Executive Airlift’s Contributions to National Security
Last year, I settled into a hammock stretched across the cargo compartment of a C-17A Globemaster III after departing Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. I previously piloted this airframe, the Air Force’s airlift workhorse, for more than six years and over five combat deployments, and am intimately familiar with its abilities to land on unimproved runways in Syria, provide hurricane relief supplies to the Gulf Coast, or medevac wounded warriors out of combat zones. The C-17 allowed me to experience each core function of air mobility — airlift, air refueling, air mobility support, and aeromedical evacuation.
However, on this particular C-17 mission, I flew as a passenger and not as a pilot. In the loud, dark cargo hold of the C-17, I found myself with 50 other aircrew members traveling to Ankara, Turkey. Our goal was to leapfrog C-32s flying to Turkey, sleep a few hours in a hotel, and then operate the C-32s to fly senior U.S. government officials back to the United States at the conclusion of diplomatic meetings. The following evening in the cockpit of the C-32, while welcoming the vice president, who was returning after hours of negotiations, I fully grasped the strategic contributions of executive airlift and realized that Air Mobility Command (until this week) and the U.S. Air Force writ large underestimate its contributions to achieving national security objectives.
On this mission, our squadron transported a senior U.S. delegation, led by the vice president, to Turkey to negotiate a cease-fire along the Turkish-Syrian border. The executive airlift of those U.S. senior leaders and our mission’s supporting role in this diplomatic breakthrough directly contributed to saving Kurdish lives in the region. Still, Air Force leaders regard executive airlift as a simple subset of airlift and underplay its ability to “employ global effects on near-immediate timelines,” or what the Air Force chief of staff calls the “unique value proposition” of the Air Force. This is a narrow view and, just recently, is beginning to be appreciated at the Air Mobility Command-level. Moreover, discounting executive airlift’s impacts on U.S. Air Force core missions of rapid global mobility, global strike, and command and control ignores its national security contributions. In truth, the Air Force and Air Mobility Command should describe executive airlift as an essential function in doctrinal and strategic discussions. This would highlight its larger, but misunderstood, contributions to the Air Force’s objective of global vigilance, reach, and power. Not designating executive airlift as a core function of air mobility leads to senior Air Force leaders’ undervaluing the contributions of this critical capability. As a result, executive airlift receives insufficient resources and is overlooked in discussions about modernization and flying in contested environments. In the past, this has led to broken jets and stranded secretaries of state. In plain terms, neglecting executive airlift in Air Force programming and budgeting discussions is shortsighted. Ultimately, not properly supporting the enterprise makes it harder to properly advance U.S. diplomatic and national security interests.
Not Just a Diplomatic Asset
Joint planners define air mobility as the rapid movement of forces to, from, and within a theater. From a combatant commander’s perspective, air mobility provides the means to execute the joint functions of movement and maneuver, and sustainment, at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. Unfortunately, executive airlift’s effects are outside the scope of the warfighting combatant commander’s purview. Executive airlift consistently delivers diplomatic — and not exclusively military — results. A bomber aircraft is, in and of itself, not the “fires” joint function but, instead, delivers results (read: bombs) that accomplish military effects. Likewise, the presence of a C-32 or a C-37 aircraft does not accomplish U.S. diplomatic goals but, instead, the senior officials delivered by the C-32 or the C-37 aircraft achieve those diplomatic objectives. Of note, the executive airlift fleet includes VC-25s, C-32s, C-40s, and C-37s, nearly all in the recognizable blue and white paint scheme. (In some instances, the mere presence of an aircraft emblazoned with “United States of America” on its fuselage does indeed deliver an important strategic message.)
Military planners should not interpret executive airlift solely through a military lens. Of course, combatant commanders must plan to integrate military forces with other agencies to advance U.S. interests. And, yes, U.S. military forces often engage in hybrid forms of diplomacy like when C-130s support humanitarian missions in the Middle East or when the F-22 demonstration team performs at international airshows. Executive airlift, however, is neither a simple subset to jointness nor merely a form of hybrid diplomacy.
That is not to say, however, that executive airlift contributions are exclusively diplomatic. When military executive airlift aircraft support U.S. State Department or White House efforts, those assets “operate as a closely integrated joint team with interagency and multinational partners,” as the U.S. joint military doctrine directs. Alternatively, when transporting other leaders like the president, the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or senior Cabinet leaders, executive airlift complements and amplifies America’s military, diplomatic, intelligence, and economic power. Moreover, the entire executive airlift enterprise (e.g., aircraft, aircrew, and communication networks) is designed to provide continuous command and control for America’s senior leaders.
