Years of drought and civil war produced a famine in Somalia that by 1992 had starved an estimated one-quarter of all children under the age of five. The UN announced that 1.5 million people faced imminent starvation unless help was provided quickly. At the same time, gunfire exchanges among rival clans in the capital and port city of Mogadishu prevented safe docking and unloading of food ships.
Ready to join an international effort to aid the Somalian people, President Bush announced a U.S. humanitarian relief operation called Provide Relief on August 14. To respond to the emergency under the guidance of the State Department’s Agency for International Development, DoD organized a joint task force under the Central Command. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Frank Libutti assumed command of the task force and set up headquarters in Kenya, which bordered Somalia on the southwest and maintained refugee camps for Somalis who fled in search of food and peace. Provide Relief was a joint U.S. humanitarian operation involving resources of the Air Force, Navy, Army, and Marine Corps. Col. George N. Williams directed mobility forces at Mombasa, Kenya, the main operation base.
Airlift played a major role in the operation. Before the end of August, eight C–130s from the 314th Airlift Wing and five C–141s of the 62d, 437th, and 438th Airlift Wings were in Kenya. Besides Regular Air Force units, the airlift involved volunteers from AF Res and ANG C–130 units, demonstrating the “total force” concept. Eventually, at least 14 airlift wings, two composite wings, and eight airlift groups participated in Provide Relief airlift missions, using 41 C–130 Hercules cargo aircraft and five C–141 Starlifters.
The Starlifters flew from Europe and the continental United States via Egypt to Kenya. Most C–141s came from the 438th Airlift Wing’s 30th Airlift Squadron, already deployed in Europe. Lt. Col. Ron Peck commanded the initial Starlifter package, which arrived in Kenya on August 18. The C–141s transported relief cargo from Mombasa 325 miles to Wajir, a staging base in eastern Kenya near the refugee camps only 20 miles from the Somalian border. Trees had to be cut along the airfield before the large planes could land at Wajir.
Each C–141 carried about 22 tons of food, which was increased to 30 tons after airlift personnel determined the Wajir runways could support the additional weight. The Starlifters could not fly beyond Wajir because most Somalian landing strips were too small to handle them. After stockpiling food at Wajir, the C–141s returned to the United States after August 30. By then, the Starlifters had delivered 1,133 tons of food and relief supplies on 58 flights.
To extend the airlift into Somalia, Provide Relief officials relied on more than 40 smaller C–130 Hercules aircraft. The first C–130s arrived in Kenya on August 20. The 314th Airlift Wing’s Col. Nick Williams commanded the first C–130 to land in Somalia, arriving at Belen Huen (Belet Uen) on August 28. Other Somalian towns reached by the C–130s were Baidoa, Bardera, Oddur (Hudor), and Beladweyne. Some airfields were unpaved and only 4,000 feet long, proving a challenge to the C–130s, each of which carried 10 to 15 tons per flight. Crews unloaded the aircraft with engines running to reduce time on the ground. Despite this precaution, snipers fired at a U.S. C–130 airplane at Belet Huen on September 18, temporarily halting the missions.
Despite poor airfields, frequent tire changes, and interruptions of gunfire, Provide Relief flights delivered the equivalent of 28 million meals in the first 42 days. The food included rice, sorghum, wheat, flour, cooking oil, salt, bottled water, beans, and peas. The transports also delivered medical and cooking supplies. Between September 1, 1992, and early January 1993, ANG C–130s transported over 4,000 tons of relief supplies in Kenya and Somalia.
Airlift was only one part of Operation Provide Relief. More tons of food were transported by ship to relief agencies at the ports of Mombasa and Mogadishu. Tragically, marauding armed gangs representing various rival clans stole food in Somalia from relief agencies, which were often forced to make “protection” payments. To insure a more equitable food distribution, President Bush announced a new operation called Restore Hope on December 4, 1992. Armed U.S. military forces would suppress the gangs and help relief agencies to get food to those who needed it most.
Although less strictly humanitarian in its emphasis than Provide Relief, Restore Hope had the same goals, and the two operations proceeded simultaneously until the end of February 1993. By then, almost 2,000 Provide Relief flights had delivered over 23,000 tons of cargo to Kenya and Somalia to feed hundreds of thousands of people. Thousands of tons of relief supplies also arrived by sea or by aircraft from other nations.
U.S. military aircraft played a key role in Provide Relief and Restore Hope, demonstrating the speed and flexibility of air power. By the time Restore Hope ended on May 4, the international Somalian relief effort had become the largest humanitarian operation since the Berlin Airlift.