together airlift and tanker crews every two years for a competition of sorts. Hand-picked airmen — usually among the most experienced and capable at their respective wings — worked to impress “judges” with their respective tactical, technical, and procedural skills. Winners got trophies and their commanders got bragging rights. Over time, the event grew to include security forces, maintenance, and aerial port competitions.

But there were downsides. Rodeo gradually “evolved” from a competition with some ceremonial elements to a massively ornamented dog-and-pony show that also happened to feature some operational stuff. Opening and closing proceedings occupied a huge hangar at McChord with thousands in attendance. The entertainment budget mushroomed, as well as the largely uncounted costs of occupying a few hundred crew members and several hundred more staffers to prepare and execute what became an exhibition rather than a competition. 

Over the years, Rodeo continued to justify itself by virtue of the fact that a small number of aircrew members and support airmen were able to hone cutting edge job skills that could, in theory, be taken back to their home units and broadly disseminated, thereby lifting the overall state of training across the command.

But this wasn’t what usually happened. The techniques honed at Rodeo were form-fitted to winning the competition and didn’t always or even normally have broad applicability to the actual skillsets of ordinary crews. As budget pressure grew more intense in the last few years, this badly-kept secret couldn’t be ignored or bought off, and Rodeo became vulnerable.

In 2015, Gen. Darren McDew, then commander of AMC, canceled the event, citing budget and operational tempo. It was good move, especially for the endemically busy airmen of McChord, which had continued over the years to host Rodeo despite crushing deployment and commitment rates often undercutting the wing’s ability to train, rest, or prepare appropriately for headquarters inspections without cutting unacceptably into downtime.

McDew’s decision has now been carried forward the next logical step, with the funding and focus of Rodeo re-purposed. Mobility Guardian now focuses on practicing against an operational problem, integrating with other assets, and forcing crews into a war planning drill that promises to expand their intellectual range while cementing tactical and procedural knowledge.

The effort has been spearheaded by Maj. Sean McConville, a C-17 weapons officer and experienced instructor pilot who recognized the need to recapitalize Rodeo as a large-scale combat readiness event and sold a vision to make it happen at the highest levels of the command. Squadron-level leaders like McConnville have been pushing AMC for years to reform training by dropping skills and focus areas unimportant to future combat in order to create new capacity to emphasize legitimately important preparation. The re-purposing of Rodeo represents a major and long-awaited shift in calculus within AMC, which is currently led by generals respected for having cut their teeth as operationally respected pilots rather than sheer organizational pragmatists.

 

 

A McChord C-17 Globemaster III flies above the Mountain Home Range Complex, Idaho, May 17, 2016. The Mountain Home range has threat emitters that can replicate hostile radar and hostile Space and Missile systems as well as command and control elements that no other base in the region has, which enabled McChord tails to train how they fight. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Naomi Shipley)
A McChord C-17 Globemaster III flies above the Mountain Home Range Complex, Idaho, May 17, 2016. The Mountain Home range has threat emitters that can replicate hostile radar and hostile Space and Missile systems as well as command and control elements that no other base in the region has, which enabled McChord tails to train how they fight. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Naomi Shipley).
Two McChord C-17 Globemaster IIIs fly over the Mountain Home Range Complex, Idaho, May 17, 2016. The McChord tails were two of seven C-17s working with F-15 Strike Eagles C-17s in training as part of a Large Force Exercise at the Mountain Home Range Complex in preparation for Air Mobility Command’s next generation exercise Mobility Guardian. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Naomi Shipley)
Two McChord C-17 Globemaster IIIs fly over the Mountain Home Range Complex, Idaho, May 17, 2016. The McChord tails were two of seven C-17s working with F-15 Strike Eagles C-17s in training as part of a Large Force Exercise at the Mountain Home Range Complex in preparation for Air Mobility Command’s next generation exercise Mobility Guardian. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Naomi Shipley).
Lt. Col. Brian Smith (left), 62nd Operation Group Deputy Commander, and Maj. Sean McConville, 62nd Airlift Wing tactics officer, prepare for their departure from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., to the Mountain Home Range Complex, Idaho on May 17, 2016. The Mcchord tails teamed up with F-15 Strike Eagles from the 389th Fighter Squadron at Mountain Home Air Force Base to simulate operating in a hostile environment. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Naomi Shipley)
Lt. Col. Brian Smith (left), 62nd Operation Group Deputy Commander, and Maj. Sean McConville, 62nd Airlift Wing tactics officer, prepare for their departure from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., to the Mountain Home Range Complex, Idaho on May 17, 2016. The Mcchord tails teamed up with F-15 Strike Eagles from the 389th Fighter Squadron at Mountain Home Air Force Base to simulate operating in a hostile environment. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Naomi Shipley).

This should be seen as an optimistic signal that the philosophy at the top of the command is lucid and operationally oriented. This is the sort of leadership AMC needs. The command’s future is as uncertain as the future operating environment, and the appropriate response is to pursue the best possible use of limited resources.

Rodeo had become a monument of waste, and a bitter laugh line for many AMC airmen. This shows the command got the message and is adapting accordingly. It’s not everything, but it’s not nothing.

You can read AMC’s original coverage here.

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