Air University Review, September-October 1986

Strategic Airlift:
Past, Present, and Future

Dr. William M. Leary

Strategic airlift, as we know it today, grew from modest beginnings. In May 1941, as the United States edged ever closer to war with Germany, the need to deliver aircraft to England brought about the organization of Air Corps Ferrying Command. Colonel Robert Olds set up shop in a small office in the basement of Washington's Munitions Building, recruited a few staff members, and began to draw long lines on navigational charts. One of those lines became reality on 1 July 1941, when Colonel Caleb V. Haynes ferried a B-24 to Prestwick, Scotland, via Montreal and Gander. This first transatlantic flight would be followed by many more. During the next four years, more than 21,000 additional aircraft would be flown to destinations around the world.1

In June 1942, Ferrying Command formed the nucleus for a new Air Transport Command (ATC). Intended to provide strategic airlift under priorities established by the War Department, ATC quickly demonstrated that air transport had come of age. For the first time, the movement of supplies by air had ceased to be "an interesting airmen's experiment and become a solid part of the Army's logistical equipment."2 At its peak, in July 1945, ATC's 3700 aircraft carried 275,000 passengers and 100,000 tons of cargo in a worldwide network of airways.3

Operation of the vital air link between India and China provided the most dramatic wartime example of air transport's new importance. With land and sea routes closed, supplies could reach China only by a treacherous air route over the Himalayas. Pilots flying "the Hump" encountered severe turbulence, icing, and generally foul weather to the north while trying to avoid the Japanese fighters that lurked to the south. Professional airlifters found their greatest challenge in the Hump, and they responded by developing methods and techniques that not only got the job done but also would prove useful in Berlin, Korea, and beyond. Thanks to the skill and determination of the men of ATC's India-China Division, tonnage rose from 1227 in December 1942 to 71,042 in July 1945. But the human cost was high: more than 1600 airmen lost their lives carrying supplies to China.4

The postwar years brought organizational change as military airlift responded to a series of international crises. Early in 1948, ATC combined with the smaller Naval Air Transport Service to become Military Air Transport Service (MATS). Scarcely had Major General Laurence S. Kuter taken command of the new organization when the Soviet Union threatened America's postwar position of leadership in Europe by blocking access routes to West Berlin. President Harry S. Truman, anxious to avoid a direct military confrontation with Russia, rejected advice to send an armed convoy through to the city; instead, he ordered an airlift to sustain the city's 2,200,000 inhabitants.5

After modest beginnings under local commanders, the Berlin Airlift escalated when Brigadier General William H. Tunner and his team of professional airlifters took over the assignment. Drawing on the experience gained in operating the Hump route, Tunner soon had planes landing at and taking off from Berlin at ninety-second intervals around the clock. Standardized operational techniques and careful planning sustained the rhythm of the airlift, bringing sharp increases in tonnage and aircraft utilization and a decrease in accidents. As the airlift's commander observed, "That's where the glamour lies in air transport."6 In all, 276,569 flights carried 1,783,000 tons of goods into Berlin before the Russians admitted defeat by reopening the land routes to the city.7 Airlift had enabled the United States to sustain its position in Europe––and without resorting to war.

The outbreak of fighting in Korea in 1950 placed new demands on the nation's airlift resources. MATS, together with civilian contract carriers, flew priority cargo and personnel from the United States to the Far East, often returning with wounded (more than 66,000 in three years). 8 General Tunner and his airlift team were also called on to impose order on the early chaos of air transport between Japan and Korea. After they established Combat Cargo Command in August 1950, Tunner's centralized control quickly brought about more efficient operations in what now would be considered tactical airlift.9 Both tactical and strategic airlift played a vital role in supporting and sustaining the military efforts of the United Nations throughout the Korean conflict, although their accomplishments received scant recognition in the official histories.10

MATS encountered hard times after the Korean War. The Eisenhower administration's emphasis on "massive retaliation" produced a sharp decline in funding for conventional military forces, and airlift suffered more than most. As General Tunner pointed out, "So mundane an area as air transport was relegated to the bottom of the priority list on grounds of both grand strategy and economy."11 At the same time, the civilian airline industry launched an all-out campaign to take "routine" military cargo and personnel off MATS aircraft and place them on commercial carriers. This proposal received a considerable amount of support in the media; if approved by Congress, it would have crippled MATS.

