What The Civil Reserve Air Fleet Is And Why It's Been Activated For The Third Time In 70 Years

The fleet can dramatically bolster the Pentagon's own air transport capabilities and that is what it will do for the evacuation of Afghanistan.

US troops in Saudi Arabia after arriving on a Civil Air Reserve Fleet Boeing 747 during Operation Desert Shield in 1990.
DOD

U.S. military has turned to a little-used arrangement with commercial airlines and charter companies, through which it can compel them to provide aircraft to support various operational requirements in a crisis, to support the ongoing evacuations out of Afghanistan. Some two dozen companies are part of this Civil Reserve Air Fleet and agree to provide aircraft and crews in as little as 24 hours, if needed. In this case, the planes will not fly directly to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan's capital Kabul, which is the nexus of the evacuation mission, but will instead help ferry evacuees who have been brought to intermediate locations to more permanent destinations.

The Pentagon announced that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had ordered U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) to activate Stage I of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF). At the time of writing, American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, and Omni Air are each set to contribute three aircraft as part of this activation. Another four would come from United Airlines, while Hawaiian Airlines would provide two more. U.S. military officials have not specified exactly what types of planes make up this fleet of 18 aircraft in total.

USMC

US Marines arrive at March Air Reserve Base in California in 2004 after flying from Iraq on board a chartered airliner.

The Department of Defense and the Department of Commerce formally established the CRAF in December 1951. The decision was a direct result of experiences from the Berlin Airlift just a few years earlier, in which commercial aircraft had been utilized in an ad hoc manner. 

Airline and charter air transportation companies participate in the CRAF via contracts with TRANSCOM. Participation is entirely voluntary, but firms that do so are given preference when competing for U.S. military peacetime passenger and air cargo deals as an incentive. 

Aircraft from participating companies are assigned to support either international or domestic requirements based on their capabilities. "To participate in the international segments of CRAF, carriers must maintain a minimum commitment of 40 percent of its CRAF-capable fleet. Aircraft committed must be U.S.-registered," according to the U.S. Air Force. CRAF carriers must also be able to provide four complete aircrews for each one of these committed aircraft. The U.S. military reviews the status of participating companies and their fleets regularly to make sure they still meet these and other requirements, including maintenance and general safety standards.

As of this month, 24 carriers are enrolled in the CRAF program and have committed 450 aircraft, in total. Of those planes, 413 are in the international segment, while the remaining 37 are in the national, or domestic, segment. "These numbers are subject to change on a monthly basis," the Air Force says in its official fact sheet, which also includes a complete list of participating companies. Those aircraft are otherwise free to perform their regular commercial duties.

The actual activation of the reserve fleet is broken into three stages, with the first, the one now mobilizing to support the evacuations from Afghanistan, being sized to respond to regional contingencies. Activating the second two stages would increase the overall number of available aircraft and they are structured around the expected demands of a major theater war and a general national mobilization, respectively. 

"When notified of call-up, the carrier response time to have its aircraft ready for a CRAF mission is 24, 48, or 72 hours depending on which CRAF stage is activated," according to the Air Force. TRANSCOM, through the U.S. Air Force's Air Mobility Command (AMC), oversees the employment of activated CRAF aircraft, but individual carriers remain responsible for operating and maintaining their aircraft.

This reserve fleet has only been activated twice for actual operations since its creation, though CRAF aircraft have taken part in exercises over the years, as well. The first instance was in 1990 to support the Gulf War, while the second came in 2003 as part of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

DOD

Troops taking part in Exercise Team Spirit 86 disembark from a Civil Reserve Air Fleet aircraft.

DOD

Troops from the US Army's 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized) board a Civil Reserve Air Fleet flight bound for Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield in 1990.

AP Photo/Saurabh Das

Members of the US Army's 4th Infantry Division prepare to disembark from a CRAF flight in Kuwait during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. 

The "CRAF activation provides the Department of Defense access to commercial air mobility resources to augment our support to the Department of State in the evacuation of U.S. citizens and personnel, Special Immigrant Visa applicants, and other at-risk individuals from Afghanistan," according to an official press release. "CRAF activated aircraft will not fly into Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. They will be used for the onward movement of passengers from temporary safe havens and interim staging bases. Activating CRAF increases passenger movement beyond organic capability and allows military aircraft to focus on operations in and out of Kabul."

