Operation Atlas Response
Reference: Air Commando Journal, Vol 11 Issue 1, July 2022, pages 35-42
By Mike Russell, Colonel, USAF (Retired)
Author’s Note: This article was composed from data and events recorded in the United States Special Operations Command study titled Special Operations Forces in Operation ATLAS RESPONSE, Flood Relief in Mozambique, March 2000.
During late February and early March 2000, two tropical cyclones, Connie and Eline, dumped heavy rain on southeast Africa, causing extensive flooding that left approximately one million people homeless. In Mozambique, one of the hardest hit countries, hundreds of thousands of residents fled their homes and sought refuge on high ground. Dramatic news footage showed desperate flood victims huddling on roofs and clinging to the tops of trees. Germany, France, Britain, Spain, Portugal, Malawi, and the Netherlands responded with a multinational humanitarian relief effort. Working in concert with those nations, the United States sent Joint Task Force-ATLAS RESPONSE (JTF-AR) to provide assistance to the devastated region. At the end of the mission, the United States had delivered more than 1.5 million pounds of humanitarian relief supplies and cargo and had moved more than 1,100 aid workers, medical personnel, assessment team members, US military, and other passengers as part of the international relief effort.
JTF-AR included conventional military as well as special operations forces (SOF). Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) provided the SOF who were organized into the Joint Special Operations Task Force-ATLAS RESPONSE (JSOTF-AR). JSOTF-AR included a headquarters, a special operations communication element (SOCE), a joint special operations air component (JSOAC), and civil affairs (CA) personnel who worked in the two civil-military operations centers (CMOC). The JSOTF integrated into the JTF structure, enabling SOF to make a number of contributions that were critical to the success of the US humanitarian efforts in Mozambique, to include: SOCEUR CA personnel who were well versed in assessment missions and had experience working with the various non-governmental organizations (NGO), private volunteer organizations (PVO), and international organizations (IO) who had already been providing relief before JTF-AR arrived. The JSOTF also provided air-refuelable helicopters and MC-130P Combat Shadow tankers that permitted the JSOTF to reach outlying areas beyond the range of non-refuelable helicopters, a reliable long-haul theater deployable communications system (TDC) that ultimately formed the backbone of the JTF’s communications capability, and SOF intelligence resources to augment JTF capabilities. By integrating special operations aircraft into the surveys of flooded and damaged areas, intelligence personnel were able to take high quality digital photographs of flooded and damaged areas from the low flying special operations aircraft which significantly increased both the quantity and quality of intelligence products for the JTF.
On 7 February, US Ambassador to Mozambique, Brian Curran, declared a disaster and, on 15 February, Secretary of Defense William Cohen visited the area and promised to send aid, albeit unspecified at that time.
Anticipating a formal tasking, USEUCOM directed United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) to deploy a humanitarian assistance survey team (HAST) to the disaster region, conduct an assessment of the emergency, establish a US military presence, and make recommendations to the Commander in Chief European Command (CINCEUR) regarding further actions. Maj Gen Joseph Wehrle, 3rd Air Force (AF) Commander, put Lt Col Steven Dreyer in charge of the HAST which deployed to Mozambique on 17 February. Surprisingly, the SOCEUR CA director, Maj Greg Mehall, had to lobby for positions on the HAST. Mehall was sufficiently persuasive and he and another SOCEUR CA soldier deployed with the HAST, arriving in Maputo, Mozambique, the next day.
When the HAST toured the hardest hit areas to the north, they found washed out roads, but saw no flooding or any significant damage to the infrastructure. The HAST concluded that floodwaters had started to subside, and with the help of the international relief organizations already on site the country seemed to be returning back to normal. Dreyer recommended no further action was needed.
That changed on 22 February when Cyclone Eline made landfall. Rainfall from Eline swelled rivers to as much as 26 feet above normal and left an additional 23,000 people homeless. At the same time, unrelenting rain in Zimbabwe and South Africa forced water releases from several stressed Mozambican dams, which exacerbated the flooding and prompted the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) to recommend the United States take action.
