USAFE aids in Operation Provide Promise

by William Butler
U.S. Air Forces in Europe History Office

Twenty years ago this summer, U.S. Air Forces in Europe began the first of several operations it would oversee in the troubled Balkans region during most of the 1990s.

Simmering ethnic tensions in the conglomerated Republic of Yugoslavia exploded into open violence at the end of the Cold War. Intense and brutal fighting engulfed Bosnia and created a dire humanitarian crisis that the United Nations and larger international community sought to alleviate. In particular, the desperate plight of the beleaguered citizens in the capital of Sarajevo demanded immediate aid relief that could only reliably be delivered by air. For its part in the ensuing international airlift, the U.S. inaugurated Operation Provide Promise on July 3, 1992, and USAFE elements were among the first to respond. The 435th Airlift Wing at Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt served as the operation’s primary mobility hub. The wing’s 37th Airlift Squadron flew the initial Provide Promise missions from Rhein-Main direct to Sarajevo or staged through Zagreb, Croatia and Aviano Air Base, Italy.

Elements of other Air Force mobility wings deployed to Europe for weeks at a time, and Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units also took part. When it began, no one suspected that Provide Promise was destined to become the longest sustained humanitarian airlift operation in history, even surpassing USAFE’s earlier participation in the Berlin Airlift of 1948 to 1949.

The Bosnian crisis drastically intensified in early 1993. President Bill Clinton, who had just taken office in January, expanded Operation Provide Promise because of its important humanitarian and international nature.

In February, Serbian forces blockaded surface routes to four U.N.-sanctioned safe zones in eastern Bosnia, preventing the arrival of aid relief convoys to the cities of Tuzla, Srebrenica, Zepa, and Gorazde. However, they could not blockade the air. As a result, U.S. European Command officially formed Joint Task Force-Provide Promise to oversee a much larger mission.  Serving as the joint force air component commander for the airlift, Maj. Gen. James Chambers, the 17th Air Force commander at Sembach, commanded the airdrop of food and medicine to the surrounded enclaves. C-130s from the 435th and 37th began the airdrops after dropping leaflets warning people to beware of falling cargo. 

Several new airlift innovations came to the forefront during the operation. Newly implemented Global Positioning Systems facilitated the airdrop missions, allowing precision delivery of cargo. In March 1993, the 352d Special Operations Group at RAF Mildenhall invented the tri-wall aerial delivery system, which ripped open containers full of meals ready-to-eat as they exited the aircraft, allowing the 2.2-pound meals to drop to the ground individually, with less chance of injuring the intended recipients.

As USAFE took on additional Balkans missions, such as the Operation Deny Flight no-fly zone over Bosnia, Provide Promise continued to furnish humanitarian aid to the region. In early October 1993, the airlift and airdrops had surpassed the Berlin Airlift in duration.  By then, U.S. aircraft had transported more than 23,000 tons of relief cargo with no major injuries or accidents. Like the Berlin Airlift before, the overall effort incorporated morale-boosting initiatives like Operation Provide Santa that involved C-130 airdrops of toys, children’s clothing, and shoes over the Bosnian countryside. The items were donated by German citizens and by U.S. military personnel stationed in Germany. Air Force transports from Rhein-Main also dropped tons of mattresses, blankets, sleeping bags, candles, and beans over eastern Bosnia to help people there cope with winter weather.

Aircrews participating in the operation were keenly aware of the risks involved as Serbian forces surrounding Sarajevo routinely fired on the capital, as well as the planes delivering relief cargo to the airport. At several points during the airlift, the U.S. suspended its humanitarian flights, and subsequent C-130 missions into Sarajevo followed steep approach and departure angles to reduce their exposure to enemy fire. Pilots also left the engines running as the planes were unloaded, thus facilitating their rapid departure and decreasing their vulnerability time. In 1994, the airlift and airdrop missions transferred from the 435th at Rhein-Main to the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein. The 86th would remain the primary USAFE organization supporting the airlift for the rest of the operation.

Following the Dayton Peace Accords held at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio in November 1995, reliable and secure surface routes into Sarajevo negated the need for the further military airlift of humanitarian supplies to its airport. Consequently on Jan. 9, 1996, after three and a half years, Provide Promise officially ended. Since it began, aircraft from 21 countries had taken part in an operation that had provided 95 percent of the city’s supplies and evacuated some 1,300 wounded civilians. As part of this longest sustained humanitarian airlift operation in history, U.S. Air Force units had flown 4,553 sorties and delivered 62,802 metric tons of cargo. C-130 airdrops involved 2,222 sorties with delivery of 28,748 Container Delivery System bundles and 1,185 TRIADS bundles. These airlift records remain a proud testimony of air mobility achievement, and Provide Promise continues to represent a highly notable period in USAFE’s seventy years of service in Europe.