TOKYO — U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has the largest area of responsibility of the American military’s combatant commands. Covering about half the Earth’s surface, the command’s area of responsibility stretches from the waters off the West Coast of the continental United States to the western border of India, and from Antarctica to the North Pole.
Add to that the large tracts of ocean and the thousands of small, less well-off islands that are often vulnerable to natural disasters that lie within the command’s area, and it becomes clear airlift is a vital element in such a large theater to support logistical needs for U.S. military operations in the region.
One of the units performing such airlift missions is the 374th Airlift Wing, a U.S. Air Force unit based out of Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo, Japan. Among the two flying squadrons assigned to the 374th AW is the 36th Airlift Squadron, which flies the Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules tactical airlifter.
The squadron completed its transition to the C-130J earlier this year after having operated earlier variants of the venerable C-130 from 1966-1989 and again from 1993 until last year. According to the wing, the C-130J is quieter during takeoff, flies 14 percent faster and 800 miles further, and can carry 9,000 pounds more cargo than the C-130H model it operated before the transition.
Capt. Michael Pyles, a C-130 aircraft commander from the 36th AS, called it “perfect for the challenges of the Indo-Pacific AOR,” adding that “the C-130J has the unique capability of delivering cargo movement into formidable conditions.”
In addition, its smaller footprint and lighter weights can prove critical in operating from smaller, poor or damaged airfields, with Pyles citing the 374th AW’s relief efforts in Sulawesi, Indonesia, earlier this year as an example. On Sept. 28, a magnitude 7.5 earthquake and an accompanying tsunami devastated the town of Palu and surrounding areas in Sulawesi. In response, the U.S. Air Force and regional counterparts mounted a relief effort, which saw four of the 14 C-130Js assigned to the wing deploy to the international airport Balikpapan in Indonesia’s Borneo island, where the relief operations control center was located, just across the Makassar Strait from Sulawesi.
During the three-and-a-half week deployment to Indonesia, the 374th AW C-130Js flew about 175 hours, delivering part of the more than 6 million pounds of relief supplies that were delivered during the operation. The C-130Js made the one-hour trip from Balikpapan to Palu’s airport and back daily, where, Pyles said, the taxiways had been cracked and weakened by the earthquake, creating a situation where only smaller aircraft could deliver the cargo.
Each flight typically carried five or six pallets of food, water, and housing structures. While on the ground at Palu, the aircraft were usually unloaded in 25 minutes with the engines still running to reduce time spent on the ground. As the taxi ramp on the small airport could only accommodate two C-130s at any given time, Pyles noted, an aircraft tended to be on approach to land at the field as another departed. This cycle would continue all day as planes landed and departed from Jakarta and Balikpapan.
Operation Christmas Drop
In addition to disaster relief missions, the 374th AW also trains with regional allies and partners. Operation Christmas Drop, an annual event in December conducted with the Japan Air Self-Defense Force and the Royal Australian Air Force from Guam, sees airlifters from the three countries conduct training for humanitarian assistance/disaster relief with low-cost, low-altitude airdrops on unsurveyed drop zones.
Operation Christmas Drop is the longest-running humanitarian airlift operation in the history of the U.S. Defense Department. It began in 1952, and today, crews from the three nations cover a geographic area of more than 1.8 million square miles during the event.
The training value from Operation Christmas Drop is beneficial to aircrews, maintainers and support personnel, said Master Sgt. Michael Davis of the public affairs division of the 374th AW. He added that the training helps provide critical supplies, such as bags of rice and farming tools, through airdrops to 56 Micronesian islands impacting about 20,000 people.
The supplies come from the Denton Program, which allows private U.S. citizens and organizations to use space available on U.S. military cargo planes to transport humanitarian goods to countries in need. Since its conception, Operation Christmas Drop has delivered more than 1 million pounds of goods throughout Micronesia, delivering life-improving equipment to residents on the islands.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News. He wrote his first defense-related magazine article in 1998 before pursuing an aerospace engineering degree at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. Following a stint in engineering, he became a freelance defense reporter in 2013 and has written for several media outlets.