Skeptics may argue that, due to the diplomatic mission that executive airlift contributes, the State Department is best suited to transport U.S. senior leaders. While the State Department does operate a number of mostly rotary-wing aircraft, it is not in a position to organize, train, and equip the larger number of personnel, aircraft, and communication systems inherent to the national executive airlift enterprise. The Department of Defense is best suited to shoulder the responsibility of providing communication requirements for various U.S. officials while traveling and even countering a doomsday scenario. In fact, the Pentagon directs its executive airlift fleet to support those government travelers who require continuous secure communications or protected transport. Furthermore, while contributing to diplomacy is a cornerstone of executive airlift, it is also able to transport any U.S. senior leader to execute any mission (e.g., the president negotiating a military agreement or the secretaries of defense and state consulting with allies). As a result, Air Force leaders should do a better job recognizing executive airlift’s role in accomplishing U.S. national security objectives.
Besides connecting senior leaders to the outside world and maintaining the national command and control structure, executive airlift aircraft allow policymakers to conduct normal business en route to their destinations. In this way, executive airlift aircraft achieve diplomatic goals not only after landing but, significantly, along the entire route of flight. Executive airlift aircraft do not simply “deliver” someone to their destination. Rather, these specialized aircraft continuously connect officials to the outside world with myriad classified and unclassified communication networks, a task no other airlift asset achieves. It is this continuous communication capability that distinguishes executive airlift as a specialized subset of operational support airlift. (In fact, because communication is such an important aspect of the executive airlift enterprise, the Air Force even provides palletized roll-on/roll-off communication capabilities for use in tactical aircraft when flying in combat zones. While this roll-on/roll-off communication package efficiently bridges the gap between commercially derived business jets and tactical cargo planes, it is not a complete solution to the needed organic executive airlift aircraft.) Moreover, as a mobile office, executive airlift aircraft are often used to conduct meetings while on the ground either immediately before takeoff or after landing at a destination. The Air Force views aeromedical evacuation as independent of airlift due to the continuous patient care before, during, and after a flight. With that same thought process, the Air Force should acknowledge the contributions of executive airlift aircraft themselves to support the diplomatic effects of the government leaders they transport.
Recognizing Executive Airlift as a Core Function
Given that executive airlift is a separate function of air mobility, why does it matter if the Air Mobility Command designates it as a core function? Simply put, without Air Mobility Command’s, and ultimately the Air Force’s, recognition of the unique, independent function of air mobility, the specialized requirements of executive airlift will not be satisfied. Air Mobility Command currently espouses four strategic priorities that each affect executive airlift aircraft and airmen. Regarding nuclear response, the ability for senior officials to remain in constant communication with national command and control structures allows for real-time decision-making and response. Executive airlift’s ability to connect passengers to the outside world is peerless. However, “peerless” does not translate as “uncontested.” With executive airlift, operating in contested environments has less to do with anti-aircraft weapons and more to do with the space-based environment and surging satellite bandwidth demand, GPS spoofing, or communications jamming. By understanding executive airlift as a unique capability, senior leaders can better prioritize discussions surrounding airframe modernization and recapitalization efforts for communications equipment, especially from an enterprise-wide perspective. Ideally, by acknowledging that executive airlift operates outside the normal definition of airlift (and even the oft-neglected operational support airlift), decision-makers can better advocate for fiscal support at the service level (or above) rather than a command level.
It’s safe to assume that defense budgets will be, at best, flat for the foreseeable future. Understandably, Air Mobility Command and the Air Force will be hard pressed to prioritize executive airlift requirements ahead of programs that directly support the warfighter. In order to better advocate for executive airlift capabilities, the Department of Defense should recognize that executive airlift’s diplomatic effects are often outside the scope of normal air mobility, understand that support for U.S. diplomatic efforts underpin national security, and lobby for Transportation Command (a U.S. combatant command) to possess acquisitions authority in support of the executive airlift enterprise. In this proven (and codified) model, Transportation Command would procure executive airlift-peculiar specialized communication equipment to outfit Air Force-procured airplanes similar to the acquisitions process in Special Operations Command or Cyber Command. The senior officials transported aboard executive airlift aircraft eclipse combatant commands because their responsibilities are unconstrained by geography or function and provide very real, often immediate, ramifications to U.S. national security. For these reasons, Congress and the Department of Defense could task Transportation Command, not just a single service, to support the ever-important executive airlift mission through acquisitions, equipment testing, and collaboration across the U.S. government. As a result, these budget and acquisition tweaks free the Air Force to program for immediate warfighter needs without compromising its strategic vision.
Executive airlift is typically considered on the fringes of normal military doctrine and planning. Consequently, Air Force leadership often overlooks executive airlift’s unique capabilities and requirements. Of course, it’s understandable that the military underestimates a mission that doesn’t seem to fit neatly into a traditional category. However, that’s ultimately shortsighted, as executive airlift advances key American national interests. To paraphrase then-Sen. John Kerry, a well-executed diplomatic mission can preclude 1,000 combat sorties. The Air Force should identify executive airlift as a separate core function of air mobility to formalize the requirement in order to sufficiently resource the personnel and equipment needed for the mission. Doing so would help airmen meet Air Mobility Command priorities, exceed the chief of staff’s vision of collaboration for success, and secure national security objectives.
Maj. Mike Knapp is a special air mission pilot stationed in the Washington, D.C. area. These opinions are the author’s own and do not represent those of the U.S. Air Force or the Department of Defense.