By MS. LAUREN SCHATZ, STAFF WRITER
In its third year, MOBILITY GUARDIAN 2021 successfully marked a pivotal moment in Air Mobility Command (AMC) history. Conducted biennially, MOBILITY GUARDIAN is AMC’s largest and longest enterprise-wide training event. This year, more than 1,800 mobility, combat, and reserve forces, as well as forces from the U.S. Army, were in attendance.
MOBILITY GUARDIAN originated from the AMC RODEO, an international airlift competition that has been hosted by the United States Air Force AMC since 1962, making it a strong part of AMC tradition.
Along with the name change in 2017, MOBILITY GUARDIAN’s training exercises were restructured with new objectives in mind. Rather than have trained teams compete, the exercises were set up to challenge Airmen’s readiness in various situations.
This year’s 13-day MOBILITY GUARDIAN took the challenge of readiness a step further.
“MOBILITY GUARDIAN 2017 was at [Joint Base Lewis-] McChord,[WA], and 2019 was at Fairchild [Air Force Base, WA],” said Lt Col Brian C. Thomasson, Exercise Director, MOBILITY GUARDIAN 2021. “There are a lot of benefits to operating out of an AMC base or a more established base. The support that you have there, and just the familiarity with that operating environment, but we really wanted to challenge our Airmen by bringing it into an unfamiliar place.”
This year, the exercise participants found themselves operating out of several locations, including the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, MI; the Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport, MI; and Volk Field, WI.
The location change may seem unusual because the training is typically held on AMC bases, but a closer look reveals meticulous strategizing behind the selection. Planned in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the expert team of planners also faced the challenge of incorporating concepts, such as Agile Combat Employment (ACE), that will prepare AMC for the road ahead.
“In the past, the event has been at bases that were already established and AMC-based,” said Brig Gen Roy W. Collins, Headquarters, U.S. Air Force Director of Security Forces and Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics, Engineering, and Force Protection. “This one had to take a lot of different factors into account to account for ACE and challenge our Airmen in an unfamiliar place.”
Collins said this MOBILITY GUARDIAN certainly had many “firsts,” which were key to preparing Airmen for the next 20 or 30 years.
ACE is a concept designed with highly capable adversaries, such as China or Russia, in mind and involves spreading out and moving quickly among smaller operating bases—often called a “lift and shift.” It calls for Airmen to be proficient in many skills necessary to support air operations, referred to as multi-capable Airmen (MCA). The universal capability can be crucial for the quick movement involved in ACE.
Collins and the team involved in the event’s 18-month planning process felt the remote locations with less air traffic simulated more realistic training environments and thus more potential challenges to overcome.
The “Edison approach” of trial and error was highly encouraged at this year’s MOBILITY GUARDIAN so any kinks could be worked out during training.
“We’re not just testing what we’re already good at,” explained 28th Mission Generation Squadron Commander and 54th Air Refueling Squadron Operations Director Lt Col Benjamin Davidson. “We’re exercising things we’ve never done before and learning from any obstacles that arise. Failing forward is really the big picture for this event.”
One training scenario for the crews at Oscoda was a silent launch. This term refers to complete radio silence during a takeoff, which can be challenging but vital for keeping key information away from an adversary’s ears. During a silent launch, Lt Col Daniel Richardson, 821st Contingency Response Squadron, made time to speak with us. Thoroughly versed in contingency response, he reflected on operations from the past 20 years but stressed that it was the past and that today’s mobility force must pivot in a different direction for tomorrow’s fight.
Richardson said, “If we are serious about preparing for a fight against a near-peer adversary, we must change the way we train to look more like this. One step at a time. This is a great first step. I did not appreciate how big of a first step this was until I got out here. My hat’s off to the exercise design team; from a conceptual standpoint, it is rock solid, in my opinion.”
The exercises served to drive myriad outputs: command priorities, focus areas, force development, force posture, training development, and resourcing decisions. The training educates Airmen and Soldiers on the importance of the operational evolution needed to prepare for tomorrow’s fight.
This mindset created a spirit of camaraderie among the many varying groups in attendance at MOBILITY GUARDIAN 2021. Due to the large crowd, leaders selected a doctrinally correct but new concept and relationship structure that included appointed, temporary leadership—or “mayors.” Other commands have already taken an interest in this innovative structure, said Col Colin E. McClaskey.
The high morale was especially evident in Oscoda, despite the conditions of the base. The remote airfield, which was once home to Mobility Air Command aircraft, is where participants lodged in a “tent city” for the exercise. These accommodations meant days of tent showers, latrines, and Meals Ready to Eat to parallel conditions in an austere location.
Nevertheless, there was an atmosphere of teamwork and excitement at the base, whether it was demonstrated through everyone pitching in to put up tents, picking up a couple hundred pounds of foreign object debris, or simply distributing essential supplies. It was truly the MCA concept in motion.
Jeanie Hood from Headquarters (HQ), AMC Flight Safety could not resist showing the Airmen some appreciation for their extremely positive attitudes and hard work. From handing out cold Gatorade to those standing in the heat to passing out more than 80 hamburgers (that she personally paid for) to those doing tiring work, such as the refueling team, the genuine kindness exemplified by Hood was matched in each and every Airman who strived to help one another succeed.
Apart from the treats, Hood and the team from the safety office also worked hard behind the scenes to ensure the event went off without a hitch and that everyone stayed safe. Preparing to be at these locations posed a challenge, however, not only to exercise participants but also to operators and staff.
“Executing air mobility operations in an austere environment challenges the traditional safety tenants employed at the established operational bases [to which] we are accustomed,” said Lt Col Adam King, Chief, HQ AMC Flight Safety. “However, as new operating concepts emerge, so do more innovative mindsets. Safety is fluid, and thus we adapt to these changes to ensure that everything is executed as safely as possible.”
King noted that these changes also place more responsibility on each Airman.
In a year of firsts, this year also included the first-ever integration of the colossal KC-46 Pegasus into AMC’s flagship exercise, which was a welcome sight for those on location. In addition, for many participants, ACE and MCA were new, forward-thinking concepts that support the National Defense Strategy. New technology, such as the Advanced Battle Management System, paired with the emerging concept of Joint All-Domain Command and Control, modernized the training environment as AMC prepared for the future high-end fight.
AMC Airmen met and exceeded each challenge throughout, and it was their willingness to embrace change that made it a success, which is why America relies on them to project strength and deliver hope. The robust and relevant training of MOBILITY GUARDIAN 2021 helped develop the force and accelerate needed change. The event helped the Mobility Airmen continue to be the single greatest comparative advantage the United States has against an adversary and ensure that America continues to have the best “home” and “away game.”