Humanitarian Airlift

 

Gp Capt DKL McDonnell, "Royal Air Force 94", The Royal Air Force Public Relations Magazine 1994

 

We have all seen the graphic pictures in the media of human suffering around the world, whether it be as a result of man's inhumanity to man such as civil war, insurrection or internecine warfare. Inevitably the main casualties of such action are the innocent civilians who only wish to go about their daily normal business. The situation is compounded when 2 events coincide as in Somalia where famine is also a significant factor, or when warring factions use food - or lack of it - as a weapon, as is the case in Bosnia. In all cases it is inevitably the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) who attempt to provide the innocent bystanders with the basic essentials for survival. Lacking any resources, they quite naturally ask individual nations to contribute aid. In the case of the UK that request comes to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) who, if they agree, will inevitably 'contract the MOD to do the task, who in turn order Strike Command, who pass it to 38 Group, which is where we come in.

 

TV pictures of Hercules flying into Sarajevo and the more esoteric places in Somalia make good viewing and, quite naturally, we all admire the crews who take the risks to deliver the aid - and I cannot understate that - but news is short-lived and awareness of continuing activity is only as good as the last TV interview, if indeed it was broadcast. In any event, we hear little about the plethora of activity taking place behind the scenes to ensure that aid is delivered safely and accurately, or that evacuation tasks are carried out as expeditiously as possible. Therefore, I believe it is time to set the record straight and outline some of the activities and people involved in 38 Group's response to humanitarian tasks.

 

I shall do so by drawing heavily on 3 recent but very different operations; Operation MARTOCK, the evacuation of British nationals from Luanda in November 92; Operation VIGOUR, the UK contribution to the US Operation PROVIDE RELIEF, involving the delivery of aid to Somalia from December 92 to March 93; and Operation CHESHIRE, the ongoing provision of humanitarian aid to the people of Sarajevo. They are different in many ways. The first was a purely National operation, although it involved much discussion with other nations, and had to be carried out quickly. The others, while in essence working for the UNHCR, were totally different in concept. VIGOUR, as the relief part of a 'peacekeeping' operation, was ostensibly to be carried out in a 'secure' environment, whereas it was known from the outset that the environment in Sarajevo for CHESHIRE was anything but secure - while not at war ourselves we are delivering aid to the middle of a war zone

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First Operation MARTOCK. On 1 November 92, coincidently the day 38 Group reformed, the FCO decided that the situation in Angola was unsupportable and requested MOD to help in evacuating up to 400 UK Nationals from Luanda. Speed was essential but would be dependant on FCO negotiations with the Angolan Government. In discussion between air transport tasking staff in MOD and 38 Group, it was decided to use a TriStar. Luanda airport was suitable; a slip crew was available in Ascension Island, as was an aircraft on the routine South Atlantic schedule. Unfortunately, some of the support staff including those that were deemed necessary to accompany the aircraft to secure the safety of Embassy staff in Luanda were in the UK. A Tristar was put on standby at Brize Norton. On 3 November, the FCO obtained approval, a Mobile Air Movements team and others were assembled at Brize Norton and the aircraft despatched to Ascension Island.

 

Then the real planning started. How many evacuees were there really? Where should they be taken, back to Ascension or across the border to Brazzaville operating a shuttle? Was fuel available at Luanda? If not was it available anywhere else? Should the aircraft carry round-trip fuel? Should the crew be armed? What about aircraft operating criteria; would additional authorizations be required? Could we get the required diplomatic clearance to fly through Zairian airspace to land at Brazzaville if we wanted? And, most importantly, would the diplomats manage to get clearance from the Angolan Government for the aircraft to land at Luanda? All these and many more questions required answers; not easy when the telephone lines to Kinshasa, Luanda and Brazzaville are suspect at the best of times. The French were using C-160 aircraft from Brazzaville in a shuttle, but one crew had been arrested in Luanda for carrying weapons. That answered the question about arming our crew!

 

Meanwhile, in Ascension, the Station Commander was making preparations to receive evacuees. The aircraft arrived from the UK, briefings were held and it was placed on a 2 hour standby. We still did not know how many evacuees there would be, or whether there would be fuel. Therefore, the aircraft was fuelled for a round trip to Ascension, and some more, and the Captain advised that the decision lay with him at Luanda. If there were more than 250 evacuees he was to shuttle to Brazzaville; if less, he was to return to Ascension. Ascension provided medical staff and police to travel on the aircraft which, in the event had a relatively uneventful flight, although the time on the ground at Luanda proved interesting. The aircraft returned to Ascension with 167 evacuees who were fed and watered before being flown to Gatwick in the same TriStar, but with a change of crew, arriving there at 6am on 5 November - the end of a successful mission.

