Airlifts in Time

By Giovannettone, Justin | Air Power History, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Airlifts in Time


Giovannettone, Justin, Air Power History


History repeats itself," is a common refrain among many casual and even some more formal observers of history. For the policymaker however, such thinking is surely a trap. No two crises are exactly the same--whether in terms of circumstance, appropriate response or corresponding outcomes. On the other hand, a policy--or decision-maker who does not examine the past in order to gain insight into the present is surely handicapped. This article examines two historically unique strategic airlifts and the crises and decisions that led to them in the context of these assertions.

The first operation considered below is the Berlin Airlift the successful United States-led effort to supply the western sectors of Berlin after ground access to the city was cut off by the Soviet Union in June 1948. Codenamed Operation Vittles, the airlift emerged as an enormous operational and strategic success for the U.S. and its western Allies--demonstrating the impressive capacity of the newly created U.S. Air Force, saving West Berlin from envelopment by the Soviet Union, and demonstrating America's resolve against Soviet aggression; all the while avoiding an outbreak of war in Europe. The second operation, Nickel Grass, involved the unilateral U.S. resupply of Israel during the 1973 Yore Kippur War. That airlift, though a significant success operationally, was at best only a partial success strategically. The resupply very likely saved Israel from defeat and by doing so prevented a Soviet proxy victory in the Middle East. However, Operation Nickel Grass also helped prompt the devastating Arab oil embargo from October 1973 to March 1974, the effects of which burdened the economies of the U.S. and its allies for years to come.

Operations Vittles and Nickel Grass are distinct in U.S. history in that they were both strategic airlifts used exclusively to support an ally or allied population in peril, without the presence of or intent to introduce combat forces. Each operation was also executed under complex domestic and international political conditions and had enormous global strategic significance. There are important differences as well in the structure of the crises themselves, the responses by the administrations under whose watch they occurred, and in the content of the supplies airlifted.

The intent of this article is to answer the question: Why was one operation a strategic success, while the other was only a partial strategic success? Emerging from the answer to that question is a set of "lessons learned" that can assist American strategic policymakers to first identify where similar potentially dangerous crises may occur in the future; and second, to better position the country and themselves to deal with such crises when and if they do emerge.

The method of analysis used here was adapted from Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May's 1986 book, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers. In conjunction with analysis of how decision makers--primarily American Presidents--have used history since the end of the World War II, Thinking in Time prescribes a set of "mini-methods" that decision makers can apply to make more effective decisions and make better use of history when making such decisions. The book is helpful here in two ways: First, Neustadt and May's methodology, when applied to historic case studies, conveniently offers a means to analyze the decision making process and helps pinpoint where policymakers in the past might have done better. For example, they recommend leaders faced with an erupting crisis list (on paper, not just orally) what is Known, Unclear, and Presumed about a situation in order to isolate the key issues at hand. (1) Thus, for the purposes of this article, comparing the Knowns, Unclears, and Presumed of Presidents Harry S Truman and Richard M. Nixon leading up to and during of Operations Vittles and Nickel Grass help us to better understand the events from their perspectives. …

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