On 28 February, President Clinton pledged $1,000,000 through USAID to support “aircraft for critical search and rescue (SAR) operations and the delivery of relief supplies.” However, on 1 March, he committed additional resources, including a joint task force and specifically mentioned special operations forces, including MH-53 helicopters, as well as Green Berets and Navy SEALS.
On 3 March 2000, the Joint Staff issued an execute order that included a SOF command element, up to six MH-53s, three MC-130Ps, three MC-130Hs, and two rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIB). USEUCOM established JTF-AR and appointed Maj Gen Joseph Wehrle as the JTF-AR Commander. I was the SOCEUR Deputy Commander at the time and was selected to command the JSOTF. Lt Col Raymond Kruelskie, SOCEUR Deputy J3, would serve as my deputy.
Believing the MH-53s to be the wrong assets for the mission due to their strong rotor downwash and the extremely long logistic pipeline to South Africa, I recommended either Air Force Rescue HH-60s or Army 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) MH-60s be deployed from the United States instead. However, because the President had specifically mentioned MH-53s in his press briefing, there was extreme reluctance among the leadership to exclude them. Fortuitously, three HH-60 Rescue helicopters, crews, and maintenance personnel were in the process of redeploying from Operation NORTHERN WATCH in Turkey. Acting quickly, USEUCOM was able to stop the HH-60 redeployment and redirect the Rescue assets to support JTF-AR. Subsequently, Maj Gen Wehrle decided to use both the MH-53s and HH-60s.
Ultimately, the JSOTF-AR would consist of a command element and SOCE from SOCEUR, three MH-53 Pave Lows, two MC-130P Combat Shadows, and pararescue specialists (PJ) and combat controllers (CCT) from the 352nd Special Operations Group (SOG) at RAF Mildenhall, UK, as well as three HH-60G Pave Hawks from the 41st Rescue Squadron (RQS) at Moody AFB, Georgia that would fall under the tactical control (TACON) of the JSOTF-AR.
Because of airfield conditions in the affected area, the late US response, and the large size of the deployment, Hoedspruit, South Africa, across the southwestern border of Mozambique, was chosen as the JTF-AR intermediate staging base (ISB). On 4 March, after considerable diplomatic wrangling, approval to use Hoedspruit was obtained from South Africa and the deployment began. The HAST, led by Lt Col Dreyer split into three groups: Dreyer took his team to Hoedspruit, Major Mehall stayed with his team at Maputo, and Major John Burns took his team to Biera, Mozambique, where the JSOTF-AR would bed down. There, the individual teams coordinated for lodging, workspace, warehouse space, transportation, and fuel. Once the JTF arrived, the HASTs folded into the JTF and JSOTF as CMOCs where they provided liaison between JTF-AR, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), and the government of Mozambique.
Maj Gen Wehrle and his core staff arrived at Hoedspruit on 6 March. The next day he took a small staff to Maputo to establish a JTF HQ there, but left the bulk of the JTF-AR at Hoedspruit. Colonel Russell also arrived on 6 March and immediately began the process of preparing to move the JSOTF forward to Biera as soon as the airport assessment was completed and airlift could be arranged. Two C-5s carrying the HH-60s, aircrews, maintenance, and support personnel and equipment arrived at Hoedspruit on 7 and 8 March. The last C-5, carrying the MH-53s, arrived on 11 March. By the time the aircraft arrived in theater, the mission focus had changed from rescue to humanitarian relief.
Due mainly to logistical considerations, it was decided that the MH-53s and MC-130Ps would base out of Hoedspruit where they would support the southern region of Mozambique while the HH-60s would move forward to Biera with the JSOTF to support the northern region.