In the midst of a growing public debate about the status and role of MATS, Chairman Carl Vinson (D-Ga.) of the House Armed Services Committee appointed a Special Subcommittee on National Military Airlift. Headed by L. Mendel Rivers (D-South Carolina) and charged with conducting an inquiry "into the adequacy, or inadequacy, of the national airlift," the subcommittee took testimony in March and April 1960. Deputy Secretary of Defense James H. Douglas told the subcommittee that his department intended to work with commercial airlines to develop modern cargo aircraft: as civilian airlift capacity increased, military traffic would be diverted to the commercial carriers. Somewhat in contrast, Secretary of the Air Force Dudley C. Sharp reported that President Eisenhower had approved $50,000,000 for modernization of MATS "hard-core" airlift capacity. However, the President also had ordered a reduction in "routine" traffic by MATS, allowing commercial airlines to move into this market.12

The subcommittee listened to this kind of testimony for two months and then issued a report that shocked a complacent administration. Strategic airlift capability, it warned, was "seriously inadequate," and commercial airlines were not the answer. Unless immediate action was taken to improve MATS's generally obsolete equipment, the nation would find itself in a position of "unacceptable risk" within five years. The subcommittee recommended that $335,000,000 be spent to purchase "off-the-shelf " aircraft as an interim measure while development proceeded on a new jet cargo aircraft with intercontinental range. "The Military Air Transport System is a weapon system," the subcommittee emphasized, "which is required in the performance of military missions involving strategic airlift." As such, it needed a designation more consistent with its mission. The subcommittee recommended that MATS be redesignated the "Military Airlift Command."13

This milestone report marked the beginning of a decade of change for military airlift. Congress approved funds in 1960 to purchase fifty C-13OEs and appropriated $50,000,000 to develop a jet transport to replace MATS's aging, propeller-driven C-124s. The next year, President John F. Kennedy called for enhanced airlift capacity in his first State of the Union message. The new administration increased the interim procurement program to ninety-nine C-13OEs and thirty C-135s.14 In April 1961, the Air Force signed a contract with Lockheed-Georgia for five test-and-evaluation jet transports. The prototype of the C-141 was completed in August 1963, and the first squadron became operational early in 1965.15

A growing American presence in Vietnam gave the C-141 ample opportunity to prove its value. The first of many C-141s touched down at Saigon's Tan Son Nhut airport on 5 August 1965, delivering 50,000 pounds of general cargo. Later in the year, MATS responded to an enemy threat against the central highlands by airlifting the 3d Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division from Hawaii to Pleiku. Between 23 December 1965 and 23 January 1966, C-141s flew 231 sorties to move the brigade's 3000 men and 4700 tons of equipment across the Pacific. Another dramatic demonstration of strategic airlift took place between 17 November and 29 December 1967, when 413 C-141 and C-133 missions carried 10,355 men and 5100 tons of equipment of the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to Bien Hoa.16

Even before the first C-141 rolled off the Lockheed assembly line, plans were under way for a much more impressive strategic airlifter. In the summer of 1963, the National Military Airlift subcommittee called for development of "a new, very large, turbine-powered cargo aircraft" to haul outsize cargo for the Army. It estimated that the cost of procuring fifty of these giant transports would be $20,000,000 per aircraft, "a sum which staggers the normal imagination."17 This airplane was the one that the Air Force had wanted from the beginning and Air Force leaders believed that it would be well worth the price.

Lockheed-Georgia won the contract for the C-5 Galaxy, surely one of the technological marvels of the twentieth century. In February 1968, following completion of its 285th C-141, Lockheed closed down the assembly line and retooled for the C-5. Military Airlift Command (MATS had become MAC in 1966) took delivery of the first operational aircraft at Charleston AFB, South Carolina, on 6 June 1970. It was fitting that Representative Rivers was on hand for the occasion. More than anyone else, he had been responsible for the nearly 1000 percent increase in military and civil airlift during the 1960s. His subcommittee had been the foremost advocate for the C-141 and C-5. Military Airlift Command––and the nation––owed him a debt of gratitude.

