The United States Department of Defense (DoD) has activated the Stage I trials of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) to assist the US military in its ongoing evacuation efforts from the Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) in Kabul, Afghanistan, said a Pentagon press release.
Following the planned withdrawal of United States troops from Afghanistan by the end of this month, the Taliban has now occupied the capital city of Kabul among other areas. With the group gaining access to US military biometric devices that can help in the identification of locals that aided the US forces, many want to leave the country. On its part, the US plans to relocate 22,000 Afghan locals that include families of those who worked with US forces. However, it must first evacuate them, along with the estimated 15,000 Americans, who are still on Afghan soil.
The decision to activate the CRAF, a National Emergency Preparedness Program, will grant the US military much-needed resources to facilitate the evacuations. The activation provides access to 18 civilian aircraft, four from United Airlines, three each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, and Omni Air, and two from Hawaiian Airlines, the press release said. While these aircraft will not actually fly to HKIA, they will aid in rescuing refugees from nearby US bases such as one in Doha, Qatar, or other countries such as the UK, UAE, Germany, Italy, and others who will assist in evacuation efforts of US nationals.
While the aircraft still retain their civilian status, the U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) will exercise mission control in a bid to augment its airlift capacity. The DoD expects to also utilize commercial intermodal transportation systems that these airlines can offer.
The aircraft are expected to be available starting Monday or Tuesday, The New York Times reported. According to an NPR report, American Airlines plans to deploy four Boeing 777-300 aircraft for the exercise that can seat up to 368 passengers per flight. While other airlines haven't declared the aircraft they plan to deploy, the US military is using the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III as well as the C-130 aircraft from Lockheed Martin currently.
Designed for transporting military cargo and troops at strategic locations, both these aircraft have large cargo holds, capable of carrying hundreds of evacuees at once. Recently, a C-17 Globemaster III secured an unenviable record of carrying 823 Afghan evacuees, when it was scheduled to carry 640. Typically, it is scheduled to fly with 300 onboard passengers, reported AirForce Magazine.
This is the third time in history that the Pentagon has activated the CRAF. Designed for Emergency Preparedness, the CRAF was first activated in 1991 for Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War of 1991, where commercial airlines were involved in the transport of 60 percent troops and 25 percent of the cargo carried out over 5000 missions. The second call for CRAF was during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2002-2003, where 10,000 troops were moved under CRAF.
Given a large number of evacuees, it remains to be seen, if the Pentagon will activate Stage II of CRAF to involve more aircraft or renegotiate terms with the Taliban to extend the deadline for peaceful evacuations.