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Let's Drink and Discuss the Merits and Draw-Backs of Airlift!


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With modern airlift capability we can get a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) or aid anywhere in the world in less than a day.  While this is certainly useful, a strategic reliance on airlift has emerged in defense, commercial and humanitarian organizations that may actually be more of a liability than an asset.

What are your thoughts on the role of airlift capabilities in the world? 

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Great for quick response teams, and for dropping stuff on people, but may be costly in terms of fuel. For a disaster recovery situation, building simple infrastructure to open the way for more economical transportation (i.e. trucks) is just as important as delivering the daily supplies.

That said, there are some places in the world that is inaccessible to most forms of transportation, such as villages on top of rocky mountains. To these locations, airlift capability is essential.

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Humanitarian airlift is necessary in 3 situations:

1) As a quick-reaction force

2) For particularly remote and inaccessible locations

3) When the pesky Commies have blocked off the railroads to Berlin

4) When the Chair Force pilots have been slacking off on their flight hours and need to get some stick time in

Otherwise, I don't really see why anybody would use airlift for humanitarian aid; it is absurdly expensive.

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Good responses, all!  For the sake of discussion, allow me to be a contrarian.  So I am going to try to poke holes in your assertions, and I encourage you to poke holes in mine.

 

Airlift Misuse and the Military QRF: A recipe for dangerous overextension

The value of being able to deploy teams of specialists, either tier 1 operators or technicians whose skills are required for a given military crisis, is undeniable.  The problem is that this ability is used more as a crutch than a tool.  Ideally we (whoever "we" are) maintain enough of a regional presence in force that local logistics are maintained to support unexpected, protracted operations in force.  Dependence on rapid and effective QRF allows us to think we can sustain security operations when we have not developed or maintained logistic systems to do so or to deal with nasty surprises.  Airlift alone is not feasible for sustained military operations, especially at any kind of scale.  

 

Airlift Misuse and Support of Remote Civil/Humanitarian/Military Projects: Doing Less with More

Many of us, myself included, see ourselves flying our C-130s, MI-8s, Cessna Caravans, CASA-212s, or DHC-5s into some remote desert or jungle airstrip offloading lifesaving supplies and experts to sick, starving and oppressed masses.  It's a powerful image and it's a powerful experience to do so.  The effects of airlift like this don't live up to our imaginations, however.

In small scale airlift, the ability to provide reliable services to remote operations actually prevents investment in roads and security that would deliver much cheaper and more reliable supply to the people in need.  Large scale airlift in Nigeria (Biafra), Ethiopia and elsewhere have people abandon working on their dirt farms to collect Ming supplies.  Moreover local criminals try to capitalize on these supplies requiring the attention of local police and military to focus on perimeter defense of airfields rather than ensuring bandit-free road access to deep water ports.

Even in missionary flying, protracted use of single engine aircraft to deliver aid serves the people doing the flying more than the people needing aid on the ground.  A long term effort to get and maintain secure ground lines of communication and supply does more for those in need.

 

Finally, here's a little Blurb about Fred Cuny who made many of the same observations I did, only a few decades earlier:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/cuny/bio/hero.html

 

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In one of the nuclear power threads someone mentions that you could run a small town (or more) off the electric output of a nuclear sub.  This isn't exactly hyperbole, the US has actually brought submarines into harbors after disaster strikes (with loss of power) and plugged the local grid into the sub (presumably after carefully making sure how much is still online).  I can only imagine how many downed power plants a carrier can replace (probably against US policy to put a carrier in that much danger, they are probably limited to attack subs, the only ships with nuclear power but not nuclear weapons).

Hospital ships come in handy as well.  I don't think such things really lend themselves to aircraft.

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Most airlifts aren't made by massive military aircraft (example) - yes they do when the strip is there, but they can't operate like bush aircrafts.

Also, airlifts are done in times of trouble. If there's any normal airlifts, it'd be like those I linked - most flights there are quite regular actually, and may charge some expense.

But if you want to discuss this politically... yeah, not much I can comment there.

