By Jobie Turner.
In my earlier post, I argued that the expectations being placed upon air power to deliver strategic mobility outweigh its capacity to operationally deliver. Yet air transportation will remain an essential way of sustaining combat forces in the future battlefield; a necessary way if the future battlefield will be as dispersed and fluid as is being argued by military concept writers around the world. Given the limited sustainment capability of airlift, what can be done to match expectations with expected practice? Many Service concepts have called for autonomous aircraft, hybrid airships, or disposable delivery solutions such as long-range airdrop to deliver more goods into the future battlefield. While these concepts will help and are worthy of study, they do offer any additional capacity to air mobility forces unless they complement that which exists already. Perhaps an alternative may be found in the way air transportation capabilities are used.
More immediately feasible than unproven delivery technologies is to use the current aircraft inventory in different ways. One possible avenue is using airlift aircraft as gas stations to land, off-load fuel, and then move to other locations. The US and its allies already have experience with these types of logistics operations. In Afghanistan, the US military has devised numerous methods to deliver fuel to outposts isolated from ground transportations and to supply fuel for air operations by pumping gas out of aircraft with engines running. In a further example, the US Air Force has devised concepts to fuel and load fighter jets using C-17 aircraft in austere environments. These three examples illustrate that fuel can be delivered and quickly, eliminating long download times and shrinking the amount of equipment required to move the fuel off airplanes. Although inefficient, fuel delivery by air may offer the best chance to capitalize on the flexibility of delivery through the air without further burdening the system with new delivery methods.
Another possibility is working on new and innovative methods for moving cargo on and off aircraft. The quicker cargo can either be distributed or loaded, the less time cargo assets will spend under threat and the more cargo can be delivered over time. Possibilities include “floating pallets” or exoskeletons which magnify human strength, allowing fewer personnel to move heavier cargo. While such solutions are unproven, they are much less expensive than acquiring further aircraft that are used inefficiently. One defense research study concluded that improved distribution of cargo off of the airfield, through technological improvement, had the potential to increase throughput by 84%.
Finally, and most importantly, the US military must rely even more heavily on allies and partners for access—both physical access and access to commercial markets. Despite modern technology the cost of air transportation remains high in terms of its financial expense and in terms of the time it takes to move massive quantities of materiel. The more goods, equipment, and combat capability that can be provided by allies, the less that will be needed to move into theater. In addition, locally-based commercial avenues can provide cheaper and more efficient methods of supplying war—especially in situations where the environment is more permissive—freeing up organic combat assets, especially those that fly, for non-permissive missions. US forces have learned this lesson well in Afghanistan, at one point shifting the burden of delivers to Afghanistan away from tenuous supply lines of Pakistan and through Europe into Central Asia and finally the north of Afghanistan. Simple as it may seem, the more resources that can be won locally, the greater the options for strategic mobility as provide by air there will be.
The ability of airlift to carry the day in future warfare is uncertain. Logisticians and planners must recognize this fact and approach future logistical challenges with a realistic eye on what is possible. For now, and into the near future, delivery by air brings agility but not the capacity of other modes of transportation. However, through innovation and new approaches to logistics it is possible that air mobility capacity can be increased without the need for increased numbers of aircraft.
Jobie Turner is an officer in the United States Air Force with operational experience in C-130 cargo aircraft. The views expressed are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. He can be followed on Twitter @vicuslargo
Erin McClellan, “Mobility Guardian provides valuable C-130 hot defueling training,” http://www.littlerock.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/1271323/mobility-guardian-provides-valuable-c-130-hot-defueling-training/ (accessed 01 Oct 2017); Charles Q Brown Jr and Charles G Glover III, “Untethered Operations: Rapid Mobility and Forward Basing are Keys to Airpower’s Success in the Antiaccess/Area-Denial environment,” Air & Space Power Journal 29, no. 3 (2015).
 See “Untethered Operations: Rapid Mobility and Forward Basing are Keys to Airpower’s Success in the Antiaccess/Area-Denial environment.”
 Steven Scott Byrum, “Downloading Deterrence: The Logic of Logistics of Coercive Deployment on US Strategy,” (Air University, 2015), 58 and 62.Byrum uses an illustrative example of two soldiers pulling a pallet weighing 9500 pounds off an aircraft with no assistance from forklifts or cargo loaders.
 Ibid., 58.
Rafael Torres Sanchez, Military Entrepreneurs and the Spanish Contractor State in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).. For an historical example, See Chapter IV for a specific case-study in which the commercial market was able to provide more sustenance for the Spanish invasion of Mallorca than the military system.
 Andrew C. and Thomas Anderson Kuchins, “Central Asia’s Northern Exposure,” The New York Times, August 4, 2009. This article gives the broad overview of the Northern Distribution Network and explains its origin.