U.S. A-10 and F-15E pilots who are flying missions over Libya tell us their stories from the front lines of Operation Odyssey Dawn
By Joe Pappalardo
March 31, 2011 6:30 AM
Peace one day, war the next: It's the life of a combat pilot. And because Operation Odyssey Dawn—the U.S.-NATO effort to curtail Muammar Gaddafi's suppression of a revolt in Libya—so far relies exclusively on air power, American airmen are again at the sharp edge of history. PM spoke to U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle and A-10 Thunderbolt II ("Warthog") pilots to see the unfolding operation from their perspective.
Pilots take a keen interest in international affairs, particularly at Lakenheath Royal Air Force Base, which hosts the 48th Fighter Squadron. Two variants of multipurpose F-15s operate from the air base, training weekly with NATO partners to perfect air superiority missions and deliver accurate air-to-ground weapons. "We support exercises for both the Air Force and NATO," says one 27-year-old F-15E pilot, call sign Slam. "It almost of doubles our workload. But when things like this pop up, we've been training for it."
(The Air Force asked PM to only use call signs to identify pilots, to prevent harassing phone calls or violent reprisals to themselves or their families. We accepted: Gaddafi has been known to employ terrorists and hit men to reach foreign targets.)
The first sure sign of impending violence came when the United Nations voted to approve the formation of a no-fly zone and protective cordon for Libyan civilians and anti-Gaddafi rebels. "Our ears perked up when the UN Security Council resolution was kicking off," says Slam. "It did happen quick…It was less than a week, so we probably had not too much more warning than you did. But we're prepared to handle that."
For Slam and his rear-seat Weapons System Officer, call sign Axel, the next stop was a briefing room in England. "We had to prepare for the missions we were about to embark on. There was intel briefings, and the leadership broke down a game plan on how to mitigate [anti-aircraft] threats, enforce the no-fly zone and protect civilians down here. After that we deployed to Aviano [Air Base, in Italy.]"
The pace of operations is regulated by mandatory sleep cycles. "We go into crew rest about 12 hours before we fly," Slam says. "We get rested up and then we'll start getting some idea of what the mission will be that day."
By the time the crew is ready to hear the details of the mission, called the flight briefing, commanders have often selected specific targets already. The airmen were instructed not to discuss specific missions, but officials say that U.S. warplanes have engaged radars, anti-aircraft missiles, airfields and ground forces. "During the flight briefings we'll find out more specifically what we'll be striking that day," Axel says. "After that, we'll 'step to fly' and then go make it happen. It's been a variety of targets that we're striking to protect civilians and help us implement the no-fly zone."
In addition to engaging planned targets, the pilots' rules of engagement also permit them to attack targets that are taking aggressive action against U.S. planes or Libyans on the ground. "We execute both types of missions, and it's not really more one than the other," Slam says.
As continued missile and airplane strikes degraded Libyan air defenses, new warplanes joined the fight. Last weekend. A-10 aircraft arrived to add muscle to the ground attacks against Gaddafi's armored vehicles, armed pickup trucks and truck transports. It was time for one 30-year-old pilot, call sign Cab, to join the war.
Cab serves with the 81st Fighter Squadron, based at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany, but is stationed in Aviano to participate in Odyssey Dawn. "We came in after the first wave," he says. "The squadron just got back from Afghanistan recently, so we already kind of on a war footing. They told us where to go and we were there in a couple of days."
For Cab, his recent combat experience augmented the joint training that the 81st conducts with allied NATO pilots, including those flying over Libya now like the Dutch and French. "Almost everything we do is with NATO in mind. And working with International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, that's almost like NATO, right? We're working right alongside those guys. I've flown [on strike missions] with some of the guys who were in Afghanistan. It's transparent to us who's got command and control. As far as A-10s are concerned, we're used to it in Afghanistan."
The A-10 is ugly airplane that is beloved by U.S. and NATO infantry troops for its ability to fly low and tear enemies apart with precise 30mm rotary cannon fire. It was designed to kill Soviet tanks, but in recent years the airplane has remained a valuable tool for providing close air support.
Close air support is a touchy subject during Odyssey Dawn. It's always better to have a human on the ground, a Joint Tactical Air Controller (JTAC), to direct the bombs and gunfire coming from above. But in Libya, where the UN mandate does not include supporting the opposition fighters to oust Gaddafi, there is no acknowledged airstrike coordination between rebels and NATO—though that official statement may be ignoring (as the NY Times reported today) clandestine British Special Forces teams or CIA operators who can direct air strikes. What we do know is that an entire fleet of networked surveillance aircraft are relaying the location of ground targets to pilots, who can use sensors that can peer through clouds and smoke, day or night, to hone in on them. Open desert strikes would be easy under these conditions; precision strikes in towns and cities would be more difficult.
Cab is understandably, and rightfully, unwilling to part with any information that could compromise himself, his allies or his mission. When we asked if the advanced imaging systems used on the A-10 and other airplanes could identify targets of opportunity without guidance from trained personnel below, he said: "No targeting pod can fill the shoes of a JTAC. But we did it Gulf War one—'hogs were there without JTACs on the ground. I can't really say much more."
No pilot, even one in a single-seat warplane like the A-10, ever flies alone. There are hundreds of Air Force personnel at Aviano making these missions happen—including weapons handlers, air traffic controllers, escort jamming warplanes and the crews of refueling tankers. "Pilots are kind of like sideline players," Cab says. "We've got a couple hundred people working for us where we're deployed. The airplane I fly is the same age as I am, so I have to give a specific shout-out to the maintainers here because they are kicking ass."