No Real ‘Berlin Airlift’ for Puerto Rico
In June 1948, Soviet forces blockaded rail, road, and water access to Allied-controlled areas of Berlin. Within two days the U.S. and U.K. air forces had begun a supply chain from bases in West Germany, maintaining it until May the following year. In all, the Berlin Airlift delivered 2.4 million tons of supplies under hostile conditions to about 2.5 million people, including all their food, gasoline, and coal for heating and electricity generation.
Yet Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory with 3.4 million souls, two weeks after being body-slammed by the fiercest hurricane to hit the island in 90 years, is receiving little direct aid. This is apparently because of a bottleneck at the nation’s sole container port, San Juan. There is disagreement over the causes of that bottleneck, but the fact is that it can be bypassed.
Bizarrely, defenders of the administration are measuring aid to Puerto Rico not in terms of supplies distributed, but in terms of emergency personnel on the ground. As if Puerto Ricans can eat administrators. (Not a pleasant thought, surely.) Meanwhile, left-wing proponents of a massive airlift (who, granted, only voiced their proposals in tweets) have been ripped as idiots for such reasons as “You can’t airdrop electricity from transports.” No, but you can drop the fuel desperately needed to power their emergency generators as well as dropping the generators themselves.
There are different logistical problems in Puerto Rico, of course. Berlin was incredibly compact; Puerto Rico is vastly larger but still only about a third the size of New Jersey. And naturally most people are concentrated in a small number of areas. Berlin was just a short hop from Allied air bases while Puerto Rico involves real flying time from the mainland, but does not require refueling for fixed-wing cargo planes going round-trip from closer mainland Air Force bases. Whatever the disadvantages in the Puerto Rican situation, the advantages of the U.S. military today versus what the allies had available for Berlin are huge in terms of both lifting and landing capacity.
In 1948-49, many different aircraft were used including bombers. But the largest American planes available were the Douglas C-47 Skytrain with a lift capacity of about 3.5 tons and the Douglas C-54 Skymaster with lift capability of about 10 tons. Today, the heavy lifting would be done by the turbo-prop Lockheed-Martin Hercules C-130 and the jet C-17 Boeing Globemaster III. The C-130 carry about 22 tons of supplies depending on the model. Maximum payload capacity of the C-17 is 85 tons, or over eight times that of the C-54 Skymaster.
Meanwhile, in Berlin, aircraft were limited to the runways of Templhof Airport. Puerto Rico has a dozen public airports in addition to private ones, which naturally are built close to the major population areas. Damaged airport infrastructure is irrelevant so long as the runways are cleared. But there’s no need for airports: just the runaways with forward air controllers on the ground. “The C-17 can take off and land on runways as short as 3,000 feet and as narrow as 90 feet wide,” according to globalsecurity.org. “Even on such narrow runways, the C-17 can turn around by using its backing capability while performing a three-point star turn.”
Still, where to find such runways? Not hard.
In California, you could land either plane safely on any number of interstate highways. Okay, so this is Puerto Rico. But the C-130 can land on any reasonably hard surface including packed sand and grass. It can also take off in as little as 1,800 feet, and land in as few as 2,550 feet.
The vastly-heavier and larger C-17 needs at least hard-packed dirt, but that’s why you have such military units as my old one, the Army’s 20th Engineer Brigade. Our primary job was to parachute behind enemy lines, secure a piece of land, and build a landing strip of packed dirt to allow conventional forces to land with troops, vehicles, and supplies. No need for a dangerous parachute drop in disaster relief; the 20th, along with other Army and Marine engineer units and the Navy Seabees, can be brought in by helicopter.
(Further, while President Trump is incorrect in saying Puerto Rico has “no roads,” presumably many bridges have been rendered inoperable. The 20th Engineers and other combat engineer units also deploy pre-fab Bailey bridges that can be built in a few hours with a few dozen men and support the weight of container trucks.)
Runways are more efficient, but actually aren’t needed at all. Low Altitude Parachute Extraction System (LAPES) developed for Vietnam and used back in my day have been abandoned as too hazardous to both cargo and planes. It involved attaching to pallets both to yank the material out the back end and soften the landing but at great risk both to the payload and the plane itself. But airdrops of individual containers (Joint Precision Airdrop System or JPADS) have been made vastly more accurate with the use of GPS and remains the quickest way to drop supplies to isolated areas.
Once the fixed-wing planes have quickly unloaded supplies that have been strapped onto pallets, the lack of infrastructure could be made up for with off-road military tactical vehicles or available civilian vehicles. (You’d be amazed at what resourceful people like Puerto Ricans can fit into and atop a small car.) Further, the U.S. has supply helicopters (which didn’t exist during the Berlin Crisis any more than GPS did) including the UH-60 Sikorsky Black Hawk with a lift capacity of 3.5 tons (the same as the C47 Skytrain) and the CH-47 Boeing Chinook helicopter that can carry 12 tons.
None of this would be cheap, but as with Berlin it can be started quickly (indeed, it should have been in FEMA’s plan). And rather than last 11 months as in Berlin, it would only be necessary long enough to get the San Juan port fully operational and repair the vital roads and bridges.
No, Puerto Rico hasn’t been “totally destroyed” despite the president’s emphatic redundancy. In fact, direct deaths from so direct a strike from so powerful a hurricane appear to have been remarkably low. But that can change fast—or be prevented just as quickly.
Michael Fumento is a veteran of the 27th Engineer Battalion (Combat)(Airborne), 20th Engineer Brigade and has written frequently for The American Conservative on military issues.