The National Military Airlift subcommittee held its last meetings in 1970. Responding to a study by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that predicted a serious deficit in outsize cargo capability by 1974, the subcommittee recommended procurement of two additional C-5 squadrons and modernization of the tactical airlift force, including development of a replacement for the C-13O that would interface more effectively with the C-5. This report, as it turned out, set the agenda for the future––but for the 1980s, not the 1970s.18

The 1970s, in fact, would see little progress in enhancing the nation's strategic airlift capability, as both Congress and the administration lost interest in the problem. By the time Congressman Rivers died in December 1970, "C-5" had become a dirty word for many Americans. The government had ordered 115 airplanes for $3 billion; it received eighty-one at a cost of $5 billion. Senator William Proxmire (R-Wis.) labeled the C-5 program "one of the greatest fiscal disasters in the history of military contracting." The project, another critic charged, had been characterized by "political pressure, gross mismanagement, enormous waste, [and] confusion."19

The only noteworthy improvement in MAC's fleet came late in the decade when the stretched (23.3 feet) and air-refuelable C-141B appeared. An important organizational change took place in 1974-75 when the airlift resources of Tactical Air Command were consolidated with MAC, ending a lengthy debate between advocates of efficiency through centralization and those who favored operational autonomy.20

MAC continued to perform with professional excellence during the 1970s, supporting the declining war effort in Vietnam, flying relief supplies to Guatemala and Guam in the wake of natural disasters, and carrying personnel and equipment to Korea and Zaire during emergencies. An especially noteworthy operation took place during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Between 14 October and 14 November, MAC mounted one of the largest strategic airlifts in history, delivering 22,395 tons of cargo from the United States to Israel in 567 C-5 and C-141 sorties.21

Despite the accomplishments of strategic airlift, expanding American global commitments, especially in the Middle East, produced an ever-widening gap between airlift capabilities and requirements. In 1980, a concerned Congress directed the Department of Defense to make a comprehensive study of strategic mobility. This report––the Congressionally Mandated Mobility Study of April 1981––set a "minimum goal" of 66,000,000 ton-miles per day (66 MTM/D) for combined intertheater airlift capacity. As existing capacity stood at less than thirty million ton miles per day, significant progress would have to be made to achieve "MAC's magic number" by the end of the century.22

The incoming Reagan administration, after reviewing the Defense Department's priorities, decided to double strategic mobility funding. In order to narrow the airlift gap as quickly as possible, the Pentagon purchased fifty C-5Bs (a C-5 with a strengthened wing and advanced structural materials and systems) 23 and forty-four KC-10s (a transport/tanker operated by the Strategic Air Command). Also, nineteen Boeing 747s in the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) would be modified for military use by adding a cargo door and strengthening the floor.24

In September 1983, the Air Force issued the Airlift Master Plan, a "definitive statement" on how it planned to close the airlift gap by the end of the century. The plan envisioned a two-stage assault on the 66 MTM/D objective. By the end of fiscal year 1988, the Air Force expected to complete the first stage and reach 48.5 MTM/D with a fleet of 215 C-141s, 64 C-5As (with wing modifications to extend their service life by 30,000 hours), 44 C-5Bs, 41 KC-10s, and 86 CRAF aircraft. The second stage would take place during the 1990s as 210 new C-17s came into service, enabling the Air Force to retire or transfer to the Reserves 18O C-130s and the entire C-141B fleet.25

