Jul 25, 2023

A Grain Airlift for Ukraine

Photograph Source: kallerna – CC BY-SA 4.0

Implementing a grain airlift for Ukraine would be the obvious way to celebrate the 75th anniversary year of the Berlin Airlift, which was conducted from June 1948 to September 1949. Just as the success of the Berlin airlift was an embarrassment to the Soviet Union, a successful grain airlift would be embarrassing to the Russian leadership.  U.S. and British air forces flew over Berlin more than 250,000 times, dropping necessities such as fuel and food.  In the 15-month period of the airlift, over two million tons were delivered, primarily coal, with one plane reaching Berlin every 30 seconds at the height of the airlift.

The Russian blockade of Ukraine and the bombing of key infrastructure in the port city of Odessa, including granaries, has created a food crisis in the Middle East and Africa.  The Russian withdrawal from a multinational deal that had allowed Ukraine to export grain to world markets through the Black Sea and the ports of Odessa preceded the current Russian air campaign in Ukraine.  The Russians, moreover, have threatened to consider any ships headed to Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea to be carrying military cargo and have begun live-fire practice against civilian shipping in the Black Sea with anti-ship cruise missiles.  

In addition to the Russian blockade of Ukraine, five Central European nations have persuaded the European Union to extend the ban on Ukrainian grain imports until the end of the year.  Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia have banned domestic sales of Ukrainian wheat, maize, and sunflower seeds, although they permit transit of such cargo for export elsewhere.  

It is ironic that these Central European states are creating economic problems for Ukraine because they are, at the same time, huge military supporters of Ukraine.  They have charged that Ukrainian grain has hurt their farming sectors, and have banned the sale of Ukraine’s wheat in their markets.    The collapse of the deal to allow Black Sea exports from Ukraine will worsen the logistical bottlenecks in Central Europe, and strengthen the case for a Western airlift.

Russia and Ukraine are two of the largest exporters of grain in the world.  Russia is the largest exporter, responsible for nearly 25 percent of global exports of wheat, and it obviously benefits from the absence of competition from Ukraine.  Ukraine is responsible for nearly ten percent of grain exports.

There would be significant logistical and cost complications of any airlift, but there is no question that the United States has the moxie and the airlift capability to conduct such an operation.  The U.S. Air Mobility Command provides airlift and aerial refueling for the armed forces, and NATO has its own Strategic Airlift Capability, a multinational initiative that provides airlift capability to participating nations.  The U.S. Air Force has more than 200 C-17s for such an airlift as well as three types of air refueling aircraft (KC-135 Stratotankers, K-10 Extenders, and KC-46 Pegasus).

The Afghan airlift in 2021 was monumental in terms of its scope, reach, and complexity, and the U.S. Air Force should have received more credit for the largest non-combatant evacuation airlift in U.S. history.  The Afghan airlift was larger than the airlift from Vietnam or any similar effort during World War Two or the Korean War.  Over a 17-day period, nearly 800 civilian and military aircraft from more than 30 nations safely evacuated thousands of people in an airlift that spanned nine countries, eight time zones, and more than ten temporary safe havens.  The security situation in Afghanistan was far worse than anything that could challenge an airlift from Ukraine in view of the fact that air traffic controllers had fled Kabul’s main airport due to the deteriorating security situation.  Three babies were delivered on airborne C-17s.

In addition to the Berlin airlift, a civilian airlift 55 years ago brought 60,000 tons of aid to the people of Biafra in southeastern Nigeria, where some 10,000 people a day were dying due to a blockade.  The Biafran airlift is considered a watershed moment in international humanitarianism because it was the first time private citizens and nonprofits led the response to such a crisis.  Salted fish was a key item in the airlift because Biafrans got their protein from dried fish.  Without the protein, Biafran children rapidly developed a protein deficiency.

Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and prior to the start of Desert Storm, Air India helped evacuate 170,000 Indian expatriates from Kuwait over a two-month period.  Air India operated nearly 500 flights due to opposition to the use of military aircraft.  There were significant logistical difficulties due to a lack of travel documents and the poor communication that existed in a wartime situation, which would not be a problem in an airlift scenario involving Ukraine.  Earlier this year, the Indian Air Force conducted a small airlift of nearly 1,500 Indians from the civil war in Sudan. 

A C-17 pilot, Lt. Col. William Street, who flew in Operations Allies Refuge in Afghanistan, recorded that “We delivered hope.  I will always be proud of that.”  It is time to provide hope to the people of Ukraine and the international community that relies on shipments of grain.

Postscript: I want to thank a good friend, Professor Marilyn McMorrow, for suggesting a column on an airlift regarding Ukraine, and retired Air Force Colonel Bill Berry for his encouragement as well.  Professor McMorrow, an expert on human rights and international relations theory, is a teaching professor at Georgetown University.  Colonel Berry was a valued colleague at the National War College in the 1980s and 1990s.

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