 

If it sounds like a Boys Own yarn it is meant to. While the aircraft was en route the activity from the support staff at MOD, the FCO, 38 Group, Brize Norton and Ascension was feverish. Without it the evacuation would have not been the success it was. Fortunately, this type of humanitarian mission is rare and we were lucky this time that it all started on a Sunday. They usually start at 5pm on a Friday!

 

The more usual humanitarian mission is exemplified by Operation VIGOUR. Once again it was generated by the FCO following discussions with the US and a successful visit by Baroness Chalker, in one of our aircraft, to some up-country strips in Somalia to talk to local leaders. However, our contribution was to be part of the US led Operation PROVIDE RELIEF, delivering UNHCR aid to southern Somalia. This, in turn, was part of the over arching Operation RESTORE HOPE, aimed at restoring some form of stability to the region. While that operation cannot yet be called a total success - some would doubt that it ever would be - the provision of relief supplies was.

 

Again, much preparatory work took place in planning our contribution. We despatched a wing commander to HQ CENTCOM in Florida to liaise closely with US staff on Command and Control and basing arrangements. The sheer scale of the operation was creating basing problems. There were no secure airfields in Somalia, therefore all deployed aircraft had to operate from Kenya, either from Nairobi or Mombasa. Such was the problem that we did not know where we were to operate from until 2 days before the aircraft departed.

 

Two Hercules were allocated for the task and had to be prepared for strip operations by Lyneham engineering personnel, a time consuming process. Again diplomatic clearances had to be sought, not only from Kenya for basing, but also from Egypt and Sudan for over flight by detachment and re-supply aircraft. Support aircraft were tasked and personnel detailed to form the initial detachment. These included ground engineers to service the aircraft, UKMAMS to load and offload the aircraft with local labour help, RAF Police to provide aircraft and crew protection and to control weapon issue, administrative staff to sort out accommodation, hire the vehicles and control the all-important imprest, medical staff for obvious reasons, operations officers and clerks to liaise with the US Joint Task Force airlift co-ordination cell over our tasking and, most importantly, a detachment of Tactical Communications Wing personnel to provide the essential secure telephone, signals and radio links. Add the 4 crews from the 2 aircraft and the detachment amounted to 62 personnel drawn in the main from 38 Group, with 1 or 2 guest appearances.

They deployed to Mombassa on 10 December 92 in time for Christmas, joining aircraft of the USAF, German Air Force and Canadian Air Force. During the following 3 months the RAF delivered some 3,500 tons of supplies to all areas of Somalia, flying just short of 1,000 hours in the process. We also provided an Air Commander to be forward-based in Mogadishu once it had been secured, to look after our national interests with the US Joint Task Force Commander . In the event, for a variety of reasons, this was not possible. Nevertheless, the Air Commander was able to maintain that essential coordination through regular visits and secure lines of communication. He also managed to have his photograph taken with the then President Bush!

 

Throughout the deployment, staff at High Wycombe provided the all important command function and through links with the MOD and FCO, were able to give the detachment political and operational direction. Clearly, in what was to become an ever-changing scenario, the role of intelligence was crucial. Indeed, intelligence is an essential ingredient when assessing risk - the detachment commander's major pre-occupation - and it does create a problem when it is thin on content, as a crew found out one day when tasked to a strip in Northern Somalia where they had not been before.

 

Information from another nation, operating in-theatre but not from Mombasa, indicated that the strip was sound and the natives friendly. The aircraft landed, to be met by a UNHCR representative and a large crowd who, to the crew, were bordering on hostile. Nevertheless the VIP disembarked, perhaps looking a little paler than normal, to talk with the local leader and the UNHCR representative. During these discussions the crew learned that they had just landed on a strip with land mines marking the edge of the runway! The take-off and flight back were uneventful but history does not record the discussion on the flight deck.

 

Finally, I turn to Operation CHESHIRE, which must be the riskiest operation undertaken by any aircraft in the RAF at the moment. I shall not go into the background of the operation. Suffice to say that the UN asked nations to provide aircraft to deliver aid to Sarajevo. The UK Government responded with an offer of one Hercules aircraft, and it has been flying into Sarajevo 3 times a day since July 92. Other nations who have donated aircraft permanently to the Operation are the US, Canada, France and Germany.

