Air Supplies to Gaza: Commendable Political Theater but No Long-Term Solution

The United States recently airdropped thousands of packaged meals to relieve suffering in Gaza―38,000 on March 1 and 36,800 on March 4. It is an important gesture that will help a few Gazans and signal to the others that they are not forgotten. However, to feed the entire population, the United States and its allies would need to increase these daily deliveries by a factor of 90. That's not remotely practical. The only solution is delivery by truck, but that requires a degree of cooperation by the parties involved—Israel, the United States, Hamas, and Egypt—that has been elusive.

Q1: What are these packaged meals?

A1: The packaged meal, called a meal, ready-to-eat (MRE), was developed for military use. Each meal is wrapped in a plastic container and has a long shelf life, so it can be stored until needed. The meals weigh about half a pound and contain 1,250 calories. MREs come in 24 different menus but share the same basic structure: a main meal, crackers with a spread, a fruit, a bakery item, and an accessory package with a spoon, napkin, coffee, salt, pepper, and toilet paper—for example, MRE 43/Menu 2: beef shredded in barbecue sauce, fruit puree squeeze, jalapeño cheddar cheese spread, tortillas, a cinnamon bun, and chocolate hazelnut protein drink powder. Each provides a balanced diet. There is a pork-free menu suitable for Muslim populations. The United States has large amounts in storage as part of its wartime stocks.

The United States has another meal, a humanitarian daily ration, specifically designed to feed malnourished civilian populations. Like MREs, these are prepackaged and easily transportable, though with nearly twice the calories and twice the weight. Apparently, the United States used MREs because they are more plentiful and readily available. In the future, the United States might switch to these specifically designed packages.

Packaged meals are a sound way to deliver food when individual meal delivery is necessary. Bulk provision of food would be more efficient because of reduced packaging and lower cost, but that is not practical for air-delivered food in Gaza’s current circumstances. Relief workers would need to gather the bulk food after it landed on the ground, break it into smaller packages, and combine the different food elements for a balanced diet.

Q2: How are the meals being delivered?

A2:MREs come in cases of 12, which can be packaged for delivery on a pallet of 48 cases. That pallet contains 576 individual meals and weighs about 1,100 lbs. The pallets of MREs have been delivered by parachute from C-130 tactical cargo aircraft. Airdropping supplies to civilian populations has been done in the past. It is a typical mission for the C-130, which has been around since 1959 and is highly successful—60 countries fly it. Thus, coalition partners can provide some of the deliveries. Indeed, France and Jordan have also conducted airdrops and Belgium soon will.

The delivery process begins with the aircraft being loaded at a remote airfield, perhaps at the U.S. base in Incirlik, Turkey, or the British base on Cyprus (RAF Akrotiri). When the aircraft arrives over the target area in Gaza, each pallet rolls along the floor of the cargo bay, drops out of the rear of the aircraft, and floats to earth on a large parachute. Although parachute drops can be done at a low level to reduce dispersion, these were likely done at a higher level to avoid the possibility of ground fire. As a result, wind spread the landings out with a few pallets landing in the surf, but officials believe none were lost. Historically, weather has plagued havoc with airdrops, causing many packages to be lost despite efforts at precise delivery. There is also some danger on the ground as the recipients, in their desire to acquire the supplies, have been crushed by landing pallets in previous humanitarian operations.

Airdrop effectiveness depends heavily on loading. This analysis used a loading of 12,672 MREs per aircraft, calculated as follows: Each C-130J can hold six or eight military standard 463L pallets, depending on the model. MRE pallets are smaller than military pallets (48” x 53” versus 84” x 104”). Video evidence indicates that the pallets being used are the smaller MRE pallets. The Department of Defense reports imply 22 pallets per aircraft, 2 across and 11 deep, with none on the ramp.

Q3: How many MREs would be needed to feed the population of Gaza?

