Safety, Accuracy Key to NATO Air Strikes
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy, Apr. 12, 1999 Since NATO launched Operation Allied Force March 24, this Italian air base about 50 miles north of Venice has been a hub of activity as maintenance crews, ammo loaders and other support personnel ready steel gray war birds for takeoff.
"We're supporting sorties morning, noon and night," said 1st Lt. Jeff Styers, U.S. Air Force 23rd Fighter Squadron. "We catch 'em, we fix 'em, then we load 'em and we launch 'em," said the maintenance officer from Clarksville, Va.
"We have a lot of well-trained specialists and crew chiefs working the aircraft -- weapons load crews, back shop support," Styers said. "This is what we practice for 12 months out of the year. This gives us an opportunity to put all the hard work to use."
American, British, Canadian, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Portuguese and other allied aircraft thunder into the skies determined to degrade President Slobodan Milosevic's military forces. They attack Yugoslavia's air defenses, infrastructure and the tanks and troops that have forced hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians from their homes.
Back at base, pilots and crews watch television and search the Internet for news, Styers said. "The motivation for being here is to stop the massacres and the inhumanity that's going on," he said. "That keeps us pumped up and keeps everybody motivated."
The base has had to adjust to the influx of people, according to U.S. Air Force SSgt. Antonio J. Anderson, 31st Air Expeditionary Wing. Despite longer lines at the commissary and barbershop, morale remains high and everyone is "sticking together like a team," said the Laurens, S.C. native who helps newcomers in-process at the wing's personnel company.
"We're all working long hours, but when you turn on the TV, you see the refugees and it reinforces what we're here to do," Anderson said. "Besides it being our jobs, these are people who need our help."
Senior Master Sgt. Jeanie Thompson, from Danville, Ill., was among 23 reservists from the 184th Services Flight, Kansas Air National Guard, deployed to Aviano for two weeks. The unit provides food, lodging, recreation, field laundry management, mortuary and other support services.
"We feel lucky to be at the base during an allied forces contingency," Thompson said. "This is what we train to do. We're actually happy to be able to do our job even if it's only for a short period of time."
Overall, about 7,300 American and 6,000 NATO service members along with 230 U.S. and 220 NATO planes support NATO air operations. The number of personnel and aircraft involved keeps going up as U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, operation commander, calls for more air power and other assets. Another 82 U.S. aircraft will soon join the operation along with dozens more NATO planes, Pentagon officials announced April 10.
This new deployment order includes 24 more F-16CJ fighters, four more OA-10 close air support aircraft, six EA-6B Prowlers, 39 KC-135 tankers, two KC-10 tankers and seven C- 130 transport aircraft. The F-16CJs, OA-10s and two EA-6B aircraft will come from the U.S. Atlantic Command. U.S. Pacific Command will supply four EA-6Bs, and U.S. Transportation Command will provide the KC-135s and C-130s.
The NATO mission "clearly has an impact" on U.S. pilots and crews who are already supporting Operation Northern and Southern Watch over Iraq, Operation Deny Flight over Bosnia, and other real world missions, according to U.S. Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston. The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff said AWACs, EA-6B Prowlers and other "high demand, low density" weapon systems are "already gone a lot" and they're going to continue to be.
"We have looked to see if there are other commitments that they have that can be reduced," Ralston said after visiting the base in early April. "We are cancelling exercises, for example, that they would do right now so that they can get on with the mission."
NATO aims to accomplish its Allied Force mission, effectively and efficiently, with as little risk as possible to pilots, crews and aircraft, according to U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. William T. Eliason, 603rd Air Control Squadron commander. Working with Aviano's Italian air controllers and others, the squadron helps give pilots the information they need to make that happen.
"Our job is to help them get to the tankers, get in to the target area, return to the tankers and get back to base safely, regardless of the weather," said the air battle manager from Allentown, Pa. "It's always a difficult process to put this many airplanes in the air and bring them home safely."
Today's computers provide an unprecedented degree of control and accuracy, Eliason noted. "Consider what we had in World War II -- manual telephones, very primitive radar and bombing systems. We would have to send hundreds of B- 17s and thousands of bombs to get one target. We're now we're down to almost 'one target, one bomb,' with very limited collateral damage. Without computers it would be impossible."
NATO pilots are achieving their objectives each time they go out, Eliason said. So far, only one aircraft, has been lost, a U.S. F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter. Safety is the top priority, he said, "because we need each and every one of those airplanes back, in the same condition, hopefully, as we sent them out in, so we can send them back up."
Weather has not been as frustrating as the press has made it out to be, according to Eliason. "We have an all-weather force," he noted. "It is possible to attack a broad range of targets regardless of the weather." But, he added, adverse weather has had an impact. Because pilots are operating at high altitudes to avoid Serb threats, they've been unable to see targets due to low visibility.
"It's still pretty much a visual game where the pilot has to see what he's going to shoot at," Eliason explained. "If you're asking him to drop his weapon on a military target and not miss, then he needs to be able to visually verify the target before he releases the weapon. It's upwards of 2,000 pounds of explosives that you want to place right on that target and not on somebody's back yard."
This is not Desert Storm, Eliason stressed. Yugoslavia's wooded, mountainous terrain is dramatically different than Iraq's flat desert. "The enemy is not easily distinguishable as it was in Desert Storm," he said. "So we have to be very careful when we roll in on those targets to make sure we see what we're shooting at is what we were told by intell to go after."
Yugoslavia is smaller than the Red Flag training ranges at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., where U.S. and NATO pilots practice air war-fighting skills, Eliason noted. "Kosovo is about the size of Rhode Island and Connecticut put together," he said. "You know what it's like to fly into Providence, well imagine trying to throw 80 airplanes at one time into that one space."
Red Flag exercises keep allied pilots "well-tuned for this kind of environment," said a U.S. F-15E weapons systems officer, identified only as 'Jim' due to security concerns. Jim flies combat air patrols and air-to-ground missions equipped with laser-guided bombs. Red Flag is more even difficult than the real thing, he noted, because the opponents at Nellis "know where you're at." Jim said, "Everyone in the air force trains to a high standard of self-defense."
Daily sorties keep "everyone on their toes," said John, a U.S. F-16CJ pilot who flies air-to-ground missions equipped with HARM missiles. "You put in about 12 hours a day," he said. "If you're not flying, you're doing mission planning, scheduling and other support around the squad room." Serb air defense forces are "intelligent," John noted. "It's not a cake walk."