Sustaining the Civil Reserve Air Fleet.

Author:Gourdin, Kent N.

References to defense requirements occur repeatedly in federal transportation legislation. In fact, every major piece of national legislation pertaining to aviation, from the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 to the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 and the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, include policy statements specifically linking the needs of national defense to the maintenance of a strong civilian air transport system. (Civil Aeronautics Act, 1938; Federal Aviation Act, 1958; Airline Deregulation Act, 1978). Integrating these resources with military requirements is accomplished through national defense planning.


One of the most significant studies on strategic mobility was the Mobility Capability and Requirements Study-16 (MCRS-16), which was completed in 2010 (GAO-12-510T, 2012, p. 2). Department of Defense (DOD) officials used three different scenarios to examine a broad spectrum of military operations, each of which required the use of a certain percentage of military airlift capacity on the most demanding day of the scenario. With too few aircraft, a potential shortfall would exist, thereby risking mission failure. With more aircraft than required, a potential excess could exist, with the attendant risk that mobility resources would be expended unnecessarily (GAO-12-510T, 2012, pp. 3-4).

Recently, the Defense Department completed the MCRS-18. This new assessment looked at the precise number of air refueling tankers, cargo aircraft, and supply ships needed in order to support the Trump Administration's National Defense Strategy (Sherman, 2018).


Air Mobility Command (AMC), a US Air Force major command, is the single manager for all DOD air transport needs. This includes moving passengers and cargo for all US armed services. In a contingency situation, approximately 90 percent of fighting personnel reach the battle area by air, while roughly 95 percent of the cargo goes by ship (Corpus Christi, 2003). The role of airlift is first and foremost to get the initial wave of personnel and their equipment to the fight as quickly as possible and sustain them until resources begin to arrive by ship weeks or even months later.


The Air Force uses two primary aircraft for long-distance moves. The largest airplane in their fleet is the C-5M Super Galaxy, which can carry oversized cargo incapable of being moved by other aircraft (C-5M-Super Galaxy, 2018b Fact Sheet). The C-17 Globemaster III, which is somewhat smaller than the C-5M, also provides rapid strategic delivery of troops and their equipment to main operating bases or directly to the front lines (C-17 Globemaster III, 2018 Fact Sheet). In addition, the KC-10 Extender, primarily used for inflight refueling, can also be configured to carry passengers and cargo as needed (KC-10 Extender, 2014 Fact Sheet).


The CRAF was established in December 1951 and resulted from DOD's realization that supplemental airlift capability would be needed to support a future major national contingency (Civil Reserve Air Fleet Allocations, 2018). The model has stood the test of time and has remained virtually unchanged since its inception. It is a voluntary program whereby US airlines contractually commit to augment military airlift in national emergencies. To encourage carriers to participate, the government makes peacetime DOD airlift contracts (passenger and cargo) available only to the CRAF partners.

Of primary interest is the long-range international segment, which consists of passenger and cargo aircraft capable of transoceanic operations of 3,500 nautical miles or greater (see sidebar).


There are two important requirements for airline participation in the CRAF. First, specific aircraft are identified by tail number; second, four crews must also be committed for each aircraft. As a result, the actual composition of the CRAF changes monthly, as aircraft are added to/removed from the list. When called, a company has between 24 and 72 hours to make their aircraft available. The airlines continue to operate in civil status and maintain operational control of their aircraft using company resources for the duration of the mission (Ibid).

The CRAF has been formally activated only twice. The first time was to support the Operations Desert Shield/Storm from August 18, 1990, to May 24, 1991; the second was during Operation Iraqi Freedom from February 8, 2003, to June 18, 2003 (Roberts, 2003, CRS-3).


A key incentive for airlines to join the CRAF (other than patriotism) is the requirement that only participating firms can bid on peacetime contracts to move passengers and freight for the DOD (Civil Reserve Air Fleet Fact Sheet, 2014). These awards are not insignificant and represent the lifeblood for some of the smaller airlines.

For Fiscal Year (FY) 2018, contracts totaling more than $2.6 billion were distributed to CRAF carriers (Contract Defense, 2017). The determination of how much military business to give to the airlines can be quite contentious. The Air Force does not want to justify its own airplanes and crews sitting idle when there are DOD people and cargo that need to move, but omitting the airlines means participation in the CRAF would plummet. In other words, there is a fine line that must be walked between too much and not enough business being given to CRAF carriers.

In addition to the revenue, another justification is that the companies gain valuable peacetime experience moving troops and their cargo, so they will know what to do in the event they are activated.


Different Aircraft Designs

Military cargo is often large, heavy, wheeled and/or bulky, requiring aircraft that are able to support rapid on-load and off-load of these kinds of items. As noted above, aircraft such as the C-5M and the C-17 are designed for this purpose with a high wing that situates the fuselage closer to the ground. In addition, equipment can be loaded from the rear and/or the nose...

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