Operation Baby Formula


In the spring of 2022, a nationwide baby formula shortage impacted millions of American families. In response, the Biden Administration initiated “Operation Fly Formula,” in which the U.S. Air Force transported large quantities of baby formula to the United States from overseas.

On May 22, the first shipment was delivered by a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III to Plainfield, IN—132 pallets or 1.5 million 8-ounce bottles worth of baby formula, which included hypoallergenic mixtures. The shipment was offloaded into semi-trailer trucks and driven to a distribution center, where quality control checks were conducted on the formula. The formula was then dispersed among hospitals, pharmacies, and medical offices in regions where the needs were most acute.

Although the White House initially directed the Pentagon to use commercially-chartered aircraft, there were none available for use during the week of May 22—leading to the use of Air Force aircraft. As such, the proficiency of the Air Force and its equipment were key to the success of the missions. A C-17 cargo plane has a payload of up to 169,000 pounds, equivalent to nearly 85 tons. This high capacity allowed the planes to carry large shipments of formula, such as one weighing nearly 35 tons. This shipment in particular originated from Zurich, Switzerland, and was trucked to Germany, where it was loaded on the C-17 and flown to the United States. Typically, transporting formula from Europe to the United States would take weeks; however, due to the urgency and logistics of Operation Fly Formula, it took only three days. The flights were intended to provide a bit of relief and work in conjunction with other actions by the government to replenish store shelves with formula. The second shipment of 114 pallets from Ramstein Air Base in Germany arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport soon after the first one. Overall, the United States conducted more than a dozen formula shipment missions in the spring and summer of 2022.

The emergency began weeks before cargo planes airlifted formula from overseas, as parents scrambled to find baby formula in-store and online. Typically, for children under 6 months old, there is only one item on their meal plan: milk, either human or formula. Three-fourths of all American babies receive at least some formula as part of their diet. Unfortunately, some children during the shortage were hospitalized because parents were unable to get the specific formula their child needed.

The rush for formula began with the closure of the country’s largest formula production facility in February 2022. The Michigan plant, owned by Abbott Nutrition, was shut down because of a leaking roof, water pooled on the floor, and cracks in key production equipment that provided a passageway for bacteria to seep into the formula.

The plant reopened in June 2022, having replaced the leaking roof and corrected the other hazards. Formula from the plant was expected to reach store shelves within one to two months; resumption of full production at the plant will take longer.

This mission was not the first time the Air Force has provided swift assistance in a crisis. In 2021, the Air Force evacuated more than 124,000 people from Afghanistan with little notice. The C-17 is made to move heavy equipment—or many people— quickly, efficiently, and effectively. Combined with the logistical expertise of the U.S. Air Force and Air Mobility Command, Airmen stand ready to deliver humanitarian aid at a moment’s notice.