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RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — It’s not a matter of if the 3rd Air Force will be called to help deliver humanitarian relief, but rather when.

And with the completion Tuesday of the unit’s Humanitarian Relief Operation 911 exercise, it stands ready to respond to any major disaster in Europe or Africa at a moment’s notice, planners said.

“We’re ready to go,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Ron Lueb, planning chief for the exercise, which was built around an earthquake scenario in Albania.

The exercise — a culmination of more than a year of planning — will reduce the 3rd Air Force’s response time to such disasters from days, if not weeks, to within 16 hours of receiving notification from U.S. European Command, Lueb said.

In May, the 3rd Air Force conducted Flexible Leader, an exercise aimed at certifying its role as the leader of a joint task force. The command was re-activated in December 2006 to plan combat and humanitarian missions for the Air Force in Europe and Africa.

Having plans “on the books” makes the 3rd Air Force more easily activated by EUCOM officials, who must work closely with host nation officials, the Sate Department and nongovernmental organizations to coordinate relief efforts, Lueb said.

“The humanitarian cost of not being ready is one we don’t want to face,” said Lueb, stressing that missions are carried out only at the request of the country in crisis.

But when asked, the 3rd Air Force can now mobilize up to six C-130s, 100 airmen and 100 tons of cargo when disaster strikes.

At the heart of the military’s role in humanitarian missions is logistics, said the 3rd Air Force commander, Lt. Gen. Rod Bishop.

“We’re not handing out food or aid so much as using our unique military capabilities … to analyze what needs to go on and how to use the best assets in the shortest time,” said Bishop.

Focused on preventing the “bottlenecking” that can occur when multiple agencies respond to a catastrophic event, military operations range from coordinating evacuations and establishing airfields to restoring infrastructure, he said.

When disaster strikes, the world typically responds in force, sending all the money, supplies and volunteers they can spare. The most difficult aspect of relief, Bishop said, is getting that help to the people who need it.

Relief-operation planning “sends a pretty strong message to our allies across the world that we care about them,” Bishop said.

Through the exercise, the 3rd Air Force learned lessons in such areas as expecting three times as many evacuees as predicted and special food and cultural considerations.

One of the most important aspects of relief operations is quickly building relationships with the host nation and assistance agencies on the ground, said Air Force Maj. Thomas Sherman, with the Ramstein-based 86th Contingency Response Group, whose members participated in Tuesday’s exercise.

“It makes things so much easier that way,” said Sherman, who just returned from a Rwanda-based relief operation.

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