With the dissolution of the Soviet Union into independent republics at the end of 1991, most of these entities joined a confederation called the Commonwealth of Independent States. As they entered their first year without a centralized economy, the former Soviet republics suffered severe shortages of food and medical supplies. Western nations organized relief efforts.
On January 23, 1992, Secretary of State James Baker announced Provide Hope, an operation to deliver massive amounts of aid to the CIS. Congress appropriated $100 million for relief for the former Soviet republics, and Baker knew that large quantities of food and medicine were available from stockpiles left after the Persian Gulf conflict in 1991.
Richard L. Armitage of the State Department and Dr. Robert Wolthuis of the Defense Department worked together to determine the destinations of the cargo, which would be transported by air to save time. Armitage and Wolthuis wanted most relief supplies to go to hospitals, schools, orphanages, community shelters, and senior citizen centers. The Military Airlift Command’s Gen. Hansford T. Johnson placed Col. John B. Sams, Jr., the commander of the 60th Airlift Wing, in charge of the first phase of the operation, designated Provide Hope I.
Provide Hope I transported 2,274 tons of food and medical supplies to 24 cities in 10 former Soviet republics. All but 417 tons of the cargo was food, which came from warehouses in Pisa, Italy, and Rotterdam in the Netherlands. The food included beef, ham, pork, chicken, fish, potatoes, rice, vegetables, pasta, bread, and beverages. The remaining supplies were medical, and included bandages, sutures, adhesive tape, cotton, surgical sponges, disposable gloves, patients’ clothing, blankets, and sheets. The medical cargo came from the Army Medical Materiel Center at Pirmasens, Germany, and from the United Kingdom. Convoys of trucks transported the food and medical supplies to three aerial ports of embarkation: Rhein-Main AB in Germany and Incirlik AB and Ankara Air Station (AS) in Turkey.
Military Airlift Command aircraft flew 46 C–141 and 19 C–5 flights to the CIS during the 17 days of Provide Hope I. Of these missions, 22 went to Russia; 7 each to Armenia and Kazakhstan; 5 to Ukraine; 4 each to Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan; 3 flights each to Kyrgyzstan and Moldova; and 2 to Belarus. Participating organizations included six regular airlift wings (the 60th, 62d, 63d, 436th, 437th, and 438th); seven Air Force Reserve airlift wings (the 315th, 349th, 439th, 445th, 446th, 512th, and 514th); and two ANG airlift groups (the 105th and 172d).
Maj. Robert Gray and a 7th Airlift Squadron crew flew the first Provide Hope I mission to the CIS in a 60th Airlift Wing C–141 to deliver 17 tons of food and medical supplies to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on February 10. Gray commented that he had expected to fly to that part of the world someday, but under combat conditions rather than as part of a humanitarian airlift.
Provide Hope I encountered its share of problems. Some flights covered distances greater than 3,000 miles. One C–141 suffered flat tires in its main landing gear on landing at Moscow on February 21. A C–5 that landed in Kazakhstan could not mechanically “kneel” as it was designed to do for roll-off unloading. The lack of materiel-handling equipment at some locations required some C–141s to carry extra personnel to unload the aircraft, and the C–5 had to carry forklifts. Some remote airfields lacked night navigation facilities, so landings and takeoffs could be scheduled only during daylight. Leaky hoses, the absence of fire-extinguishing equipment, and personnel smoking sometimes threatened refueling on the ground. The lack of deicing equipment in some cities also threatened the safety of the operation. Around some taxiways, people and animals got in the way of the aircraft.
Despite these problems, Provide Hope I proved remarkably successful. It provided immediate temporary relief for some of the needy people in 10 countries and laid the groundwork for Provide Hope II, an even larger relief operation. It demonstrated the commitment of the United States to people who had successfully thrown off a government that for decades had been the chief enemy of the United States. By assisting the people of the former Soviet republics to recover from communism, Provide Hope advanced the interests of the United States.
Provide Hope I was only a stopgap and did not go nearly far enough in meeting the needs of the people in the CIS. Subsequent phases of Provide Hope continued the flow of aid, relying more on the volume of sealift and land transportation than on the speed of airlift.
Using trucks, trains, and ships, USEUCOM supervised Provide Hope II, which delivered more than 19,000 tons of food and medical supplies by land, sea, and air to the CIS in 1992. Despite a greater reliance on surface transportation, Provide Hope II also called for extensive airlift missions, most flown by the Air Force, but some by commercial airlines under contract.
The airlift portion of Provide Hope II involved special assignment airlift missions. The first, flown by a C–5 Galaxy, delivered 75 tons of food and medicine to Moscow on February 29. C–141 Starlifters also participated in Provide Hope II. On April 24, for example, a 437th Airlift Wing C–141 transported 12 pallets of medicine and medical supplies weighing 24 tons from Rhein-Main AB in Germany to Minsk, Belarus. Five days later, another C–141 delivered 14 tons of food and medical supplies to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, a former Soviet republic where internal unrest had prevented Provide Hope I missions. Among the airlift wings participating in Provide Hope II were the Twenty-second Air Force’s 60th, 62d, and 63d Airlift Wings; the Twenty-first Air Force’s 436th and 438th Airlift Wings; the Air Force Reserve’s 459th Airlift Wing; and the United States Air Forces in Europe’s 435th Tactical Airlift Wing.
Provide Hope III, which copied Provide Hope II, began in October 1992. Of 165 Provide Hope II and III airlift flights between the end of February 1992 and May 1993, Air Force military transports flew 135 missions: 94 by C–141s, 36 by C–5s, and 5 by C–130s. Only 30 Provide Comfort II and III airlift missions in that period were flown commercially.
Provide Hope III airlift missions continued beyond May 1993. By September, Air Force and commercial aircraft had airlifted well over 6,000 tons of cargo to the CIS. Military Airlift Command, Air Mobility Command (which replaced MAC in mid-1992), USAFE, and Air Force Reserve aircraft carried more than 4,400 tons of the total. In October 1993, the fourth phase of Provide Hope began and continued through September 1994. More phases followed, as Provide Hope became an ongoing operation. In June 1997, the USAF flew its five hundredth Provide Hope mission.