Beyond B-52s: Use American airpower strategically in Afghanistan and Ethiopia

When most people think of America’s strategic airpower, heavy bombers like the B-52, B-2, and B-1 come to mind, but the U.S. military also has an unmatched ability to conduct global logistics operations by air.

Let’s use America’s airpower to deliver humanitarian aid directly to the desperate as an interim step to mitigate the horrific human catastrophes unfolding right now in Afghanistan and Ethiopia.

Doing so would not only save lives in immediate peril, it could also advance U.S. strategic interests by demonstrating global leadership, military power, and American geopolitical intentions at a time when all those qualities are being questioned at home and abroad. 

Just this past Tuesday, Bret Stephens lamented in the New York Times America’s Crumbling Global Positionand provided a litany of examples to back up his concern.  We can – and, really, must – do something in the near-term to halt and reverse this downward slide of America’s reputation.  A failure to do so could have very serious consequences for national security.

Airdropping humanitarian aid is something America can organize quickly, and even though it’s not a long-term solution, it can circumvent endless diplomatic wrangling about overland deliveries, and outflank nefarious actors who might want to prevent aid altogether.

This is a relatively rare instance where it may behoove the U.S. to act unilaterally.  While the U.S. should welcome other nations and organizations that want to help, it’s imperative that steps be taken to ensure it’s crystal clear to actual recipients – not to mention the global community – that the aid is a gift from the American people.  

Now is the time to show the world America’s strength as well as the goodness of its people. 

Let’s unpack the specifics.

Context: The ongoing humanitarian catastrophes in Afghanistan and Ethiopia

In Afghanistan there is a growing humanitarian crisis occasioned not only by the economic chaos wrought by the Taliban takeover, but also by a severe drought.  On Monday the U.N. frantically reported that Afghanistan [is] on ‘countdown to catastrophe’ without urgent humanitarian relief.

The U.N. says 95% of Afghan families are going hungry.  Furthermore, the New York Times quotes various experts who insist one million Afghan children could die this winter from malnutrition.

Horrifyingly, some Afghans have become so desperate that they are selling their children in the Taliban-controlled country to pay off loans they took out to buy food and other items simply to survive.

The situation in Ethiopia is somewhat different but just as urgent.  Ethiopia is enmeshed in an increasingly brutal armed conflict with the Tigray ethnic minority.  Though beyond the scope of this post to sort out the equities involved, suffice to say the war has produced severe food shortages in the Tigray region.

Even worse, allegations were made last summer that[i]n Ethiopia’s Tigray region, food is a weapon of war as famine looms.”  In early October, the Economist reported:

[There is] a deliberate attempt by the Ethiopian government to starve its own citizens.  Since the fighting broke out Tigray has suffered an increasingly restrictive blockade by government forces.  Since July it has received only a fraction of the food needed to keep its 6m inhabitants alive, hardly any fuel and no medical supplies at all.  More than 5m people do not have enough to eat.  Some 400,000 of those are facing what aid agencies call “catastrophic” hunger—the last step on the path to mass starvation.

In fact, in late September, Ethiopia expelled U.N. officials coordinating relief efforts and sounding the alarm about the humanitarian crisis in Tigray.”

The U.S.’s unique ability to deliver aid directly to the most needy

At a scale no other nation on the planet can match, the U.S. military can get significant humanitarian aid to anywhere in the world via airdrops.  This means that the aid can get to any area, however remote.  Furthermore, as will be discussed below, neither the Taliban in Afghanistan nor anyone in Ethiopia can stop it – even as we acknowledge there are still some risks.

The U.S.’s capability is unique.  Beyond its sheer airdrop capacity, America’s armed forces can deliver the aid with great precision.  Writing for the Lexington Institute in 2019, Dr. Dan Gouré explained the U.S.’s astonishing airdrop systems:

Working with industry, the Army’s Natick Soldier System Center developed the Joint Precision Airdrop System (JPADS).  JPADS provides the ability to precisely deliver payloads of as much as 40,000 lbs. from aircraft operating from altitudes up to 24,000 feet and eight miles from the desired aim point.

