Dover Air Force Base will remain a vital link in the Air Force’s overseas delivery system, according to a senior Air Force spokesman.
Col. Christopher Karns, director of Public Affairs for the Air Mobility Command, spent several hours at the base Aug. 10 to brief the media about the state of the Air Force and Dover’s role in particular.
The Air Mobility Command is Dover’s higher headquarters, located at Scott AFB, Ill., east of St. Louis.
Dover’s main mission is mobility and "the base is a power projection platform for national defense and a Department of Defense center of excellence for airlift,” Karns said in a follow-up email.
Such capability allows military power to be projected to anywhere on Earth in 18 hours or less, a strategic advantage no other nation can match, he said.
Statistics show base cargo facilities -- dubbed the “SuperPort” -- provide one-fifth of the country’s ability to move oversize cargo throughout the world.
2048 date for new airlifter
To project that kind of power, the Air Force relies on two vital elements: aircraft and people.
Dover Air Force Base is home to the C-5M Super Galaxy aircraft, whose original C-5A airframe joined the fleet in June 1970, as well as the C-17 Globemaster III, operational since January 1995.
Because they’ve been used to support operations in the Middle East for more than a decade, both planes and the C-5, in particular, have been showing a lot of wear and tear, Karns said.
“We’re really flying these aircraft hard,” he said. Both have been “overflown,” meaning they’re being used more than anticipated, the C-17 by 23 percent, the C-5 by 12 percent.
Earlier this month, C-5 manufacturer Lockheed Martin completed upgrades on the last of the 52 Super Galaxys in the fleet. The program, begun in 2001, includes improvements designed to allow the plane to fly until the 2040s.
The upgrades included digital cockpit displays and new, quieter engines with 22 percent more thrust. That allows the Super Galaxy to use shorter runways. The engines also allow the plane to climb faster and use less fuel.
Dover AFB received the first operational C-5M in June 2006, and all 18 have been upgraded.
The C-17 also has seen improvements, but on a smaller scale. The last 70 produced included more modern avionics, radios, and electronics, fixes that will be retrofitted to earlier aircraft. The changes were to cost between $150 million and $200 million through 2018.
The Air Force, however, does have a new aircraft in its airlift inventory, the KC-46A Pegasus, a refueling aircraft that can be used for medical evacuations and which also has some cargo-carrying capabilities, Karns said. It will replace the current KC-135, some of which are more than 50 years old.
Despite a history of problems including cost overruns and management problems, the first should be delivered by October. Manufacturer Boeing is contracted to build 179 through 2027 at a cost of about $4.9 billion.
“We have an aging mobility fleet and a top priority is to ensure the durability and survivability of platforms headed into the future,” Karns said. “The KC-46 is another step in ensuring we maintain the strategic mobility advantage now and in the future.”
Even with the KC-46 in the inventory, Karns said, the next generation of airlifter isn’t anticipated until around 2048.
The people equation
The Air Force is projecting a shortage of pilots throughout the service, with an estimated 400 highly trained officers expected to leave annually over the next four years. Continual deployments, due primarily to the conflicts in the Middle East, combined with good pay from civilian airlines continue to lure pilots away.
AMC commander Gen. Carlton D. Everhart II is working to stop that hemorrhaging within his command with a volunteer effort, the Aviator Technical Track Program, Karns said. The idea is to get pilots away from onerous non-flying administrative duties and allow them to stay in the cockpit for at least five years.
The program, announced in July, hopefully, will put a dent in the 2,000-pilot shortfall, Everhart said Aug. 2.
In another effort to bring in more fliers, in July Dover AFB partnered with Delaware State University for its Aviation Character Education Flight Program; this brought in 24 potential pilots in a three-week effort to prepare them for undergraduate pilot training. The program included local high school students, eight personnel from the AF ROTC program and three active duty second lieutenants.
Dover AFB is the only base to partner with a university in such a program.
Students got some initial flight training including simulator use and ground training and eventually were able to take the controls themselves. One goal was to attract more women and minorities as candidates for military piloting duties; according to the Federal Aviation Administration, less than 6 percent of Air Force pilots are women; African Americans make up 1.7 percent while Asian Americans make up 2 percent.
Dover attractive to Air Force families
As for being stationed at Dover AFB, a lot of fliers and maintenance personnel prefer it over other AMC bases because of several factors, including good community relations and excellent educational opportunities for their children, Karns said. Delaware also makes it much easier for spouses with professional certifications, such as doctors or teachers, to find work in those fields, he said.
Those factors influence a lot of decisions about either remaining in the service or returning to civilian life, Karns said.
Because the Air Force is the most technologically-focused of the services, Air Mobility Command units are partnering with local schools in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math curriculums to give students a working idea of what the Air Force needs in its people.
Fresh ideas are essential to maintaining an advantage over America’s enemies, Karns said.
“We're trying new and innovative ways to help people see a place for themselves in the Air Force,” he said.
Finally, Karns feels the Air Force and AMC will continue to have a strong presence as President Donald Trump works to set up a separate space service.
AMC will look at ways to support a Space Force in whatever form it takes, he said.
“To be able to understand where mobility will be able to fit within a space mission set is critically important,” he said.
“It’s a domain that requires people to look out into the future and determine how we can best leverage that domain toward the national interest,” Karns said.
The wing of choice
When it comes to getting supplies to support wartime missions such as Operation Inherent Resolve -- the fight against ISIS -- or providing humanitarian relief as was done during 2017 for hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, the Air Force has come to rely on the 436th Airlift Wing, Karns said.
“With that airlift component and the ability to get anyplace on the globe in a timely manner, Dover oftentimes is the wing of choice,” he said.
The effort to take down ISIS is just one component of the need for a strong strategic airlift capability, Karns said. Personnel from Dover and other AMC bases often are the first ones on the ground in contingency operations and usually the last to leave.
“That continuous demand signal on the airlift fleet is not going to decline anytime soon,” he said.
“In fact, when you look at the natural disasters last year, the military is often called upon to provide assistance. We do it better than anyone else in the world.”