On Mar. 4, 2002 during Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), a section of F-15Es belonging to 335th Fighter Squadron (FS) “Chiefs” from 4th Fighter Wing (FW) operating as ‘Twister 51′ and ’52’ became embroiled in what is now known as the Battle of Roberts’ Ridge. Flying in the lead jet were Lt Col James Fairchild (WSO) and Maj Chris Short (pilot), whilst Capt Kirk Rieckhoff (pilot) and Capt Chris Russell (WSO) manned the second Strike Eagle. Carrying a load of nine GBU-12s, two AIM-120Cs, two AIM-9Ms and 510 rounds of PGU-28 bullets, ‘Twister’ flight was four hours into an on-call CAS mission when, at 0125 hrs, AWACS directed them to call ‘Texas 14’ immediately.
As told by Steve Davies in his book F-15E Strike Eagle Units in Combat 1990-2005, FAC ‘Texas 14’ talked them onto an observation position and suspected mortar sites on a ridgeline known as ‘Whaleback’. Having dropped a single GBU-12 on the observation position, they received a call at 0141 hrs. A minute later, ‘Mako 30’ came on frequency and reported that he was taking mortar fire from positions west of him. He passed coordinates that ‘Twister’ identified as friendly, and when asked to confirm the location of the enemy, `Mako’ responded that he was unable to, adding only that opposing forces were 600 yards west of him.
By now it was clear to ‘Twister’ that ‘Mako 30’ was not a FAC or an ETAC (Enlisted Tactical Air Controller), as he made no attempt at the standard 9-line CAS brief. Instead, he reported taking fire and requested GBU-12s as soon as possible. ‘Mako 30’, it was later learned, was a SEAL (Sea Air And Land Special Forces) team searching for fellow SEAL Neil Roberts who had fallen from an MH-47E Chinook following an ambushed insertion in the Shah-i-Kot Valley. Lt Col Fairchild recalled;
“‘Mako 30” reported that he was taking fire and needed air support, so we made two passes and dropped a GBU-12. He then called that he was still taking fire and was moving east with two wounded and one Killed In Action. Simultaneously, we were directed to clear the target area where Operation Anaconda was being fought — a B-52 was inbound to drop JDAM. We took advantage of this break to go get gas and rejoin the flight. “Twister 52” had already been sent to the tanker.’
The first GBU-12 dropped at 0153 hrs had fallen eight kilometres north of the ridgeline because of difficulties in confirming the target’s exact coordinates. In short, the wrong coordinates were entered into the Strike Eagle’s computer. During the effort to support ‘Mako 30’, a USAF MH-47 carrying a second rescue team was downed by a rocket-propelled grenade. ‘Mako 30′, which had been making its way to Roberts’ Ridge on foot, was situated atop a nearby peak, but the downing of the Chinook on the ridge itself soon resulted in a call for CAS from USAF SSgt Kevin Vance’s ETAC team ‘Slick 01’.
Coming off the tanker at 0237 hrs, ‘Twister’ flight was instructed to work with ‘Texas 14′ — a third team on a ridge line to the east of `Slick 01’. ‘Twister 51′ employed three GBU-12s on the ‘Whaleback’ and ‘Twister 52’ dropped eight GBU-12s on the same target between 0252 hrs and 0303 hrs. One minute later they were then told to contact ‘Slick 01’ — Vance’s crew from the downed MH-47, ‘Razor 01’. Capt Chris Russell, WSO in ‘Twister 52’, recalled;
`They advised us that they were from the downed helicopter, and that they were taking fire from enemy forces that were within 75 metres of their position, so we basically knew we were going to be using guns only.’
Lt Col Fairchild added;
`Using the helicopter as a common reference point, “Slick 01” was able to talk us onto the enemy position using visual references and the TP. We made one 20 mm strafing pass at 0315 hrs, but were called off dry due to FAC calls that we were not on a good attack axis. We adjusted our run in and made more hot passes at 0320 hrs and 0323 hrs. “Twister 52” also made two passes — one dry and one hot — and reported bingo fuel. We again sent “52” to the tanker and talked to AWACS about getting more gun-capable aircraft on station, but with no luck.’
The gun passes had provided good suppressing fire for ‘Slick 01′, and `Twister’ flight expended 380 rounds between them. Russell recalled that `the call we heard was, “Good guns! I can smell the trees!” We’d basically split the pines, and he was close enough that he could smell the sap. That’s how close we were. We carry 510 rounds of PGU-28, so we had only enough for about five passes before we ran out of ammunition’.
