It was an ordinary day, nothing unusual for the 80,000 men and women and 1,000 aircraft of Military Airlift Command. MAC C-141s and C-5s ferried US troops and gear home from the Gulf War. Workhorse C-130s in Saudi Arabia flew in support for the remnant of the 540,000- strong US force. To the north, MAC planes landed in Turkey with supplies for Kurdish refugees. To the east, in Bangladesh, MAC planes carried humanitarian aid to survivors of a devastating typhoon.
At the same time, MAC’s airlifters were crisscrossing other parts of the globe on training and transport missions, ferrying US troops and supplies to Washington’s far-flung forces.
For America’s airlift corps, it was just another day, marked by the completion of 261 missions worldwide. But on this day–May 29, 1991–the flights also marked the fiftieth anniversary of Military Airlift Command, which in five eventful decades has grown to be a $5.2-billion-a-year operation, possessing $33 billion worth of equipment working at 287 locations in twenty-five nations worldwide.
The United States long has relied on airpower to exert influence in the world. If anything, the end of the cold war only clears the way for Washington to play an even more prominent role in international affairs. Its influence will be exercised in virtually every instance through the use of airlift.
Senior Bush Administration officials, crafting a new national security strategy, foresee a continued and growing need for rapid deployment of combat-ready US forces. “Our focus now is on regional crises and contingencies,” Defense Secretary Dick Cheney told a Senate panel. “A capacity for crisis response is sadly all too relevant in a global security environment that could well be far more unstable than during the cold war.”
Gen. Colin Powell, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has made it clear that, whenever US forces go into combat, the Pentagon will deploy overwhelming force, much of it based in the continental US, sufficient to swiftly subdue an enemy.
The strategy puts greater emphasis than ever on the MAC fleet of C-5 Galaxies, C-141 StarLifters, and C-130 Hercules transports. “As forward forces decline but global interests remain, airlift will be even more in demand,” maintains a recent Air Force white paper.
The Persian Gulf deployment was the prototype. “I think everybody understood the role of transportation, but it was made starkly visible this time,” says Gen. H. T. Johnson, commander in chief of MAC and of US Transportation Command, which has its headquarters collocated with MAC at Scott AFB, Ill. “Anytime we have to take an action, we will have to move a force very, very quickly. From a strategy standpoint, I see transportation being of increased importance.”
The “Real” Strategic Headquarters
Some analysts go further in their estimation of the value of transportation in general and air transport in particular.
Harry G. Summers, a retired Army colonel and author of widely quoted books on military strategy, puts the situation in provocative terms: “In the post-cold war, postnuclear world, the real strategic military headquarters is not the Strategic Air Command at Offutt AFB in Nebraska, but the United States Transportation Command at Scott AFB in Illinois.” As it did in the Gulf, airlift will continue to handle the crucial early phases of emergency deployments. MAC rushed combat-ready troops and support crews for warplanes to the Gulf to underscore American resolve weeks before armed forces could have withstood a full-scale attack.
The first US aircraft to land in Saudi Arabia last August was an Air Force C-141 carrying an airlift control team to handle the vanguard of US air and ground combat forces. Air Force warplanes and 82d Airborne Division troops followed hours later.
Amid Pentagon worries that Saddam Hussein might order his Kuwait invasion force to seize the oil fields of eastern Saudi Arabia, MAC cargo planes rushed 91,000 troops and 72,000 tons of cargo into the Arabian peninsula in a mere thirty days–a record-breaking effort. All told during the buildup and the forty-three-day war, 111 C-5s, 227 C-141s, and 117 commercial aircraft activated by the Pentagon ferried 498,000 troops and 577,000 tons of cargo to the Gulf region.
The Gulf operation “may in many ways be a model for future conflicts in the post-cold war, new world order,” says General Johnson. “The lesson we should take away. . . is that our nation must be prepared with little warning to project significant US forces great distances to areas that may have little or no infrastructure.”
The crucial role played by airlift forces was merely the latest of a series of successes for Military Airlift Command in global crises. The tools and procedures that proved so effective in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm were developed, refined, and rehearsed throughout the past half century.
The command and its workhorse fleet trace their ,origins to the Army Air Corps Ferrying Command, which delivered 1,350 aircraft to Britain under the Lend-Lease program in the early days of World War II. Ferrying Command’s direct successor, the Air Transport Command, became the object of public fascination when its unpressurized, propeller-driven planes delivered 740,000 tons of war materiel to allied forces in China by “flying the Hump”– that is, over the towering Himalaya range.