To date, the first phase has caused few funding problems with Congress; however, the second phase, especially the central role of the C-17, has run into trouble. The Air Force's case for the C-17 was put best by General Thomas H. Ryan, Jr., commander in chief of MAC, when he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Sea Power and Force Projection in March 1984. The C-17, he argued, was "essential to modernize and expand both intra- and intertheater airlift in the most effective and economical way." It would bring low operating costs, was easy to maintain, and meant sharply reduced manpower requirements. Capable of carrying outsize equipment, it could haul eighty-six tons of cargo more than 2900 miles and then deposit the load at forward airfields with runways as small as 3000 feet by 90 feet. Moreover, with redundant systems and the ability to make steep approaches and impact landings, it was "designed to survive in a semi-hostile environment." And the C-17 was not a gamble. On the contrary, it came with an unprecedented manufacturer's warranty that "literally guaranteed" not only the aircraft's reliability, maintainability, and availability but also its performance. In short, General Ryan emphasized, acquisition of the C-17 was far and away the best way to meet the strategic airlift goal of 66 MTM/D by the end of the century and significantly enhance intratheater airlift.26

Although Congress has approved developmental funding for the C-17, prospects for production funding are not good. A sign of the times came in January 1986, when the conservative and influential Heritage Foundation released a "Backgrounder" paper that attacked the Airlift Master Plan for underutilizing existing aircraft and for resting on questionable operational and planning assumptions. It recommended that the Air Force cancel the C-17, build more C-5Bs and KC-10s, extend the service life of C-141Bs, and develop a new short-range tactical airlifter to replace the C-130. Under this program, the Air Force still could meet the 66 MTM/D objective––and at a saving of $20 billion. Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, the report warned, soon would force a careful examination of all federal spending; if the U.S. Air Force could not sell its lift-enhancement program to Congress as cost-effective, the entire effort to close the strategic airlift gap would be placed in jeopardy.27

Two months later, General T. R. Milton, USAF (Ret) sounded a similar theme in Air Force magazine. Intercontinental air transports, he observed, "need not be designed to land behind the front lines on improvised runways." Furthermore, the attempt to design aircraft to carry outsize Army equipment has of ten been "an exercise in futility." Instead of concentrating on development of a new airplane, the Air Force should pay more attention to higher utilization of the existing fleet. "With hard times ahead for the military budget," he stressed, "the problem now is once more one of priorities. Airlift is an absolute essential to any meaningful national strategy, but that doesn't necessarily have to mean either a new airplane or nothing."28

Future prospects for strategic airlift appear mixed. There is general agreement on the need for an enhanced airlift capability to support the nation's global responsibilities. Strategic mobility, as one informed student of the topic has emphasized, "is not just important––it is indispensable."29 Furthermore, in a world of unreliable allies, requirements for strategic airlift are more likely to increase than to diminish. On the other hand, fiscal restraints are sure to become even greater in the foreseeable future. Historically, airlift has not had a high priority during financially hard times––a fact that leads to the inevitable conclusion that the C-17 program, at a cost of $37.5 billion, will be one of the first "sacred cows" to feel the budgetary axe.30

But the airlift situation is not entirely bleak. The C-5B remains a viable financial and political option, and no one questions the Galaxy's superiority to the C-17 as an intercontinental transport.31 Tactical airlift will suffer most without the C-17, but there are other possibilities. Powered-lift technology has made enormous progress in recent years, with NASA reporting "outstanding" results after extensive testing of its Quiet Short-Haul Research Aircraft.32 It may be feasible to develop a less expensive replacement for the C-130 in the years to come or even to persuade Congress to accept a less ambitious C-17 program.

Strategic airlift has a proud record of accomplishment. Since 1941, the men and women of Ferrying Command, ATC, MATS, and MAC have met all challenges with dedication and skill, overcoming equipment shortages and operational difficulties to deliver vital cargo to China, Berlin, Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere, in support of America's global responsibilities. No matter what the future brings in terms of equipment, there is no reason to doubt that this situation will change––at least so long as the personnel of MAC (in General Ryan's words) "wear the uniform proudly and know the meaning of words like patriotism, duty, and honor."33

University of Georgia, Athens


1. Wesley Frank Craven and James Lea Cate, editors, The Army Air Forces in World War II, seven volumes (Chicago, 1948-58), vol. VII, pp. 3-45.

