President Obama’s European visit this week has strained Air Force heavy-airlift capabilities and obliged the military to hire more foreign contractors to help resupply U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, according to military sources.
The large delegation traveling with the president in Europe required moving several transports, including jumbo C-5s and C-17s, from sorties ferrying supplies to Afghanistan to European bases for the presidential visit, said two military officials familiar with the issue. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid any misunderstanding with White House officials.
The Air Mobility Command, part of the U.S. Transportation Command, was ordered to provide airlift for the president’s entourage of nearly 500 people, including senior officials, staff, support personnel, news reporters and some 200 Secret Service agents for the European visit, which began Tuesday in London.
Airlift for the traveling entourage also was used to move the president’s new heavy-armored limousine and several presidential helicopters used for short transits.
To make up for the shortfall, the Air Force had to increase the number of Eastern European air transport contractors hired to fly Il-76 and An-124 transport jets into Afghanistan loaded with troop supplies, the two officials said.
The airlift crunch comes at a particularly difficult time, as the military is stepping up deliveries of supplies in advance of a surge of 21,000 U.S. troops.
One official said the problem was not only the vehicles and helicopters that were needed for presidential security, but also the unusually large number of people traveling with the president. The official said U.S. taxpayers are paying twice for airlift, once for Air Force jets that are not available for a war zone and again for foreign contractor aircraft that are.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to comment. Col. Gregory Julian, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, said he was unaware of a transport shortage but noted that it was not unusual for the military to hire air-transport contractors in such circumstances.
Presidential logistics for such trips involve a complicated military process that involves insuring smooth travel and having backup aircraft ready for use. Such large trips as the current European one generally cost millions of dollars.
Navy Capt. Kevin Aandahl, a spokesman with U.S. Transportation Command, said there was no link between increased contractor airlift in Afghanistan and the aircraft used for presidential travel this week.
“Contractual airlift [IL-76 and AN-124] used to support Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan is not in any way connected to presidential movement requirements,” he said.
Transportation command “routinely” contracts with U.S. air freight lines that subcontract with companies flying Il-76s and An-124s to move large military vehicles.
“This is simply a ‘best business practice’ that allows us to meet the needs of our warfighters at the best cost for the taxpayer,” he said.