Back from AOR, AFMC commander refines strategic support priorities

  • Published
  • By Monica D. Morales
  • AFMC Public Affairs
When asked if he returned home with a to-do list after visiting select Pacific Air Forces bases and Afghanistan, Gen. Donald Hoffman thumbed through a quarter-inch stack of papers before citing several examples during a March 25, 2011, interview.

"The purpose of this trip was not to solve tactical-level issues, but to see how we can make improvements at a strategic level," the commander of Air Force Materiel Command said.

From his office within the AFMC headquarters building, Hoffman recounted the warfighter insights and lessons learned that he and a team of AFMC senior leaders noted during a 13-day trip in early March that took them to four countries and eight locations. It included stops in Alaska, Korea, Japan, Guam and Afghanistan.

"The team I took with me was primarily logisticians, my supply-chain management team and my Air, Space and Information Ops team, because they are the ones most closely engaged in sustaining forward forces," the general said.

While designed to acquire feedback directly from warfighters to determine how the command can better accomplish its supply and sustainment operations, the general said the trip also provided an opportunity to observe innovative solutions in the field.

"We witnessed a wealth of great ingenuity going on at all levels," Hoffman said.

This trip differed from others in years past, in that it included a view through the lens of Hoffman's role as the Air Force's new lead integrator for agile combat support. As such, he bears responsibility for an extended portfolio that includes base operations support and training, in addition to the sustainment acquisition activities across all Air Force installations.

Hoffman emphasized the importance of the command's role in keeping warfighters equipped with the parts and engineering support to continue their operations, including the personal dedication to work warfighters' problems first before tackling routine matters.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

Q: What feedback did you receive from AFMC's warfighter customers at the bases you visited and in the AOR?

A: I got universally positive feedback from all quarters. They get it -- they know there are budget pressures and there are challenges in the parts-supply system and so forth. Whether they are in the AOR or in Korea, Okinawa or Alaska, they know they are at the far end of the transportation line. But especially those who are engaged warfighters, they also know they are our highest priority. They are not waiting for a part that exists somewhere in the system; it's usually already on its way.

They also very much appreciate the quick turns -- I got this unsolicited (feedback) everywhere. If they've taken an airplane apart and found a crack or found a hole that's elongated and they need an engineer's disposition -- that turnaround is usually within 24 hours. Overall, they are very appreciative of what the enterprise is doing for their sustainment.

Q: What messages did you deliver to those who rely on AFMC?

A: For deployed members, I wanted to ensure they understood how much we appreciate them. Our job back home is to make them successful.

I also talked about the fiscal realities that are descending upon us in the Air Force, the Department of Defense, and as a nation. Our fiscal habits have driven us to create our No. 1 national security challenge, and that is long-term economic health ... fiscal solvency, if you will. As a nation, we spend a lot more than incoming revenue and that path is not sustainable over the long term. I wanted to set the tone for how we all need to be good stewards of every dollar we get because the flow of dollars is not assured.

We need to make sure that we spend each one wisely.

Q: What is AFMC doing well right now to support the war-fighter?

A: Engineering quick-turns and visibility on warfighters' requirements for when they need a part. That quick visibility allows us to energize a process that finds the part and gets it moving to where it is needed, using the fastest mode of transportation possible.

Q: What are your reasons for making this trip, and what type of insight did you gain from it?

A: Let me set the scene, first of all. I try to go to the theater once a year to see how war-fighters, and those in theater who support them, are operating and what we might be able to do better as the home team. Usually, because it's a long trip over there, we also stop and do other things along the way.

We have an AFMC unit at Kadena in Okinawa -- the Pacific Support Center -- and it does repairs that normally would be considered depot repairs, but they do them locally to avoid added transportation time and expense. The center doesn't provide unlimited capability but it performs repairs like generator re-wire and handles component repair for our aircraft stationed in Korea and Japan.

Also on this trip, I wore a second hat I hadn't worn in previous years, and that's the hat as the lead integrator for Agile Combat Support, one of the Air Force's twelve core functions. ACS is the most expansive portfolio, ranging from base operations support to training and education, and all the sustainment acquisition activities within the Air Force.

I stopped at places that are off my normal path, and even at locations not within AFMC, to view activities through the lens of the ACS Lead Integrator.

