There have been many stories over the past few years regarding the diminished readiness of our nation’s military air fleet, as an increasing number of aircraft have become outdated, obsolete or are simply under-maintained, with crews even scavenging for spare parts in aircraft “boneyards” on occasion.
This predicament has led some to wonder what would happen in the event of a major crisis or national emergency; for example, if the requirements for airlift capability in a short period of time exceeded what the military’s fleet was capable of providing. But according to We Are The Mighty, there is little to fear in that regard.
As it turns out, the military foresaw just such a potential problem several decades ago, and formed a sort of auxiliary airfleet of commercial aircraft that could be used to transport troops and cargo across the country or around the world on short notice, known as the Civil Reserve Air Fleet.
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According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees the CRAF in partnership with the Department of Defense and members of the civil air carrier industry, the program allows civil air carriers to volunteer their aircraft and crews to augment the military in an emergency in exchange for preferential treatment when it comes to Defense Department contracting for peace time transportation needs.
In other words, the airplanes of the U.S. commercial fleet, and their flight crews, could become a weapon serving military purposes if the need ever arises.
The program was initially developed in 1951 between the DoD and Department of Commerce following the Berlin airlift crisis, and was later transferred over to the Transportation Department in 1967 as part of the nation’s overall national emergency preparedness program plan.
A U.S. Air Force fact sheet about the CRAF program detailed how civil air carriers can qualify for the program, how it is governed by the Air Force Air Mobility Command, and how the volunteer aircraft are broken down into two distinct segments — those capable of long-range international flights and those of short-range capability that are designated solely for domestic purposes.
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The long-range aircraft are intended to augment the military’s fleet of C-5 and C-17 cargo transport planes, which can carry troops, gear and even some vehicles to staging points overseas. The short-range craft typically only ferry troops and small amounts of cargo around the country.
Most major civil air carriers — both for passengers and cargo — have enrolled in the program and keep a certain percentage of their fleet and crews prepared to be ready to deploy for auxiliary military service on as little as 24-48 hours notice.
According to We Are The Mighty, the last time the CRAF was officially activated was during the build-up period prior to the Persian Gulf War — known as Operation Desert Shield — during which thousands of U.S. troops and tons of gear were ferried to Saudi Arabia and other staging points in the Middle East in preparation for Operation Desert Storm, which kicked Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and back to Baghdad in the early 1990s.
Since that time, there has yet to be a major international crisis or national emergency that has required the military to call on their civil reserve to augment their fleet, but should that need ever arise again, there are hundreds of planes and accompanying crews quite literally on standby to answer the call and serve their country in a pinch.
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