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Air Force Lt. Gen. Jon T. Thomas, Deputy Commander, Air Mobility Command, Holds a News Briefing Via Teleconference

April 3, 2020
Air Force Lieutenant General Jon T. Thomas, Deputy Commander, Air Mobility Command; Colonel Damien Pickart

STAFF:  I just want to introduce Air Mobility Command Deputy Commander Lieutenant General Jon Thomas, who's here to discuss Air Mobility Command support to the whole-of-government response to COVID-19.

So with that, let me turn it over to Lita and let her ask the first question.

COLONEL DAMIEN PICKART:  Hey, Ann.  This is Colonel Pickart.  Before we begin, General Thomas has some opening remarks he wanted to provide to everyone.

STAFF:  Thanks, Damien.

COL. PICKART:  You bet.


Thanks, Ann.

Good morning to you all out there, in the Pentagon or elsewhere.  It's nice to have an opportunity to kind of talk with you about what the Air Mobility Command is doing to support the nation, both here in the United States proper, as well as across the globe.

So what we're doing in support of the -- the nation's COVID-19 response is, we continue to operate consistent with the SecDef's priorities for the Joint Force, which is protecting the health of the force -- that's a key enabler for the second -- the next priority, which is maintaining our readiness to defend the nation in all manners in order to deter those which might seek to take advantage in this uncertain time.

As we meet those priorities, we're also supporting the U.S. whole-of-government effort to respond to and counter COVID-19.  And AMC is pitching in to help federal, state and local agencies whenever possible.  Here are some examples of what we've been up to in the preceding weeks.

To protect the force, local commanders are empowered to take the measures needed to stay ahead of the threat, and are encouraging Airmen to follow CDC best practices for staying healthy.  We've implemented staggered shifts, exercised telework options, and employed Health Protection Condition Charlie measures at all our installations to promote physical distancing, (to help combat the) spread (of) the virus, and make sure that we're keeping this limited as much as possible.

AMC continues to execute operational missions across the globe as well as training activities.  We're doing that to sustain the readiness of the Joint Force to execute their missions.

As we do so, we're using processes and procedures to preserve the nation's operational capability to meet global mobility requirements.  So we're doing things like medical screening, temperature checks, and other measures for air crew and passengers transiting areas of COVID-19 risk.

As necessary, for certain locations, we're also taking measures to ensure that AMC forces that are moving globally from one location to another do not pose undue risk for the host units as we transit those locations.

In terms of support to the whole U.S. government response to COVID-19, AMC routinely responds to emergent airlift requirements.  And in coordination with our interagency and international partners, AMC has been flying COVID-19 testing swabs from Italy to Memphis for nationwide distribution.  I know you've been tracking those missions.

Since March 16th, C-17s have delivered three and a half million swabs on seven missions, with the seventh mission arriving last night in Memphis, Tennessee.  Mission number eight is in execution and arrives today with another half million swabs, and then we've got a ninth mission that's scheduled to arrive next week.

While contracted commercial airlift remains the primary means of returning Americans home from overseas locations, AMC in support of U.S. TRANSCOM continues its support to the Department of State-led efforts to bring these Americans home.

While most returning citizens are being transported on contract commercial passenger carriers, most recently and with the approval from the secretary of defense, AMC transported 86 Americans back to the United States from Colombia and Panama.

These recent missions bring the total number of Americans returned by AMC gray tail organic airlift missions to more than 350 since March 19th.

Finally, to help state and local authorities combat COVID-19, AMC C-130s flew equipment, personnel to establish -- to help establish Army field hospitals in New York and Washington State that will provide additional medical capacity in those areas.

We've got Air Mobility liaison officers that are helping to coordinate those movements as well as commercial air movements totaling nine missions, transporting 7.8 tons of cargo and hundreds of personnel to those locations.

In addition, several of our bases are -- have been identified for potential use as Incident Support Bases for FEMA, and two of our installations are serving as base support installations, which provide integrated support resources for our own internal DND -- DOD support to civil authorities.