He further describes JPADS:

JPADS is a smart system that consists of a specially shaped parachute or parafoil, a parachute decelerator, an autonomous computer guidance unit with GPS and a load container or pallet.  JPADS can deliver payloads to within 150 feet of the desired aim point.  Aircraft employing JPADS can conduct deliveries to multiple locations in a single pass.

Gouré specifically cited the application of America’s airdrop technologies to humanitarian situations:

In addition to their military applications, precision airdrop systems have demonstrated their value in providing critical relief supplies in humanitarian crises.  Providing vital supplies to needy populations in austere environments or during a local conflict is a challenging mission.  The use of precision airdrop systems is able to reduce the risks both to aircrews and populations on the ground while increasing the probability that the needed supplies will arrive.

Newer systems will provide even greater capacity by allowing airdrop operations to be conducted safely in urban environments.  In May, the Army demonstrated the Multi-Use Aerial Dispersion System (MADS) which “is a disposable one-time use parachute that can be utilized to drop humanitarian aid packages or leaflets into an urban environment with minimal risk to the civilian population.”

Notably, the U.S. has special humanitarian daily rations that are designed to be sensitive to cultural and religious norms.  In addition, they are typically emblazoned with the American flag. 

However, these airdrops ought to be accompanied by carefully drafted and linguistically-astute leaflets that explain to the recipients the American source of the relief. 

The strategic precedent

In his superb 1997 essay, Keeping the Strategic Flame Alive, the late Carl Builder reminded us that the strategic use of airpower did not necessarily include the use of force, and that humanitarian aid can have strategic benefits.  He explained a classic example – the Berlin airlift – this way:

While it may have been conceived as a tactical alternative at the time, the Berlin airlift of 1948 was a strategic masterpiece.  It not only fulfilled its tactical objective of feeding and fueling the populace of Berlin (that is, dealing with the matter at hand); it transformed the game on the strategic level.  The Soviets blockaded land routes to Berlin, believing that the West would have to choose between initiating hostilities (perhaps precipitating World War III) or abandoning Berlin.

Supplying Berlin by air was inconceivable to the Soviets based on their own limited experience with airlift and the failed German effort at Stalingrad.  What no one on either side seemed to recognize then or now is that an airlift would turn the tables and oblige the Soviets to initiate hostilities.  That was check. When the sufficiency and sustainability of the airlift became apparent, it was checkmate. Thereafter, if the blockade was to be continued the West could only gain international admiration at the expense of the Soviets.

Yes, the circumstances are different today, but Builder’s fundamental idea remains valid: airpower can yield strategic benefits because of its distinct ability to literally “overfly” any number of impediments on the ground…and do so in a way that confounds adversaries and benefits innocents.

There are also more recent precedents specific to humanitarian airdrops.  From the beginning of the war airdrops have been used to get humanitarian aid to the Afghan people.  For example, in 2006, the Air Force reported conducting 300 airdrop missions in the previous 18 months that distributed 2.1 million pounds of humanitarian aid throughout Afghanistan.  The airdrops continued and by 2011 as much as 90 million pounds of aid was delivered to remote Afghan villages. 

The recent humanitarian airlift operation to extract 124,000 people from the chaos and danger of Afghanistan illustrates what determined American airmen can do.  Here are a few details as reported by the Military Times:

More than 500 crews on over 250 Air Force mobility aircraft took part in the evacuation, including about 110 of the Air Force’s enormous C-17s. As Operation Allies Refuge began Aug. 14, the number of C-17s at the Kabul airport rose nearly eight-fold, from six to 46 airframes, in just two days.

On a typical day, the Air Force has nearly 70 C-17s dispatched around the globe. During the Kabul evacuation, the service sent 60 Globemasters into U.S. Central Command and U.S. European Command alone — and averaged 113 per day at the height of the operation.

     Obviously, if directed to do so, America’s military can respond. 

