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Is it time for purple ECS?

ELLSWORTH AFB, S.D. -- Expeditionary combat support is the foundation upon which the Air Force projects power around the globe. Airmen from the 28th Bomb Wing and the Air Force continue to support operations abroad. Airmen not deployed stay trained and ready to deploy at a moments notice to anywhere on the globe. ECS consists of units specializing in engineering, acquisitions, installation security and defense, communications, personnel, dining, housing and quality-of-life programs, as well as supply, transportation, emergency response and aerial port operations.

The remaining distinctive capabilities the Air Force takes to the fight are air and space superiority, global attack, rapid global mobility, precision engagement and information superiority. ECS is the foundation of agile combat support, one of the six distinctive capabilities the Air Force brings to the fight, and must be thought of as a power projection capability. ECS brings the stunning air superiority and supremacy capabilities of the Air Force to the enemy via the establishment of expeditionary air bases.

In erecting these air bases, ECS forces establish airfields in remote and austere locations. These specialized forces build and bring air bases up to operational status in a matter of days thanks to the power of Air Force strategic airlift. After the base is established, combat forces populate the new installation as ECS forces continue to sustain and maintain robust facilities to improve conditions and operations as well as accommodate additional military missions. This includes joint and combined missions.

Current military operations are notably joint, or purple, in execution and many bases in Iraq and Afghanistan are host to multiple services and nations. The "purple" designation is a reference to the blending of uniform colors from the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps. Opportunities to maximize scarce manpower and dollars at these super bases abound and are regularly being capitalized upon.

Airmen providing ECS operate under several different scenarios. Most are deployed in expeditionary Air Force squadrons, but many are taking on taskings in support of Army combat support units in lieu of traditional Soldiers.

Regardless of how our ECS Airmen are deployed, they are doing amazing jobs in joint combat environments. These Airmen are successfully enhancing operations and providing combat support to all units at their deployed locations. Most ECS functions are being provided under these conditions, but some of the best examples include explosive ordnance disposal, fire protection, base defense, postal operations, engineering, supply, dining, fitness and recreation services. There are few that are truly joint in nature instead of service dependant.

Contingency contracting operations is one of the rare ECS functions that has made the transition to a truly joint unit, leaving the service-specific concept behind. Contingency contracting operations were previously delivered via an Air Force expeditionary contracting squadron. This unit specialized in the acquisition of base construction and sustainment services, as well as the acquisition of military supplies from local and stateside sources. As deployed bases took on additional missions and began hosting multi-service operations, each service brought its own acquisition support. Contracting units began competing with each other for limited local resources like concrete and lumber, and had redundant capability and personnel.

These units were replaced by the Joint Contracting Command-Iraq/Afghanistan. Each forward operating location is assigned a joint regional contracting office that provides all procurement needs for the installation. A single procurement activity can better prioritize local contractor workload to better meet the needs of local military forces, as well as maximize quantity discounts and economy of scale opportunities. With our forces increasingly operating in joint environments, opportunities to evolve joint ECS units abound.

As the military begins to explore stateside joint basing and deployed ECS operations become increasingly joint, the old adage "train like you fight" comes strongly to the forefront. Is it time to push the nation's combat support functions into a more deliberate joint home station structure? The various specialties would have opportunities to develop and refine their approaches to joint ECS. Single-service bases could become civilian and contractor supported missions, allowing ECS personnel to be concentrated at a few super installations. This consolidation would provide the ability for more effective JECS training and exercises.

The counter point is the principle of unity of command and it cannot be lightly brushed aside. As mentioned earlier, under the distinctive capability of agile combat support, the Air Force values its air bases, permanent and expeditionary, as a command and control center of operations. This differs from sister services where the installation is not the hub of operations.

Part of this difference stems from the air and space nature of the Air Force. The Air Force has an obvious reliance on airfields and as a result must have control of the airfield, a position known as senior airfield authority. Additionally, the SAA should be the base operation support integrator and, by extension, the installation commander. All ECS in support of the installation should work for that commander.

The concept of JECS is interesting and merits additional thought. The correct answer may lie somewhere between service specific and joint ECS. Perhaps a completely new concept is in order with purple ECS predominately serving joint component commanders (air, sea and land) but also directly reporting to a specific service command as appropriate. It is clear that purple ECS will be difficult to implement, but the benefits of such an organization are worth exploring.

ECS is evident while Airmen from the 28th Bomb Wing support war-time operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Airmen of the 28th Bomb Wing still at Ellsworth stay trained and ready to deploy at a moments notice.

"Fly, Fight, and Win!"