2. Oliver LaFarge, The Eagle in the Egg (Boston, 1949), p. 61.

3. Craven and Cate, p. 19.

4. Ibid., pp. 115-51.

5. For the best overview of the Berlin crisis, see W. Phillips Davidson, The Berlin Blockade (Princeton, New Jersey, 1958).

6. William H. Tunner, Over the Hump (New York, 1964), p. 162.

7. Military Airlift Command, Historical Handbook, 1941-1984 (Scott AFB, Illinois, 1984).

8. Ibid.

9. Tunner, pp. 225-64; Annis G. Thompson, The Greatest Airlift (Tokyo, 1954).

10. See, for example, Robert Frank Futrell, The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950-1953 (New York, 1961).

11. Tunner, p. 290.

12. U.S. House of Representatives, Special Subcommittee on National Military Airlift of the Committee on Armed Services, Hearings, 86th Congress, 2d session (1960).

13. U.S. House of Representatives, Special Subcommittee on National Military Airlift of the Committee on Armed Services, Report, 86th Congress, 2d session (1960).

14. U.S. House of Representatives, Special Subcommittee on National Military Airlift of the Committee on Armed Services, Hearings, 88th Congress, 1st session (1963).

15. Harold H. Martin, Starlifter (Brattleboro, Vermont, 1972).

16. MAC, Historical Handbook.

17. U.S. House of Representatives, Special Subcommittee on National Military Airlift of the Committee on Armed Services, Report, 88th Congress, 1st session (1963), pp. 6205-06.

18. U.S. House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Military Airlift of the Committee on Armed Services, Report, 91st Congress, 2d session (1970).

19. Berkeley Rice, The C-5A Scandal (Boston, 1971).

20. Edgar Ulsamer, "New Look in USAF's Strategic Airlift," Air Force, February 1975, pp. 24-31.

21. MAC, Historical Handbook.

22. James P. Coyne, "MAC's Magic Number," Air Force, November 1985, pp. 53-59.

23. H. Bard Allison, "C-5B: A Giant Reborn," Aerospace America, July 1985, pp. 62-65.

24. Coyne, op. cit.

25. Department of the Air Force, U.S. Air Force Airlift Master Plan (Washington, 1983). See, also, Edgar Ulsamer, "The Airlifter Master Plan," Air Force, May 1984, pp. 58-65.

26. U.S. Senate, Committee on Armed Services, Hearings: Department of Defense Authorization for Appropriations for Fiscal Year 1985 (Part 8: Sea Power and Force Projection), 98th Congress, 2d session (1984). See, also, "Designing an Airlifter: McDonnell Douglas's C-17, Aerospace America, January 1986, pp. 66-68, 70.

27. Kim R. Holmes, "Closing the Military Airlift Gap" (Backgrounder published by the Heritage Foundation), 23 January 1986.

28. General T. R. Milton, USAF (Ret), "The Airlift Shortage Continues," Air Force, March 1986, p. 114.

29. Jeffrey Record, U.S. Strategic Airlift: Requirements and Capabilities (Washington: 1986), p. 6. A National Security Paper of the Institute of Foreign Policy Analysis, this is by far the most comprehensive and balanced study of the issues and can be highly recommended to anyone seriously interested in the subject.

30. See the remarks by Senators William S. Cohen and Sam Nunn in U.S. Senate, Hearings…for Fiscal Year 1985, pp. 4049-50.

31. Record, pp. 24-31.

32. Wallace H. Deckeret and James A. Franklin, "Powered-lift Technology on the Threshold," Aerospace America, November 1985, pp. 34-42.

33. U.S. Senate, Hearings…for Fiscal Year 1985, p. 3906.


William M. Leary (Ph.D., Princeton University) is Associate Professor of History at the University of Georgia. He has been a Visiting Research Professor at the National Air and Space Museum and, during the Korean War, served with the Air Force at Kadena AB, Okinawa. He has written extensively on American aeronautical activity in East Asia and is the editor of The Central Intelligence Agency: History and Documents (1984)and the author of Perilous Missions: Civil Air Transport and CIA Covert Operations in Asia (1984) and Aerial Pioneers: The U.S. Air Mail Service, 1918-1927 (1985).


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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