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20 years after operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm: Airlift effort was compared to ‘moving a small city’

Troops cross the airfield after disembarking from Military Airlift Command C-141 Starlifter aircraft at a non-disclosed base in Southwest Asia in support of Operation Desert Shield in August 1990. (Department of Defense Photo)

Troops cross the airfield after disembarking from Military Airlift Command C-141 Starlifter aircraft at a non-disclosed base in Southwest Asia in support of Operation Desert Shield in August 1990. (Department of Defense Photo)

Marines headed to support the coalition forces participating in Operation Desert Shield board a commercial aircraft chartered by the Military Airlift Command in September 1991. (Department of Defense Photo)

Marines headed to support the coalition forces participating in Operation Desert Shield board a commercial aircraft chartered by the Military Airlift Command in September 1991. (Department of Defense Photo)

A C-130 Hercules from the West Virginia Air National Guard flies a tactical airlift mission for Operation Desert Storm in January 1991. (Department of Defense Photo)

A C-130 Hercules from the West Virginia Air National Guard flies a tactical airlift mission for Operation Desert Storm in January 1991. (Department of Defense Photo)

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- Air Mobility Command history shows Gen. Hansford T. Johnson compared the first few weeks of Operation Desert Shield's airlift operation to "airlifting a small city."

"We've moved, in essence, a Midwestern town the size of Lafayette, Ind., or Jefferson City, Mo.," said General Johnson, the U.S. Transportation Command and Military Airlift Command commander during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm more than 20 years ago. "In addition, we've moved all their cars, trucks, foodstuffs, stocks, household goods and water supply."

The words by General Johnson are from the history publication, "Anything, Anywhere, Anytime: An Illustrated History of the Military Airlift Command, 1941-1991." General Johnson's comparison appears to be an accurate depiction. More than two decades after the "massive" airlift effort, the numbers still can seem impressive.

According to the history publication, between Aug. 7 and Dec. 11, 1990 -- the first 127 days of Desert Shield airlifting people and cargo to the Southwest Asia area of operations -- military and Civil Reserve Air Fleet crews "transported over 244,000 tons of equipment and supplies and over 220,000 service personnel on more than 7,000 missions."

Department of Defense facts show Operation Desert Shield began Aug. 7, 1990, and ended when Operation Desert Storm began on Jan. 17, 1991. The world-wide, coalition response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, led to what General Johnson also termed "the largest sustained airlift ever over a short period of time."

Another history publication, entitled, "So Many, So Much, So Far, So Fast: United States Transportation Command and Strategic Deployment for Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm," shows the first airlift mission for Desert Shield came from the 437th Military Airlift Wing on Aug. 7, 1990, at what is now Joint Base Charleston, S.C.

"The Starlifter, tail number 67-0016, arrived at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, on (Aug.) 8th carrying cargo and personnel for the command's airlift control element (ALCE)," the TRANSCOM publication states. "By the end of the day (Aug. 8), all of the ALCEs -- carried on 37 C-141, 10 C-5 and 10 C-130 missions -- were in place to manage the airlift flow."

Through all of Desert Shield and Desert Storm, U.S. military aircraft participating in airlift operations, in addition to the C-141, included the C-5 Galaxy, KC-10 Extender, C-130 Hercules, C-9 Nightingale and even the KC-135 Stratotanker.

The TRANSCOM publication shows there were 12,894 strategic airlift missions during both operations. The C-141, which was called the "workhorse" of Desert Shield and Desert Storm, flew 8,536 strategic airlift missions followed by the C-5 with 3,770, the KC-10 with 379 and the C-9 with 209.

The C-141, "delivered 159,462 tons of cargo - 30 percent of the cargo airlifted during the operation." Combined with the C-5, "the Starlifter and the Galaxy together accounted for 361,147 tons, or 66 percent of the cargo airlifted in support of Desert Shield/Desert Storm," the TRANSCOM publication shows.

On the tactical airlift side, the C-130 was the leader in supporting intra-theater needs. According to a Department of Defense news source, the C-130 Hercules is credited with 1,193 tactical airlift missions during the operations.

"More than 145 C-130 aircraft were deployed in support of Desert Shield/Desert Storm," the DOD source shows. "These aircraft moved units to forward bases once they arrived in the theater. From Aug. 10 (1990) to the cease-fire, Air Force C-130s flew 46,500 sorties and moved more than 209,000 people and 300,000 tons of supplies within the theater."

Commercial airline augmentation was also crucial to the airlift effort, the TRANSCOM publication states. The use of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet during Desert Shield-Desert Storm was done for the first time in its 38-year history during the operations.

"On, 3,309 missions, commercial aircraft delivered 321,005 passengers and 145,225 tons of cargo. That equaled 64 percent and 27 percent respectively of the total passengers (500,720) and cargo (543,548 tons) carried via strategic airlift during Desert Shield/Desert Storm."

Also to consider is that the success of the airlift effort part of a Total Force effort. The AMC history publication shows that at least 4,200 Air Force Reserve Airmen "volunteered to fly missions during the first weeks of the contingency."

"As directed by the United States Transportation Command, Military Airlift Command managed the Desert Shield/Desert Storm strategic airlift," the TRANSCOM publication also shows. "MAC's active duty force joined with MAC-gained aircraft and crews from the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard to make up a total strategic airlift force."

In the end, General Johnson noted the airlift effort for Desert Shield and Desert Storm was nothing short of "historical" and even "impressive" in contributing to the winning of the war.

History shows Kuwait was liberated on Feb. 27, 1991. On March 1, 1991, cease-fire negotiations began and the official cease-fire with Iraq went into effect on April 11, 1991, thus ending Operation Desert Storm. Airlift in the region continued soon thereafter with Operation Provide Promise in northern Iraq, and later with Operation Iraqi Freedom and now Operation New Dawn.

(Editor's note: This is the first in a series of three articles highlighting the accomplishments of mobility Airmen during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm more than 20 years ago.)