Furthermore, we put in place capabilities to perform patient movement -- or, as many of you know it as aeromedical evacuation of COVID-positive patients.  While treatment of patients in place is always the preferred option, we anticipate there will likely be circumstances in which such care will not be available, and the best option will be to transport the patient to alternative facilities.

Aeromedical evacuation is one of AMC's core missions.  And as you know, we've done much over the past two decades.  But the combination of transporting large volumes of patients with a highly infectious disease, the transmission of which we still don't completely understand, on a pressurized aircraft within which the air constantly circulates, and potentially making these movements from remote and austere locations over intercontinental distance while -- all while protecting the flight and medical crew from infection so that they remain available for future missions, is a challenging task even for the Air Mobility Command.

At present, we have an interim COVID patient movement capability already on alert in a couple locations across the globe.  The Transport Isolation System is an infectious disease containment unit developed during the Ebola outbreak of 2014 that allows a limited number of infected patients to receive medical care in flight.

Bio-containment units such as the Transport Isolation System provide the best means to transport a COVID-positive patient.  However, in the event increased volume of patient flow is required, AMC will be prepared to increase throughput using other means as necessary.

So there's a -- there's a number of other efforts we can discuss as we get into the Q&A.  I look forward to that, but suffice it to say, our national response to COVID-19 is an all-hands-on-deck effort and Air Mobility Command is doing its part to support this fight.  Through our active Reserve and Air National Guard components, we stand ready to do everything possible to mitigate the effects of the outbreak and ensure we continue to execute rapid global mobility.

So that's -- that's the end of my prepared remarks.

Ann, over to you.

STAFF:  OK.  Lita, first question.

Q:  Hi, thank you, General.  Just a couple quick follow-ups on some of your comments.

Number one, have you gotten any specific request for the containment units or do you foresee any sort of imminent request for that?

And then just secondly, on your -- your force, are you quarantining the pilots in order to ensure that they are able to fly?  And have you had any outbreaks among any of the pilots and air crew that are affecting any of your efforts to move things?

GEN. THOMAS:  OK, great.  So I'll answer the first one.

So, specific requests for movement of a patient in a Transport Isolation System, not received yet.  When we have those, we will execute those missions as they're tasked.  But today, we have not executed one of those movements inside a Transport Isolation System.

Your second question about the force, I -- I think it's really important for everybody to understand how valuable, by the way, the secretary of defense's guidance is on allowing local commanders to make decisions on how to best protect the force.  We have a wide variety of missions across the department, many of them that are influenced by local conditions and situations, and so what I can tell you is that each of our installation and wing commanders are taking the actions that they need to -- to protect the parts of their force that are -- that are most critical to sustaining the readiness and the missions that we've got to perform, and those types of actions can vary between, you know, limiting the movement of certain elements of the force.  Some of the examples that I gave you before about kind of an A-shift, B-shift environment -- those are the kind of things that if we were to have something to manifest on the installation that it would limit the effect that it would have on the ability of the force to execute our missions.  Over.

Q:  (And then ?), and whether or not you've had any outbreaks among your crews.

GEN. THOMAS:  So we -- we have had manifestations of COVID-19 on our military installations.  The -- the extent of it, I -- I don't think I want to get into a significant amount of detail on.  It is something that we have to be cognizant and -- and constantly watching on.  But what I can tell you is that there is no manifestation of -- of COVID-19 on our installations that would suggest that we'll have any difficulty executing our missions at this point.

Q:  Ryan.

Q:  Hi, General. Thank you for doing this.  You mentioned aeromedical evacuations, but I -- I don't -- apologies.  Have you actually conducted any aeromedical evacuations due to the coronavirus pandemic?  And I had one follow-up.

GEN. THOMAS:  Yeah, so the answer is no, we have not conducted any evacuations of a COVID-19-infected patient to date.  We are prepared to do it today in small numbers, should a requirement manifest itself.

