Editor's Note: This is the sixth in a series of reports on the lasting impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic on the U.S. military.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the military realized that it had no choice but to keep mobility operations running.
Installations around the world needed fresh supplies and to move people in and out.
But the military's options for moving personnel and supplies were quickly dwindling, Lt. Gen. Brian Robinson, deputy commander of Air Mobility Command, or AMC, told Military.com this month.
As host nations imposed travel restrictions to slow the pandemic's spread, commercial air travel -- which the military sometimes uses on a contract basis -- began to disappear, he said.
If AMC hoped to keep its fleet of mobility aircraft in the air, it had to keep its air crews safe and healthy, Robinson explained. The command swiftly rolled out a series of strict protocols for social distancing among air crews and decontaminating aircraft in transit to hold infection rates as low as possible.
At installations such as Ramstein Air Base in Germany, he said, AMC set up strict procedures for mobility aircraft after they landed: A bus took the air crew from the flight line to base lodging, where certain floors were set aside to house them. The air crew members weren't supposed to leave their rooms, even to go to the chow hall; meals were brought to their rooms.
Housekeeping was reduced to a minimum -- bringing in towels, for example, but not entering rooms unnecessarily.
After the rest period, another bus took the air crew back to their freshly sanitized aircraft for the next flight. Hotel rooms were also fully sanitized after each stay, Robinson said.
The 89th Airlift Wing at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, which operates Air Force One and other transport missions for VIPs such as the vice president, secretaries of state and defense, and senior military leaders, took even more precautions, he added.
Most locations tested personnel only when they were known to have been potentially exposed to COVID, or when they showed symptoms. But because the 89th's mission is so important and crews are in contact with the nation's highest-level officials, the wing began conducting "surveillance testing" to try to stop outbreaks before they happened, Robinson said.
"Basically, a crew member had to have a test that proved negative before they could fly," he explained.
The 89th kept backup crew members ready to swap in and replace anyone who tested positive for COVID.
As the science behind the virus became better understood, Robinson said, AMC rethought its strategies about turning air crews around for their next missions -- particularly how quickly to do so. For example, he said, AMC realized it wasn't smart to send a crew just back from Europe on another mission in less than five days, as it had done previously. Instead, AMC had crews wait 10 days to two weeks before flying again.
But this decision, necessary as it may have been to avert COVID outbreaks, came with its own costs and put a strain on the force, he said.
Letting Base Commanders Make the Call
Air Force efforts in recent years to push decision-making authority down to the lowest levels of command in the field -- which former Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein initiated to better prepare the force for a war against a major adversary -- was key to helping AMC units respond quickly to the unfolding pandemic, Robinson said.
Bases had different experiences with COVID-19, he explained. Some communities surrounding bases faced severe clusters of cases, but others had mild outbreaks.
So AMC gave commanders the discretion to decide how to pace their units' missions, allowing them to scale back missions if necessary to lessen the risk of air crews and maintainers getting infected.
AMC headquarters then collected the information on how many missions individual bases were capable of flying and made adjustments. When a base faced a higher risk of COVID, AMC would shift some of its missions to other locations with similar skill sets that had less of a COVID problem.
Many commanders also opted to scale back training flights for a while, Robinson said, to make sure crews would be healthy and available to fly real-world missions.
AMC also teamed up with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to study airflow patterns in aircraft such as the C-17 Globemaster III and KC-135 Stratotanker, as well as commercial passenger planes, to figure out where the greatest chances of transmitting COVID might be and make modifications to reduce risk.
Doing Basic Training During a Pandemic
Basic training also posed a challenge.
Though Air Education and Training Command did scale back some aspects of basic military training, or BMT, last year due to the pandemic, bringing new airmen aboard wasn't a mission that the Air Force could afford to shut off entirely, AETC head Lt. Gen. Brad Webb said in an April 8 interview. So the command took a number of steps to ensure that accessions of new airmen continued.
AETC set up a satellite BMT location at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi last spring as a backup plan, in case Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas -- where the Air Force typically conducts BMT -- were to suffer a devastating COVID outbreak. No such outbreaks occurred, and the Keesler experiment was shuttered last November.
The Air Force isn't planning to restart training at Keesler, Webb said, but could if it became necessary.
But some changes AETC put into place made sense to keep going, he added.
The Air Force used to shuffle trainees between squadrons and military training instructors, Webb explained. To improve social distancing and limit contact between airmen that could spread the virus, AETC changed its process so that trainees now stay in the same group with the same instructors.
"You would have thought that that's the way we would have done it: One tranche of new trainees shows up, they get assigned to a squadron, they go through together," Webb said. "But that's not how we did business, for whatever strange reason."
Under the changes, AETC kept flights, each with roughly 54 basic trainees, separated from one another, which allowed a flight to keep training even if it was quarantined. If a member of a flight tested positive for COVID, that person was isolated. But as long as the rest of the flight stayed healthy, they kept training while being quarantined from the other flights.
"Obviously, we're monitoring that situation continually, [and] they're wearing masks the whole time," Webb said. "But they do not, for instance, go to a dorm room and fumble around on their iPhones for a couple of weeks."
He said AETC didn't see a serious dip in productivity, training nearly 33,000 new airmen last year -- about 96% of its goal of training 34,400 new airmen. The command is now bringing about 700 to 800 new trainees into Lackland each week, approximately where it was before the pandemic began.
AETC has averaged a 5% positive rate for coronavirus testing among trainees, but no trainees have been hospitalized, according to Webb.