Why not work through the U.N. or nongovernmental organizations?

Air delivery of food and related humanitarian aid can be a challenging proposition.  Even under ideal circumstances, they cannot – particularly over an extended period – completely replace land deliveries that millions of starving people may require.  However, airpower can get aid to the people now while diplomats deal with squabbles that are delaying or preventing overland shipments.

Of course, there are certainly merits in working through non-governmental aid organizations.  They often have experience working with local populations, and ground based transport is typically cheaper and better able to deliver supplies at scale. 

On August 30th, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken made this optimistic statement:

The United States will continue to support humanitarian aid to the Afghan people.  Consistent with our sanctions on the Taliban, the aid will not flow through the government, but rather through independent organizations, such as UN agencies and NGOs.  And we expect that those efforts will not be impeded by the Taliban or anyone else.

Unfortunately, there are several problems with an approach that depends upon “independent organizations”, starting with the fact that even though weeks have passed, adequate aid is not yet flowing –  despite, as the new U.N. report makes clear, the crisis is deepening.

The time for talks is over; action is needed now to save lives.

Furthermore, the Afghan people need to know that the American people have not abandoned them, and the only way to do that is to deliver the aid directly to them.   Some things really are that simple.

Having served in Operation Provide Relief/Restore Hope in Somalia, I know that we cannot count on the U.N. or nongovernmental organizations to make it clear to the recipients that the American people are the source of the aid. 

What is more concerning is that these nongovernmental organizations will have to work with the Taliban, engendering numerous problems.  Clearly, the Taliban “government” is in chaos, with factions scrambling for power

Additionally, a series of suicide bombings by the Islamic State indicates that serious security challenges remain.  In fact, it’s not even clear that the Taliban would – or even could – ensure the safety of the U.N. or NGOs or allow them to freely distribute food to the most needy. 

Perhaps even more importantly over the long term, “Western governments,” the New Yok Times observes, are “hesitant to provide assistance that could legitimize the authority of a Taliban government that includes leaders identified by the U.N. as international terrorists with links to Al Qaeda.”

There’s good reason for the concern about legitimizing the Taliban.  One source  wrote recently:

Cruelty is now official government policy.  Since declaring victory in Kabul, the Taliban have looted at will.  They hunt down their enemies and kill them.  They beat women in the streets.  As they stifle the media that the United States spent $1 billion developing, the Taliban are getting away with rape and murder.  It should be no surprise.  Their “government” includes men sanctioned as terrorists by the United States and the United Nations; the interior minister is wanted by the FBI with a $10 million bounty on his head.

Similarly, in late September Human Rights Watch reported that Taliban abuses were causing “widespread fear,” and in “Afghanistan’s western city of Herat [they] are committing widespread and serious human rights violations against women and girls.”

Airdrops are the U.S.’s best near-term option to ensure aid gets to the people who really need it.  They outflank the Taliban’s ability to manipulate the crisis by delaying or interdicting ground-based aid efforts.  Put plainly, the Taliban just can’t be trusted.

With respect to Ethiopia, the problem is obvious: the Ethiopian military (aided by Eritrean forces) is blocking the U.N. and NGOs from delivering aid to Tigray.  Again, the U.S. can “vertically outflank” those seeking to stymie the humanitarian shipments. 

Is there risk?

At the moment, the Taliban has neither the formal legitimacy to try to bar U.S. airdrops, nor the military capability to threaten U.S. airpower even if they were disposed to do so.  During the conflict with the Taliban U.S. airlifters conducted thousands of missions – including airdrops – without loss. 

Sure, the Taliban might try to gather up air-delivered aid but doing so would be difficult to carry out practically.  Moreover, it would put them at odds with the people – especially in rural areas – upon which their support depends.  Most importantly, it would be catastrophic for their efforts to gain international recognition which they so desperately want – and need.