Q:  Thank you.  And then you mentioned the -- the swab test kit, swab flights.  Have you flown any other testing equipment or medical equipment like ventilators?  Have you transported any of -- of that type of equipment in response to the coronavirus spread, or is it just the testing kits?

GEN. THOMAS:  So not to my knowledge have we moved anything besides the testing swabs.  What I can tell you is that we are postured to be able to support requirements that come from FEMA through the Department of Defense and TRANSCOM to execute.  So we're in that posture, but we have not.

STAFF:  Valerie Insinna?

GEN. THOMAS:  Let me just add, my previous comments here -- field hospital equipment and those kind of things.  I think you copied that, but -- but everything else is not yet.

STAFF:  Valerie?

Q:  Hey, sir.  Can you hear me?

GEN. THOMAS:  Got you loud and clear, Valerie.

Q:  Awesome.  Thank you for doing this.  So this is sort of a basic question.  It might even be a little bit of a dumb question, but on the COVID-19 test swab pickups, can you talk a little bit about why AMC airlift was kind of deemed necessary to bring those swabs to the U.S.?  Like, why -- why not rely on commercial air delivery?  Is there some sort of benefit as far as speed or cost to taxpayers?

GEN. THOMAS:  Yeah, so Valerie, I can tell you at the beginning it was certainly a matter of the sense of -- the urgency required to execute the mission, our availability to execute that mission.  And whether, you know, those -- those continue to be the reasons why we're doing it, via gray tail airlift, I can't tell you the exact nature as to why.  We're clearly getting the job done, and we're proud to do it for the nation, and so we'll continue to fly those missions as long as we're tasked.  Over.

Q:  Cool, and just one follow-up.  Can you talk a little bit about whether there's been any stress on the supply side, as far as, you know, getting what crews need for maintenance?

GEN. THOMAS:  OK, the -- the last part of your -- your transmission there was garbled, Valerie.  Could you repeat the last part of your question?

Q:  Sorry.  I was wondering if there's been any stress on the supply side, as far as getting the parts and components that is needed to maintain AMC planes.  Thanks.

GEN. THOMAS:  OK, yeah, so -- so basically, are we able to continue to sustain the -- the readiness of our aircraft and other systems, and -- and the answer to the question right now is, is we're not seeing major limitations on our ability to sustain our -- our aircraft.  I do think we need to be clear-eyed about the fact that -- that the workforces that support our aircraft and the -- you know, from -- from cradle to grave, so to speak, they're composed of Americans of all ages and -- and spread across the country.  And so depending on how this all plays out there may be some impacts that manifest themselves.  But right now, we haven't seen major impacts to the availability of aircraft.  Over.

STAFF:  Thanks.  Brian Everstine?

Q:  Yes, thanks for doing this.  Can you hear me OK?

GEN. THOMAS:  I got you loud and clear, Brian.

Q:  Excellent.  A couple days ago General Goldfein put out a deadline for MAJCOMs to report back on what they deemed as mission-essential.  Can you talk about AMC's part of that -- what you deemed as mission-essential and how those -- that discussion played out?

GEN. THOMAS:  Yeah, Brian, I -- I can't give you all the details.  You can probably figure out why I wouldn't -- wouldn't say what every item on the list is for mission-essential.  But -- but I would think that there's some pretty clear things that are really important to the nation and -- and our role in the -- in the -- the defense of America and -- and the United States.  You know, it's quite obvious that we have to maintain a strategic deterrent.  There is a critical mission there that we have to continue to do our part for it, and Air Mobility Command has a big, important part of it with our tanker force.  Clearly, we have to also maintain the sovereign skies over America, and so there is the mission that is performed by NORAD, and that certainly has support that comes from the Air Mobility Command.  And then all the things that we've been talking about, whether it's aeromedical evacuation, for example, or whether it's global airlift or airlift possibly even here within the continental United States, you know, the movement of the field hospitals -- hospitals.  Those would be examples of things where we have -- we -- we've made very clear to our commanders that these are capabilities and capacity that you have to be able to maintain, and you need to take the appropriate measures at the local level to ensure that that force continues to be healthy and ready.  Over.

