The F-15C has formed the backbone of US and Coalition operations in the Middle East for over a decade, flying over northern and southern Iraq as part of Operations Northern Watch and Southern Watch.
As told by Steve Davies in his book F-15C/E Eagle Units of Operation Iraqi Freedom, for more than ten years in fact, Coalition forces patrolled the southern no-fly zone below the 32nd Parallel and the northern no-fly zone above the 36th Parallel in an attempt to contain Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Those units charged with enforcing the containment of Iraqi aircraft, helicopters and military vehicles — termed Operation Southern Watch (OSW) and Operation Northern Watch (ONW) — came from the UK and the US, with France contributing forces until the mid-1990s. Both operations matured from a sketchy and somewhat ill-conceived cease-fire arrangement negotiated with Iraq by the US at the end of the Gulf War in 1991 to highly effective US-led barriers that protected Iraq’s impoverished Shiites in the south and Kurds to the north.
Once airborne and ‘on station’ (pilot parlance for being over enemy territory at the CAP location and ready to go to work), the Eagles would split into two-aircraft elements. Four-ship flights were always tactically preferable and easier to justify over the smaller expanse of territory policed by ONW. On the other hand, the knowledge that the Iraqi Air Force (IrAF) was largely predictable, with an undetected en masse attack highly unlikely, plus the huge expanse of real estate policed by OSW, resulted in the Eagles spreading their picketing envelope.
With Iraq’s major military airfields always under radar surveillance, it was therefore impossible for a single aircraft to be launched without the Coalition immediately knowing about it. If a large force of Iraqi aircraft was detected, there was ample time to call upon additional F-15s to provide support if required.
The IrAF adopted a predominantly non-confrontational stance for much of ONW and OSW, preferring to conduct training missions within the confines of airspace outside the no-fly zones. It was not always so subservient, however. When launched into action, the IrAF used feints and ruses to try and lure Coalition jets into traps, or to expose high-value assets like tankers and AWACS aircraft to attack. The most infamous of these ruses was the ‘high fast flyer’ — a MiG-25 ‘Foxbat’ which flew into the no-fly zone at Mach 2.5 and headed directly for a high-value asset. This created several problems, for the Eagles had to react quickly if they were to protect their charges, thus exposing gaps in the CAP screen.
The theory was that the Foxbat drew the cover away by attracting its attention, thus allowing other IrAF fighters to mount slashing attacks on the unprotected aircraft. The technique was at least predicable, if not easy to counter because of the high speeds involved. The F-15 was the only Coalition fighter with both the internal fuel and engagement capability to deal with it.
Most missions drew a certain amount of ground fire from AAA or SAM operators, who actively engaged Coalition jets in direct contravention of the 1991 cease-fire agreement. While most AAA is ineffective below 15,000 ft, the upper end of the AAA calibre scale — 100 mm — posed a risk yen at the medium altitudes at which the Eagles ‘perched’. This unguided, barrage tire could be dodged, and was largely fired to harass. But accurate fire could easily have brought an F-15 down, so it was regarded with respect. SAM launches were less prolific than AAA fire, but they represented the most serious threat because wily operators soon learned to launch their missiles with visual, rather than radar, guidance. This denied pilots electronic indications of a launch and made it very difficult to locate a SAM in flight.
Another interesting tactic used by Iraqi pilots saw ground- and air-based threats combined to form a ‘honey trap’. MiG pilots would attempt to lure Eagles from their CAP stations into the engagement envelopes of previously unknown SAM rings or AAA gun engagement zones (GEZ). Sometimes they were successful. The tactic was often initiated by the MiG breaking through the no-fly zone and then running as soon as the F-15 CAP was committed to intercept. The pursuing Eagles then got a face full of lead or came under SAM fire. It was quickly established that Eagle drivers should be wary of giving chase to a MiG heading in a direction other than its home air base. Capt Nick Guttman, who has two OSW deployments to his credit, experienced just such an incident;
`On my 23rd mission I led my wingman to investigate an AWACS track of interest. AWACS believed it was a MiG-29 on a test flight inside sovereign Iraqi airspace. We knew they that occasionally flew their “Fulcrums”, and we wanted to get a better idea of how many they were operating. We were despatched to take a look and, upon committing to the track (leaving the CAP station to investigate), the MiG promptly returned to base. As we came within range, we were illuminated and engaged by SA-2 and SA-3 missile sites. I ordered combat jettison of tanks as we evaded the threat and the engagement came to nothing. We turned tail and returned to our CAP station. It was only after we landed that I had the opportunity to explain to my wingman, who was flying his first combat mission, that OSW missions were rarely that exciting!’
F-15C/E Eagle Units of Operation Iraqi Freedom is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
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