521 AMOW implements Nodal ACE to execute Afghan Evacuation

Airmen of the 521st Air Mobility Operations Wing were called to action to support a surge in evacuation efforts out of Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA), Kabul, Afghanistan and the immediate need for increased manpower was apparent, Aug. 16.

Evacuees from Afghanistan board a commercial aircraft at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Sept. 7, 2021. Civil Reserve Air Fleet aircraft are being used for the onward movement of evacuees from temporary safe havens and interim staging bases. (Courtesy photo by Tech. Sgt. Aaron Luetzen)

Realizing this, the 521 AMOW executed a warfighting concept called Nodal Agile Combat Employment, or “Nodal ACE” which is an AMOW commander’s ability to shift his or her personnel and resources, as needed, to support such surges.

“In most instances ACE looks like shifting aircraft and equipment closer to the fight,” said Col. Adrienne Williams, 521 AMOW commander. “But in this case, the established en route enterprise of the 521 AMOW was already where it needed to be, we just had to increase our manpower at certain locations to support the operation tempo.”

A U.S. Air Force Airman performs security checks on luggage during the outbound passenger processing at Hangar 5. The Airman is assigned to the 726th Air Mobility Squadron at Spangdahlem Air Base, but is performing duty at the 721st Aerial Port Squadron to assist with the operational surge brought about by the ongoing Afghan evacuations. As a geographically separated wing, the 521 Air Mobility Operations Wing is able to shift assets internally to keep all nodes of the en route ‘theater’ at a capacity commensurate with the operational demand, this is called Agile Combat Employment of Global Air Mobility Support System forces, or Nodal ACE. Within 24 hours of the need being identified, the 521 AMOW shifted 78 Airmen from various AMOW locations to Al Udeid, and later to Ramstein and Sigonella. This ensured the nodes were appropriately postured at the right time. (Courtesy photo by Tech. Sgt. Aaron Luetzen)

Overall, the commander shifted 78 critical personnel from within the wing to the four most-saturated locations, or nodes, in less than 24 hours.

Throughout Operation Allies Refuge, the wing executed five core missions — command and control, aerial port, aircraft maintenance, aircrew support, and aeromedical evacuation — at a significantly larger scale than steady-state flow.

The geographic location of the 521 AMOW’s 8th Expeditionary Air Mobility Squadron at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, made it a prime candidate for receiving nearly 85 percent of U.S. aircraft exiting HKIA and as a result the largest contingent of the shifted manpower.

Evacuees from Afghanistan drop their luggage at a baggage trolley prior to boarding a departure flight at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Sept. 7, 2021. Ramstein has served as a primary airlift hub for current evacuation operations. (Courtesy photo by Tech. Sgt. Aaron Luetzen)

Besides time, a key advantage of Nodal ACE is that the commander can “lift and shift” Airmen based on their expertise, background and unique skills who are already familiar with the mission and are ready to make an impact as soon as they touch down.

Staff Sgt. Micheal Do, an Air Mobility Control Center controller, was one of the Airmen temporarily moved to Al Udeid AB from Ramstein Air Base.

When Do arrived at the 8 EAMS, the “Mighty Ocho” was in the frenzy of the first week of the evacuation surge. But, with hand-selected Airmen pulled directly from 521 AMOW units, he and the other augmentees required minimal spin-up.

“All of us sent there were operationally tested and proven controllers,” Do explained, elaborating on his experience within Air Mobility Command. “We were able to help other Airmen understand how to handle the complexities of mission management, giving them valuable training to relieve some of the burden.”

At the peak, there were more than 46 C-17 Globemaster IIIs on-ramp at Al Udeid AB and up to 35 daily launches. As an AMCC controller, Do and the rest of the team were faced with the difficult challenge of stage management. This ensures efficient flow of aircraft into an airfield, while turning and sending off outgoing aircraft.

“It required creative thinking from both the 8 EAMS and 379th airfield management teams to turn taxiways into parking lots,” said Do. “It was a humbling experience to see everyone give everything they had, every day.”

Do was not alone — members of the 728th Air Mobility Squadron out of Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, were also pushed forward to Al Udeid AB to provide logistical support and ensure a safe, orderly evacuation.

But, it wasn’t just operators that were needed to assist in the mission. The wing also pushed forward Tijuana Odom, 521 AMOW director of welfare, from Ramstein AB.

“Our Airmen at the ‘Might Ocho’ were stressed and fatigued. They were working 12-15 hour days, with no time off,” Odom explained. “They were seeing some things they weren’t mentally prepared for, and I was able to provide the psychological services they needed.”

A 30-year veteran of both Active Duty and Air Force Reserves as well as Civil Service, Odom describes her time with the 8 EAMS as, “the biggest impact I’ve ever had.

“For our leadership to recognize the need and move me there to provide support directly to the 8th was huge,” she continued. “Being there, I built a rapport with the unit and I was able to have one-on-one conversations so they could process and talk about what they were going through.”

During the height of operations, en route Airmen moved tens of thousands of travelers a day via Al Udeid and additional nodes, facilities, and aircraft and it was the execution of Nodal ACE that rapidly put the right people in the right locations to accomplish this mission.

In total, 53 Airmen were moved to Al Udeid AB, 12 to Ramstein AB, 11 to Naval Air Station Sigonella and two to Kuwait International Airport, Kuwait, to augment operations and support Airmen in the highest-saturated nodes.

Another Nodal ACE vignette came from the Mediterranean Sea, where Airmen from both the 725th Air Mobility Squadron located at Naval Station Rota, Spain, and the 724th Air Mobility Squadron at Aviano Air Base, Italy, were sent to increase the AMOW capabilities at NAS Sigonella, Italy.

Meanwhile, personnel from the 726th Air Mobility Squadron at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, drove down the road to support operations in Hangar Five, a C-5 Galaxy maintenance hangar on Ramstein AB transformed temporarily into an international airport terminal to process the high volume of evacuees onward to their final destination.

However, it was not just personnel who were shifted during Nodal ACE execution. Many Patriot Express rotators, and other non-evacuation related airlift missions generally intended for Ramstein AB were absorbed by the 726th at Spangdahlem AB.

Similarly, The 727th Air Mobility Squadron located at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, became a KC-10 Extender hub with maintainers working twelve hour shifts to sustain 24/7 maintenance of KC-10 aircraft flying 4 lines a day, 24 hours a day and moving 3,396 evacuees via 23 sorties.

Nodal ACE contributed to the successful evacuation of approximately 124,000 personnel out of Afghanistan while preserving additional capability to support steady-state requirements.

“The AMOW was designed to flex and absorb shock, even during the largest DoD Non-Combat Evacuation Operation Airlift in U.S. history,” said Williams. “It’s what the Airmen of the 521 AMOW do — they put the Rapid in Rapid Global Mobility!”

The 521 AMOW, comprised of over 2,000 Total Force Airmen and headquartered out of Ramstein AB, is part of the global air mobility support system for Europe, Africa and the Middle East, managing strategic air mobility operations at 19 unique locations and 15 countries.