STAFF:  Any follow-ups, Brian?

GEN. THOMAS:  Yeah, I'm sorry, Ann.  You were talking.  I got some crosstalk there.

STAFF:  I just asked Brian if he had a follow-up.

Q:  Yeah, my follow-up was what -- if you could expand on what is the non-essential as part of that review.

GEN. THOMAS:  Yeah, so I guess, you know, Brian, examples that you -- you probably are already aware of is there are certain functions on our installations that we're no longer performing.  We're doing that in order to protect the force as well as the dependents and others that are on the installation.  And so there's a whole host of, for example, M.W.R. activities that we're not able to do right now.  There's a whole host of other, you know, type of -- of activities that previously would have been open that are now closed.

So I think those are clear examples of where we've set prioritization consistent with the secretary of defense's guidance.  Over.

STAFF:  Tara Copp?

Q:  Hi.  Thanks for doing this.

I wanted to ask more about the maintainers.  This is another demand upon them, another strain upon that (force that is for the Air Force 15 ?), a lot of pressure on their maintainers.

With the A-B rotations, I guess, up to 12-hour shifts and 12-in, 12-out, what are you doing to be able to support your maintainers, particularly since most of those supporting things on base such as food court, et cetera are closed?  How are you making sure that this doesn't further burn out your maintenance crews?

GEN. THOMAS:  OK, thanks, Tara, for the question.

I think the Air Force has worked mightily over the past few years to get our maintenance workforce back to a condition of health.  I know that you all have reported on the reports about 4,000 maintenance personnel into the workforce, and we've been really proud of being able to do that and getting those new maintainers trained up and all that.

So I'd say that only because I don't think we have a starting condition going into this situation, where we -- where -- similar to where we were four or five years ago.  I think we were reasonably healthy in the maintenance workforce.

Now, to the specifics of what you, you know, identified there, so the A shift, B shift, yeah, they absolutely have an impact in the sense that we've got to reduce the demand on that maintainer because there are less of them on the flight line at any given time.

So we've adjusted our flight schedules so that we are matching those to the aircraft generation capability or capacity that we have on the flight line.  And so those -- that's the way that we're trying to maintain the balance.

We know that this is a circumstance that's measured in months, not weeks.  This is -- this is month -- you know, multiple-months-type effort that we're involved in here.  And so our commanders are making decisions and setting up schedules to sustain the force through that kind of time period.  Over.

Q:  And just as a follow-up, when you say a reduced demand, it seems like it's actually the opposite, that there's an uptick in demand for flights such as getting more swabs, even while you're doing your normal operations.  Isn't that the case?

GEN. THOMAS:  Yeah, but realize, Tara, that the Department and the Air Force have taken actions to reduce some of the demand on the force right now.  So -- so you've seen guidance come out of the secretary about limitations on some travel movement, limitations on other things, both to protect the force but it also actually reduces some of the demand.

So exercises for example, large overseas exercises, you've all reported on the fact that many of those have been deferred or postponed, so that reduces the operational demand signal on us.

You know, volume of COVID-19 response-related missions, that is a variable that we still have to keep our eye on.  Right now, we don't -- we have not seen any signals up to this point that we are overtaxing the capacity of the force, (inaudible).  Over.

Q:  OK, thank you.

STAFF:  Tony Capaccio?

Q:  Hi, sir, can you hear me?

GEN. THOMAS:  Yeah, Tony, I got you on clear.  Good morning.

Q:  OK, a couple quickies.  How long do you expect the Aviano mission to continue?  Do you have formal taskings on this?  And can you talk a little bit about Copons (?) cooperation?  I understand they're actually driving pallets of these swabs up to the -- up to Aviano to be loaded.