Edited by YNM
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1 hour ago, YNM said:

Most airlifts aren't made by massive military aircraft (example) - yes they do when the strip is there, but they can't operate like bush aircrafts.

Also, airlifts are done in times of trouble. If there's any normal airlifts, it'd be like those I linked - most flights there are quite regular actually, and may charge some expense.

But if you want to discuss this politically... yeah, not much I can comment there.

Air freight is far larger than airlift. its also commercial. 
An interesting thing is that commercial air freight is based on civilian planes who is either side or nose loaded, if you need roll on / roll off capacity you need to rent an military cargo plane, 
Tail ramps are heavy and probably makes the plane less aerodynamic. 

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Thanks for all of your responses!  I am happy to see that people are willing to toss these considerations around in their heads.  

The problem with airlift, from bush flying all the way up to large scale airlift, is not with the aircraft or crew capabilities.  The problem is that the capabiltites are abused at the expense of more sustainable logistics in almost every case.

In small, remote operations airlif capability is reliable but expensive.  the effect is not building roads and making investments in anti-corruption efforts and maintenance to keep those roads opening.  

One can argue airlift has been disasterous for Nigeria during and after the Biafra conflict.  Since the war, local big men have built very nice airports in their local towns, complete with private instrument landing systems, say in Minna, Nigeria.  The wealthy fly to these airports and, in many cases, have helicopters take them to local destinations.  In the mean time roads have deteriorated and driving between cities after dark is downright dangerous.  The effect is that people starve in a nation that produces more food than it consumes.  Moreover, when the wealthy don't use the roads, nobody pays the local police salaries or ensures that the local officers don't pocket the salaries of their subordinates.  This turns local security forces into rival criminal gangs that hinder rather than aid the movement of goods.

In the case of flying doctors and engineers, small airlift allows those doctors to fly into an area and provide necessary services.  In the long term, clinics aren't built and staffed to provide dedicated care to a region.  

To be fair it is certainly difficult to navigate local official and unofficial social and political complications to reality on the ground.  Airlift offers a method to get stuff and people from a to b without having to negotiate with every local power broker.  This advantage is another failure of airlift itself.  We allow ourselves to get into projects and use airlift too long because we don't work out the necessary details to deploy sustainable logistics to a local humanitarian effort.

On another note, guys, I am deliberately trying to argue against airlift to foster discussion.  I spent a good part of my life flying small and large airplanes in various garden spots and have seen the good airlift can do.  My intention is not to scream down other views.  Life is strange and today's college kid or high schooler can easily find himself managing tomorrow's relief operation in CAR or elsewhwere.  Getting a strategic rather than tactical discussion of airlift out to the layperson is important.

Edited by Jonfliesgoats
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So what guidelines should we generally apply to airlift?

What successful airlifts can you think of and what airlift failures can you think of?  What were the common factors among the successes and among the failures?

What is the critical point at which you decide to stop airlifting and do something else?  

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12 hours ago, magnemoe said:

Air freight is far larger than airlift. its also commercial. 
An interesting thing is that commercial air freight is based on civilian planes who is either side or nose loaded, if you need roll on / roll off capacity you need to rent an military cargo plane, 
Tail ramps are heavy and probably makes the plane less aerodynamic. 

Well, I'm not sure one can call those bush flights as commercial freight... But in any case, you can actually send things (or book a seat) on those planes like normal (commercially). Here's one example.

If we're discussing airlifts as a "helping hand" then yes it's expensive. But as "the only hand" I suppose we're hard-pressed. I mean, they didn't made the Golden Gate out of wood, even while it'd be cheaper[dubious-discuss], because it's impossible. Same applies to airplanes in these cases - yes you can go on foot but that would take days or weeks.

Edited by YNM
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On 12/5/2016 at 10:34 AM, Jonfliesgoats said:

Good responses, all!  For the sake of discussion, allow me to be a contrarian.  So I am going to try to poke holes in your assertions, and I encourage you to poke holes in mine.

