Soldiers from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), disembark their plane after landing Feb. 2 at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, Romania. The air assault soldiers represented the first wave of passengers to transit through MK Air Base en route to a mission in Southwest Asia. (Sgt. Michael A. Currin / Army)
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Almost a year of complex coordination came down to a frenetic final month at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, Romania, where hundreds of soldiers and airmen worked to complete a transit hub by Feb. 1 to carry the U.S. through the waning days of the Afghan war.
One major, or even minor, hitch had the potential to throw off the transition from Manas, Kyrgyzstan, the Air Force’s prime air transportation center since U.S. troops’ earliest days in Afghanistan.
“We knew we’d never stay there forever,” said Chris Rosenthal, an 18th Air Force planner who played a key role in the move.
Once President Obama announced the drawdown, “we knew we’d need to open up every door we could out of the country,” he said.
The future of Manas was called into question as early as 2006 with the election of a new president in Kyrgyzstan; then, the country announced in late 2011 it would try to close the center when the lease with the U.S. expired this year.
The new hub, though not a replacement for Manas, would be vital in getting troops in and out of the region safely and quickly.
“It means a lot to commanders, who need to get troops into theater as safely and efficiently as possible, and it means a lot to soldiers eager to accomplish their mission or get home to their loved ones after a long deployment,” Lt. Col. Wayne Marotto, the 21st Theater Sustainment Command for U.S. Army in Europe said in a news release.
The transition was a big job.
“I’m not sure this has been done before, except when we opened up at Manas. We had to build up bases quickly for other smaller bases. But nothing of this scope,” Rosenthal said.
“Everything we do has to start with the commander’s intent. Once we identify that — what’s the purpose, what’s the end state — that’s where we start,” he said.
A team of planners started looking for the right place for the new hub.
“We looked at bases we’d used in the past and bases we haven’t really used. We looked at the political and military environments and their ability to handle what we wanted,” Rosenthal said. “We started out with 30 bases. We narrowed it to a couple, with Romania being the standout.”
With a year to go before the July 2014 expiration of the lease at Manas, the team set a time line for the transition. They developed a concept of operations: how to track troops moving through the new hub, how to process and lodge and feed them. Where to set up office space and how to get Internet connectivity. Where, even, to put the toilets.
The team worked across commands and services, each with a unique method of doing business and a significant stake in the outcome: U.S. European Command, U.S. Central Command, U.S. Transportation Command, U.S Air Forces Europe, U.S. Army Europe, Air Mobility Command, said Army Maj. Jeremiah O’Connor, a TRANSCOM planner. “Who has responsibility, who’s got the best process? How are we getting the mission done on time and on target?”
“We had to learn to speak a little bit of Army, and the Army had to learn to speak a little bit of Air Force,” Rosenthal said.
The team visited the site and met with the local authorities. For months, they wrote and coordinated orders, made requests and met constantly.
“I wasn’t sure we’d get it done. For the time line to slip up and for things to start running behind, it only takes one step in that chain to run into challenges or difficulties,” O’Connor said. “Everyone was right on target. They hit the ground and pulled it off, from a few dozen planners to a couple hundred soldiers driving the nails, literally.”
The final step was a dress rehearsal of sorts: a presentation in January to Lt. Gen. Donald Campbell Jr., commanding general of U.S. Army Europe.
“Really, it was a step-by-step, excruciatingly detailed model of how it would execute,” O’Connor said. “This was the first time I had ever gotten a full picture of everything that was going into this, all the work being done at the operational level, the strategic level and all the way down to the tactical level. The three-star general is getting briefed on how long it’s going to take a plane load of people to swipe ID cards, to deplane and ride the bus to the processing center, how long it’s going to take to process.”
Questions came up, O’Connor said. “We were able to identify little friction points. ... If we have two aircraft that show up at one time, how are we going to handle that? The rehearsal really was a very good validation short of actually doing it.”
There were several hitches in the month leading up to the first mission last month from the hub in Romania, called the MK Passenger Transit Center, 780th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron commander Lt. Col. Todd McCoy said in an email.
Among them: two blizzards in a week, creating sporadic losses of power and water.
“In the midst of all of this, we maintained personnel accountability and launched joint rescue missions with our Army partners into the 50 mph driving snow for base personnel stuck in the challenging weather,” McCoy said in the email. “We organized teams to deliver meals twice per day until the roads between us and the rest of the base could be cleared. Despite the environmental challenges, airmen took care of each other and maintained their focus on building a squadron from scratch that was capable to load, launch and fly C-17 combat airlift missions by Feb. 1.”
At Manas, the final flights took off at the end of February.
Nearly 400 people are now supporting the operation at the MK Passenger Transit Center, said Maj. Michael Meredith, an 18th Air Force spokesman. Since Jan. 1, more than 15,000 people have transited through the hub.
The U.S. is now saving $20,000 per mission, due in large part to the cost of fuel in Romania — about half the price in Afghanistan, McCoy said.
O’Connor said he expects the hub to stay busy through the coming months.
“The team at MK right now is working very hard. They are demonstrating the full capability of the site right now. Every single one is earning their paychecks. It’s tremendous work on their part,” he said.
While the transit center is only expected to operate through the end of the drawdown, Rosenthal said the partnership between the U.S. and Romania will endure.
“There are a lot of partners we work with,” he said. “Romania has proven to be a great partner.”