We stopped at Elmendorf, Osan and Guam to appreciate challenges such as joint basing. It was a very useful trip from that perspective.

We also rely on contract depot support at Korean Airlines in Korea. Rather than bringing an F-15 or an A-10 all the way back to our depots and doing the work, we contract out with them and they do the same work -- very well, by the way -- right there in Korea. They are doing major depot work for us, and I wanted to lay eyes on that process and talk to the leadership there, see what issues and challenges they have and be assured that they would deliver the same quality product that we would if the plane had come back to our depots.

So with that preamble, numerous things appeared that might require attention. The purpose of the trip was not to solve tactical-level issues, but to see examples of how, at a strategic level, we're still not fully engaged -- or maybe it's a matter of organizations just not knowing the right way to get our support. It's through numerous anecdotal examples that we learn what's working, what previously unidentified needs we can meet, and where improvements are called for.

Q: What are some examples of items on your to-do list?

A: One example we saw was at the Pacific Support Center, where the personnel there are fixing a lot of things. There's one avionics box, and there's one switch on it that always goes bad. They are replacing the switch -- rather than sending the box all the way back and putting it out of commission for a couple of weeks until a replacement shows up. That's noble and that's good; it saves transportation costs. But my question was, "Do we document that the switch was failing or do we just fix it?" Maybe it's a bad design where we need to replace all switches before they fail so they don't come off the aircraft at all. That's kind of a wholesale-level "lessons learned" that would be lost if we just solved problems at the tactical level all the time.

I saw great examples of other ingenuity being tested in the field. Many examples were either initiated here at Wright-Patt at the Air Force Research Lab or at the depots. One is the hypoxia trainer. Rather than sending aircrews on temporary duty to an altitude chamber and evacuating the air out to simulate a rise in altitude, they have a very simple device. The aircrew puts on their own equipment -- their own helmets and masks that they would normally fly with -- and there's a way of metering the mixture of air going in that gives them the same effect, without sending them to an expensive TDY location or to a training chamber.

As another example, when we paint a C-17 we put on a primer coat and we put on a main coat. There's a product available right now that may lead to just painting planes once without a primer. It looks to be promising -- we would save a lot of dollars not only on the paint, but also the labor it takes to paint C-17s.

Q: Was there any particular part of a base visit or specific moment that struck you during the trip?

A: When you get to Afghanistan itself, and we just went to the two large bases -- Kandahar and Bagram -- you see tens of thousands of people on each base. One is a NATO base, where all the NATO countries have their forces, and the other is more of an Army base. There are lots of Americans and partners out there working a common problem, figuring out command-and-control relationships, support relationships and doing it to the best of their ability. These are large bases with lots of moving parts, some with seven busy dining facilities, which gives you an idea of the magnitude of the ongoing 24-hour operations.

A moving moment came at the hospital, where we saw the magnificent care that's available. If I ever need care -- from a hangnail to heart surgery -- I would want to be in one of these facilities. They have top-quality equipment, surgeons and technicians who can provide the initial care needed until patients are transported back home. The whole medevac system gets patients from the battle or from the point of injury to the hospitals quickly, usually by helicopter. The survival rate has significantly improved. Not only does the hospital staff take care of Americans and coalition partners, but they take care of the enemy. The only difference that you'll see in that care is that there is an armed guard present when there is an enemy combatant being treated. Other than that, they get the same level of care ... how many nations would do that?

Q: How many AFMC people were you able to talk to, and what were some of the job specialties they were doing?

A: We certainly saw them in Kadena because that is an AFMC unit at the Pacific Support Center. We saw AFMC people in the two deployed locations in the AOR, at Kandahar and at Bagram. They ranged from full colonels running a maintenance operation to junior Airmen deployed in a variety of jobs, like security forces or aircraft maintenance. They are all highly motivated, very engaged in the fight they are in, and all well aware of the significance of their contributions.

Q: Do you have a message for all of AFMC that stems from this trip?

A: To the whole command, whether you are in the research business, the acquisition business, the sustainment business or the test business, the fruits of our labor are benefitting those in harm's way. Every time a deployed Airman has a requirement, he or she is waiting for a solution. My message to the entire command is to continue the great support we've been providing. Don't let anything sit in your inbox that could improve things for our fellow deployed military and civilian Airmen.