Northern Watch Flies Top Cover for U.S. Envoy in Northern Iraq
By Maj. Bob Thompson
National Guard Bureau
INCIRLIK AIR BASE, TURKEY, March 11, 2003 What started out as a request for 48 hours of combat air patrols turned into six days of practically nonstop flying as Operation Northern Watch kept skies clear while a U.S. envoy met with Iraqi opposition leaders in northern Iraq.
Though not designed for around-the-clock operations, Operation Northern Watch aircraft patrolled Iraqi skies for more than 129 hours while flying 290 sorties between Feb. 24 and March 2.
An F-15C Eagle tops off its gas tanks during an aerial refueling with a KC-135R Stratotanker during Operation Northern Watch. Both aircraft are part of a coalition task force that has enforced the no-fly zone over northern Iraq and monitored Iraqi compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions for nearly 12 years. DoD photo.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"This was one of the most challenging missions ever accomplished in the history of Operation Northern Watch," said Brig. Gen. Robin Scott, co-commanding general of the combined task force based here. "Our people proved once again that we have the best pilots, the best aircraft and the best maintainers in the world."
During the long hours of support to the envoy's meeting on dangerous ground, Operation Northern Watch achieved historic "firsts." For the first time, coalition aircraft dropped precision-guided bombs Feb. 24 in response to threats from Iraqi mobile surface-to-surface missile launchers south of Mosul. The operation conducted its first leaflet drop March 1, northeast of Mosul -- the 240,000 flyers warned Iraqi gunners not to target or fire upon coalition aircraft.
"It was truly a team effort," Scott said. "My co-commander, Brig. Gen. (Levent) Turkmen and his staff worked tirelessly, providing the necessary coordination and approvals from myriad Turkish agencies to keep the mission on track. The 39th Wing worked with us day and night to ensure we had all the support we needed to carry out the mission."
Though definitely not a first, coalition aircraft also came under Iraqi anti-aircraft-artillery fire midway through the missions and responded Feb. 27 by knocking out military communication sites west and south of Mosul.
Since the end of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, coalition forces have enforced the Northern No-fly Zone despite being fired upon by the Iraqis nearly every mission.
"Our day-to-day Operation Northern Watch mission is difficult and dangerous even under normal circumstances," Scott said. "Last week, despite long hours, marginal weather conditions and nighttime operations, our team stayed at the top of their game and made it look easy."
To keep up with the heavy demand for air refueling, Operation Enduring Freedom tankers and aircrews were quickly drafted to support the missions over northern Iraq.
"During the six days of the operation, our tanker team offloaded 5.6 million pounds during in-flight refueling," Scott said. "Without these crucial assets, we would have never maintained our 24/7 operations over Iraq."
During the mission, coalition fighters, tankers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets worked as a team to enforce the no-fly zone and provide air cover. Missions required a mix of aircraft and on any given day have included the E-3B Sentry AWACS, EA-6B Prowler, EP-3 Aries II, F-15C Eagle, F-16CJ and F-16CG Falcons, UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, MC-130 Combat Talon, KC-135R Stratotanker, C-12 Huron, British GR-3 Jaguar, Nimrod and VC-10 Tankers.
AWACS crews of the 970th Expeditionary Airborne Air Control Squadron from Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., flew 14 sorties and 173 hours without a single air or ground abort.
Operation Northern Watch personnel received thanks and congratulations from Gen. Charles Wald, deputy commander of U.S. European Command; Gen. Gregory Martin, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe; and Brig. Gen. Gary Jones, commander of the Special Operations Component, EUCOM, Scott noted.
(Maj. Bob Thompson is the director of the Combined Information Bureau, Combined Task Force Operation Northern Watch, at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey.)