The move to Biera, originally planned for early on 8 March was delayed by C-130 maintenance problems and crew duty day restrictions. Thus, the JSOTF did not arrive at Biera until the evening of 8 March. With the airport and relief operations at Biera in the process of shutting down for the day, Colonel Russell set up communications with the JTF, secured the JSOTF equipment, and then met with his JSOTF staff to prioritize tasks for the next day before bedding down for the night. The HAST that had moved to Biera earlier had done a great job of securing quarters, transportation, and work space which enabled the JSOTF to hit the ground running very early the next day, to set up the JSOTF, prepare for the HH-60s arrival, coordinate with the wide variety of foreign military and humanitarian support organizations, and figure out how to meld into the existing air asset allocation process. With multiple military and civilian organizations from different countries all contributing, General Wehrle did not want it to appear that the Americans were taking over the flying operations. Therefore, he asked us to “tread lightly” in our dealings with the other organizations.
With so much to be done and a hard arrival time for the HH-60s amidst a media frenzy, the next day proved to be hectic. The CMOC and the Contingency Response Air Mobility Squadron that arrived earlier in the operation, had already established contacts with nearly all the relevant players at Biera. This allowed me to quickly begin coordination with relief participants while the JSOTF staff and SOCE set up their equipment and organized the workspace to be ready to conduct operations. With just five minutes to spare until the announced HH-60 arrival time, the JSOTF-AR was fully operational. The HH-60s were on initial approach and I, SGM Phil Clayton, and Maj Giles Kyser from the JSOTF J3 were physically pushing civilian aircraft out of the designated HH-60 parking area to make room for the arriving helicopters.
Keeping in mind that President Clinton had specifically mentioned Green Berets during his press briefing, I designated LTC Burt Brasher, the SOCEUR Legal Advisor and also a Special Forces officer, to be my Public Affairs Officer. When the HH-60s arrived, LTC Brasher was standing in front of the CNN and international news cameras wearing his green beret and tactfully keeping that part of the President’s promise.
The decision to keep the MH-53s and MC-130s at Hoedspruit, drove the requirement to split the JSOTF-AR into two elements: the JSOTF HQ at Beira and a special operation liaison element (SOLE) with the JTF staff at Hoedspruit. Colonel Kruelskie headed up the SOLE while Col John Zahrt, the 352nd Special Operations Group (SOG) commander, became the JSOAC commander, exercising operational control of all SOF air assets and TACON of the HH-60s. Kruelkskie and Zahrt worked closely together. They attended all meetings with the JTF-AR staff as well as the twice daily teleconferences with General Wehrle.
Two Navy planners from Naval Special Warfare Unit Two also deployed as part of the JSOTF to determine if Naval Special Warfare assets were required for rescue operations in the flooded riverine areas. They determined that there was no requirement and were released to return to Germany, however, this initial deployment of a couple SEALs kept the rest of the President’s promise to deploy Green Berets and Navy SEALs.
While the JSOTF staff was setting up at the Beira, I met with key personnel from the various relief organizations and foreign militaries to figure out the best way for the JSOTF to be helpful and work with their system. Peter Carrington, a British civilian from the World Food Program, wanted to turn the operation over to the United States as soon as possible, but in keeping with General Wehrle’s guidance, I demurred. Instead, I emphasized that the US intended to augment and support the relief system already in place.
Carrington put the JSOTF in touch with a Malawian officer, Maj Masamba, who had been a key player from the beginning of the emergency response operation. He had coordinated early relief efforts after the disaster and because of his personal rescue efforts, was regarded as something of a hero. Masamba organized regular meetings where NGOs, PVOs, and IOs with operational needs could connect with aircraft owners and operators to get relief supplies to needy areas. Lt Col Corby Martin, the JSOAC representative within the JSOTF, worked closely with Masamba to build an effective, cooperative operation. With Maj Masamba’s assistance, Colonel Martin procured a load of corn for delivery to a flood damaged area as soon as the HH-60s arrived. Within hours of touchdown, the helicopters were in the air again, delivering relief supplies to northern regions of Mozambique. JSOTF-AR was open for business!