 

Airlift Misuse and the Military QRF: A recipe for dangerous overextension

The value of being able to deploy teams of specialists, either tier 1 operators or technicians whose skills are required for a given military crisis, is undeniable.  The problem is that this ability is used more as a crutch than a tool.  Ideally we (whoever "we" are) maintain enough of a regional presence in force that local logistics are maintained to support unexpected, protracted operations in force.  Dependence on rapid and effective QRF allows us to think we can sustain security operations when we have not developed or maintained logistic systems to do so or to deal with nasty surprises.  Airlift alone is not feasible for sustained military operations, especially at any kind of scale.  

 

Airlift Misuse and Support of Remote Civil/Humanitarian/Military Projects: Doing Less with More

Many of us, myself included, see ourselves flying our C-130s, MI-8s, Cessna Caravans, CASA-212s, or DHC-5s into some remote desert or jungle airstrip offloading lifesaving supplies and experts to sick, starving and oppressed masses.  It's a powerful image and it's a powerful experience to do so.  The effects of airlift like this don't live up to our imaginations, however.

In small scale airlift, the ability to provide reliable services to remote operations actually prevents investment in roads and security that would deliver much cheaper and more reliable supply to the people in need.  Large scale airlift in Nigeria (Biafra), Ethiopia and elsewhere have people abandon working on their dirt farms to collect Ming supplies.  Moreover local criminals try to capitalize on these supplies requiring the attention of local police and military to focus on perimeter defense of airfields rather than ensuring bandit-free road access to deep water ports.

Even in missionary flying, protracted use of single engine aircraft to deliver aid serves the people doing the flying more than the people needing aid on the ground.  A long term effort to get and maintain secure ground lines of communication and supply does more for those in need.

 

Finally, here's a little Blurb about Fred Cuny who made many of the same observations I did, only a few decades earlier:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/cuny/bio/hero.html

 

Don't forget the DC3, DC4 and DC6 (if you can find one). These guys have range, DC3 is basically an any runway lander, but the fuel that can be used is stable down to very low temperatures. The jet aircraft and turboprops are more limited. Caravans are decent going in and out of places like africa but they really are a people mover.  I would like to say the 3 and 4 are reliable but I have to make the point that most of them are 70 to 80 years old.

 

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I am of the opinion that airlift for providing supplies should be used in emergency situations, when time is more important than efficiency, like immediately after a large disastrous event (earthquake, big fire...) but should not be the sole provider of emergency logistics. As soon as there are other means of providing relief, airlift capability should be redirected to another hotspot, or put in "storage" for some other emergency.

On the other hands, centralized (planetary) relief force would need to rely almost completely on airlift, due to the fact that every other transportation method is too slow.

So, is it better to have multiple local relief forces, instead of one global?

And how much time and funds is one willing to spend on a relief force that is redundant?

Overall, I guess it's a question for an economist

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@Jonfliesgoats I get what you're saying, but I don't think airlift prevents investments on roads for instance. Reducing the use of airlift won't necessairly make the money go to another investment. The only reason airlift is there it's beacuse nobody built any road to start with and may never will, for one reason or another. Maybe because the terrain is so harsh that building and mantaining a road would be as costly as airlift or even more. Or the local government don't want to help a certain village because the are from a certain tribe or something like that or the government simply don't want to build or let someone build a road but accepts airlift. Road transport could be dangerous, so investment in security would also be needed. We get to a point where if all investments weere made, the need for aid would cease beacuse the country itself would develop. Somethings are not that simple IRL as in paper. You can't assume that airlift prevents investments, it may be true in some cases, but not always, not even in the majority.

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Very good point, VaPal.  From a policy perspective I don't think airlift prevents investments specifically, but it allows us to have unrealistic ideas of the costs of a specific plan.  Let's look at some recent examples:

Rte 1 is the big, ring road in Afghanistan.  It was built (refurbished) using a King Air on contract to fly engineers to worksites.  Once built, ISAF relied on airlift to FOBs and smaller airlift from FOBs to COPs to sustain its presence there.  We never got to a point where we could keep all of of Rte 1 open because we never Addressed the patronage system that perpetuates crippling corruption in Afghan forces.  And in the construction and maintenance of the biggest road in Afghanistan we were and remain utterly dependent on airlift capabilities at all conceivable scales.

