What is the Civil Reserve Air Fleet and why it was activated for the third time in 70 years

The U.S. military has turned to a little-used deal with commercial airlines and charter companies, whereby it can force them to supply planes to meet various operational requirements in a crisis, to support evacuations in courses outside Afghanistan. Some two dozen companies are part of this civilian reserve air fleet and agree to provide planes and crews in less than 24 hours, if necessary. In this case, the planes will not fly directly to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, the Afghan capital, which is the hub of the evacuation mission, but rather will help transport the evacuees who have been brought to intermediate destinations. to more permanent destinations.

The Pentagon has announced that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has ordered the US Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) to activate Phase 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 in the process of contributing three aircraft as part of this activation. Four more would come from United Airlines, while Hawaiian Airlines would provide two more. US military officials have not specified exactly what types of aircraft make up this fleet of 18 aircraft in total.


US Marines arrive at the March Air Reserve Base in California in 2004 after leaving Iraq on a chartered airliner.

The Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Commerce formally established the CRAF in December 1951. The decision was a direct result of the experiences of the Berlin Airlift a few years earlier, in which commercial planes had been used in a ad hoc manner.

Airlines and charter air transport companies participate in CRAF through contracts with TRANSCOM. Participation is completely voluntary, but companies that do so are preferred when competing for US military passenger and peacetime air cargo contracts as an incentive.

Aircraft from participating companies are assigned to support international or national requirements according to their capabilities. “To participate in CRAF’s international segments, carriers must maintain a minimum commitment of 40% of their CRAF-compatible fleet. The aircraft involved must be registered in the United States, ”according to the US Air Force. CRAF carriers must also be able to provide four full crews for each of these engaged aircraft. The U.S. military regularly reviews the status of participating companies and their fleets to ensure that 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 these planes, 413 are in the international segment, while the remaining 37 are in the domestic, 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 full list of participating companies. These aircraft are also free to exercise their usual commercial functions.

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

“When informed of the call, the carrier’s response time to get their plane ready for a CRAF mission is 24, 48 or 72 hours depending on the CRAF stage activated,” according to the Air Force. TRANSCOM, through the US Air Force’s Air Mobility Command (AMC), oversees the employment of activated CRAF aircraft, but individual carriers remain responsible for the operation and maintenance of their aircraft.

This reserve fleet has only been activated twice for live operations since its inception, although CRAF aircraft have also participated in exercises over the years. The first case occurred in 1990 in support of the Gulf War, while the second happened in 2003 as part of the US-led invasion of Iraq.


Troops participating in Exercise Team Spirit 86 disembark from an aircraft of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet.


Troops from the U.S. Army’s 24th (Mechanized) Infantry Division board a Civil Reserve Air Fleet flight to Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield in 1990.

AP Photo / Saurabh Das

Members of the U.S. 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 with access to commercial air mobility resources to increase our support to the Department of State in the evacuation of US citizens and personnel, special immigrant visa applicants and other people at risk from Afghanistan, ”according to an official press release. “CRAF-activated planes will not fly to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. They will be used for the movement of passengers from temporary shelters and provisional assembly bases. Activating the CRAF increases passenger movement beyond organic capacity and allows military aircraft to focus on operations inside and outside Kabul. “

There had already been reports yesterday that CRAF member airlines and charter carriers had received a so-called “warning order” alerting them that a potential activation was imminent. Charter flights have already bolstered the US military’s airlift from Kabul and the Defense Ministry said it had helped around 17,000 people, the vast majority of whom are not US citizens, to leave the country. town last week.

However, the lack of facilities to handle evacuees, especially Afghans fleeing their homelands in the face of the Taliban takeover, to move forward has, along with other logistical and bureaucratic problems, created bottlenecks. significant bottlenecks. The first news of the potential use of the CRAF fleet came amid reports that many Afghan evacuees languish in a hangar at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar while waiting to move to other more formal facilities in the region and beyond.

The backlogs at Al Udeid, alone, worsened so much in the past week that all flights, including military evacuation missions, from Hamid Karzai International Airport were halted for about eight hours between 19 and August 20.

The United States just started sending evacuees to Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Friday, which has now joined Qatar and Kuwait among foreign countries where the U.S. military is carrying evacuees. During one of those flights to Ramstein, a pregnant woman gave birth and U.S. Air Force personnel from the 86th Medical Group delivered the baby safely inside the plane, an airplane Transport C-17A Globemaster III, a type that has already become inexorably associated with Evacuations in Afghanistan, after it landed.

The US government has been in talks with several other countries around the world to take in evacuees, at least on a temporary basis. A number of countries have agreed to take hundreds of Afghans, but are still awaiting the arrival of the first flights due to the various issues involved.

As the Pentagon has noted, activating the CRAF plane should help alleviate some of these logistical issues, while also freeing up U.S. military cargo planes for potentially more dangerous flights from Kabul. This, in turn, could help alleviate congestion at Hamid Karzai International Airport, which has limited ramp space and only one runway, due to the flights that are kept on the ground there, as Intermediate transit points are unable to receive additional evacuees.

Sadly, none of this will help solve separate and lingering issues in getting evacuees to Hamid Karzai International Airport. The situation outside the airport often remains chaotic, and at times fatal, and new security concerns continue to emerge overnight. Yesterday, the US State Department told Americans not to come to the airport unless they receive instructions from the US government due to unspecified security threats. It was later reported that there were indications that the ISIS franchise in Afghanistan might seek to launch terrorist attacks targeting the evacuation operations.

With this reality on the ground, French and British troops are operating in Kabul to help bring foreign nationals and at-risk Afghans into the airport, and the German military announced last week that it deployed a pair of helicopters to help support similar operations. . The US military has admitted to having carried out such a rescue mission in Kabul itself. Despite reports of at least one other similar operation, the Pentagon has continued to say it has no plans to send US forces on such missions more routinely.

All in all, the US military is still, at best, weeks away from the conclusion of its planned evacuation operation in Afghanistan. It is not clear then why the US military has only activated elements of the CRAF fleet now, despite the truth on the ground in Kabul and clearly growing problems elsewhere in the evacuation pipeline. Beyond that, it was known for months before the sudden fall of Kabul that thousands of Afghans who worked with the US government and who are now threatened with retaliation by the Taliban would need help to leave the country short. in the long run, which could have precipitated many of these same problems, whatever the security situation in Afghanistan itself. The August 31 deadline for completing the evacuation, regardless of the Taliban’s state of power in the country, only makes the delayed appeal for the CRAF all the more confusing.

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 make progress towards formalizing its return to power in Afghanistan, although armed resistance to its regime has also emerged. The US military declined to say whether or not it was ready to support these anti-Taliban elements, including air strikes.

The activation of the CRAF aircraft is clearly intended to help ensure that evacuations from Afghanistan continue as quickly and smoothly as possible, but it is not yet clear exactly why this is only happening now.

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