Refining Civilian Airlift Augmentation for Great Power Competition
The new era of contested logistics offers the Department of Defense (DOD) an opportunity to reexamine its civilian airlift augmentation, the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF). Despite its reliable performance in the past, there are stark and compelling indications that the CRAF is severely limited in the risk environment of Great Power Competition. Accordingly, DOD and industry should explore new concepts to mitigate the inherent risk of pure commercial airlift operating in non-permissive environments. This article suggests that the CRAF must develop a limited, niche capability to integrate aircrew, aircraft, and command & control (C2) into a “hybrid-CRAF” in order to not only build resilience during conflict but also to respond to rapidly deteriorating situations such as those we recently witnessed in Kabul, Afghanistan.
The history of air mobility includes a strong partnership between the civilian and military sectors. America mobilized its civilian aircraft to meet wartime demand at the beginning of World War II until the Army Air Forces Air Transport Command could take on the bulk of requirements. Just after the Berlin Airlift, the DOD established the CRAF to provide rapid access to American passenger and cargo commercial aircraft. A vital resource for multiple generations, the CRAF continues to provide peacetime augmentation even as it supported three activations in Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and recently in Operation Allies Refuge.
The need for continued CRAF participation is deeply aligned with America’s international commitments. The US must mobilize forces at its forts and installations, aggregate them at aerial ports or seaports of embarkation, move them into theater where they will undergo some form of Joint Reception Staging and Onward Integration, and then transport them to their destination. In addition to this “fort to foxhole” demand signal, the nation must provide an uninterrupted supply of perishables (such as medical supplies and food) and grapple with bulky and hazardous cargo (such as munitions), often across geographic chokepoints or with permission from other countries.
With this enduring requirement, the CRAF has been a partner of choice, and a decisive factor, in providing air mobility to the Joint Force. The DOD gets assured access to an operating civilian fleet with built-in efficiencies and economies of scale while also avoiding the cost of maintaining unused capacity in its own organic fleet. To illustrate, United States Air Force (USAF) historians noted that the cost of the CRAF in Operation Desert Storm was $1.5B. An equivalent service provided by the military aircraft would have cost between $15-$50B. Additionally, the ongoing capacity of the CRAF to move passengers, sustainment bulk, and palletized cargo frees up military aircraft for oversized/outsized cargo and tactical missions.
However, the growing access, range, and lethality of weapons technology have ushered in a new era of “contested logistics.” An adversary, who may be unwilling or unable to win a force-on-force confrontation, may choose to interrupt an opponent’s logistics throughput. This creates a competitive advantage, especially in limited operations where the fastest participant gains political or military leverage. In operations short of open conflict, such as Afghanistan, the US military faces an “enemy at the gates” scenario. Thus, while US planners must deal with predictable logistical challenges, they must now estimate the effect that various enemy tactics, techniques, and procedures will have against their supply chains.
Defense analysts observe a complex tapestry of emerging threats such as unmanned aerial systems (UAS), hypersonic weapons, and cyber attacks extending the threats against air mobility, whether airborne or within the airfield footprint. Recent conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, and Nagorno-Karabakh provide mobility-relevant insight into the need for timely logistics and the expanding lethality of the modern battlefield. Consequently, the US cannot afford to presume that civilian aircraft, the backbone of America’s ability to project power, are ready to underwrite Dynamic Force Employment as imagined by the National Defense Strategy.
While the risk management groups at US Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) and Air Mobility Command (AMC) diligently analyze threats and risks to safeguard CRAF, the new nature of contested logistics creates a chasm between what the organic USAF fleet can provide and what the CRAF will augment. The DOD must respond to this critical vulnerability or accept the strategic risk that it cannot deploy and sustain its forces at the time and place in sufficient quantities to achieve mission success.
To start rethinking its existing mobility model, the next evolution of air mobility must maintain tempo, and it must be integrated into the larger Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) while syncing with real-time sensor-to-shooter intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
In a full-scale conflict involving the use of hypersonic cruise missiles, long-range precision fires, and air attacks, aircraft will need to be integrated into the overall command and control of military operations. Threat mitigations may include Patriot Missile Defense systems, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, and combat air patrols, thus establishing point defense or manufacturing windows of overmatch to permit not only aircraft but also all military forces to operate in the environment. Logistics will factor into planning to the same extent as forward combat operations.
The loss of logistics capabilities can crush a military campaign. Decision-makers must understand the second and third order effects of losing a capability and its cost in terms of reconstitution and transportation backlog. The compounding trauma of losing a low-density transportation asset during a specific operation along with losing any future contributions tends to skew decisions towards the risk-averse end of the spectrum. In this delicate environment, there is very little that can be coined as “risk-worthy” assets.
