Logistics: The Scourge Of The Surge

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January 10, 2019: One of the items the United States agreed to suspend during 2018 to facilitate peace talks with North Korea were certain training exercises that North Korea denounced as “provocative.” In fact, most of these training exercises were aimed at saving South Korean lives, often at the expense of killing more North Korea troops earlier and faster. From a North Korean perspective that is less provocative than it is debilitating and demoralizing. One of these now suspended exercises is the air force mass takeoffs. Often called an “elephant walk”, the purpose of these mass takeoffs is obviously to get a lot of combat aircraft into the air as quickly as possible. First used during World War I because aircraft, then and now, have limited time in the air and don’t want use up a lot of it getting all the aircraft into a combat formation (that makes attacks or defense more effective) and move out to carry out a mission. These takeoffs came to be known as “elephant walk” because the larger aircraft (transports or heavy bombers) would line up single file on the runway (much like a group of elephants do) and then begin taking off at very short intervals (30 seconds or less per aircraft). During World War II this was particularly dangerous with the heavy bombers, which were sluggish when heavily loaded (with fuel and bombs) for a long-range mission and usually taking off in darkness. Thus if one of the bombers in the elephant walk lineup crashed on takeoff several others behind were also likely to be destroyed by the exploding bombs and fuel tanks of the first one. After World War II that became much less of a problem but it was still the case that training for elephant walks is expensive and in South Korea it is only practiced once a year and when that happens you will see two to four American and South Korea fighter squadrons line up (fifty or more F-16s is not unusual) three or four abreast on a runway and then all be in the air in less than fifteen minutes.

This sort of speed is particularly crucial in South Korea because any war with North Korea would involve over 10,000 artillery guns and rocket launchers firing on the South Korean capital (Seoul) which contains over 25 million South Koreans (and usually 100-200,000 Americans and many other foreigners). The American and South Korean fighters carry smart bombs and missiles that can quickly destroy a lot of those North Korea artillery weapons and the piles of ammo made available to keep the barrage going. If the American and South Korea fighters are a few minutes late thousands of civilians are going to be killed.

The elephant walk training is just one part of the preparations to get a lot of warplanes in the air each day over a week or more in order to cripple North Korean military capabilities. This heavy use of air power in a short period of time is called “surging” (make the maximum number of sorties) and it is something most major air forces train for during peacetime. This is particularly important in South Korea, where American and South Korean air forces would need to supply over 2,000 sorties a day during the surge. The highest daily sortie rate American warplanes have had to generate since World War II. Even the 1991 air war over Kuwait and Iraq peaked at about 1,200 sorties a day. In November 2018 the U.S. carried out its first elephant walk exercise with F-35s, putting 35 of them into the air in less than 18 minutes from a base in the United States.

Those high sortie rate air campaigns were won by a lot of people you never hear about. Up front are U.S. Navy and Air Force aircraft maintenance crews who are among the most under-appreciated. During combat operations, the "maintainers" work 12-hour shifts and can turn a returning aircraft around in 15 minutes, complete with a new pilot, fuel and weapons, plus a quick check for equipment problems. An F-16 squadron has 12 aircraft, and a unit of 120 maintainers, including 37 NCOs ("Crew Chiefs") who supervise, and do a lot of, the work. The most capable of these maintenance personnel are from the Air National Guard. Unlike active duty maintainers, the National Guard airmen have three to four times the years working on the aircraft and have often worked on the same aircraft for 5-10 years. This gives the Guardsmen an edge, as they know the quirks and weak spots of individual aircraft. Hours of work go into checking out an aircraft that is finished with a days’ operations. Dozens of maintenance panels have to be opened so that items and lubricants can be checked for problems. Every 300 hours a more thorough check is made, and during combat operations, this usually means removing the engine to check even more components. Even seconds before an aircraft takes off, maintainers are rushing around the aircraft, running down checklists for access panels that must be closed and pins that must be removed. This final check includes a visual inspection of bombs and missiles hanging off the aircraft and moveable parts that must be in the right position. There are times when the unit must surge and this can mean round the clock operations (as F-16s can operate day and night because of their night vision sensors) that can see individual aircraft flying half a dozen or more sorties. The maintainers have to be particularly careful during a surge because missing a problem can result in a lost aircraft, or at least an aborted one as the pilot discovers something isn't working once the aircraft is airborne. On these deployments, the maintainers sleep in tents near the airstrip, meaning they have to sleep through takeoffs and the other noises of a wartime base (alarms going off for various emergencies, and frequent small arms fire from a range that is always set up so the Air Force security troops can maintain their proficiency.) If there's bad weather, you just work through it. So the sandstorms the infantry were slogging through on the way to Baghdad, also hit the air force maintainers down the line. Everyone ate sand. The maintainers also suffer casualties. Not a lot of fatalities, but lots of wounds as airmen get cut by the many sharp edges as they scramble around an aircraft on a dark airfield, checking it out one more time before takeoff. You can usually tell how intense the flight operations have been by the number of blood trails on the flight line.

The annual surge exercises are a big deal because they put to the test all the training pilots, maintainers and planners have been doing in the past year and if comes off without a hitch is great for morale. If there are problems, you know what you have to work on. North Korea considered it major victory to get the annual surge exercise (and multiple elephant walks) canceled for at least one year.

 


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