GEN. THOMAS:  So -- so, Tony, on your last one, I can't give you anything additional on the behavior of -- of the particular vendor in Italy that's providing the swabs.  If they're doing that kind of stuff, I think that's wonderful.  They're, you know, being helpful.

In terms of the missions that we're flying, we're going to continue to fly them as long as TRANSCOM tasks them to us.  And then they obviously get their -- their taskings as coordinated from the other government agencies involved at OSD.

So -- so the short answer to your question there, Tony, number nine, we're going to execute.  If we get 10, 11, 12, whatever it is, we'll keep executing those missions.  Over.

Q:  3D printing, what's the potential there for -- for expanding that effort at Travis to a national level?  Have you touched base with FEMA on this in terms of the potential to actually 3D-print N95 masks and face plates?

GEN. THOMAS:  Yeah, so Tony, I think I would be way out of my lane to be able to say whether, you know, a locally 3D-printed mask or anything else related to countering the -- the risk of COVID-19 infection is going to be effective or not.  I think that that's probably, you know, the Joint Staff surge and the experts at the CDC and others, they're the ones that can answer those questions about how the supply system and how things can be manufactured would be most effective.  Over.

Q:  OK, because you're doing it at Travis, and that's why I thought it was a prototype effort.

GEN. THOMAS:  Yeah, I think we've got some -- Travis has been a great place where a lot of energy on innovation has occurred, and we're really proud of that.  I'm just talking about this specific instance.  I don't think I'm qualified or we're in a position to tell you whether that bears fruit or not or whether it's something that we should be doing.  Over.

Q:  Fair enough, thanks.

STAFF:  And we have time for another question.  Is there anybody on the line that has a question, either a re-attack or something -- someone who hasn't asked a question yet?

Q:  Hi, (inaudible) Cameron from The Wall Street Journal here, if I could put one in?  Can you hear me OK?

GEN. THOMAS:  Yeah, go ahead, I've got you loud and clear.  Wall Street Journal.

Q:  OK, yeah, Wall Street Journal.

I wonder if you could just give us a quick update on the -- on the CRAF program.  You've talked before about how you're focusing on commercial capacity for the -- for the international airlift efforts.

What would it take to, given the uncertainty over what the domestic commercial network might look like by the end of the month or into next month, what would be the kind of triggers that might make you move up the status of the CRAF program, particularly domestically?

GEN. THOMAS:  OK, that's -- that's a great question.  Let me start with the CRAF program has been a huge success for decades.

We're really proud of that partnership between commercial cargo and passenger carriers that fly under U.S. flags and the USTRANSCOM and the Air Mobility commander, really works well.

What's going on right now is, is that we are able to access the capacity that we need from commercial providers who are members of the CRAF without having to do any activation itself of any CRAF stages, stage one, two or three, which it sounds like you're familiar with.

Q:  Yeah.

GEN. THOMAS:  TRANSCOM basically puts out movements for bid by those commercial carriers, and they are coming in and they are taking those tasks and executing them with vigor and confidence.  And so right now at this point, we perceive that we'll be able to continue that, and that there won't require any activation itself formally of the CRAF program.  I hope that makes sense.  Over.

Q:  No, it makes a lot of sense, given the amount of capacity out there.  Are you able -- or many your colleagues can do this offline -- able to give us some sort of sense of, you know, how much commercial capacity you’re currently utilizing?

GEN. THOMAS:  Yeah, I think that that's a question that we can take for follow up.

Q:  Yeah.

GEN. THOMAS:  And we would do that in -- in partnership with USTRANSCOM.  Over.

Q:  That's great.  Thank you so much.


STAFF:  OK, thanks, everyone, for joining us.  If you have any follow-on questions feel free to reach out to Colonel Pickart at Air Mobility Command, and the team there will -- will take anything for follow up.