 

Initially the UK, Canada and Germany operated out of Zagreb in Croatia, with the French based in Split and the US at Rhein-Maine in Germany. Following an attempt to shoot down one of the airlift aircraft on climb-out from Zagreb, those based there moved to Ancona in Italy where a Joint Air Ops Centre (JAOC) was created. Essentially, the aircraft operate to the UNHCR requirement. Indeed, there is a UNHCR representative in JAOC. Similarly, each nation has a military representative in UN Headquarters in Geneva. Their job is to manage the airlift on behalf of the UNHCR. This entails coordinating flight activity, seeking agreements from the warring factions through UNPROFOR for safe passage for the airlift aircraft, determining criteria for the carriage of passengers out of Sarajevo, and generally acting as an intermediary between the civilian organisations who wish to use spare capacity on the aircraft. Should any airlift aircraft be threatened by indigenous ground forces Geneva would take protest action.

 

Back home, the political interface is maintained between the JHQ - represented by 38 Group staff - the MOD and the FCO, but it is in the daily contact between the JHQ, Geneva and Ancona where most activity occurs as the threat to the aircraft is continually evaluated. Also, following a series of incidents in 1993, a high level working group was set up to monitor the whole Operation, re-assess the risk when incidents occur and coordinate the decision-making process at an international level. The fact the SASO STC is the UK representative on the working group is testimony to our concerns about the Operation. Regrettably, our aircraft are regularly tracked by radar-layed AAA and occasionally pick up transmissions from potentially hostile systems. Clearly, they are at their most vulnerable during approach and departure at Sarajevo; therefore the ground situation is continually monitored.

 

The detachment at Ancona is some 30 strong and includes a large Tactical Communications element to provide the essential secure communications, UKMAMS for palletising and loading the freight, RAF Police to provide protection on the airfield and security for the aircraft and crew while on the ground at Sarajevo, including passenger checks and Operations/Intelligence staff to link with the other nations in manning the JAOC. Finally, in addition to the aircrew, we must not forget the ground crew who service and repair the aircraft. Changing an engine or a propeller in the open is not an easy task but they set to with a will when it is required.

 

At the end of October 93 the RAF had delivered some 12,500 tons of aid to Sarajevo in some 880 visits, and flown close to 2,000 hours in the process. This represents some 18% of all aid delivered by air - not bad when we represent only 12% of the aircraft dedicated to the airlift.

 

It had been estimated that Sarajevo needs some 330 tons of food each day to survive. The airlift provides about 300 tons a day, sometimes more. The conclusion is obvious, if convoys do not get through the city will slowly starve. There is therefore a compelling moral obligation to deliver the aid. That said, we are not at war; but we are at substantial risk of being caught in the crossfire. We have been fortunate so far, in that there has been little damage to our aircraft - only 2 bullet holes. Others have been less so; the Italians lost a Fiat G222 aircraft to missile fire last year and it was only through the quick reaction of the crew that the Germans did not lose a C-160 in February 94. The hazards are evident. Therefore we continue to assess and re-assess the balance between risk and gain. In the deliberations within the High Level Working Group it has become abundantly clear that we have been close to the sensible limit of risk in the past. One hopes that we shall continue to get the balance right and not exceed it. We get it wrong at our peril.

 

I hope that in this article I have been able to give you a feel for some of the multitude of activities that go to make up a humanitarian airlift operation, whether it be an evacuation of people or the delivery of aid. In no way do I wish to denigrate the role of the crews who ultimately must take the risks associated with each operation. It is they, and they alone, who are responsible for the safety of their aircraft once it is launched. What I have tried to highlight are the essential roles undertaken by the support staff. I don't just mean those back in the JHQ who have perhaps a more strategic overview and are less concerned with the absolute detail - although you would be surprised at the level of detail that is discussed. I really mean those deployed personnel, be they ground crew, police, movers, communicators, operations clerks, or administrators. It is they who make any operations tick; it is they who spend a far greater proportion of their time on deployment than at home; and it is their backing that contributes ultimately to the success of an operation. In short, these support staff ensure that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

 

ADDENDUM. I hasten to add that this has only been a look at 38 Group humanitarian aid operations. We are also involved in every other deployed RAF operation, as well as providing the more routine and perhaps less exotic aspects of airlift and AAR support for exercise deployments by all 3 services.