The F-16, called Viper by her pilots, has been the most prolific fighter in U.S. and Coalition operation in the Middle East for over a decade. Since the 1991 Gulf War, it has been the workhorse of the U.N.-sanctioned operations in the region, working in ‘Wild Weasel’, ground attack and air-superiority roles.
Operations Southern Watch and Northern Watch required daily and continuous combat patrols over Iraqi territory for over a decade – a task that was made simpler by the bountiful supply of F-16s in U.S. Air Force (USAF) service, and the fact that the jet has always been able to assume multiple roles and uses.
As the following story (appeared on Steve Davies and Doug Dildy book F-16 Fighting Falcon Units of Operation Iraqi Freedom) explains, when U.S. President George W. Bush ordered his forces into Iraq in March 2003, the F-16CJ was the second aircraft to enter enemy airspace, sweeping the skies for electrons in a bid to find, identify and kill Iraq’s comprehensive air defence system.
“On 19/20 March we were flying on-call SEAD and had HARMs on board the aeroplane. I was a night guy, flying only at night, and it was early in the morning. I had one more vul to cover before I went home. We were covering six-hour vul times (vulnerability periods), where we’d come away to get gas when we needed it and then go back in again. I came out of the AOR (Area of Responsibility), contacted the appropriate agency, and said, ‘Copy. You’re going to support ‘Ram 01′.’ That’s all I got. Who’s ‘Ram 01!?’ “
Capt Paul Carlton was a seasoned F-16 pilot with 1500+ hours of Block 30/50 time in his logbook. Only weeks before he had been plucked from the 55th Fighter Squadron (FS) at Shaw Air Force Base (AFB) to add Night Vision Goggles (NVG) experience to the 77th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron (EFS), and was leading a two-ship of F-16CJs on the last position of their assigned vulnerability time when he had received this cryptic message.
“I had no idea what was going on. I asked, ‘Can you tell me who ‘Ram 01′ is, what their time-over-target (TOT) is and where they’re going?’ I got nothing back. Silence. The RoE was that we couldn’t shoot or drop anything unless we were given permission to do so. That morning we were briefed that we were not to shoot any weapons unless were we told we could. So, I sent ‘Two’ (Carlton’s wingman) off to get permission to fire our weapons if needed, and at the same time I started looking for ‘Ram 01’ on the radio. I had no idea what he was or what was going on.”
Completely in the dark, despite the impending tasking to support this enigmatic mission, Carlton was thinking that ‘Ram 01’ was probably a traditional asset – a Block 40 Viper, or some such. Little did he know that ‘Ram 01’ was actually an F-117 with a time-critical mission to bomb a bunker in in which Saddam Hussein was reportedly hiding.
“‘Ram 01’ came up on the radio and told me roughly where he was and the coordinates of where he was going. He also gave me the coordinates of his IP (Initial Point) and his target, which I plugged into my jet so as to figure out where he was going and what his target was. His target plot fell into the little map of Baghdad. That clued me in to what he was about to do, and I knew that things were about to get much more exciting.
“Having learned the TOT and seen where he was going, I knew all I needed to know. I knew what threats he was up against and now I was thinking about how best I could support him. I had just four HARMs to work with (two per F-16), which is not a whole lot to cover the entirety of Baghdad. Having devised a basic strategy, I flew back into the AOR, but chose not to go up near his target, even though we were now allowed to cross the No-Fly Zone. The F-16 is a radar-significant target, and I didn’t want to simulate the air defences before they needed to be. I never heard anything else from ‘Ram 01’, which thinking about it now makes sense to me as the pilot always ‘cleans up’ when they go to war (the F-117 retracts its communication antennas when entering hostile territory).”
Carlton continued to play it cool, but was still not aware of who it was he was supporting. He watched the SuperMEZ (super missile engagement zone) for about and hour, “then I hit Bingo fuel. I had not seen anything happen to ‘Ram 01’, so I told the controlling agency, ‘I’m bingo and have to go home’. I got handed off to different agencies and headed back to the tanker down south to get gas for the trip home.
“We were on the tanker when ‘Ram 01’ came over the radio and said, ”Ram 01”, ‘tanker 51′, behind you and checking in for gas’. As I came off the tanker with my wingman, I looked behind me and there’s this ‘Stinkbug’ taxiing up. That was the first clue that I had that we’d just helped started the war.”
‘Ram 01’ successfully struck the bunker, but Saddam Hussein would later appear on television alive and well. The mission was backed-up with scores of Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) strikes, prompting Coalition pilots to watch silently from their cockpits as the cruise missiles made their way through the pre-briefed TLAM corridors to their targets, their heat signatures showing up on NVGs.
The impromptu SEAD escort for ‘Ram 01’ came about 48 hours prior to the date that had originally been briefed for the beginning of the war. The subsequent ‘Armageddon’ that the public had been told to expect was never quite realised, and although ‘Shock and Awe’ may have been a little less shocking and not quite as awe-inspiring as many had thought it would be, Capt Carlton was more than happy with his performance on Mar. 19, 2003. Indeed, he had just performed a textbook demonstration of what he had spent nine years in the Air Force training to do.
“Most of our peacetime training centres on us learning rules-of-thumb and doing the calculations in flight so that when this kind of tasking comes during wartime, we don’t need to do detailed planning there in the jet in order to get the mission done.”
Operation Iraqi Freedom was now underway.
Photo credit: Senior Airman Kevin Tanenbaum and Tech. Sgt. Gregory Brook / U.S. Air Force
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com
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