On 10 and 11 March, the MH-53s finally arrived at the ISB and, once built up, immediately started flying missions in support of the southern Mozambique relief effort. The Combat Shadows refueled the helicopters in-flight, which made extended flights to outlying areas possible and also relieved the pressure on fuel supplies in Mozambique. Between aerial refueling and delivery operations, the Pave Lows, Pave Hawks, and Combat Shadows also served as real time reconnaissance platforms by taking digital photos of the region. Images provided by the MC-130Ps were designated LOR image for “Lieutenant on a Rope,” referring to the intelligence specialists that took the photos from an open aircraft doorway while secured with a gunner’s harness. The JSOTF’s digital imagery proved to be clearer than that of the Keen Sage OC-130 photo reconnaissance aircraft and also provided a below-the-clouds capability. As ATLAS RESPONSE unfolded, 50 percent or more of the JTF’s aerial survey photos came from JSOAC personnel taking pictures from helicopters and MC-130Ps.
By 11 March, Operation ATLAS RESPONSE was in full swing. With communications support provided by the TDC, the headquarters staff managed the JSOTF-AR from the second floor of the Beira air terminal. The three HH-60s operated out of Beira, the three MH-53s from Hoedspruit used Maputo as a staging area, and the MC-130Ps provided fuel from Hoedspruit for all the USAF helicopters. Conventional C-130s staged relief supplies among the three airfields while the Keen Sage OC-130s collected survey and assessment images. General Wehrle controlled the missions from his headquarters at Maputo where the main CMOC was also located. The Maputo and Beira CMOCs operated independently, and other than exchanging daily SITREPs, contact between the two was minimal.
When the JSOTF arrived at Beira we found more than 50 NGOs, PVOs, and IOs competing for cargo space on aircraft from five nations. Even though the NGOs had an infrastructure in place, the relief efforts were not well synchronized. We had trouble with relief teams not showing up on time, incomplete cargo loads, and inefficient ground loading operations. My direction to the staff and CMOC was to the point, “Get these people organized and get the helicopters full.” I needed the CA soldiers to improve the efficiency of the relief effort by “supporting and augmenting’’ the civilian agencies, but not by taking over.” To that end, the CA team worked to transform the CMOC into a civilian-run disaster response cell. They established daily meetings where the UNDAC-led civilian groups would prioritize NGO, PVO, and IO requirements and coordinate missions with the air cell. With the civilians making the decisions, the JSOTF did not have to decide which relief agencies would get airlift and, therefore, could concentrate on making operations more efficient. Aircrews also shared information they gathered on missions, such as which areas appeared to have urgent needs and which appeared to have surplus relief supplies.
To increase the efficiency of air operations, the JSOTF had to resolve a cultural difference regarding schedules. Whereas the JSOTF-AR viewed scheduled times as hard, the IOs, PVOs and NGOs regarded scheduled times as approximate. To minimize the impact, Maj Burns assigned SSG Johnson, a CA NCO and former 3rd Special Forces Group soldier, the task of trouble shooter and expediter. After acquiring a truck and a radio, SSG Johnson moved from “crisis to crisis” and, through the strength of his personality, was able to build rapport with the airfield workers and get their cooperation to keep the relief efforts as close to “on-time” as possible.
With all the additional humanitarian relief sorties adding dramatically to the operational tempo at Biera, the local air traffic controllers were in danger of becoming overwhelmed. So, the JSOAC sent a three-man team from the 321st Special Tactics Squadron to assist. TSgt Epperson, the PJ on the team, was fluent in Portuguese, so the team was able to effectively communicate with the local controllers and quickly developed a good working relationship. The team provided assistance and advice without appearing to take over operations or offending the local controllers. With the large number of aircraft now using Beira, one of the main challenges was controlling the ground movement of aircraft. There was no clear parking or ground movement plan, so the situation on the ground was becoming dangerous. The combat controllers recognized the problems, devised an aircraft parking and ground movement plan and, with tact and diplomacy, were able to convince airport management, as well as host nation and foreign ground personnel and aircrews, to accept the plan.