There had already been reports yesterday that airlines and charter carriers who are members of the CRAF had received a so-called "warning order" alerting them that potential activation was imminent. Charter flights have already been bolstering the U.S. military's airbridge out of Kabul and the Department of Defense said it had helped approximately 17,000 people, the vast majority of whom are non-U.S. citizens, get out of the city just last week.

However, a lack of facilities in which to process evacuees, especially Afghans fleeing their homeland in the face of the Taliban takeover, for movement onward has, along with other logistical and bureaucratic issues, created significant bottlenecks. The first news of the potential use of the CRAF fleet came amid reports that many Afghan evacuees are languishing in a hangar at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar while waiting to move to other, more formalized facilities in the region and beyond. 

Backlogs at Al Udeid, alone, got so bad last week that all flights, including military evacuation missions, out of Hamid Karzai International Airport were paused for approximately eight hours between Aug. 19 and Aug. 20.

The United States just began flying evacuees to Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Friday, which has now joined Qatar and Kuwait among the foreign countries where the U.S. military is transporting evacuees. During one of these flights to Ramstein, a pregnant woman went into labor and U.S. Air Force personnel from the  86th Medical Group safely delivered the baby inside the aircraft, a C-17A Globemaster III airlifter, a type that has already become inexorably associated with the Afghanistan evacuations, after it touched down.

The U.S. government has been in talks with multiple other countries around the world about hosting evacuees, at least on a temporary basis, as well. A number of nations have agreed to take hundreds of Afghans, but are still waiting for the first flights to arrive due to the various issues at play.

As the Pentagon has noted, the activation of the CRAF aircraft should help ease some of these logistical issues, while also freeing up U.S. military cargo aircraft to conduct potentially more hazardous flights out of Kabul. This, in turn, could help reduce congestion at Hamid Karzai International Airport, which has limited ramp space and only one runway, resulting from flights being held on the ground there because intermediate staging locations are not able to receive additional evacuees.

Unfortunately, none of this will help with separate, persistent issues in getting evacuees to Hamid Karzai International Airport. The situation outside the airport remains often chaotic, and sometimes deadly, and new security concerns continue to emerge from one day to the next. Yesterday, the U.S. State Department told Americans not to come to the airport, unless they received instructions from the U.S. government due to unspecified security threats. It was later reported that there were indications that ISIS' franchise in Afghanistan might be looking to launch terrorist attacks targeting the evacuation operations.

With this reality on the ground, French and British troops have been operating in Kabul to help get foreign nationals and at-risk Afghans inside the airport, and the German military announced last week that it was deploying a pair of helicopters to help support similar operations. The U.S. military has acknowledged conducting one such rescue mission in Kabul itself. Despite reports of at least one other similar operation, the Pentagon has continued to say that there is no intention of sending American forces out on these kinds of missions on a more routine basis.

All told, the U.S. military is still, at best, weeks away from concluding its planned evacuation operation in Afghanistan. It's not clear then why the U.S. military has only activated elements of the CRAF fleet now, despite the ground truth in Kabul and clearly mounting issues elsewhere in the evacuee pipeline. Beyond that, it was known for months before the sudden fall of Kabul that thousands of Afghans who worked with the U.S. government and who are now at risk of Taliban reprisals would need assistance leaving the country in the near term, which could have precipitated many of these same issues, regardless of the security situation in Afghanistan itself. The August 31st deadline to complete the evacuation, regardless of the Taliban's state of power in the country, only makes the delayed call-up for CRAF that much more puzzling.

At the same time, as has been the case for a week now, the ability of all foreign evacuation operations at Hamid Karzai International Airport to continue without direct hostile interference remains entirely at the whim of the Taliban. The group continues to move towards formalizing its return to power in Afghanistan, though armed resistance to its rule has also emerged. The U.S. military has declined to say whether or not it is prepared to support those anti-Taliban elements, including with airstrikes.

The activation of the CRAF aircraft is clearly intended to help ensure the evacuations from Afghanistan continue as quickly and smoothly as they can, but exactly why it is only happening now is yet to be understood.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com