71,000 Tons Per Month
The operation, relying on 722 aircraft, completed 167,285 trips from the steamy valleys of India’s Assam province across the snow-capped Himalaya passes to maintain a land front against the Japanese as amphibious forces stormed the Pacific islands toward the Japanese homeland. The grueling airlift, which claimed 460 aircraft and the lives of at least 792 airmen, was delivering almost 71,000 tons per month by July 1945, with one transport aircraft taking off for China every three minutes.
The experience gained in the operation paid off handsomely in mid-1948 when Soviet Bloc forces blockaded the western sector of Berlin to protest the Allies’ creation of an independent West Germany. Resupply of the isolated German city 110 miles inside Soviet-controlled territory became a landmark in the evolution of airlift and of the utility of military forces in peacetime.
The Berlin operation helped burnish the image of the new, independent Air Force and of the Military Air Transport Service (MATS), ATC’s successor. By the time the Berlin Airlift ended after 463 days, Allied transports had turned in a total of almost 280,000 flights and delivered 2.3 million tons of supplies, with the loss of the lives of thirty-one Americans, twenty-eight Britons, and seven German cargo-handlers.
North Korea’s surprise attack on South Korea on June 25,1950, forced the Air Force’s propeller-driven fleet of airlifters to overcome the challenges of transoceanic airlift operations. MATS ferried 214,000 United Nations troops and 80,000 tons of materiel to the Korean peninsula before a negotiated cease-fire ended the bloodshed. The organization refined air medevac operations, carrying more than 43,000 American wounded back to the United States.
US air transports also played key roles in the evacuation of 10,200 Hungarian refugees after the 1956 uprising, deployment of UN peacekeeping forces to the Middle East during the 1956 Suez Crisis, and rapid insertion of 10,000 American troops to West Berlin following construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.
The greatest test of airlift capacity came during the nine years of heavy US involvement in the Vietnam War. Between 1964 and 1973, Air Force transports moved two million tons of cargo and more than two million troops to and from southeast Asia.
The Vietnam era saw the US make the transition from long-range, propeller- driven C-124 aircraft to jet transports. The Boeing C-135 Stratolifter, which had been introduced in 1961, was followed four years later by the Lockheed C-141 StarLifter, which was able to carry thirty-four tons of cargo 4,000 miles at a speed of 440 knots. The C-141 became the backbone of the fleet, a role it continues to play today.
The C-141 fleet was augmented in 1969 with the giant C-5 Galaxy. The enormous aircraft, with a payload of fifty tons, was designed to transport heavy Army combat equipment such as the M60 tank and give US conventional forces unmatched mobility.
From Saigon to Israel
When a cease-fire took hold in Vietnam in early 1973, the new MAC lifter brought home thousands of US soldiers and 566 freed prisoners of war. Barely had that operation ended when, in October 1973, MAC was called on to deliver 22,395 tons of materiel to Israel over thirty-two days to enable the US ally to survive the most recent full-scale Arab-Israeli war.
MAC touched down in southeast Asia once again in 1975 to ferry 50,493 refugees to safety as North Vietnamese troops closed in on Saigon. Hundreds of orphans were flown to the United States in Operation Babylift–an exodus marred by the first crash of a C-5, which occurred following a massive decompression after takeoff. [See “Valor: A Galaxy of Heroes, p. 73.] It was not until the outset of Operation Desert Shield fifteen years later that MAC lost the second C-5 aircraft to a crash. That C-5 crashed on takeoff from Ramstein AB, Germany.
During the Grenada invasion in 1983, MAC aircraft flew almost 1 ,200 missions to and from the Caribbean island to transport 36,911 troops and civilians and 15,374 tons of cargo over a nine-day period.
When Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama, began in December 1989, MAC aircraft dropped US-based Army Ranger paratroopers on Panamanian strongholds at Rio Hato and Tocumen International Airport in the largest night airdrop since World War II. During the eight-week operation, MAC transported almost 40,000 personnel and 21,000 tons of equipment during 775 missions.
The evolution of airlift operations has not been without bumps and challenges, however. Military airlift came under repeated congressional scrutiny in the 1950s amid concerns that the fledgling commercial airlines were being underutilized. By the time of the Vietnam War, however, the importance of military airlift had become widely appreciated. In 1966 Congress redesignated MATS as Military Airlift Command, elevating it to the level of other major commands.
MAC assumed responsibility for tactical airlift as well as strategic airlift forces in 1974, ending a dual system that existed during the Vietnam War. The role of MAC continued to expand with the addition of special operations forces and the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service in 1983. Special operations forces later moved to the Air Force Special Operations Command.
What lies ahead for America’s airlift forces
America’s status as the world’s only true superpower, with worldwide obligations intact, guarantees that MAC’s airlift forces will remain at the forefront of all military planning. Moreover, American airlifters will no doubt be called on to support expanded UN operations.
