USTRANSCOM supports evacuation of 124K people in historic airlift
SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. (Sept. 2, 2021) – The final weeks of operations in Afghanistan were marked by an airlift operation the commander of U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM), U.S. Army Gen. Stephen R. Lyons, characterized as “herculean.” The final hours were no less herculean.
Under the cover of darkness, the last C-17 carried the acting U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Ross Wilson, who had overseen clearance of hundreds of thousands of Afghans evacuated alongside American citizens, and the last U.S. service member, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, the commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division and commander of ground operations in Afghanistan.
“A short time ago, the last U.S. C-17 departed Kabul marking our departure from Afghanistan and the end of the contested phase of this historic operation, the largest non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO) airlift in history,” said Lyons. “The United States is the only nation capable of rapidly deploying forces and providing non-stop airlift operations at this scale.”
It was just 17 days earlier that TRANSCOM had moved additional military forces into Afghanistan to secure the airport. Shortly after arrival, TRANSCOM’s air component, Air Mobility Command, positioned a large fleet of aircraft in U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and began flying what would become a historic, round-the clock, strategic airlift operation across three continents.
Securing the Airport: Evacuations Begin
The TRANSCOM team was key in moving forces into Kabul to secure the airport, including a contingency response group specialized in airport operations – air traffic control, runway management, loading of aircraft, and maintenance – all equipped to operate in a hostile environment.
“From the time TRANSCOM received orders to commence deployment, initial force elements critical to securing HKIA [Hamid Karzai International Airport] were airborne in less than three hours. We immediately commenced NEO operations and continued around-the-clock over the last 17 days to assist with the safe evacuations of over 120,000 people,” said Lyons.
Lyons made it clear that the TRANSCOM team was commanding all available resources to complete the mission. Along with U.S. military aircraft, TRANSCOM and supporting units worked with charter flights arranged by other countries and non-governmental organizations.
“My commitment is to ensure that airlift is never the constraint in this operation,” Lyons said during an Aug. 23 virtual briefing to the Pentagon Press Corps. He noted TRANSCOM was synched with CENTCOM and various defense, interagency, coalition, and commercial partners to do everything the U.S. could do to get every evacuee out of Kabul as fast as possible.
Crews Manage Chaos and Achieve More than 19,000 Airlifted to Safety in a Single Day
The opening days of the airlift were marked by a perilous rush of Afghans onto the tarmac at HKIA, and credible reports the Islamic State Khorasan (known as ISIS-K) was threatening to attack U.S. forces and those seeking airlift to safety.
Amid this chaos, a C-17 with the call sign ‘Reach 871’ departed HKIA with 823 Afghans on board. Lyons personally spoke with the crew and shared his gratitude.
“This incredibly dedicated team of Air Force professionals is the best in the world,” said Lyons, referring to the entire airlift effort.
“The iconic photo of hundreds of Afghans on the floor of a C-17 illustrates the desperation, fear and uncertainty of the Afghan people, but also the lifesaving capability and compassion of our military members. These herculean efforts underscore the United States’ commitment to our Afghan allies and provide them an opportunity for a new beginning, a safer life, and a better future,” said Lyons.
At the height of airlift operations out of HKIA, military aircraft were departing the airport every 34 minutes and, in a single day, evacuated more than 19,000 people.
“Moreover, this evacuation could simply not have been done without the amazing flexibility of U.S. Transportation Command and the airlift provided by the United States Air Force,” said U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of CENTCOM. “No other military in the world has anything like it.”
ISIS-K Strikes: Aeromedical Launches within One Hour
On Aug. 26, a suicide bomb, assessed to have been ISIS-K fighters, detonated in the vicinity of the Abbey Gate at HKIA. The attack was followed by several ISIS gunmen opening fire on civilians and military forces. There were multiple casualties at HKIA.
Three U.S. Air Force C-17s carrying aeromedical evacuation (AE) crews and Critical Care Air Transport Teams (CCATT) were launched from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. The first of these launched only minutes after the incident occurred at HKIA. These aircraft carried both U.S. service members and Afghans to medical treatment facilities (MTF) at Ramstein and Al Udeid.
TRANSCOM is responsible for the global patient movement network. The well-established system ensured patients were provided lifesaving, in-flight medical care as they were moved from initial stabilizing care to an MTF which could best meet their needs.
As AE crews moved patients out of HKIA, evacuation operations continued.
U.S. Commercial Partners and Global Allies Stand Together
TRANSCOM has a long history and strong partnership with the commercial transportation industry, and no major deployment of U.S. forces happens without their support. Early in the operation, the Civil Reserve Air Fleet was activated to ensure enough capacity was available to move evacuees between intermediary locations and onward to the United States.
As temporary safe havens were established by CENTCOM and U.S. European Command, U.S. commercial air carriers became a vital partner in transporting evacuees to 14 intermediary locations throughout Europe and the Middle East.
Once the State Department began clearing Afghans for travel to the U.S., commercial carriers also began transporting into Dulles International Airport and Philadelphia International Airport. Commercial carriers are also providing onward movement of evacuees from DIA and PIA to military installations across the United States.
“I want to acknowledge and thank our industry partners who routinely provide airlift in support of defense needs,” Lyons said, highlighting that the Department of Defense’s ability to project military forces is inextricably linked to the commercial industry. “We greatly appreciate the contributions, collaboration, and teamwork of our U.S. air carriers.”
Both commercial and military aircraft from partners and allies around the globe contributed to the evacuation out of Afghanistan.
“To be clear, this is truly a global effort,” said Lyons. “I thank our many coalition partners. We could not be successful without the more than two dozen like-minded nations that expand our global logistics networks by providing important access and transit centers.”
TRANSCOM Ends Operations in Afghanistan
With the completion of military operations in Afghanistan, TRANSCOM continues to move evacuees from interim locations to the United States.
“This operation was by far the most difficult problem set the enterprise has faced,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Corey Martin, TRANSCOM’s director of operations. “The scope of the problem, ambitious timelines, number of constraints, and contested environment combined to present a highly unique event. I am very proud of the men and women in the operations directorate and across TRANSCOM who successfully rose to this unprecedented challenge.”
The entire enterprise shifted its mission in a matter of hours. The result was a monumental achievement in airlift: 123,000 people out of harm’s way.
“This is an incredible number of people who are now safer thanks to the heroism of the young men and women who are putting their lives on the line each day to evacuate Americans and vulnerable Afghans out of Kabul,” said Lyons.
“The most noble of deeds”
“As each of you know, this operation was not without tremendous sacrifice,” said Lyons in an email to the TRANSCOM staff on Aug. 31. “Thirteen of our fellow warriors sacrificed themselves to save others, the most noble of deeds. Through our solemn obligation we will always remember and honor their sacrifice through our actions and example.”
As he remembered the fallen, Lyons also remembered veterans who served in Afghanistan and remarked that they “should be incredibly proud of their contributions to defend our nation from those who would seek to do us harm.”
“I would also like to express the sense of profound pride I have in the creative, determined, and professional way that our forces have overcome challenges. These incredible achievements, this historic airlift, speaks to the humanity of our troops in this mission and the skill and professionalism of our U.S. military,” said Lyons.