Why Reinvent the Wheel? How Institutional Memory Can Benefit AMC


Agile Combat Employment (ACE) remains an evolving focus for Air Mobility Command (AMC) as Airmen on all levels work toward conceptualizing the strategy of spreading out and moving quickly to combat near-peer adversaries.

To define and refine ACE, anticipating the nature of the future fight is a must. However, looking to the past may be equally, if not more, beneficial. By understanding a unit’s past experiences of similar events, leaders can better shape ACE for the future.

Dr. Andrew Wackerfuss, historian at AMC’s 521st Air Mobility Operations Wing (AMOW) at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, says there are historical precedents of ACE within the AMOW. The erudite historian recalled an incident in 2010 that showcased the tremendous agility and flexibility of AMC Airmen. When a volcano eruption in Iceland produced an ash cloud that shut down air spaces across Northern Europe, the AMOW, along with the support of the 618th Air Operations Center, was able to quickly divert missions from Germany to Spain, drastically reducing strain on AMC’s global mobility capabilities.

Analyzing the lessons learned and successes of that mission can benefit the AMOW’s current initiatives, but after more than a decade of personnel changes and new faces at the AMOW, few or none remain who experienced the event themselves. Thankfully, there is a job for that. Historians, as noted by Dr. Wackerfuss, “serve as the institutional memory of our organizations.”

AMOW leaders meet with Dr. Wackerfuss regularly. During these interactions, he makes a point not to merely recite historical trivia (although he would certainly win in this category on Jeopardy!); he synthesizes data that pertains to current events.

“If you understand the past, you can better understand why we are doing what we are doing now,” Dr. Wackerfuss said. “This understanding will help [leadership] make better decisions and be more effective in shaping the mission.”

Dr. Wackerfuss said bridging the past and present early on is important to optimally inform decisions. This is exactly how the AMOW utilized him during the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, as Dr. Wackerfuss referred to how the AMOW handled Ebola to prepare for contingent operations.

“When COVID was on the horizon, a commander asked me to create a report on what we had done during Ebola in 2014,” the historian said. “The report highlighted certain issues we would have to be aware of going into COVID, or indeed any kind of disease crisis—such as protective equipment, supplies for our personnel, and diplomatic elements because host countries have their own policies toward health crises. All of these did come into play when COVID struck.”

Dr. Wackerfuss explained that, while no two events will be the same, themes and processes of thinking through problems can be shared.

This rang true in the successful evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Sudan in April 2023, which Dr. Wackerfuss said was “very driven by lessons learned from the documentation and analysis of Operation Allies Refuge (OAR).” The historian recognized that, although the Sudan evacuation was less challenging than OAR, success can be credited to studying the codified written outcomes from that mission.

“We knew exactly what potential problems would be,” Dr. Wackerfuss said. “And even if the similarities are not exact, the act of performing the historical comparison prepares you for the challenges that are waiting.”

While the documentation of OAR exemplified the importance of a historian’s duties, it also highlighted the challenges that come along with documentation. Dr. Wackerfuss’s role involves not only the curation of past data but also the recording of present-day events. This ensures that the AMOW continues its informed growth.

During OAR, operations were fast-moving. Information was dispersed in many group chats and amongst many people. To streamline data collection, Dr. Wackerfuss helped formalize the reporting system to generate better documentation that could report up the chain on the daily, or even hourly, history of the chaotic event.

Drawing analytical conclusions from such documentation helped not only with the U.S. Embassy in Sudan mission but also with recent events in Ukraine. “We went into that with a lot of confidence because we felt like we had concrete conclusions that we had drawn,” the historian shared.

That is why it is important to recognize the need for documentation—especially in modern times.

“This is a paradox of our age, that we are generating more written material every day than people of past generations would’ve seen in their entire lifetime, and all of us read and write more every day than past people would’ve their whole lives,” Dr. Wackerfuss said. “But we’re using systems that can so easily be lost and deleted. And whether by accident or on purpose, if a computer crashes and that’s the only place you had it, that’s gone.”

Clearly data collection and analysis are essential components of strategizing, but can collecting too much data be a problem?

Yes and no, according to Dr. Wackerfuss. On the flip side to not having enough data is that “we are generating so much that what we have is too big to be useful,” Dr. Wackerfuss said. “That is where the historian can really come in and provide a selective approach to retaining information that will be important to the future.”

While he is extremely capable in his role, Dr. Wackerfuss firmly believes in not being a gatekeeper of information. People need both access to and awareness of historical context. Thankfully, recent technological advancements have made this sort of information more accessible. The Air Force history program now has a digital historian—a dedicated position to think about these issues and create improved technology.

Air Force historians are needed now more than ever in this impermanent age of the internet.

Learning what constitutes good reporting and documentation is crucial as AMC develops for the future fight and adopts concepts like ACE.

Dr. Wackerfuss said that, although reporting is often considered a chore, in reality, proper reporting can reach progressively higher levels and be an asset to leadership in the decision-making process.

“The more you can educate Airmen about the significant impact of documentation, the more effective they are at producing quality reports,” the historian shared.

As Multi-Capable Airmen, always remember that we are living, writing, and saving history every day!