The Pentagon mobilized a fleet of commercial aircraft late Saturday to move troops and equipment in advance of a possible war with Iraq. It was only the second time the Civilian Reserve Air Fleet had been mobilized since the end of World War II.
The Defense Department said the action was necessary because of "increased operations associated with the buildup of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region." The first flights, involving 47 planes, are scheduled to take off early this week, aviation industry officials said yesterday.
In the past few weeks, military and airline officials have been in touch with each other daily so the Pentagon could keep the airlines informed about when a deployment might be coming.
The Pentagon told the airlines last week that a mobilization was likely. Authorization was given late last week by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and the mobilization was announced Saturday night.
"It suggests that there's a kind of final staging going on," said Robert W. Mann Jr., president of R.W. Mann Associates in Port Washington, N.Y., an aviation industry consulting firm. The mobilization "would tell me that it's a continuing movement toward either a final stand-down or some eventual action," Mann said.
President Harry S. Truman authorized the air fleet in 1951, but it has been used only once, in the months before and during the Persian Gulf war.
Airlines and cargo carriers sign contracts that permit them to bid for military business during peacetime in return for providing aircraft to the Pentagon during times of war. The fleet can be mobilized in three ascending stages, ranging from a regional conflict to a global war, each calling for more aircraft.
During the gulf war, the Pentagon spent $1.5 billion on using the air fleet. Participants provided 62 percent of the flights carrying troops and 27 percent of the flights carrying equipment to and from the region, according to a Pentagon presentation made recently to air carriers taking part in the program.
The Pentagon is carrying out Stage 1 of the air reserve program, the most modest, which calls for air carriers to make 78 passenger and cargo jets available. But for now, the Pentagon is mobilizing only passenger aircraft from charter carriers and airlines that include American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, US Airways and United.
The Pentagon can use the planes, flown by crews provided and trained by the airlines, for 30 days at a time. The air reserve fleet includes the industry's biggest aircraft.