During the 1990s, the U.S. Air Force flew 250 humanitarian missions
to more than 40 countries, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Joseph H. Wehrle
Jr., deputy chief of staff for plans and programs. These efforts
provided more than 339 million pounds of relief supplies, he recently
told reporters on Capitol Hill.
Before coming to Washington, Wehrle served as commander of the
Third Air Force, based in Mildenhall, England, from where he headed
a relief effort that followed massive flooding in Mozambique, Africa.
After deploying to southern Africa, Wehrle supervised Joint Task
Force Atlas Response, which carried more than 2 million pounds of
relief supplies to the flood-ravaged southeastern African nation.
Back-to back typhoons slammed into southeastern Africa, within 17
days of one another, causing the floods.
Wehrle noted that the relief campaign received “limited”
media exposure in the United States, where most television networks
were focused on the story of young Cuban castaway Elian Gonzales.
The month long relief campaign—between February and March
this year— involved about 800 U.S. military personnel, said
Relief agencies and regional governments estimated that at least
2 million people were affected in Mozambique. Also, South Africa,
Botswanna, and Zimbabwe all requested aid to help them recover from
the devastating storms.
“The target was Mozambique and the enemy was Mother Nature,”
said Wehrle. “The joint operational area was nearly the size
of the eastern United States, with all land west to eastern Texas
and north to Michigan thrown in.
“Relief supplies were flown in [to South Africa] mainly by
C-5s,” Wehrle explained. “But they needed decent airfields
where they could unload and supplies then could be transferred to
C-130s for delivery to Mozambique.”
The C-5s also brought in helicopters, HH-60s and MH-53s that were
required to transport supplies into Mozambique’s interior.
To avoid the appearance that the U.S. and European forces were
taking over the situation, South Africa, which provided the primary
relief role, was sent in first, Wehrle said. “Cooperation
with other countries in the region proved to be the key to success.
The United States was not the hero in this situation.”
“We had to avoid looking like we didn’t need anybody
else,” Wehrle continued.
Initially, he said, the operation worked out of Waterkloof, Pretoria,
and Durban, South Africa. However, the runways at Waterkloof soon
developed enough potholes to force the relief effort to move to
Hoedspruit, a former South African military base that was closer
Because of flooding and residual muck, once the waters began to
recede, there was no place for C-130s to land except in Maputo,
the capital of Mozambique and a more remote coastal city named Beira,
From these terminals, supplies were transferred to helicopters
and then transported to isolated areas. Due to ever increasing helicopter
traffic and to relieve congestion at the pumps, helicopters were
refueled in the air.
To locate stranded people and breaks in roads, bridges and railway
lines, cameras were mounted on the bellies of the C-130s, Wehrle
said. This search and rescue technique is code-named “Keen
Sage,” he said. “The unique thing about this operation
is there was no formal organization or turf war over who was in
charge or who worked for whom,” said Wehrle.
Once in Maputo, Wehrle established his forward headquarters in
two hotel rooms that eventually accommodated a 22-person staff.
This location left the Third Air Force commander 100 miles away
from the rest of his staff. Cell phones provided the primary means
“There was no room for big dishes or VTCs (video television
conferencing) screens in our cramped quarters in the Maputo hotel,”
When it came to actually distributing supplies throughout the countryside,
the NGOs executed that part of the campaign. Having uniformed military
personnel performing this task would have been “controversial,”
“The people trusted the international relief organizations
and the NGOs and didn’t really want troops delivering the
supplies,” Wehrle said.
The mission lasted 28 days and cost about $1 million per day, Wehrle
said. A supplemental appropriation to the fiscal year 2000 military
budget covered the cost. Other countries involved in the relief
effort, besides South Africa and Great Britain, were France, Germany,
Spain, Portugal and Malawi.