Fairchild and Short followed their wingman to the tanker and received half a load of fuel, before returning to the target area at 0343 hrs for more hot gun passes, as the section lead explained;
`We heard “Clash 71” — a section of F-16s from the 18th FS — checking in on one of our radios, but then they checked off again. We went to the primary command and control frequency and were finally able to make contact with “Clash 71”. Maj Short gave a fighter-to-fighter brief to “Clash 71”, talking them into the target area. We passed the target to them and then headed to the tanker for a full load of fuel. We got back to the target area and “Clash” had already bingo’d out to the tanker. Both flights were “winchester bullets” (out of bullets) at this time, so we talked the FAC into letting us use GBU-12s by walking them in.’
At 0407 hrs ‘Clash 71’ made a hot pass with their guns, effectively covering ‘Twister’ flight’s absence as they once again departed to the tanker for more fuel. Returning to the target area, ‘Twister 51’s’ secure radio failed, and tactical lead was passed to ‘Twister 52’ to allow continued secure communications with ‘Slick 01’.
Back on scene by 0445 hrs, `Twister’ flight was forced to remain away from the immediate vicinity of the target area while a Predator UAV reconnoitred the target area. At 0517 hrs ‘Slick 01’ requested ‘Twister’ drop their bombs a mere 200 metres west of the downed Chinook, and ‘Twister’ flight devised an impromptu plan to ‘walk’ their GBU-12s closer to ‘Slick 01’ until the target was hit or suppressed.
`Twister 52’s’ first pass at 0521 hrs, with ‘Twister 51′ in trail, resulted in a dry pass when clearance to drop was not obtained. Two minutes later, `Slick 01’ called again that he was receiving mortar fire and requested bombs on target immediately.
Struggling to understand the exact location of the friendly forces in relation to the enemy, the Predator attempted to elicit a more detailed mental picture through voice communications with ‘Slick 01’, and it is whilst conducting this dialogue that ‘Twister’ flight was directed by CAOC through AWACS to return to base (RTB). At 0526 hrs ‘Twister 52’ acknowledged the call, but informed AWACS that ‘Slick 01’ was still taking mortar fire and needed bombs on target quickly. This call was quickly followed by another request to fly a pass to support ‘Slick 01’, which AWACS duly approved on the basis that ‘Twister’ flight would RTB afterwards.
With the situation becoming more desperate by the minute, the pace of events quickened. At 0529 hrs ‘Twister 51’ flew a target attack, but came off dry when his GBU-12 failed to release. ‘Twister 52′ then experienced communications jamming and also came off of his pass dry when permission to drop could not be obtained. Communication was resumed at 0532 hrs, and `Twister’ flight was cleared hot.
Over the next four minutes both F-15Es dropped a GBU-12, the first bomb landing 400 metres away from `Slick 01′ and the second only 200 metres. At 0540 hrs ‘Twister’ hit the tanker for the final time and requested CAOC clearance via AWACS to return to drop their two remaining bombs. This was declined and the jets departed the area to return to Al Jaber.
`Twister’ flight’s total mission time was 12.3 hours, approximately six of which were spent in the target area. Follow-on support for the troops was later provided by B- 1 Bs, B-52s, Predator UAVs and AC-130 gunships. In his closing remarks, Lt Col Fairchild paid homage to these men;
`Those kids were on the ground for 15 hours before they were finally pulled out. People have made a lot out of what we did that day, but in my opinion the real heroes of the day were the guys on the ground fighting to stay alive. I don’t remember all of their names, but the two people that stand out in my mind after reading accounts of what happened are the ETAC, SSgt Kevin Vance, who fought like hell that day, and Sgt Jason Cunningham, the PJ (para-jumper) who was killed while collecting casualties and treating wounded.’
The mission provided several learning points for the F-15E community, despite its overall success. Of these, the most pertinent was the need to confirm the plot of coordinates between aircraft — a requirement highlighted when the first GBU-12 missed the correct target by several miles. The need to coordinate deconfliction and optimisation of assets on scene — a near miss of less that 300 ft with a Navy P-3C Orion during one bomb run had occurred — was also apparent.
`Twister’ flight later concluded that there had been ‘less than optimum management of strike assets’, and the ‘utilisation of a weapon (M61A1 cannon) no one was fully trained on’. Out of the two four-ship qualified flight leads, an Instructor WSO and upgrading IWSO in flight, only `Twister 51A’ (Maj Short) had shot the gun before, and that was only once during F-15E conversion training! All four members of ‘Twister’ flight received the Silver Star for their gallantry.
F-15E Strike Eagle Units in Combat 1990-2005 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
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