SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. – In a room dimly lit by television screens, dozens of Airmen tapped on computers and worked on phones. Some were monitoring a high-priority mission to move a Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter from a base in Arizona to a destination near the Ukrainian border.
Earlier in the day, a civilian colleague had checked a spreadsheet and found a C-17 transport plane in Washington State that was available to pick up the helicopter and begin a day trip.
It was up to the airmen to give orders to the plane’s crew, to make sure the plane took off and landed on time, and to deal with any problems along the way.
The C-17 would fly from McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base outside Tucson, where the helicopter was parked at a depot for retired military aircraft known as the “boneyard.” .
“So it’s two and a half hours from McChord to Davis-Monthan,” Colonel Bob Buente said, reviewing the first leg of the trip. “Then four hours to charge, then they’ll take off around 7:30 tonight. Then five hours to Bangor, then we’ll put them to bed because of the size of the next stage.
From Bangor, Maine, the cargo flight – call sign: Reach 140 – would depart for Europe, the colonel said.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine four months ago, the Biden administration has poured billions of dollars in military aid into the Ukrainian government, including American-made machine guns, howitzers and artillery rocket launchers, as well as Russian-designed weapons that the country’s military still uses, such as the Mi-17 helicopter.
The Pentagon pulled many items from its own inventory. But how they reach Ukraine often involves behind-the-scenes coordination by teams from a military base in Illinois, about 25 miles east of St. Louis.
There, at Scott Air Force Base, where half a dozen retired transport aircraft are on display just outside the main gate, several thousand logisticians from every branch of the armed forces work at the States Transportation Command. United – or Transcom. In military parlance, it is a “combatant command”, equal to better-known units that are responsible for certain parts of the globe – such as Central Command and Indo-Pacific Command – and takes its orders directly from the secretary. to the defense.
Transcom calculated the flow of every US military aid shipment to Ukraine, which began in August and accelerated after the Russian invasion.
The process begins when the Kyiv government sends a request to a call center at a US base in Stuttgart, Germany, where a coalition of more than 40 nations is coordinating aid. Some of the orders are fulfilled by a US partner or ally, and the rest are managed by the United States – routed through US European Command, which is also in Stuttgart, to Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and General Mark A. Milley. , the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who discuss it in weekly meetings with service chiefs and combatant commanders.
If the desired items are available and the combatant commanders decide that giving them to Ukraine will not unduly harm their own war plans, General Milley makes a recommendation to Mr. Austin, who in turn makes a recommendation to the President Biden. If the president approves, Transcom will figure out how to move the aid to an airfield or port near Ukraine.
The order to move the Russian helicopter passed through the Illinois base from Transcom headquarters to a one-story brick building housing the 618th Air Operations Center, where red-lit clocks offered the time locally at major military aviation bases in California, Alaska, Hawaii, Japan, Qatar and Germany.
Better understand the Russian-Ukrainian war
Col. Buente leads day-to-day operations at the 618th Air Operations Center, where about 850 airmen, reservists and active-duty civilians spend their days planning missions like the helicopter ride, he said. Ensuring these plans are executed falls to a smaller group – working in shifts of 60 people, 24 hours a day, every day of the year – who follow the flow of missions displayed on a constantly updated screen centered on the back wall all the way to completion.
It is the same center that orchestrated the mass evacuation of Americans and Afghans from the Afghan capital in August. On the busiest day, 21,000 passengers left Kabul airport, with planes taking off or landing every 90 minutes, officials said.
It was a busy time for Transcom, which, on average, not only plans and coordinates about 450 cargo flights, but also oversees about 20 freighters, as well as a network of transcontinental railroads and more than a thousand trucks – all of which regularly carry war. material.
The flights are also carrying humanitarian aid and other supplies when needed, including infant formula deliveries in May to alleviate a shortage in the United States.
The commander of it all is Air Force General Jacqueline D. Van Ovost, who is only the second female officer to lead one of the Pentagon’s 11 combat commands.
For aid shipments to Ukraine, planning begins long before the White House announces a new aid package, she said.
“We can’t wait for the president to sign or the secretary to give an order before we do the necessary planning,” Gen. Van Ovost said in an interview in his office, where a picture of Amelia Earhart hung on the wall. “We watch it evolve,” the general said of the aid talks, “and we create plans that are ready to go.”
Mr Biden authorized the first US military equipment and weapons for Ukraine – a $60 million package – on August 27. At the time, it took about a month to get the items on an airplane after they were approved, according to General Van Ovost. , a test pilot who flew cargo planes.
The White House has announced 13 subsequent aid packages for Ukraine, and the planning process has advanced far enough that it now takes less than a day from the president’s approval of an expedition to the loading of supplies. first items on a plane, she said. Three of the packages from the first 29 days of the war totaled $1.35 billion. As of Friday, the United States had committed $6.9 billion in military aid to Kyiv since the Russian invasion.
Transcom’s operations center decides whether to send help by cargo plane or ship depending on how quickly European Command needs it to arrive. Although military cargo planes like the C-17s offer the fastest delivery option, they incur the highest costs. About half of Transcom’s air cargo is handled by a fleet of commercial jets under contract, including 747s, each capable of carrying twice the weight of a C-17.
Whenever possible, however, military planners send goods on freighters, a cheaper option.
“We activated two vessels and used several line service vessels to deliver cargo to Ukraine,” said Scott Ross, a spokesman for the command. The ships and more than 220 flights have delivered just over 19,000 tons of military aid to Ukraine since August, he said.
On one of the large screens in Colonel Buente’s operations center, a dozen missions were listed in order of importance. At the top were two “1A1” missions supporting some of the command’s most important clients: the President, Vice President, Secretaries of State and Defense as well as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Immediately below these missions was Reach 140, the C-17 flying to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. Thousands of aircraft baked in the sun there, including 13 Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters that the United States had purchased for Afghanistan before Kabul fell to the Taliban.
In recent months, 12 of the helicopters have been shipped to countries close to Ukraine, restored to airworthy condition and handed over to Ukrainian pilots for combat with Russia.
As the Airmen trailed the C-17, a handful of soldiers and civilians in a small section of Army-run Transcom monitored a separate mission: four freight trains moving across the United States along with several freighters, some of which belonged to the navy.
One of the navy ships was heading from Norfolk, Va., to a military port in North Carolina, where it would be loaded with ammunition for the M142 HIMARS rocket launchers long desired by the Ukrainian military. The rockets, packed in six-packs and loaded into 20ft shipping containers, were also on their way to port. Cranes would soon be lifting the metal crates from semi-trailers and wagons, stacking them aboard the ship and locking them in place for a sea voyage of about two weeks.
Most of the Pentagon’s military aid sent to Ukraine by ship is destined for two German ports, one on the North Sea and the other on the Baltic.
To prevent potential adversaries from closing routes to Ukrainian military aid, army planners can set up operations in one of dozens of ports on the two seas. Russian warships have largely closed the most direct routes for resupply missions – Ukrainian Black Sea ports.
At the 618th, where presidents and secretaries of defense can reassign aircraft at a glance for emergencies around the world, a screen that typically displays a ranked map of global threats to military air and sea expeditions has been blacked out for security reasons while a reporter was in the room.
And three of the televisions were tuned to cable news because, as Colonel Buente explained, “we usually end up reacting to breaking news.”