AL DHAFRA AIR BASE, United Arab Emirates --
The military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, and ensuing takeover by the Taliban that necessitated the evacuation of 124,000 American citizens, Afghan special immigrant visa applicants and other at-risk individuals from Afghanistan, presented significant mission requirements to the Airmen at Al Dhafra Air Base.
While ADAB was not one of the primary transition hubs for evacuees, the weight of flying and support functions relied heavily on the members of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing to fulfill mission requirements that other bases in the U.S. Central Command theater could not satisfy with the logistical demands of incoming evacuees.
The wing’s air tasking responsibilities increased significantly, explained U.S. Air Force Col. Michael Lake, 380th Expeditionary Operations Group commander.
“The 380 EOG provided a majority of the overwhelming air superiority overhead at HKIA and the surrounding areas leading up to and through the final evacuation mission,” Lake said.
With an augmented fleet of various aircraft, the 380 AEW’s massive flying efforts facilitated extended reach and increased on-station time for airborne assets through aerial refueling; provided communications connectivity between assets; provided air surveillance and air domain awareness; provided intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as close air support and other strike and strike support capabilities, Lake said.
In just the last 24 hours of the non-combatant evacuation operation, the wing launched 38 sorties with nine different airframes, which required a colossal effort from the 380th Expeditionary Maintenance Group.
“The 380 EMXG efforts to maximize aircraft availability across nine different ISR, tanker, fighter, and Air Force Special Operations Command aircraft platforms drove an overall mission effectiveness rate of one hundred percent,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Joseph Deporter, commander, 380 EMXG.
The KC-10 Extenders were successful in offloading over 397,100 pounds of fuel to 24 aircraft receivers. The E-3 Sentry effectively controlled 61 aircraft into, over, and out of Kabul, Afghanistan. For the 380 AEW unmanned ISR fleet, the RQ-4 Global Hawks provided 600 hours of on-station time, collecting 6,700 images and identified 4,700 targets, while the MQ-9 Reapers provided 24-hour kinetic ISR coverage.
In order to fully meet the high-demand air tasking order, the wing had to overcome significant challenges that truly tested the Airmen to generate combat air power in a timely and precise manner, Deporter said.
These challenges included launching MQ-9 aircraft during the critical daily heat window for the first time ever. In order to prevent overheating during takeoff, with help from the 380th Expeditionary Mission Support Group, the team cold soaked an entire hangar to super-cool the aircraft prior to taxi and take off to preserve the mission-critical internal components.
“The operators and maintainers worked together to mitigate risks to an acceptable level that permitted mission accomplishment,” Lake said. “Much of what they did had never been attempted before, so there was no guarantee that it was going to work.”
Thankfully, the new heat window launch technique worked, and the 380 AEW facilitated 24-hour kinetic ISR coverage over Kabul, Afghanistan for the duration of the operation.
This wasn’t the only challenge the wing faced. ADAB Airmen overcame several others, including effectively managing the movement of 18 aircraft to support mission operations on an airfield ramp designed to support 12, quickly enabling through-flight and refueling support of transient C-17 Globemaster aircraft supporting movement of Afghan travelers to temporary safe havens across the CENTCOM AOR, and regeneration of seven F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft that transitioned to ADAB within 72 hours.
Over the course of the NEO, the wing provided critical aircraft parts and maintenance and pumped 9.6 million gallons of jet fuel to 15 different airframes. They also provided fleet services including cleaning the overwhelmed lavatories of the passenger transport aircraft between missions.
“These challenges tested our ability to meet mission requirements, while driving innovative solutions and delivering exceptional results,” Deporter said.
Another challenge inherent to the NEO was the need for accurate and consolidated information throughout a constantly changing situation.
“The Afghanistan evacuation was an extremely dynamic mission that required precise, timely information,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. JJ Homan, 380 AEW Plans & Programs chief. “The 380 AEW’s typical standard operating procedures are effective, but can lack timeliness and integration of all functions from across the base, especially during the night hours when manning is less for most units.”
In an effort to better consolidate and make available critical information in such a rapidly changing environment, the 380 AEW stood up the wing operations center.
The WOC is 380 AEW Commander U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Andrew Clark’s vision for a 24/7 adaptable information central hub and operations center, explained U.S. Air Force Maj. Joshua Tempel, Wing Weapons and Tactics chief, 380th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron.
“The concept is to restructure and co-locate key agencies from across the base to synthesize the vast streams of separate data from across the wing in order to problem solve and provide consolidated information to key wing leaders for critical decisions,” Tempel said.
The newly established WOC, with eight volunteers from across the wing working shifts as the “WOC watch officers,” proved to help better distill information and solve evacuation-related problems in real-time, said Homan.
“The experience was extremely rewarding as each day felt like we were better equipped to provide value to the rest of the wing,” Homan said. “I truly believe the WOC watch officers, to include key representatives from the emergency management flight, helped the rest of the base better operate by providing decision-quality information 24/7, and offloading other tasks to let our wing’s groups, squadrons, and agencies focus on the mission.”
Likewise, members of the 380 EMSG worked 24/7 throughout the NEO, as they always do, ensuring the needs of every Airman at ADAB and flexing to the mission priorities of every unit.
“In the Air Force, we fight from our bases and the installation is an integral part of our weapon systems,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Todd Inouye, 380 EMSG commander. “Every aircraft needs an installation in order to generate sorties. Every person at ADAB relies on the installation for sustainment.”
In addition to enabling every unit at ADAB to execute their portion of the mission, the EMSG forward deployed 87 personnel to multiple locations in support of NEO operations to augment wherever and however necessary.
“Since the preponderance of the personnel from ADAB who forward deployed were from EMSG, we had to figure out how to continue operations and support here at ADAB,” said Inouye. “At the end of the day, EMSG Airmen worked longer hours and additional days to cover down. Everyone in the EMSG understood the situation, the stakes at hand, and the no-fail mission.”
Much like the members of the EMSG, the common sentiment of all Airmen on the base was an eagerness to help in whatever way possible during the critical mission.
Volunteers from across the wing quickly prepared cantonment areas within 3 hours’ notice, providing the capability to bed down 1,500 evacuees or U.S. service members, Inouye explained. “Although evacuees or U.S. forces never came here, we were prepared, providing the CFACC and CENTCOM commander with valuable options.”
Similarly, the 380th Expeditionary Contracting Squadron secured funding to purchase over $700 thousand worth of humanitarian supplies to send to evacuees. Once again, volunteers rallied to purchase, palletize and load the products, getting them on an airplane to those in need in barely over a day.
The collective enthusiasm and drive to contribute in whatever way possible is what inevitably led to success.
“It took every single person on this base (military, civilian, contractors, joint/coalition partners) to do their part to ensure overall mission accomplishment,” said Inouye. “The end of the United States’ longest war is historic, and I’m proud of the important role the 380 AEW Airmen played in the last remaining missions in Afghanistan.”