Scott AFB analysts figure out how to save taxpayers more than $461 million

News-DemocratAugust 17, 2013 

— With Air Force budgets getting tighter every year, Air Mobility Command analysts faced a vexing question: How to slash the price tag for moving military supplies in and out of the Middle East?

By 2011, that question took on growing urgency for AMC, based at Scott, because of soaring costs linked to a program run by U.S. Transportation Command, also based at Scott.

Called Theater Express, the program relies on a complex daily bidding process to hire commercial cargo flights to move goods for U.S. Central Command, the military combat command responsible for the Middle East.

Theater Express' annual price tag had ballooned to $474 million in just a few years, and it was likely to continue to grow sharply in view of the thousands of tons of goods destined to leave Afghanistan because of the American military's impending exit.

So Donald Anderson, a retired military cargo pilot who runs AMC's analysis unit, set to work.

He assembled a team of military and civilian analysts stationed in Afghanistan, Qatar and Kuwait.

The team's mission: Figure out a way to slash transit costs by hauling goods aboard U.S. military cargo planes instead of commercial aircraft.

After examining huge data sets, crunching reams of numbers and conducting a series of computer simulations last year, Anderson's team by early 2012 had devised a method for predicting space availability on the AMC workhorses -- its fleets of C-130s, C-5s and C-17s -- up to five days in advance.

"We utilized existing space on aircraft that were already flying back to Kuwait, and we were flying it back for virtually free," said Anderson, who earned a degree in electrical engineering from Texas A&M University.

"So we took something that cost $8 a pound, we brought that down to 25 or 30 cents a pound," he said.

The project paid off with spectacular results.

Last year, more than 44 percent of U.S. military goods flowing in and out of Middle East conflict zones were being flown commercially -- at a cost of $474 million annually.

By the middle of 2013, only 3 percent of supplies were being flown commercially, at a cost of $13 million -- a reduction of 97 percent, and a savings of $461 million.

"The warfighter is still getting what he needs, at the same time in many cases faster, because the military are faster in many cases," said Anderson, 52, who retired from the Air Force in 2008.

Anderson's team is being recognized for its achievement. Its members have been nominated as finalists for the Air Force Chief of Staff's Excellence Award, which is given out annually to personnel who have devised "innovative" ways to improve mission capability and operational performance.

The award winners will be notified in September.

"We're really excited about this," Anderson said. "It's really neat to see savings this large come our way."

These huge cost savings are occurring at a pivotal time for Scott, where AMC and USTRANSCOM oversee the movement of virtually everything in the military supply chain.

Political gridlock in Washington, D.C., led to the federal budget sequester, which resulted in $42 billion worth of automatic cuts to the Pentagon budget since March 1, including unpaid furloughs for 700,000 civilian workers that began July 8.

What's more, the budget sequester could become the "new normal," with nine more years of automatic, across-the-board cuts set to take place unless a polarized Congress and President Barack Obama can work out a long-term compromise to cut the size of federal budget.

Meanwhile, the Defense Department is coping with the rapid transition to a peacetime military budget after a decade-long build-up to support two wars.

Even so, the military's ability to deal with big budget cuts, including those inflicted by the sequester, reveals an unexpected upside, according to David King, a retired Air Force office and assistant professor of management at Iowa State University.

The budget constraints, including the sequester, forces America's armed services to make the tough calls they'd been putting off when money was more flush, according to King.

"They're now having to make some choices between funding retirement and health care benefits and other things at the expense of current operations," King said. "I think going forward now we're having to make some of the harder choices of what it is that we want."

At Scott, AMC is pushing hard to find cost savings besides the Theater Express program.

For instance, the command is testing the concept of "vortex surfacing," an aerial maneuver that mimics what migratory birds such as ducks and geese have been doing for millennia.

Vortex surfacing calls for cargo aircraft, with the help newly developed computer software, to fly in a tight V formation, enabling them to draft off the planes in front of them. The fuel savings could be immense, according to a recent article in U.S. News and World Report.

Donald Erbschlore, AMC's chief scientist, told the online publication that "We've seen birds fly in 'V' formations. They do that for a good reason."

In addition, the budget constraints have percolated through virtually every level of Scott Air Force Base and its resident commands.

Maj. Matt Waggoner, the 375th Air Mobility Wing comptroller, said cost-cutting efforts have taken many forms this year, especially since the sequester took effect.

For instance, because of reduced travel budgets, Scott personnel conduct meetings on the Internet, through a "Web-based collaborative environment" that "allows us to get the training value and the togetherness value of bouncing ideas off of each other without the expanse of actually traveling to locations," Waggoner said.

Another example: laptop computers have replaced desktop machines.

The laptops "allow us to move desk to desk," Waggoner said. "Instead of printing off a spreadsheet ... we can collaborate right there, which cuts down on the printing as well."

Waggoner made it clear that the budget sequester had a big downside: the unpaid furlough days that sent his entire civilian staff home one day a week since July 8.

"That has a major impact on our ability to conduct operations," he said.

On the positive side, however, "I personally feel that when the money gets tight you get more creative and come up with new solutions."

For Anderson, the chief AMC analyst, the switch to a peacetime military is causing a rude awakening for many service members.

"When you look at it, a sizable percentage of our force joined up after 9/11," he said. "They don't know what it's like to operate in a peacetime environment. It's going to be a hard mindset change for a lot of folks to get into a peacetime operation, which is to conserve everything you can."

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 618-239-2533.

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 618-239-2533.

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