A Roundtable with Subject Experts at the Tanker Airlift Control Center (TACC)
05/04/2011 – During a mid-April 2011 visit to Scott AFB, Second Line of Defense sat down with a group of subject matter experts involved in planning and executing Tanker Airlift Control Center (TACC) missions. This is a unique command, which directs — via a collaborative command and control enterprise — all U.S. tanker, airlift and aeromedical missions operating across theaters. It is a true global command, and as such must make regular trade-offs matching assets to priorities.The wide-ranging conversation covered the planning approach, the operational dynamics, and the management of priorities worked by the TACC. The TACC works closely with the regional COCOMs as well as TRANSCOM in shaping a global delivery system of goods, personnel, and air combat capabilities.
Photo Credit: SLD 2011
The interviewees and their subject matter expertise were as follows:
- Col Jeffrey Mintzlaff – senior controller – addressed command and control for missions while in execution;
- Maj Corinne Bonner – addressed tanker allocation;
- Maj Christopher Fuller – addressed airlift planning for missions into Iraq/Afghanistan and for humanitarian operations
- Maj Charles Marek – addressed aeromedical evacuation planning/operations
- 1Lt Adam Bennett – addressed weather forecasting/planning
- SMSgt David Abuya – addressed the role of command post controllers
- MSgt Jeremiah Love – addressed tanker planning
- Mr. Harold Guckin – addressed airlift planning for channel missions (our
- Fedex/UPS equivalent).
The planning and operations directed by the command are highly collaborative. Most of the key elements for shaping the planning and operation C2 functions are located on the operations floor, which creates a highly collaborative enterprise in order for the command to be flexible in meeting demands. The “barrel” is the term they use for the group within the command which makes trade-off decisions or recommendations. The team presented several pieces of the enterprise effort.
- First, there is the planning piece. The planning piece is worked closely with TRANSCOM. And the effort is an ongoing one looking at constraints as a part of the process.
As Major Fuller put it: We try to advertise what the capacity is but it’s difficult to always hammer it down. We’ll put a tail request in and then we’re somewhat at the mercy of what the barrel has available to give us. The user will give us a window to move their stuff with an available to load date to a latest arrival date. That window is usually no less than three days but it can be longer depending on the size of the movement and we’ll put that tail request in to the barrel and then the barrel will allocate us aircraft based on global availability.
- Second, there is the question of highlighting what can go by commercial versus gray tails, the term for USAF lifters. Over 80% of the lift done by the command is done commercially and is managed by what they call the Channel Missions.
- Third, there was much discussion concerning the challenge of prioritization and managing trade-offs.
But as Col. Mintzlaff put it: You have to maintain the discipline in the system. Is it approved? If it’s something outside of the COCOM, through OSD, is it approved? Is it funded? Is it authorized to move? To keep discipline in that system is a challenge because airlift can often be an emotional thing. I need my “something” and I need it now. Or in the case of a humanitarian type of operation, they need it and they need it now. It still needs to work through the wickets.
- Fourth, discipline is crucial for another reason. The C2 fleet-wide management is highly correlated with the military’s global logistical supply chain. The key is to shape realistic behavior on the demand side with regard to when parts and elements can be delivered, and to move appropriate items to be shipped by sea and have them taken out of the air delivery system.
As Col. Mintzlaff underscored: If you predict out far enough, you can move it on the ship and get it there. The other piece would be the reliability part. If you’re sitting in the Philippines and you know that when you order a part it’s going to take 24 days to get there, or 14 days to get there from the time I order until I get it in my hand, then you start to build your processes around that. Where you fail is when one time it’s there in a week, or two or three times, and then it is 24 days. Now he doesn’t know what to do. Now he’s ordering more than he needs.
- Fifth, the demand for tankers is significantly greater than supply.MSgt Jeremiah Love commented that:We just don’t have the tankers we used to have at one point in time. Even in the couple of years that I’ve been here, our number of taskings have gone up that much.This is also due to the very different use of tankers in the battlespace. Both lifters and tankers now enter the battlespace that was inconceivable twenty years ago.
As Col. Mintzlaff, a KC-10 pilot put it: When I did Desert Storm, tankers were way in the rear. When I was in Afghanistan, we were looking down on the battle. When you bring that many assets that much closer to the fight, you start opening up the door to other things that can go on an airplane to help the folks on the ground. These are things like helping with the convoy and mitigation as well as communications. I think as you change the way you fight, you need to take full advantage of the assets that are there to be used and figure out how to use them.
- Sixth, the aeromedical system has been revolutionized by the ability to put modular capabilities onto the standard airlifter, rather than relying upon specialized aircraft. The task now is to marry kit to the lifter closest to where it is needed in order to medevac folks back to stateside medical facilities. Maj Charles Marek commented: I think the average patient return from Vietnam was 45 days. In Desert Storm it was about ten days to get back to the U.S. Today, we’re down to three.
- Seventh, a key element of the challenge is the ownership issue. TACC can task only those assets it owns, and most of the tankers are in the reserves. As “Madame Barrel” or Maj Corinne Bonner put it: The demand for tankers significantly outweighs the availability of assets. Some of that goes to the fleet structure as to who owns what assets. At TACC, we can only physically task active duty assets, unless we have some sort of contract, whether it’s long-term or short-term, with guard and reserve assets. So in real terms, we can’t task those assets if (a) we’re not paying to use it, or (b) it hasn’t been mobilized.
In short, as Col. Mintzlaff summarized the effort:
I think the system really works remarkably well. The key to success is collaboration. Everybody’s right there on the floor and you can talk face to face. Sometimes you still get things that slide through. But if there’s a big issue that comes up, you pull everybody together at the table. You sit there. You paint a common sight picture, or they paint it and push it up to the senior. The senior then makes a decision, or if it needs to be upchanneled, then you up channel it. And it really works remarkably well.