So, I agree, the airlift didn't stop us from money on the roads, but it does prevent us from facing the costly, necessary and unpleasant problems of securing and maintaining a road.  Airlift allows us to avoid making necessary changes to policy and strategy.

 

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I agree with you, but I think it's more like each scenario is unique, and have to be analized independently. I on the surface it may seems one thing but when you get a little bit deeper in it you see something that can change drastically your thoughts on it.

But, I think it's safe to say that airlift has spoiled some governments. If you stop it, because it's more sensible and logical and a better long term solution to build a road, the local gov/authority/responsible organization will blame you for stopping the aid instead of building the road. And may, sometimes, prevent you to build the road, because they want you there or want that group people to be dependant. It sounds childish, but man, I've already seen some childish govs, or whatever, out there.

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Absolutely.  The approach to logistics needs to be multi-faceted, and that occurs only rarely.

It's also worth mentioning that these effects aren't limited to news-worthy efforts.  Throughout Africa there are various missionary and humanitarian organizations that have been flying light aircraft for years.  The truth is that a lot of these efforts are more about keeping a particular set of four people flying and supporting the status quo rather than making significant improvements.  In these cases we are talking about individuals or smallgroups of individuals making decisions.

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Good suggestions about timeframe with regard to airlift, guys.  I tend to agree with those thoughts, but have a problem with them.  This approach has been used many times in the past, but short term airlift nearly always turns into long term sustainment.  Mission creep is a real problem!  So perhaps the idea that airlift is a short term tool should be seen more as a goal than a doctrine?

I propose that preventing mission creep in airlift requires a greater, strategic understanding of what an effort is trying to acheive.  We also need to be realistic about people's motivations.  

Is there too much romance around humanitarian airlift and aviation?  I think there may be.

Also, more appreciation for the local diplomacy and management required to keep trucks or barges getting where they need to would be a good thing.  There is no shortage of 20ish, young pilots who want to test themselves in the bush.  I know how I felt about it at the time.  I can't think of that many educated, 20ish young grad students who want to spend their time visiting with village elders and driving around to keep a road open and police officers functioning.  Driving around in a dusty truck, to talk with people is more important than anything I used to do.  Sadly, the folks in dusty trucks don't hold our imaginations like the guys in Twin Otters do.

Can we make airlift more effective by educating the layperson about its failures?

Edited by Jonfliesgoats
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The Hump: success or failure?

During World War Two, the United States engaged in a spectacularly costly airlift from India to supply Chengdu  in China.  We spent twelve gallons of fuel for every gallon delivered.  Also, I use an example of military airlift because it has been widely studied and discussed.

An Argument for Failure:

Plans were made to increase bomber forces flying out of China to bomb the heartland of the Imperial Japanese Empire.  This included plans to put our latest heavy bomber, the B-29 into fields in China.  The economics behind the airlift were so abysmal that the island hopping campaign of the marines in the Pacific was strategically altered specifically to secure airfields for the B-29 that could be supplied more economically.  What would we have achieved if those resources had not been wasted in China?  In the years before the war, developing air power in the US created a group of senior officers that were in competition with each other to prove the value Air Corps.  It certainly seems that mor attention was given to the airlift itself by some of these officers than the actual effort to achieve our national defense needs.  The tired pilots and mechanics of the Hump may have set back the war effort, despite their best intentions.

 

An Argument for Success:

Nationalist Chinese forces were on the brink of defeat after five years of warfare with Imperial Japan.  Despite the great cost of the airlift, enough materiel made it to the Kuomintang to keep Chiang Kai Shek's forces in the field and fighting.  With the US surface fleet recovering from the losses of Pearl Harbor, seizing any Chinese port facility and holding it against Japanese retaliation would not have been feasible.  An immediate need existed to keep the Kuomintang fighting and airlift filled that need.  Without the airlift capability of the US, an extra million or so Japanese troops would have been free to fight in New Guinea or the Solomons.  The tired pilots and mechanics flying the Hump saved China.

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