APRIL 9, 2015, KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan – As the United States seeks to lessen its footprint at locations across Southwest Asia, the word retrograde has been on the lips of Department of Defense decision-makers for months. When applied to military operations in Afghanistan, retrograde, which is defined as having a backward motion or direction, translates to the proverbial undoing of more than a decade’s accumulation of assets, equipment and personnel in theater.
Airmen assigned to the 451st Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron have been on hand throughout the historical transition witnessing both the surge in operations as the mission shifted to meet Resolute Support end strength goals in late 2014, as well as the ebb that followed.
“In September and October we moved between 9,000 and 10,000 tons of cargo a month,” said Chief Master Sgt. Thomas Buschang, the 451 ELRS Aerial Port superintendent. “During that timeframe we also moved 355 tactical vehicles, and between 7,500 and 8,500 passengers a month, so the footprint here shrank dramatically toward the end of last year.”
Also contributing to the scale-tipping number of assets that were retrograded during the final quarter of 2014, were the sister service and coalition personnel and cargo needing to make a rapid exit from the central command area of responsibility.
“We do a lot of work with the Army,” Buschang said. “When a whole Army unit of between 300 and 400 soldiers rips in and rips out in a mass expedited manner it can be overwhelming to a lot of aerial ports. We are able to provide some of our CENTCOM Materiel Retrograde Element personnel to basically augment that operation and ensure a smooth transition between locations.
“We also helped several NATO nations exit Kandahar back in October. We moved most of their passengers and a large percentage of their equipment, everything from personal baggage to CH47 helicopters weighing in at over 33 thousand pounds,” Buschang continued. “451 ELRS aerial porters were key players in the movement of many of our coalition partners as well as the sustainment of the entire force through the delivery of food and perishable items to KAF.”
Despite first appearances, the aerial port/Army relationship is more complex than that of customer and transportation provider. As the owners and officiators of the Redistribution Property Accountability Team yard here, the Army leads the way where shipping on Kandahar is concerned.
“Users bring equipment selected for retrograde to the Army’s RPAT yard,” said Senior Master Sgt. Dan Stone, a 451 ELRS contracting officer representative. “The RPAT yard is basically the clearing station. The assets are cleaned, checked for customs compliance and cleared of brass and other items. If the asset is going to be moved by air, we coordinate a joint inspection which verifies that the equipment has been properly prepared and that all documentation is in order.”
“Once the piece has been validated for air transport it gets moved to our movement control teams for a final inspection,” Stone continued. “Lastly, it goes to the Transportation Management Office which is responsible for finding and assigning the item to an airlift. When that airlift comes in the equipment is transported to the cargo yard, which is where the Air Force comes into play.”
Regardless of what service the equipment belongs to, the Air Force is responsible for checking assets into the cargo yard and registering them in a database to await final airlift.
“Once a mission drops our load planners will plan that movement,” Stone said. “Finally, our ramp personnel will get the equipment on a loader or drive it to the ready line prior to the aircraft’s arrival, which concludes the process. The Army and Air Force work together to ensure equipment can leave Kandahar when they are no longer mission essential.”
At the peak of recent retrograde operations, aerial port Airmen were working around the clock to ship out equipment that was deemed no longer necessary for mission sustainment. Once those goals were met however, the pace at Kandahar slowed.
“We went from moving 9,000 tons of cargo in September to moving less than 2,000 tons in February,” Buschang said.
Buschang added that they looked for innovative ways to fully utilize the group’s retrograde capacity and forward deployed Airmen to four forward operating bases throughout the area of responsibility.
Nearly four months into the New Year and the Resolute Support mission, the future of operations at Kandahar is not yet certain. Stone said the group has had numerous meetings and developed numerous courses of actions dependent on different scenarios.
“We’ve developed plans to encompass what our squadron should do if the Air Force stays here, if the Air Force goes, if we move to another location, if we reduce our footprint further or if we build up,” Stone said. “The great thing about this plan is that it’s a breathing document. The more people who put their hands on it, the more perspectives we include and the more scenarios we prepare for.”
After encountering a break-neck pace in the beginning of his deployment to Kandahar and following it up with a notable lull, Stone feels confident that the breadth of experience gained in both the operational and logistical sides of the house will serve his replacements well.
“The one thing we’re happy to be leaving the folks who replace us is good, solid action plans for whatever the next chapter is here at Kandahar,” he said. “No one knows exactly what the future will look like, but we can be sure the 451 ELRS will have a significant role to play and we’re confident that we’ve built a template that will set our fellow Airmen up for success.”