Operating Like Clockwork: How the 521st Air Mobility Operations Wing Bolstered NATO Support of Ukrainian Conflict


Recent events underscore the importance of working together to strengthen our strategic partnerships in order to meet our shared security requirements.

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen Charles Brown

On February 24, 2022, Russia launched an unprovoked, unjustified, full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The neighboring country’s capital city, Kyiv, a mere 236 miles from the Russian border, was subject to the first attack. The world stopped and watched in horror as footage of fiery attacks flooded social media. Hearts ached, knowing, as U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated, that this attack could be the beginning of an invasion that would “come at an enormous human cost.”

Exactly 1 month later, on March 24, 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden released a statement following a meeting with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) leaders. A summary of President Biden’s brief, “NATO is as strong and united as it has ever been,” reflects the numerous actions involved in its response, many of which have been led by the USAF Air Mobility Command (AMC).

With the strong support of AMC, NATO has been instrumental in providing aid to Ukraine, expeditiously sending supplies and support per Ukraine’s requests. The timeliness of this response has played a significant role in Ukraine’s defense against Russia. The Command augmented NATO’s support for a strong Ukrainian defense by providing the rapid mobility central to the mission. With Russia advancing farther into Ukraine, AMC Airmen recognized that speedy, clockwork-like operations were critical in this matter of life and death. Many of the operational tasks involved in this mission centered on downloading and uploading cargo from aircraft.

We spoke with 1st Lt Kathleen Kohler, who recently returned to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, from a deployment to Jasionka, a small Polish village near the Ukrainian border. Kohler dove into her experience on the front lines of the mobility efforts at the Rzeszów–Jasionka Airport, which she refers to as a main hub for aid from donation countries into Ukraine.

Whereas AMC was a major player in terms of mobility, Kohler credits the 435th Air Ground Operations Wing (AGOW) for laying the mission groundwork.1 Prior to the invasion, tensions between Russia and Ukraine were high and swiftly rising. Thus, the United States sent troops to NATO allies Poland and Romania to prepare a response to the potential conflict. Kohler remarked that the 435 AGOW “made it hospitable for others to come in.”

With the preparatory wing blazing the path, one of the first groups to arrive was the 82nd Airborne Division, an active airborne infantry division of the U.S. Army specializing in joint forcible entry operations.

“Dozens and dozens of C-17s arrived in preparation for their support,” Kohler explained. “…and that’s how the mission really started, by catching the Army coming in.”

The mission soon transformed into something more: downloading needed aid, which remained the central objective at the Rzeszów–Jasionka Airport. Kohler said the Airmen downloaded aid from multiple military and civilian aircraft, including those from the United States and other foreign allies.

Kohler witnessed the effective, rapid response on every level.from leadership down. Logistics were formed quickly, with leaders from more than a dozen allied countries discussing what their countries would be contributing based on Ukraine’s prioritized needs. Then, there was a smooth implementation by all those involved. AMC led this implementation by placing “the right people into the right place at the right time” as AMC was responsible for providing aerial porters who download the aircraft.

The 435 AGOW’s contingency response squadron had only 26 aerial porters, and the unit was tasked with loading and unloading four planes simultaneously each hour over a 24-hour period. “They need well over 26 porters to carry out this mission,” Kohler emphasized. “Not only that, but they needed aircraft maintainers who could conduct checks as well as troubleshoot and make repairs when needed.” This assistance would be critical to safe mission execution.

Kohler’s team, the 521st Air Mobility Operations Wing (AMOW), offered the needed support of aerial porters and aircraft maintainers (for the C-17 Globemaster III, C-5 Galaxy, and C-130 Hercules), as well as logistic officers and maintenance officers. With the 521 AMOW and the Polish Air Force supplying the equipment on the ground, Kohler said everyone came together to support the mission and worked together seamlessly.

Kohler said that in Operation ALLIES REFUGE, Operation ALLIES WELCOME, and now with the recent support to NATO partners and allies, the aerial port has been the center of the mission and that downloading planes has been the success of these missions. “There are many videos of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asking for different support and aid,” Kohler said. “And it’s being answered. The porters are making it happen.”

Kohler said that safety was always at the forefront of these missions. Safety is critical both in training and in real-life missions; unsafe procedures could hinder a mission, especially one in which every second counts.

Kohler wants other Airmen to know how impressive the efficiency of the mission was; it took 12 hours to download the cargo, break it down, upload it into trucks, and then ready it for use in Ukraine. “This [schedule] is an incredible turnaround time,” Kohler stated. “That’s why it matters; it matters that we’re efficient, safe, and good at our jobs.”

The 521 AMOW is a prime example of “being ready to go tomorrow.” The wing demonstrated the flexibility and reliability needed to support NATO and for which all Airmen should strive. This mission had its challenges, such as operating out of an unfamiliar civilian airfield. However, the teams were able to navigate this situation, finding the right people to get permission and make operations happen.

Solving these kinds of challenges quickly is part of the concept of Agile Combat Employment (ACE), which the Air Force believes is essential to the future fight. The training involved is needed now and will certainly be needed in the future. ACE and the concept of multi-capable Airmen, in which Airmen can perform tasks outside their core Air Force specialty codes, are essential to contingency response. In this case, everyone was helping the porter mission. “Everyone out there was a multi-capable Airman,” Kohler said.

The 521 AMOW and all U.S. Airmen stepped up to the plate and applied concepts still being developed. This proficiency is not only because of the initial training but also because of the values instilled in today’s Airmen. Airmen live and serve with a commitment to three core values: “Integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do.” These values were apparent in the efforts to help Ukraine.

Thanks to this commitment, the USAF’s aid to Ukraine provided much-needed support. AMC has made a huge impact. “The equipment being sent to Ukraine is having an effect on the battlefield,” Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby said on April 27, 2022. The equipment is making a difference on the battle lines in the Donbas region—the site of the major Russian effort in Ukraine. “The United States and partner nations will continue to get the equipment and supplies the Ukrainians need to the country,” Kirby said.

The 521 AMOW’s response will be studied to identify the lessons learned so the wing can continue supporting missions that have a global impact. AMC will move forward knowing its Airmen can offer the support and hope needed in times of suffering and when rapid action is needed.

1 The 521 AMOW deployed alongside the 435 AGOW from the very beginning; the distinction is that 521 AMOW Airmen have no role in building and operating the base because this is a service that contingency response (CR) forces offer. The 521 AMOW Airmen added muscle and manpower to the nodal functions while the CR forces handled base operating support infrastructure.