A3: The need is huge, and that is the problem. Nearly all of the 2.3 million residents of Gaza need food. Adults need two MREs daily to get the 2,500 calories they typically require. Children could probably get by with one MRE per day. If one-third of the population are children, then the total MRE need per day is 3.3 million. That is 260 C-130 sorties per day from an active-duty Air Force C-130 fleet of 101 aircraft. Reserve mobilization could add another 170 aircraft but with all the disruptions and political costs attendant to mobilizing reservists.

Even if the relief operation were limited to the 1.4 million Gazans around Rafah, it would still require 2.2 million MREs daily carried in 174 C-130 sorties.

Q4: Is there a historical precedent for an operation that large?

A4: If the United States wanted to supply Gaza with food by air, the required level of effort would rival the Berlin airlift of June 1948 to September 1949. Berlin at that time had a population of about 2.8 million, comparable to Gaza’s 2.3 million. The airlift averaged 620 flights per day, inbound and outbound, with a daily delivery of about 5,200 tons of aid (which included coal and other necessities, not just food). Aircraft arrived every 3 minutes, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day over 15 months. It was a massive enterprise that absorbed nearly the entire U.S. global airlift capacity.

Q5: Are there easier ways to deliver supplies by air?

A5: Unfortunately, this is probably the best way forward if air delivery is the only option. The United States might use its larger cargo aircraft, the C-17, which can accommodate 18 military standard pallets or 2.5 to 3 times what a C-130 can carry. This would reduce the number of daily aircraft sorties to about 90. That is still a lot of aircraft sorties to squeeze out of an active duty fleet of 146. The number of MREs required would not change, nor would the daily need for 5,700 parachutes.

The air delivery challenge would be much easier if the aircraft could land on an airfield. Not only would the offload be easier to control, but aircraft could be loaded more heavily. However, the only airfield in Gaza closed 20 years ago. The Berlin airlift had an important advantage in this regard: there were three functioning airports in West Berlin for most of the operation.

Q6: What can trucks provide?

A6: A typical truck can carry 30 MRE-sized pallets without stacking. Thus, one truck equals 1.5 C-130s. Instead of 260 C-130 sorties or 90 C-17 sorties, 190 truck trips could move the same number of MREs. That greater efficiency is not surprising since aircraft must haul their cargo into the air while trucks merely need to roll along the ground. Aircraft have an advantage in range and speed, but that is not an issue here. The distances are short, so trucks can quickly transport supplies if they are allowed passage.

Trucks also allow relief organizations to control the distribution of supplies. In other humanitarian disasters, armed gangs have sometimes seized humanitarian supplies and used them to strengthen the gang's military capability and political position. The United States does not want to be feeding Hamas along with the civilian population.

Q7: What is the cost differential between air and truck delivery?

A7: Providing a cost estimate for an entire relief operation is difficult, but it is possible to calculate the cost of the transportation alone. Trucking costs are about $2.25 per mile, and the round trip from Cairo to Rafah is 430 miles. Therefore, one truck trip costs about $970, or $0.06 per meal.

C-130s cost about $8,000 per flight hour, and the round trip takes about four hours. Thus, one and a half C-130s delivering the same number of supplies as one truck costs $48,000, or $2.50 per meal—42 times as much as by truck. However, in a humanitarian situation, cost is a secondary concern.

Feeding Gaza

Airdropping supplies has many benefits. Even small amounts will ease hunger in some populations. There is a broader impact in letting the local population know that the world cares about their suffering. Finally, airdrops can buy time for diplomatic processes to operate. The Department of Defense has said it will continue periodic airdrops.

However, as the preceding analysis shows, airdrops are not a solution. They are not even a partial solution. Ending the humanitarian crisis in Gaza requires all sides to arrive at an accommodation, if not an actual agreement, to open land or sea routes that allow the massive supplies needed daily by a society of 2.3 million people. Ongoing negotiations offer some hope that an arrangement might be agreed to, but time is critical, and the negotiations have not made much progress for many weeks.

Mark Cancian (Colonel, USMCR, ret.) is a senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.