In August 2021, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin requested major airlines to assist a military mission to evacuate people out of Afghanistan after President Biden’s decision to withdraw combat forces from the region.
To do this, the U.S. Department of Defense used contracts from the Civil Reserve Air Fleet and asked six airlines to provide 18 aircraft to transport passengers from way stations outside of Kabul to staging bases.
This allowed the military to focus on the more dangerous task of evacuating Hamid Karzai International Airport. The commercial airliners flew more than 420 flights to support the operation, marking only the third time the military has activated the program, known as the CRAF.
This program was created over 70 years ago to provide additional airlift capacity during times of crisis and conflict. The CRAF was first used between August 1990 to May 1991 to support Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and then again from February 2002 to June 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In August 2021, the U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin requested major airlines to provide assistance in transporting evacuees out of Afghanistan in the wake of the decision to withdraw combat forces from the region. The request was made through contracts established under the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF), a program created over 70 years ago to provide extra airlift capacity in times of crisis and conflict.
Critical Partnership for Military Operations
The Pentagon requested 18 aircraft from six airlines to fly passengers from outside Kabul to staging bases, while the department focused on evacuating Hamid Karzai International Airport. In total, commercial airliners flew more than 420 flights in support of the operation.
Participation in the CRAF is voluntary for airlines. They make a portion of their aircraft available for military use through contracts with the U.S. Transportation Command. In exchange, the Defense Department prioritizes using those carriers for commercial cargo and passenger transport during peacetime. The program represents a critical partnership between the military and the commercial industry.
The Defense Department emphasized this in an August 2021 statement announcing its decision to activate the air fleet, stating that “the DoD’s ability to project military forces is inextricably linked to commercial industry.”
The department further stated that “utilizing commercial partners expands TRANSCOM’s global reach as well as access to valuable commercial intermodal transportation systems.”
The Space Force is currently in the early phases of designing its own version of the CRAF, called the Commercial Augmentation Space Reserve. The Space Force plans to identify some mission areas within the service where a commercial reserve could play a role, including space domain awareness, satellite communications, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
The service is considering policy, contractual, and legal questions regarding the use of commercial services during a conflict, and is seeking input from companies on how the CRAF model could be best adapted for the space domain.
Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman emphasized the importance of pre-planning and establishing expectations for making commercial augmentation available throughout the spectrum of a conflict.
A New Model for Space
The US Space Force is designing its own program similar to the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) and the National Defense Reserve Fleet for the air and maritime domains. However, some industry and former government officials say neither of the existing models provides a perfect model.
David Gauthier, the former director of commercial operations for the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and chief strategy officer at space consultancy GEOX, says that it is unlikely the Space Force’s program will operate like the existing reserve fleets.
The Space Force has yet to settle on a design for its Commercial Augmentation Space Reserve, and officials from Space Systems Command met with industry in February 2021 in Washington to discuss the concept. Gauthier, who attended the meeting, said that there are unique questions about risk for a space reserve.
In contrast to air and maritime domains, in space, the threat environment is always present and all commercial satellites are continuously at risk. Gauthier also raised questions about how the government will protect non-DoD assets that become targets of a foreign adversary. The Pentagon is exploring the possibility of providing compensation for commercial systems in such scenarios but has not yet developed a formal policy.
Incentives for Satellite Operators
According to an issue paper by Aidan Poling, a research analyst at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, the US government should consider a “preferential contract award system” for private-sector participants in the Commercial Augmentation Space Reserve, along with fixed payment structures, to incentivize satellite operators to participate while also lowering risk.
Craig Miller, president of government systems at Viasat, noted that the US government has trust issues with relying on commercial providers for wartime services and that it’s a complicated problem.
One approach to addressing this issue, he said, could be for companies to “hand over the keys” of whatever piece of the satellite network the military needs and allow them to operate it in a time of crisis. Miller also pointed out that today’s satellite networks can expand capacity fairly seamlessly, making surge capability and crisis capability available without the government having to take possession of the system.
The US Department of Defense, under Secretary Lloyd Austin, collaborated with major airlines in August 2021 to airlift evacuees from Afghanistan using the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF). This program, established over 70 years ago, underscores the vital relationship between the military and commercial industry, with plans for a space domain counterpart in progress.