While some may credibly predict that the future is unmanned drones or even space-based mobility as the solution, for the practical future, the DOD must embrace the reality that manned airlift underpins its ability to rapidly deliver combat power at the speed of relevance. And thus, while the CRAF remains valuable for many environments, the DOD must preserve its dominance by exploring the concept of an expeditionary-CRAF that allows the DOD to master the maneuver element of the Joint Warfighting Functions.
To start rethinking its existing mobility model, the next evolution of air mobility must maintain tempo, and it must be integrated into the larger Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) while syncing with real-time sensor-to-shooter intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. For commercial partners who (understandably) have a “low” or “no” risk protocol when venturing into an unpredictable, non-permissive, or hostile environment, the DOD must develop a teaming mechanism to combine the optimum aspects of civilian availability with military survivability.
The utility of an expeditionary-CRAF extends beyond full-scale conflict and is evident in recent headlines. The rapid exodus of America from Afghanistan led to an immediate crisis with armed and threatening Taliban fighters immediately outside the airfield. Empowered by an expeditionary-CRAF, the DOD could have leveraged additional aircraft into its scheduling to provide immediate relief even as it focused on establishing a security footprint.
In reality, it was a full week of chaos until the DOD activated the CRAF, and then only as a secondary measure to relieve overcrowded evacuee locations rather than from Afghanistan itself. One can only imagine if this situation was playing out in addition to other demands elsewhere. While every scenario provides its own logistics complexities, there is wisdom in increasing the number of air mobility options to rapidly inflow or extract passengers and cargo using civilian aircraft.
Recognizing this overarching sea change, the DOD should not discard CRAF but expand it to create an expeditionary-CRAF. There will still be demand for the traditional model—where industry, driven by its internal aircraft, crew, maintenance, and insurance (ACMI) efficiencies, provides cargo and passenger movements. But in situations where civilian assets are needed to operate within uncertain or hostile environments, the DOD should develop a more resilient CRAF in order to provide Resilient and Agile Logistics as described in the National Defense Strategy. This will require investment across three lines of effort: Aircrew, Aircraft, and Command & Control (C2).
Military aircrews have some advantages over commercial aircrews in that they are tactical operators who are available to assume military risk where civilian aircrews cannot. The DOD, for good reason, must avoid placing civilians in harm’s way. Relying on CRAF pilots from the civilian population is not advantageous, and there should be some cross-over that places military pilots in civilian cockpits.
To achieve this, the DOD should build a standby cadre of USAF Reserve Component pilots that are day-to-day civilian aviators but can be rapidly activated in the seat and placed under the operational control of a military commander. This could mimic a similar program the Military Sealift Command has designed under the Strategic Sealift Officer Program (SSOP). This is distinct from commercial pilots who are Reserve and Air National Guard aircrew, and would report to their military squadrons. Conceptually, this could be accomplished through incentive programs for transitioning military pilots or even an aviation pipeline where new pilots split an eight-year commitment between four active military years and four in the CRAF Reserve. Regardless of a specific tactic, proactive force management would enable the DOD to have a dedicated pool of civilian aviators ready for activation based on their capabilities and proximity to the point of need.
The benefit of military crews is their fluency with tactical military planning and execution. They would be familiar with military procedures, enabling more efficient communication and integration into air battle management in non-permissive environments. This cannot be replicated with a civilian crew unfamiliar with military operations and unavailable due to risk concerns.
In essence, the surge “fight tonight” airlift are commercial crews already in the seat and flying civilian aircraft. Rigid mobilization schemas require time, space, and authorities not always forthcoming. For example, even if the President mobilizes the Reserve Component, it can take precious days or even weeks to assemble and align crews to aircraft. Through engagement with industry, the DOD should establish the appropriate financial agreements, scheduling, and business rules to create, maintain, and, if necessary, use a CRAF Reserve cadre. This and the legislative authority to active crews by USTRANSCOM creates a responsive airlift capability that cannot be replicated through other means.
Associated closely with crew issues is the responsibility for aircraft risk. Normally the DOD protects CRAF aircraft through US-supplied war risk insurance, which Congress describes as “operations that are deemed essential to the foreign policy or national security interests of the United States.” Lacking a lock-step activation when the CRAF is activated, USTRANSCOM must rely on an external agency, the Department of Transportation, to authorize such insurance. This introduces uncertainties and delays into the mobilization process. A reasonable fix would be for the DOD to accept risk for aircraft placed in a contingency or expeditionary environment. Meanwhile, the remainder of routine CRAF operations would continue to function according to peacetime rules and fall under war risk insurance where appropriate. In this way, the DOD establishes the means to fully utilize vital CRAF aircraft and associated equipment rapidly and on a temporary basis. In terms of Great Power Competition, this also alleviates the risk that civilian carriers face when seeking diplomatic clearances and authorizations within ambiguous conflict zones.
