September 27, 2023

Vision Cim

Thank Business Its Friday

US Air Force Planes, Crews Recovering After Afghanistan Evacuation

  • The US military and its partners evacuated 124,000 people from Afghanistan in a few weeks this summer.
  • US Transportation Command surged aircraft and personnel to support that operation.
  • Since then, US aircrews and aircraft have undergone training and maintenance to recover from that surge.

More than a month after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US Air Force crews and aircraft that were vital to evacuating 124,000 people are still recovering, according to Maj. Gen. Corey Martin, the director of operations for US Transportation Command.

The evacuation, called Operation Allies Refuge, wrapped up at the end of August with the departure of the final US military personnel. Civilian groups and commercial aircraft were also involved, and efforts to resettle Afghan evacuees have continued.

US Air Force mobility aircraft and crews were surged to Afghanistan in August — the number of C-17s at the airport in Kabul jumped from six on August 14 to 46 two days later — and are now catching up on maintenance and training.

“Just give you an idea of scale, today, for instance, probably 60 plus or minus a few C-17s are doing global missions around the world today [and] 10 plus or minus a few C-5s,” but in August, “we had 60 C-17s that were just focused on the Central Command area of responsibility,” Martin said during a Defense Writers Group event on October 7.

US airmen board a C-17

US airmen board a C-17 at Travis Air Force Base in California, August 25, 2021.

US Air Force/Nicholas Pilch

“There was a surge of aircraft and obviously a surge of crews, so anytime we surge like that both the aircraft and aircrew need a time to kind of regain that readiness,” Martin said.

With roughly 60 C-17s now doing daily missions around the world, the force hasn’t “taken a knee,” Martin added, “but the aircraft have to look at some maintenance that would be deferred during a surge operation.”

The evacuation involved than 500 crews operating more than 250 Air Force mobility aircraft. At its peak, nearly 100 C-17s were operating globally, Martin said, close to half of the Air Force’s total C-17 fleet.

In addition to aircrews and maintainers and other supporting airmen, Contingency Response Force airmen were some of the first sent to the Kabul airport to establish and expand aircraft operations there, and Transportation Command’s Global Operations Center grew from a few 24/7 workers to “dozens if not a hundred,” Martin said.

“Some of the enabling forces that are under Transportation Command were very necessary,” Martin added.

C-17s and KC-135s at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar

C-17s and KC-135s on the flight line at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, August 19, 2021.

US Air Force/Senior Airman Noah D. Coger

For aircrews, regaining readiness means preparing for the range of missions they may be tasked with, including evacuations, humanitarian missions, and combat operations.

“Part of that reconstitution period for the crew, as well as just kind of recovering from the pace they were at, is also having training opportunities to focus on some of those different mission sets that Transportation Command is responsible for,” Martin added.

Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, who was head of the Air Force component of Transportation Command during the evacuation, said at the Air Force Association conference in September that there was “a natural period” after a surge where the service needs to “tidy up” aircraft and allow crews to rest. (Van Ovost took command of Transportation Command this month.)

Brig. Gen. Daniel DeVoe, commander of the 618th Air Operations Center, said at the same event that 23 C-17 teams were in the air at any given time during the peak of the evacuation, with an average of 113 in the air over Europe and the Middle East each day.

DeVoe also said C-17s had fewer problems during the evacuation than he expected but that the Air Force had increased its use of C-5s, the service’s largest aircraft, in recent weeks to allow for extended maintenance on the C-17 fleet.

Afghanistan evacuation C-17

Afghan passengers board a US Air Force C-17 at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, August 22, 2021.

US Central Command/Master Sgt. Donald Allen

Martin told reporters this month that work on “a larger after-action report” on the evacuation is underway but that a few lessons are already apparent.

Flights out of Afghanistan were paused at one point due to processing backlogs elsewhere, underscoring the need for “nodes” from which to operate.

“One of the lessons that started to emerge early is that it’s more than just aircraft. You need places to put the aircraft,” Martin said. “We know the nodes are as important as the capability of the mobility assets, but that I think is a lesson that the greater community realized in the early days of this operation.”

That also underlined the importance of aerial refueling, which “allowed for a C-17 that had sometimes 400, 415 Afghan refugees to stay aloft long enough to sequence in to land and not have to go to a location that was not ready to accept refugees,” Martin said.

But Martin did express dissatisfaction with how the command ramped up operations as the evacuation intensified.

“What I would like to do is just be able to have what we call our normal battle rhythm, our normal processes, be able to be scaled to any operation, and I did not see that that was the case right away with that.”