Commercial airlines are being pressed into military service to transport troops as the Pentagon continues its Persian Gulf buildup for a possible war in Iraq.
The airlines were flying troops Monday under an order by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld mobilizing the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, a fleet of commercial passenger and cargo planes that can be used to move people and equipment in emergencies.
The Defense Department announced late Saturday it was activating the first stage of the fleet, making it only the second time it has done so in the 51-year history of the program.
"The measure is necessary due to increased operations associated with the build up of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region," it said in a statement.
Officials have the authority to call up 78 aircraft — 47 passenger planes and 31 wide-body cargo planes. But for now, Air Force Gen. John W. Handy, commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, has enough cargo planes and is calling only the passenger aircraft, said command spokesman Navy Capt. Steve Honda.
There are 11 carriers signed up for this first stage of mobilization, Honda said by phone from command offices at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.
They are American Airlines, American Trans Air, Continental Airlines, Delta Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, North American Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Omni Air International, United Airlines, US Airways and World Airways.
Names of airlines that began flying troops Monday were not immediately available, Honda said.
The number of U.S. troops in the Gulf region now stands at about 113,000 — nearly half of them in Kuwait, the main launch point for a U.S.-led ground invasion — and it is expected to reach 150,000 by Feb. 15, a senior official said last week.
Two and possibly three more aircraft carriers are likely to head for the region in the next few days, officials said.
In addition to the three carriers within striking range of Iraq and a fourth on its way, the Navy is prepared to dispatch the USS Kitty Hawk from its station in Japan and the USS Nimitz from San Diego. If still another were needed, to total seven, it likely would be the USS George Washington from Norfolk, Va.
U.S. forces have been assembling in the Gulf region since December, including a seven-ship Navy fleet that entered the Red Sea this week carrying about 7,000 Marines from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade at Camp Lejeune, N.C. A similar size group of California-based Marines is en route to the Gulf on seven other ships.
Activated troops include 80,000 from Army National Guard and Army Reserve, 5,600 from the Naval Reserve, 11,700 from the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, 12,280 from the Marine Corps, and nearly 2,000 Coast Guard reservists.
There are about 50,000 troops in Kuwait and that number will climb further, officials said.
A senior defense official who is familiar with U.S. military planning for possible war in Iraq said the Navy will have six or seven aircraft carriers within striking distance of Iraq by the end of this month. Three are within range now — the USS Harry S. Truman in the Mediterranean Sea and the USS Abraham Lincoln and the USS Constellation in the Persian Gulf or Arabian Sea — and a fourth, the USS Theodore Roosevelt is en route.
If the Kitty Hawk went to the Gulf, the USS Carl Vinson would replace it in the Pacific to maintain a carrier presence within striking distance of North Korea, several defense officials said. During the war in Afghanistan the Kitty Hawk operated in the Arabian Sea with a contingent of special operations forces aboard. This time it would be expected to play the more conventional role of launching air missions over Iraq.
Mid-February is widely thought to be the earliest date that U.S. forces would be ready to launch an invasion of Iraq, but officials — all of them speaking on condition of anonymity — said Wednesday that they may need some weeks beyond that. By early March, the size of the U.S. force is likely to exceed 200,000 troops.