Initially, all three HH-60s flew 12 hours a day, every day, but Maj Kyger, the HH-60 mission commander, cut back to two helicopters per day to allow for crew rest and aircraft maintenance. In the end, the Air Rescue crews and maintenance kept at least 2 helicopters in the air every day for 19 days straight.
The nature of the HH-60 missions varied. Typical missions included rice, food, tents, tools, and farming equipment deliveries. Many of the missions involved moving civilian relief workers and medical personnel throughout the relief area. One of the longest missions flown involved carrying the Mozambican Minister of the Environment to the Cahora Vasa Dam in the extreme northwest to try to persuade the dam operators to delay releasing more water into the valley despite the dam’s stressed condition.
JSOTF also performed a few SAR missions. On 11 March, five boats from Britain’s Royal National Lifeboat Association failed to arrive at their destination on time. The HH-60s searched for the boats until darkness, then resumed the search in the morning. They found the five boats that morning and radioed their position to the British contingent who sent their own Sea King helicopters to complete the rescue. In another incident, a German medical assistant had an accident that left shards of glass in his eye. The only hope of saving his eye was to get him to a hospital in Pretoria, South Africa, as soon as possible. Within minutes, the JSOTF was able to recall a conventional C-130 aircraft that had just departed Biera to transport the patient to Pretoria where they were able to save the man’s eyesight. Other missions included evacuating a local national with gangrene and assisting in the medical evacuation of a British Royal Navy seaman who fell out of a helicopter and broke his leg. An HH-60 also carried two German physicians to a remote village to attend to a child with an advanced stage of cerebral malaria. Unfortunately, the young girl succumbed to the disease before the helicopter arrived.
Our emphasis on providing support, rather than usurping control, paid big dividends throughout the mission. Our “we-really-are-here-to-help” way of doing business facilitated early acceptance of the American forces by the NGOs, PVOs, IOs, and other military forces. Within days, ATLAS RESPONSE personnel had smoothly integrated with all other relief organizations. On numerous occasions, representatives from other military and civilian relief organizations expressed their appreciation for the cooperative attitude and team focus maintained by JSOTF-AR personnel.
The system for mission coordination for southern Mozambique differed from the one used at Beira. The Maputo CMOC secured office space conveniently located next to the United Nations’ Joint Logistics Operations Center (JLOC) and effectively integrated with government, NGOs, and PVOs. Using information generated at JLOC meetings, the CMOC built a database of towns and villages that had been visited and their needs, enabling the NGOs, PVOs, and IOs to efficiently identify mission requirements. CMOC staff members also helped to match up supplies with the most appropriate aircraft. The overall management of the effort in southern Mozambique was not as structured as the one implemented in the north and relied on a corkboard and notecard system to coordinate NGO, PVO, and IO needs with air assets. Though simple, it proved to be effective.
Maj Scott Howell from the 352nd Operations Support Squadron (OSS) served as the JSOAC liaison officer to the JTF-AR headquarters at Maputo and took the lead for collecting all JTF-AR requirements for the southern region. He identified missions at the CMOC, passed the missions back to the JTF-AR staff in Hoedspruit for dissemination to the JTF or JSOTF for approval, and managed the missions in Maputo. Maj Howell made it possible for me to maintain oversight of all JSOTF missions. Scott did a great job, and did virtually all the planning and coordination for mission support at each site. He was invaluable and key to successful ops in the southern region.
Col Zahrt received mission assignments from the Hoedspruit JTF-AR staff via the JSOTF. The JSOAC managed refueling operations for the JSOTF helicopters, coordinated survey missions, and maintained OPCON of the MH-53s, MC-130Ps, and STS. Lt Col Paul Harmon, commander of the 21st Special Operations Squadron, reviewed and approved all of the MH-53 mission assignments to ensure the Pave Lows were effectively used during the operation.
