Civil Reserve Air Fleet is Critical to National Security
One year ago on August 22, 2021, the United States Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) activated Stage 1 of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) to move as many people as physically possible to safety during the historic Afghanistan Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO).
As directed by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, USTRANSCOM activated CRAF to augment support to the Department of State (DoS) in the evacuation of U.S. citizens and personnel, Special Immigrant Visa applicants, and other at-risk individuals from Afghanistan. A total of 18 aircraft from USTRANSCOM’s commercial CRAF partners were activated: three each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, and Omni Air; two from Hawaiian Airlines; and four from United Airlines.
Many may recall the images of U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft departing Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) in Kabul, Afghanistan. Yet those flights began only the first leg of the journey for the evacuees. CRAF-activated aircraft did not fly into HKIA; instead, they were used for the onward movement of passengers from temporary safe havens and interim staging bases. Activating the CRAF increased passenger transportation beyond the military’s organic capacity and allowed military aircraft to focus on operations in and out of Kabul.
“Having our commercial partners move evacuees from interim staging areas to their final destination allowed our military aircraft to focus on evacuating as many people out of Kabul – as fast as physics allowed,” said U.S. Air Force Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost, commander, USTRANSCOM. Van Ovost was the commander of Air Mobility Command (AMC) during the Afghan NEO.
“USTRANSCOM and AMC hosted daily calls with the carriers to seek feedback, address operational issues, and ensure we were collaborating towards mission accomplishment,” Van Ovost said.
The cooperation between civilian air carriers and USTRANSCOM proved vital to the success of the unprecedented airlift, the largest NEO of passengers in history, which transported more than 124,000 to safety. In addition to the carriers that supported CRAF-activated aircraft, other commercial partners in the CRAF program played a vital role in onward movement efforts under existing contracts.
“It was the airlines that were carrying those passengers to east coast destinations in the U.S. and then after their processing, on toward final locations throughout the country,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Corey Martin, USTRANSCOM director of operations at the time and now 18th Air Force commander. “Our commercial industry partners, in this case the airlines, were and are integral to our day-to-day operations.”
In supporting this unprecedented operation, six commercial airlines moved evacuees from safe havens in the Middle East to Europe and another seven companies transported evacuees throughout the U.S. to various military facilities. In total, more than 420 commercial flights supported the operation with approximately 230 international fights and 190 domestic flights within the nation.
“No other military in the world has anything like it,” said now-retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., who was at the time commander of U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) and who led the overall mission. “This evacuation could simply not have been done without the amazing flexibility of U.S. Transportation Command.”
This was only the third CRAF activation since U.S. President Harry S. Truman directed the creation of the program in 1951 and the first time in the past two decades.
“The history of CRAF is quite a success story, as the recent NEO confirms, but the ever-changing world of air logistics requires the program to continue to evolve,” said Mr. Kenneth Brennan, director of Acquisition, USTRANSCOM.
“USTRANSCOM, with input from the airlines, is constantly assessing impacts – including COVID, technology, climate, labor, and requirements, etc. – to ensure the CRAF partnership remains strong and these capabilities continue to be available to maintain the Nation’s asymmetrical edge in strategic lift,” Brennan said.
What is the Civil Reserve Air Fleet?
The CRAF is a cooperative, voluntary program involving the U.S. Department of Transportation, DoD, and the U.S. civil air carrier industry in a partnership to augment the DoD’s airlift capacity during a national defense-related crisis. Air carriers volunteer their aircraft to the CRAF program through contractual agreements with USTRANSCOM. In return, the participating carriers are given preference for DoD contract awards to carry commercial peacetime cargo and passenger traffic. It is a core component of USTRANSCOM’s ability to meet the objectives of the National Defense Strategy.
CRAF is divided into international (long and short range) and national segments and has three stages: Stage I – Minor Regional Crisis; Stage II – Major Theater War; and Stage III – National Mobilization. The commander of USTRANSCOM requests Secretary of Defense authority to activate Stages I and II and requires Secretary of Transportation concurrence for Stage III.
“Prior to the establishment of the CRAF, the U.S. military chartered commercial airlines during World War II, the Berlin Airlift in 1949-1950, and the Korean War,” said Dr. Joseph Mason, USTRANSCOM historian.
“Civilian airlines voluntarily provided airlift when needed for some 40 years, so CRAF was not activated until the Persian Gulf war,” Mason added.
During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, CRAF flew more than 5,300 missions and airlifted more than 705,000 passengers and 230,000 tons of cargo. DoD activated Stage 1 of CRAF Aug. 17, 1990, and the second stage on Jan. 16, 1991.
Just over a decade later, DoD activated 47 passenger aircraft in CRAF Stage I on Feb. 8, 2003, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. On April 1, 2003, the number of activated aircraft rose to 51.
“The activation ensured military planners had sufficient capacity to move the required 5,000 passengers per day,” Mason said. “In contrast to Desert Shield, activation of cargo aircraft was unnecessary due to sufficient organic and volunteer commercial capacity. The carriers regularly volunteered aircraft in excess of the 31 aircraft that would have been activated in Long Range International Cargo, Stage I.”
According to Mason, the fact that CRAF commercial aircraft supporting the Afghan NEO did not land in Afghanistan made the third activation unique because DoD asked carriers to fly evacuees from temporary safe havens rather than deploy U.S. military forces.
“The Afghanistan NEO was really a capstone event for our enterprise,” said Van Ovost. “In much the same way as our counterparts during the Berlin Airlift, our entire warfighting framework was put to the test.”
And what might not be well known, Van Ovost noted: “Many of those carriers volunteered their support prior to the 22nd of August when Secretary Austin ordered the activation. All of our commercial partners embodied the American spirit during the operation.”
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By USTRANSCOM Public Affairs; Kenneth Brennan, Director of Acquisition, USTRANSCOM; Dr. Joseph Mason, Historian, USTRANSCOM; and Douglas Cook, Deputy Chief, Airlift Division, Acquisition