As a USAF C-17A cargo pilot, I would like to think the United States can deliver cargo anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, that’s not quite true; the United States can deliver cargo anywhere in the world with a sufficiently permissive threat environment. Our country has no reliable way of delivering cargo through heavily contested airspace without a major kinetic operation to take down air defenses.
That limitation became clear in August, when the Islamic State besieged a Yazidi population on a mountaintop in Iraq. After three years of studiously avoiding entanglement in the Syrian civil war, the U.S. was drawn into kinetic action to enable airdrops to the Yazidis. Those first airstrikes snowballed into an open-ended war against the Islamic State. The case illustrates how the “responsibility to protect” can lead the United States into military operations that are arguably not in its vital national interests, but the alternative—leaving besieged civilians to their doom—is morally repugnant.
This dilemma became acute for me last March while conducting field research among Syrian refugees in Turkey. At the time, the Syrian government and militias like ISIS were engaging in mass sieges, using starvation and medical deprivation to break the will of more than 200,000 civilians. Syrians were beside themselves, wondering why the world refused to help, but the U.S. had no appetite for combat operations to take down the Syrian air defense network.
I was haunted by the unfolding tragedy. It seemed inconceivable that in the 21st century, the US could not deliver humanitarian aid through contested airspace. Surely there had to be a way. It occurred to me that if you couldn’t fly one big aircraft into contested airspace, maybe you could fly a lot of little ones. That thought became the seed of the Syria Airlift Project.
The revolution in micro UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) opens up a new paradigm for swarming cargo delivery. Micro UAVs are difficult for most radars to detect, and at $500 to $1000 apiece, they are not worth the price of a MANPAD to shoot down. Small arms pose the primary threat, but the aircraft are small, quiet, and hard to see at night. Although these aircraft are extremely payload limited, they can deliver low-mass, high-value goods like medical supplies, vaccines, vitamins, and water purification tools, and in sufficient quantities they can move greater masses. Our goal is to create a cargo conveyor belt; if we could launch an aircraft every 5 minutes we could deliver almost 400 lbs a night. That is for one launch crew, but the concept could easily scale.
The technology already exists. Off-the-shelf autopilots can turn any RC airplane into a UAV. Advances in batteries are giving electric planes increasing range and payload sizes, while gas engines offer even more capability. With unit costs so cheap, it’s theoretically possible to build a very large number of aircraft. The challenge is less about technology than about the logistics of scaling operations, but this is nothing new to air mobility pilots; at its peak, the Berlin Airlift of 1948 saw an aircraft landing every minute.
After returning from Turkey, I founded a group called the Syria Airlift Project to research the problem of sieges and explore possible solutions. It has grown into a nonprofit corporation (501(c)3 status pending) called Uplift Aeronautics, with a mission to “empower and aid communities through innovative technology.” We are embarking on the first steps of a long campaign to make the use of starvation and medical deprivation obsolete as weapons of war. We currently have the capability to deliver 1 kg packages at a range of 30 km out and then return, which is sufficient to reach various villages and towns in northern Syria from Turkey. We are also designing an aircraft capable of delivering 2 kg packages to a range of 50 km, which is sufficient to reach Aleppo, one of the largest and most war-torn cities in Syria. Our hope is to serve existing medical NGOs that maintain trusted networks inside Syria, can identify precise needs, and can help coordinate deliveries with recipients.
We are acutely aware of the security challenges, so we are developing a customized self-destruct mechanism that destroys the autopilot if a crash is imminent in Syria, reducing the risk of later weaponization by bad actors. We are also writing custom mission planning tools which allow one relatively unskilled operator to generate a large number of semi-randomized flight plans, maximizing survivability. Flights are completely autonomous from takeoff through landing.
The project is rooted in the nonviolent logic of strategists like Gandhi and Gene Sharp. Our vision is that Syrian refugees in Turkey can build and operate these aircraft themselves. At a time when war has destroyed the social fabric of their country, the Syria Airlift Project can empower Syrians to work together for the noble purpose of feeding and caring for countrymen they have left behind. Through our partner NGO Project Amal Ou Salam, we hope to have children decorating our aircraft and packing messages with our airdrop bundles. Just as the Berlin Airlift was a symbol of hope and an act of defiance against Soviet aggression, the Syria Airlift Project defies those who use starvation and medical deprivation as weapons. By tapping into the magic of airplanes, it fires imaginations and offers Syrians a glimpse of hope beyond the darkness of war. In March 2015, we put this vision into practice by training Syrian and Iraqi families living in the US how to fabricate parachutes, pack cargo, run preflight checklists, and launch our aircraft. Invoking the memory of the Berlin Airlift, we even showered the delighted children with candy from above.
We are structuring the Syria Airlift Project as a nonprofit service to support medical NGOs, but we view this as a broad investment for both NGOs and the U.S. government. The ability to deliver cargo through non-permissive airspace would give the United States more flexible policy options for addressing humanitarian crises and could open up new options in A2/AD environments. NGOs could also employ this capability to bypass logistic bottlenecks and deliver aid to inaccessible or widely distributed populations. This capability might be especially useful in the aftermath of natural disasters.
We are currently fundraising, growing our team, and seeking legal and political permission to conduct a pilot project in Turkey this summer. You can learn more about our work at syriaairlift.org and uplift.aero.
Mark Jacobsen is the founder and Executive Director of Uplift Aeronautics and the Syria Airlift Project. He is an active-duty C-17 pilot and Arabic-speaking Middle East Specialist, currently working on a PhD in Political Science at Stanford University. He is a recipient of the Olmsted Scholarship and a graduate of the School of Advanced Air & Space Studies (SAASS).
This post is derived from one originally written for the US Naval Institute.