As in the north, missions in the south varied. The Pave Lows stayed busy moving relief supplies and personnel throughout the southern region. On 12 March, an MH-53 flew from Hoedspruit to the Maputo airfield where the crew met with General Wehrle, US Ambassador Curran, and the Vice Chief of Staff from the Mozambican armed forces. The helicopter then flew to Palmeria, a staging area for international aid workers, where it uploaded over two tons of relief supplies. It then flew over miles and miles of flooded countryside to the remote village of Xai-Xai where it was greeted by hundreds of cheering villagers, mostly children. The MH-53s also helped deliver a water purification system to one of the southern villages and approximately two tons of medicine, rice, and clothing to another remote village. Due to their size and heavy rotorwash, the MH-53’s were sometimes unable to deliver relief supplies to some of the smaller landing zones. The JSOAC’s MC-130Ps, in addition to providing in-flight refueling to the MH-53s and HH-60s, performed survey and assessment missions, and on occasion, moved relief supplies among the different airfields.
Near the end of the operation JSOTF-AR did suffer one casualty. On 24 March, an Airman from the 352nd Maintenance Squadron joined several of his co-workers for a trip to Lisbon falls near Graskop, South Africa, during their off-duty time. Against the advice of his friends, the Airman insisted on swimming in a prohibited area at the top of the falls where he got caught in a strong current, was swept over one of the smaller falls, and subsequently carried over the larger, 300-foot waterfall. Two JSOTF-AR MH-53s and one MC-130 responded immediately and joined South African Rescue personnel in conducting an air and ground search until darkness. The Airman’s body was discovered the next morning at the base of the falls.
On 24 March, after much discussion, the government of Mozambique announced that it was time to transition relief efforts to its local governments. On 25 March, the HH-60s delivered 14 tons of food in their last day of operations and the C-130s moved 42.6 tons of agricultural seed to Maputo. On 26 March, the JSOTF flew three missions, delivering 5.52 tons of food, and also began packing for redeployment, concluding humanitarian relief efforts under JTF-AR.
During Operation ATLAS RESPONSE, more than 700 US personnel were deployed. Aircrew, maintenance, and support personnel flew approximately 600 sorties, delivered 970 tons of cargo, and moved 1,200 passengers from various relief organizations, foreign governments, and militaries. The Airmen and support personnel from JSOTF-AR flew 319 of those sorties, delivered 203 tons of the cargo, and moved 387 passengers. The HH-60s proved to be the workhorses of the operations, delivering over 177 of the 203 tons of food and cargo transported by JSOTF-AR assets.
Because they had been diverted to Mozambique while on their way home from a 120-day deployment, the HH-60 team was given priority for the return home. The Air Rescue personnel departed from Beira for Hoedspruit on 27 Mar and boarded C-5s for home on 2 April. JTF and JSOTF personnel, except for a handful of CMOC staff members, who remained behind to transition relief operations, departed Mozambique by 28 March and all remaining air assets and CMOC personnel left southern Africa by 7 April.
Operation ATLAS RESPONSE was the first major deployment of US military forces to Africa since Operation RESTORE HOPE (Somalia, 1993). JSOTF-AR demonstrated the flexibility and adaptability of SOF, especially special air operations personnel and units. Over a period of more than a month, SOCEUR and the 352nd SOG planned and deployed over 5,500 miles, from northern Europe to southern Africa, set up dispersed operations 400 miles apart, integrated with conventional and multinational air forces to ensure responsive support of more than 50 international aid organizations, and successfully redeployed all resources to home stations. It was a job well done and one we were rightly proud of.
About the Author: Colonel Mike Russell is a retired Air Commando and USAF pilot. He flew as a Primary Jet Instructor Pilot (T-37), Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Pilot (HH-53B/C Jolly Green Giant), and Special Operations Helicopter Pilot (MH-53H/J Pave Low III). Col Russell also served as the Commander, 21st SOS, Deputy Commander, 16th Special Operations Group, Commander of the 66th Air Operations Squadron, and Deputy Commander of Special Operations Command Europe, and JSOTF-AR Commander.
Additional Photos Not included in the printed article
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- Friendly Fire in Northern Iraq
- Operation Atlas Response
- Saving A Wild Boar
- Task Force Viking and the UGLY BABY Mission
- 2nd Special Operations Squadron
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