SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. — In a room dimly lit by television screens, dozens of airmen tapped away at computers and worked the phones. Some were keeping watch over a high-priority mission to move a Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter from a base in Arizona to a destination near Ukraine’s border.
Earlier that day, a civilian colleague had checked a spreadsheet and found a C-17 transport plane in Washington state that was available to pick up the helicopter and begin a daylong trip.
It was up to the airmen to give the plane’s crew its orders, make sure the plane took off and landed on time and handle any problems along the way.
The C-17 would fly from McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base outside Tucson, where the helicopter was parked in a repository for retired military airplanes known as “the boneyard.”
“So it’s two and a half hours from McChord to Davis-Monthan,” said Col. Bob Buente, reviewing the first leg of the journey. “Then four hours to load, then they’ll take off about 7:30 tonight. Then five hours to Bangor, then we’ll put them to bed because of the size of the next leg.”
From Bangor, Maine, the cargo flight — call sign: Reach 140 — would leave for Europe, the colonel said.
Since the war in Ukraine began four months ago, the Biden administration has contributed billions of dollars in military aid to the Ukrainian government, including American-made machine guns, howitzers and artillery rocket launchers, as well as Russian-designed weaponry that the country’s military still uses, like the Mi-17 helicopter.
The Pentagon has drawn many of the items from its own inventory. But how they reach Ukraine often involves behind-the-scenes coordination by teams at a military base in Illinois, about 25 miles east of St. Louis.
There at Scott Air Force Base, where a half-dozen retired transport planes are on display just outside the main gate, several thousand logisticians from each branch of the armed forces work at the United States Transportation Command — or Transcom. In military parlance, it is a “combatant command,” equal to better-known units that are responsible for parts of the globe — like Central Command and Indo-Pacific Command — and takes its orders directly from the secretary of defense.
Transcom has worked out the flow of every shipment of military aid from the United States to Ukraine, which began in August and kicked into high gear after the Russian invasion.
The process begins when the government in Kyiv sends a request to a call center on an American base in Stuttgart, Germany, where a coalition of more than 40 nations coordinates the aid. Some of the orders are filled by a U.S. partner or ally, and the rest are handled by the United States — routed through U.S. European Command, which is also in Stuttgart, to Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who discuss them in weekly meetings with the service chiefs and combatant commanders.
If the desired items are available, and the combatant commanders decide that giving them to Ukraine will not unduly harm their own war plans, General Milley makes a recommendation to Mr. Austin, who in turn makes a recommendation to President Biden. If the president signs off, Transcom figures out how to move the aid to an airfield or port near Ukraine.
The order to move the Russian helicopter zipped across the base in Illinois from Transcom’s headquarters to a one-story brick building housing the 618th Air Operations Center, where red-lit clocks offered the local time at major military aviation bases in California, Alaska, Hawaii, Japan, Qatar and Germany.
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Colonel Buente runs the day-to-day operations at the 618th Air Operations Center, where about 850 active-duty airmen, reservists and civilians spend their days planning missions like the helicopter’s trip, he said. Making sure those plans are carried out falls to a smaller group — working in shifts of 60 people, 24 hours a day, every day of the year — that follows the stream of missions posted on a constantly updated screen centered on the back wall all the way to completion.
It is the same center that orchestrated the mass evacuation of Americans and Afghans from Afghanistan’s capital in August. On the busiest day then, 21,000 passengers were flown out of the Kabul airport, with planes taking off or landing every 90 minutes, officials said.
That was a busy time for Transcom, which on an average day not only plans and coordinates about 450 cargo flights but also oversees about 20 cargo ships, along with a network of transcontinental railroads and more than a thousand trucks — all of which routinely carry war matériel.
The flights also transport humanitarian assistance and other supplies when needed, including shipments of baby formula in May to alleviate a shortage in the United States.
Commanding all of it is Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost of the Air Force, who is just the second female officer to lead one of the Pentagon’s 11 combatant commands.
For the aid shipments to Ukraine, the planning begins long before the White House announces a new aid package, she said.
“We cannot wait until the president signs or the secretary gives an order before we do the necessary planning,” General Van Ovost said in an interview in her office, where a photo of Amelia Earhart hung on the wall. “We’re watching it evolve,” the general said of the discussions about aid, “and we create plans that are sitting at the ready.”
Mr. Biden authorized the first U.S. military equipment and weapons for Ukraine — a $60 million package — on Aug. 27. At the time, it took about a month to get the items onto a plane after they were approved, according to General Van Ovost, a test pilot who flew cargo planes.
The White House has announced 13 subsequent aid packages for Ukraine, and the planning process has advanced enough that it now takes less than a day from the president approving a shipment to having the first items loaded onto a plane, she said. Three of the packages in the war’s first 29 days totaled $1.35 billion. As of Friday, the United States has committed $6.9 billion in military aid to Kyiv since Russia invaded.
Transcom’s operations center decides whether to send aid via cargo plane or by ship based on how quickly European Command needs it to arrive. Though military cargo planes like C-17s offer the fastest delivery option, they incur the highest costs. About half of Transcom’s airfreight is handled by a fleet of contracted, commercially owned aircraft, including 747s, each of which can carry double the weight a C-17 can.
Whenever possible, though, military planners send goods on cargo ships, a less expensive option.
“We’ve activated two vessels and used multiple liner service vessels to deliver cargo bound for Ukraine,” said Scott Ross, a spokesman for the command. The vessels and more than 220 flights had delivered just over 19,000 tons of military aid to Ukraine since August, he said.
On one of the large screens in Colonel Buente’s operations center, about a dozen missions were listed in order of importance. At the top were two “1A1” missions supporting some of the command’s most important customers: the president, vice president, the secretaries of state and defense as well as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Immediately below those missions was Reach 140, the C-17 flying to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. Thousands of aircraft have baked there in the sun, including 13 Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters that the United States had bought for Afghanistan before Kabul fell to the Taliban.
In recent months, 12 of the helicopters were shipped to countries near Ukraine, returned to flying condition and handed over to Ukrainian pilots for the fight with Russia.
As the airmen tracked the C-17, a handful of soldiers and civilians in a small Army-run section of Transcom monitored a separate mission: four cargo trains moving across the United States as well as several cargo ships, some of which were owned by the Navy.
One of the Navy vessels was heading from Norfolk, Va., to a military port in North Carolina, where it would be loaded with ammunition for M142 HIMARS rocket launchers long desired by the Ukrainian military. The rockets, packed in bundles of six and loaded into 20-foot shipping containers, were also en route to the port. Cranes would soon lift the metal boxes off tractor-trailers and rail cars, stack them aboard the ship and lock them into place for a journey at sea lasting about two weeks.
Most of the Pentagon’s military aid sent to Ukraine on ships goes to two German ports — one on the North Sea and the other on the Baltic.
To keep potential adversaries from closing off routes for Ukraine military aid, Army planners can set up operations at any one of dozens of ports on the two seas. Russian warships have largely shut down the most direct routes for resupply missions — Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea.
At the 618th, where presidents and secretaries of defense can reassign planes in a heartbeat for emergencies around the world, a screen that usually displays a classified map of global threats to military air and sea shipments was blacked out for security reasons while a reporter was in the room.
And three of the televisions were set to cable news because, as Colonel Buente explained, “we usually end up reacting to breaking news.”