NEWS | Dec. 14, 2010

Iron sharpens iron

By Staff Sgt. Daniel Bowles Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

Five Army cadets wait in a stuffy briefing room, outnumbered by Air Force pilots three-to-one.

It's Charleston, S.C., a long way from West Point, N.Y., and no one's on vacation.

Converged in the ill-ventilated hotbox for a pre-mission brief, the team listens to a squawking speaker relay cryptic messages from similar rooms around the U.S.

In less than 24 hours, those squawks would all be from aircraft radios high above the Nevada desert during an intense mobility Air Force exercise called MAFEX. The mission: deliver payloads and personnel for a ground assault by Army forces.

As tactical terminology spewed for more than an hour at the pilots, the five young West Point brains joining them were filled with Air Force jargon, connecting the dots between real world execution and textbook strategy.

MAFEX comes but twice a year. Which means every six months, the unique opportunity arises for Army and Air Force to join forces and train for some of the worst a combat area has to offer.

This time, the war games were different. These cadets were on a mission, and the details piped in over secure communication lines, flowing into their West Point minds, could one day give Army mission planners the edge on the battlefield. And what better a place?

Charleston boasts the most C-17s in the Air Force's inventory - 58 in all. These aircraft are the U.S. military's newest and most sophisticated airlifters. Used for airlift, airdrop and aeromedical evacuation, they are a platform on which war fighting capability in the theater of operations are sustained.

When rapid global mobility is needed by an Army unit deploying, a Marine unit in need of supplies in the dead of an Afghan winter, or a wounded Sailor needing immediate evacuation to an intra-theater hospital, C-17s are there. In short, and as stated by Commander of Air Mobility Command Gen. Raymond Johns, the Airmen and aircraft together form an integral piece in the mission for "delivering hope, fueling the fight, saving lives."

But what does it all mean for a group of senior college students, from the Army's West Point academy no less?

Currently in development, the cadets are engineering a new type of decision-aiding computer software for troop and asset deployment. When precisely programmed and tuned, the software is envisioned to give an Army mission planner a view like never before of all viable, and unviable, areas in which they can deploy assets into a region via aircraft.

It's a feat that could not be achieved in a classroom, said Army Maj. Chris Bachmann, an assistant professor at West Point. These students had their fill of what textbooks and manuals could offer, he said. It was hands-on experience they were after, and they needed it straight from the source. Not only is the project a capstone required for graduation, their final project could soon find its way into the hands of Army mission planners in the field, for whom time is a commodity which cannot be wasted.

Time is of the essence in the battle space, said Cadet Hans Seller, a prior enlisted soldier. If you can shave five minutes of the time it takes to get resupplied, you do it.
"People's lives are on the line. We're here to ask the questions we need now, so we can make a product everyone can use," he said.

But it's not a simple equation, and those who are neck deep in it know it best - like Capt. Jonathan Magill, 14th Airlift Squadron pilot and weapons officer. Captain Magill is a certified C-17 tactician, graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., and he met one-on-one with the team of curious Army cadets.

While they ask, "How fast can a unit get delivery of needed resources?" tacticians like Captain Magill can explain the ins and outs of what a C-17 can, and can't, do.

The difficulty is not obvious, but is illustrated in a pilot flying a plane at hundreds of miles an hour, with cargo weighing hundreds of tons, attempting to put goods flatly on the surface of a landscape where if he's off by 20 yards, the cargo goes off a cliff face or hillside.

Factor in weather, hostile fire, troops available and all other stakeholders, and it amounts to situations which demands cold, calculated decisions.

The data they were after was pointed, and they ogled over C-17 technical manuals shown to them by Captain Magill. Their quest was for the most accurate data on the specifics of Air Force mobility mission execution to eliminate negative options, thus making the best decision options in their software more obvious. Intelligent computer software cannot replace a mission planner, said Cadet Seller ... but it doesn't hurt.

Searching for iron to sharpen iron, the cadets traveled 800 miles to find it at Joint Base Charleston, S.C., and they have only just begun. The project will continue until the end of the college year, and their steely resolve will keep them searching as they continue to develop cutting edge military software and find the answers to a slippery wartime puzzle.