MAC is assured a leading role in humanitarian operations around the globe, with its transports handling not only emergency government-sponsored assistance but also delivering privately donated relief on a space-available basis under the requirements of legislation passed in 1985. That commitment alone has been the spark for delivery of 1,500 tons of relief supplies over the past five years.
“Modest Growth” for MAC
Throughout the US government, support for airlift operations remains strong. The Joint Chiefs of Staff’s latest net assessment insists that “today’s environment dictates the need for more strategic lift assets.” The Defense Secretary, in his annual report to Congress and the President, says mobility requires “modest growth” despite “large reductions” in virtually all other components of the nation’s armed services.
All signs are that Congress shares the Pentagon’s sense of priorities. Lawmakers indicate that they will favorably consider the recommendations of the Mobility Requirements Study being prepared, at Congress’s insistence, by the Joint Staff. The study, to be delivered later this year, will almost certainly call for maintaining if not expanding the airlift force.
The Democratic-controlled House also agreed last May to provide virtually all of the $2.7 billion that the administration seeks this year to continue its $35.3 billion program to build 120 new C-17 long-range transports. In the past, the House has voted to impose a number of restrictions on the timing of C-17 spending. Air Force officials now expect to win full congressional approval for production of six aircraft in Fiscal 1992, which starts October 1, and for twelve in Fiscal 1993.
The aircraft is designed to revolutionize airlift operations by combining the long-distance capabilities of the C-5 and C-141 with many of the short-airfield capabilities of the C-130. Supporters maintain that eighty C-17s, with their large payloads and ability to land on 3,000- foot runways, could have delivered to Saudi Arabia an additional twelve squadrons’ worth of equipment and supplies and two light infantry brigades in the first twelve days of the Gulf crisis.
A MAC analysis declares that “in future conflicts, such delivery speed could spell the difference between deterrence and defeat.”
In addition, the existing MAC fleet is getting a bit gray. Each of the twenty-six-year-old C-141s that flew in Desert Shield and Desert Storm flew an average of eleven hours daily, up from 3.6 hours in peacetime. The C-5s were used ten hours a day, up from 1.8 hours in peacetime, say MAC officials. Weight restrictions, imposed on the C-141 to extend the plane’s service life to 45,000 flight hours, were waived during the crisis. Postwar checks unmasked cracks in outboard sections of the five-section C-141 wing.
“We took some risks,” General Johnson told a panel of the Senate Armed Services Committee some weeks after the end of the war.
Refining the CRAF Program
Beyond upgrading the MAC fleet, officials are working to ensure US access to commercial aircraft that would be used to augment MAC airlifters in the next crisis. Activation of planes under the aegis of the 1951 Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) program took place last August. Officials required airlines to contribute aircraft to the Desert Shield effort at the height of the summer travel season, a move which unavoidably left many airline passengers stranded. Some commercial carriers have begun to reexamine their participation in CRAF.
However, Air Force Col. Ronald Priddy, who coordinated the reserve air fleet operations from MAC headquarters at Scott AFB, said that the $2.1 billion charter of requisitioned aircraft proved to be a boon. Sixty-four percent of US GIs and twenty-eight percent of combat equipment dispatched to the region by air went aboard commercial airliners provided by Pan American, United, Northwest, American, Federal Express, and other major carriers. No commercial airliner was lost or damaged during the operation.
Ahead, too, are efforts to guarantee that there will be continued support for MAC operations within the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard. MAC relied heavily on reserve forces, activating crews and equipment from all seven C-5 squadrons, eleven of the fifteen C-141 squadrons, and ten of the thirty-four C-130 units. Volunteers contributed, as well.
Many reserve military personnel remained on active duty beyond the end of the war. Some expressed frustration about being ignored, forgotten, or misled. General Johnson, reliant on reserve forces for his operation, expressed sympathy and tried to rush them home as quickly as he could. “If they’re going to be there the next time you want them, you’ve got to release them,” General Johnson said.
As MAC marked its fiftieth anniversary, there was no end in sight to the demands on American airlifters to bring relief to the desperate and combat forces to the scene of America’s next military challenge. As Air Force Secretary Donald Rice put it, “Whether it’s airlifting the XVIII Airborne Corps to their jump-off point, delivering Patriots to Israel within eleven hours of the President’s order, or airdropping food to starving Kurds–MAC is always there.”
Stewart M. Powell, national security correspondent for Hearst Newspapers, has covered international security affairs for more than a decade while based in Washington and London. He covered Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm on assignment in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine, “More Voices From the War,” appeared in the June 1991 issue.