Such operations would, however, require overflight permission from Pakistan, but reports indicate the parties are close to an agreement permitting overflight for military operations.  In any event, I believe it’s extremely unlikely that Pakistan would fail to approve humanitarian overflights by U.S. aircraft in part because of the reputational harm it would incur, and in part for pragmatic reasons. 

Pakistan has no interest in a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan as it would have the potential to displace millions more Afghans into Pakistan’s border regions (1.4 million are already in Pakistan).  Additionally, U.S.-made combat aircraft form the nucleus of Pakistan’s air force, and it’s extremely unlikely that they would do anything to jeopardize the necessary logistical support for those airplanes.

Conducting airdrop operations over Ethiopia would not be without risk should Ethiopia choose to resist.  Its small fighter force of outdated aircraft presents a limited but still extant threat.  Of somewhat greater concern is Ethiopia’s acquisition of advanced Russian air defense missiles.

However, it’s unlikely that Ethiopia would risk the air defense resources it does have against a humanitarian airdrop mission conducted by the U.S.  – however opposed to it they might be.  The fact is that the U.S. could make short work of Ethiopia’s air defense assets, leaving the country almost completely vulnerable to air attack.

This is no small matter as Ethiopia is completing an enormous hydroelectric dam on the Nile, a multi-billion dollar project that has sparked regional controversy.  As the BBC reports, “Egypt, which relies almost entirely on the Nile for its water, sees it as a possible existential threat.” 

Egypt already threatened war over the dam, and last July accused Ethiopia of violating international law in the way it was filling the area behind the dam.  Experts say that the dam, even if defended by the new Russian equipment, would be vulnerable to a determined Egyptian air attack.

That vulnerability would be exacerbated if what defenses it did have were eviscerated in a fruitless attack on American airpower delivering aid.  But, again, no one can say there would be zero risk involved.

To mitigate risk, the planning will likely include a provision for fighter escorts to discourage any attacks on the transports.  In addition, anything can happen – to include accidents and mechanical issues – so there will be plans for combat search and rescue.  However, these tasks (and more) are nothing new for the U.S. military, and are routinely incorporated into mission planning.

Not a panacea

In a July 2021 article the World Food Program (WFP) explained the history of U.N. food airdrops (the first was in 1973) as well as the mechanics of the process from their perspective. 

The WFP cautions:

[T]he costs involved — aircraft, fuel, personnel — and the relatively small quantities that can be delivered in each flight as opposed to a convoy of trucks, make them a last resort, only to be used when all other access to people in need is blocked. 

Indeed, WFP noted that “[d]elivering food by air costs up to seven times as much as by road.”  For its part, the International Committee of the Red Cross concedes that airdrops of humanitarian supplies can provide short term relief, but is not a long-term solution and should be considered only as a last resort.

That said, we are at the moment when “last resorts” must be considered.  It’s hard to imagine that in the near term any reliable agreement could be made with the Taliban, particularly one that would ensure aid would not be manipulated to deny it to those most vulnerable, and to enhance the Taliban’s power to the detriment of the U.S. 

With Ethiopia reportedly considering civilian starvation as a way winning a war, and actively blocking U.N. efforts, there is – again – little possibility of a near-term alternative to airdropping aid. 

Time to avoid the “failure to try” 

The U.S. cannot relieve every human disaster everywhere, but that should not be an excuse to not try to do anything anywhereAnd, true, an airdrop operation can only be a temporary fix that buys time as more enduring solutions are developed.  But simply because airdropping aid isn’t a permanent solution, it should not be a sufficient reason to fail to act.  

People are dying now. 

In my view, America should not waste any more time as diplomats squabble, and get on with the effort, even as we accept the risks and the chance of failure.

William Arthur Ward’s axiom is hard to dispute:The greatest failure is the failure to try.”  As the Nation emerges from Afghanistan withdrawal with all its attendant recriminations, this is an opportunity to show the world the true nobility of the American spirit…and the capabilities of the U.S. military. 

Let’s get started now but conduct the operation in a way that ensures the recipients clearly know it’s the American people who care enough to help them.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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