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Vigilant Pilots Face Iraqi Threats

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

AL JABER AIR BASE, Kuwait, March 15, 1999 – Vigilance has replaced complacency in the skies over Iraq, according to U.S. fliers patrolling the no-fly zones.

Routine sorties pilots once called "flying holes in the sky" are now life-threatening missions. Each day, as U.S. and British fighter jets and support aircraft take to the wild blue yonder, they face possible Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to- air missiles.

"They're shooting at us quite a bit more," Air Force Lt. Col. Bob Harvey said here in early March. "We never know when or where they're going to do it. They try to surprise us -- try to ambush us."

Harvey, an F-16 pilot from Baker, Ore., has been flying Operation Southern Watch patrols for the past two months. About 150 members of his unit, the 55th Fighter Squadron from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., deployed in mid-January to serve with the 332rd Air Expeditionary Wing.

Currently, active duty Air Force and Air National Guard squadrons make up the wing here. They include the 68th Fighter Squadron, with F-16CGs from Moody AFB, Ga.; the 55th, with F- 16CJs from Shaw AFB, S.C.; and three National Guard A-10 units, the 103rd Fighter Squadron from Pennsylvania, the 104th Fighter Squadron from Maryland, and the 108th Fighter Squadron, from Connecticut.

For Harvey, Iraq is fairly familiar territory. This is the 24- year Air Force veteran's first tour in the south, but he's flown many Northern Watch sorties from Turkey and also flew missions during the Gulf War.

Since the war's end in 1991, U.S. and other allied coalition pilots have enforced U.N.-mandated no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq. The zones protect Kurds in the north and Shi'a Muslims in the south from Saddam Hussein's aggression. Along with U.N.-imposed "no-drive" restrictions, the no-fly zones also prevent the Iraqi dictator from marshaling forces to invade neighboring states.

Until mid-December, U.S. and British air patrols encountered little resistance, but in the wake of Operation Desert Fox, Saddam declared the zones invalid. Iraqi aircraft began violating the zones regularly, and Iraqi forces began targeting coalition aircraft with radar. Iraqi fighters tried to lure coalition patrols into surface-to-air-missile ambushes.

At first, U.S. and coalition planes struck back only in self- defense. As Iraqi challenges persisted more or less daily, U.S. defense officials expanded the rules of engagement. Pilots began striking Iraq's integrated air defense system, not just specific sites. A further expansion in February now gives military leaders even more targeting flexibility, allowing strikes on command and control and communications facilities.

For patrolling pilots like Harvey, the air mission has intensified accordingly. Sorties now are more dangerous and require more mission planning, he said. "We have to be more vigilant when we're out there. We have to prepare more, just in the eventuality that they may get lucky and shoot one of us down."

Harvey's F-16CJ fighter is equipped with high-speed anti- radiation missiles. "Our particular mission is support," he explained. "We're the HARM shooters who watch for the radar[- guided] SAMs to come up." Each day, sorties of two to four aircraft patrol together for about an hour and a half. It doesn't take long to reach Iraqi territory, less than 100 miles away.

"We try to avoid the known threats," Harvey said. "We're not out here to try to get shot at. We try to avoid that. If someone does shoot at us, we try to identify the site and retaliate against that site, if we can. If not, there are other options available to the commanders in Riyadh."

The U.S. planes are not looking for a fight, he pointed out, but "our capabilities to strike if someone does shoot at us are very high -- very good."

Coalition pilots know Saddam has offered cash bounties to anyone who shoots down a patrol, but they don't dwell on it. "They've always wanted one of us anyway," Harvey said. "We're concerned about it a little bit. We don't want to be the one that gets shot down and shows up on TV. We're very well prepared to go and rescue someone should that ever happen."

If anything, the pilot remarked, Saddam's quest for a downed American aircraft makes the pilots more careful. "We certainly don't want to walk into a trap," he said.

Harvey expressed confidence in his fellow airmen. "We're very good at what we do," he said. "We're very capable. "We demonstrate that on a daily basis by not losing an aircraft. The U.S. Air Force and the people in it are absolutely the best in the world. There's none finer anywhere."

Because the booming economy is luring pilots away from the military, Harvey said those who stay are especially dedicated. "They are outstanding young people -- cream-of-the-crop Americans," he said.

Morale among the American airmen in Kuwait is high, Harvey noted. He attributed frequent contact with home as part of the reason.

"E-mail is the best thing that ever happened to the United States Air Force," said the fighter pilot, whose wife, Connie, and daughters, Anne, 15, and Sarah, 12, live in Columbia, S.C. "We are able to chat with our loved ones back home on a daily basis. That has just been phenomenal for morale. That's the best thing they've ever invented."

Air Force Master Sgt. Eric Farr, also with the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing in Kuwait, attributes the high morale to the wing's real-world mission. The 23-year veteran airman from the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., is a first sergeant with the wing's logistic squadron.

He said the Southern Watch mission provides realism and an awareness that's nearly impossible to achieve during training alone.

"No one likes to see war or be a part of a war. There's no joy in bringing destruction on anyone," Farr said. But putting 10 or 20 years of training to actual use is a kind of validation, he noted. "We've trained hard, and now that training's paying off."

Farr said the expeditionary wing's 1,000 or so airmen, along with Army Patriot missile crews stationed at the base, keep up with the latest news on the Iraqi situation both at home and while deployed in Kuwait. They also keep their chemical- biological protective gear handy because they know Iraq is a mere 61 miles to the north and 56 miles to the west.

Each day as the expeditionary air wing's high-tech planes thunder skyward, the men and women based at Al Jaber know the threat they face.

"This is not a game," Farr said. "This is the real deal. We're going out to take care of business. When our jets take off, we know there's a great potential that those jets will come back without the ordnance on them that they had at takeoff. When we launch that aircraft, there's a potential it won't be back."

Like Harvey, Farr expressed total confidence in the airmen who fly the sorties and those who support the operation. "We're the best fighting force in the world," he said, looking toward the busy runway. "Our folks out there are motivated and dedicated to getting the job done. With their knowledge and expertise, the chances of that jet coming back are greatly increased -- but the risk is still out there."

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