Equipped with military and civilian aircraft under their control, this method gives the forward military commander the flexibility to shape logistics in the contested realm and manage risk-to-mission, even as traditional CRAF operations continue outside the threat bubble.
As an additional step, the DOD should develop a means to protect these civilian aircraft while operating in the expeditionary-CRAF. El Al Airlines, Arkia Israel Airlines, and Israir Airlines already have done this for their fleets to defend against surface-to-air missiles known as Man Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS). For military aircraft, the DOD installed laser-based electro-optic systems known as Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures (LAIRCM). While expensive, these systems can be externally mounted on the underside of the fuselage and removed when not in use. Beyond counter-measures against ballistic threats, the DOD should also explore a broad range of complementary capabilities to promote survivability in the contested environment, such as electronic warfare self-protection (EWSP) systems.
In terms of cost, the DOD has routinely improved CRAF aircraft when it has been in the interest of national security. After the introduction of CRAF, the DOD invested millions of dollars ensuring civilian airlines had reinforced floors and cargo decks to be on call, such as when it spent $600 million to modify nineteen conventional Pan Am 747s for military cargo. The question is not one of feasibility but a conscious trade-off decision that illustrates how DOD will preserve its “Rapid Global Mobility” for the all-domain fight.
The final element of this discussion is incorporating the expeditionary-CRAF into the larger scheme of maneuver. An expeditionary-CRAF, with aircrews and capabilities aligned under the military C2 mechanisms, can more easily integrate into the military’s planning and execution. This reduces the need for redundant civilian carrier operations and allows the DOD to control such measures as diplomatic overflight, scheduling, and crew management.
With civilian-controlled and operated fleets, there are always practical challenges and limits to what the government can expect of them. During Desert Storm, DOD planners struggled to rapidly integrate CRAF, as commercial aircraft lacked military communications interoperability and aircraft counter-measures. Aligning the expeditionary-CRAF into the air mobility entities at Headquarter AMC and the theater Air Operations Center allows the DOD to minimize known frictions points that exist in a pure civilian CRAF.
Equipped with military and civilian aircraft under their control, this method gives the forward military commander the flexibility to shape logistics in the contested realm and manage risk-to-mission, even as traditional CRAF operations continue outside the threat bubble. Such a capability could multiply, rather than decrease, available airfields, limiting the amount of passengers and cargo that must be transloaded to tactical military aircraft at an intermediate staging base (ISB).
The contested operating environment requires external mitigations, such as counterair, missile defense, and airfield footprint security to support mobility missions. A fully functioning expeditionary-CRAF would see airspace controllers and intelligence duty officers notifying crews of threats en route (or through automated onboard systems), allowing aircraft to avoid areas or await counter-measures that can create overmatch in the airspace. Planners could safeguard aircraft by arranging for escorts through hotspots or by providing electronic warfare (EW) effects. By comparison, commercial aircraft operate with limited situational awareness and lack context or resources to make decisions in real-time.
The right size for a hybrid, expeditionary-CRAF could be as few as a dozen available at a time. The DOD must be precise in determining which approach provides an increased mobility capability for contingency plans without overburdening industry. Because the DOD values the existing CRAF program, this hybrid should not pull away from the peacetime business operations of CRAF, which would continue to maintain routine interoperability with AMC’s en route system of aerial ports and support activities known as the Global Air Mobility Support System (GAMSS).
Writing in the Mitchell Forum, the AMC Commander General Jacqueline Van Ovost noted that frictionless en route passages were a thing of the past and that air mobility must be integrated into the battle network to deliver at speed and scale. The USAF is not building additional military aircraft in the numbers needed for Great Power Competition, yet the military will have to grapple with high demand in the contingency, non-permissive environment. This article concludes by offering that for the foreseeable future, the way to do this is through a military-led expeditionary-CRAF, piloted by military aircrew and equipped with sensor equipment, C2 suites, and counter-measures. In this manner, the DOD can meet its obligations in the era of contested logistics. As the motto of the US Army Air Force’s First Troop Command asserts, “He Conquers Who Gets There First.
By Maj Phillip A. Surrey, USAF, Illinois Air National Guard (ILANG)
Photo Caption: Evacuees board an Atlas Air aircraft for a departure flight from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on their way to the United States as part of Operations Allies Refuge, only the third CRAF activation in the history of the program. US Air Force photo by Airman Edgar Grimaldo.