25 Apr 17

Afghanistan

Afghanistan – Back To The Desert

The War Against Terror – 2001/2002

The Background

Since the Gulf War of 1991, USAF E-3Cs had been patrolling the Northern and Southern no-fly zones over Iraq, and their crews were becoming over-stretched.  NATO AWACS had been unable to help because of the continuing commitment in the Balkans.  However, by 2001, this commitment had considerably diminished.  Slobodan Milosovic had been toppled from power in Serbia late in 2000, and he was handed over to the United Nations for trial in The Hague.  Civilian air traffic was once again flying freely over the region and the requirement for continuous AEW had virtually gone.  Occasional sorties were still flown by both 8 and 23 Squadrons from Waddington throughout 2001, but the detachment at Aviano had all but disappeared.  In light of this much reduced tasking the UK E-3D Component readied itself to help the Americans over Iraq if required.

In May 2001, an 8 Sqn crew took part in Exercise ‘Initial Link’, which was flown from Sheik Isa airbase, Bahrain.  A USAF E-3C also took part in this series of Comao exercises, which involved aircraft from USAF, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Dubai, UAE and Oman.  This exercise re-introduced 8 Squadron to Bahrain for the first time for 30 years – since the Hunter era: it also re-introduced the Squadron to operations in a hot climate, a temperature of 49°C was reached during crewing in for one sortie!  Further crews from 8 and 23 were in the Oman for Exercise Saif Serrea II in September 2001 for further deployment work-up. This training exercise involved over 20,000 British servicemen from all three services and was the largest deployment of British Forces since the Gulf War 10 years previously.  Then, on 11th September, terrorists hi-jacked 4 civilian airliners in the United States and flew them into the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.  Thousands of civilians died in the attacks.

Operation Enduring Freedom

The direct result of this atrocity was the declaration of war against terror by the free world.  The attacks were discovered to have been carried out by the Al-Qaeda terrorist organisation led by Osama Bin-Laden, a Saudi dissident who had previously carried out attacks on US targets in Somalia.  Bin-Laden was known to have terrorist training camps in Afghanistan where he was supported by the Fundamental Islamic Government, The Taliban.

They also provided air support for the Northern Alliance in their attempts to re-conquer the country.  The operation was called Enduring Freedom.

Operation Veritas

Because of the ranges involved, the air campaign over Afghanistan involved combat aircraft from only the United States.  Long-range strategic bombers, (B-52 and B-1Bs), were supported by attack aircraft from US Navy aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean.  However, the US Government requested support aircraft from its allies, and Britain responded by providing transport aircraft, tankers, MPAs and (of course) AWACS. The British response was called Operation Veritas.  One crew from 8 Sqn and two crews from 23 deployed with 2 aircraft from the UK to Thumrait in the Oman where they joined the USAF E-3Cs.  The aircraft and crews already at Seeb (Muskat) for Exercise Saif Serrea also flew down to Thumrait to ease servicing, although they were not directly involved in operational flying.

It was fortunate that Thumrait had some facilities available because of Saif Serrea!  However accommodation was in 10 man tents (without air-conditioning): a grateful MOD also provided arctic sleeping bags and European standard combat dress!  An Army field kitchen provided food, and some primitive latrine/washing facilities were in place.  However there was no motor transport provided for the operational crews except that which could be begged and borrowed from the exercise participants!  Twelve internet terminals, and 10 phones, had been provided to keep the Exercise Saif Serrea participants in touch with home.  (It is also cynically implied that this saved paying out £10 per day in overseas allowances).  An irregular supply of newspapers was also provided.  Other home comforts included a television tent, BFBS radio, and a bar which was open for two and a half hours each night.

The Taliban refused to hand Bin-Laden over to the US, and also refused to expel Al-Qaeda despite repeated warnings of reprisals from the US Government, who were closely supported by Great Britain and other western democracies.  The use of ground troops was considered too risky by military planners, so the western powers gave financial and material support to opponents of the Taliban regime, the Northern Alliance who were conducting a civil war in the north of the country.

Crew 6 Get Airborne:
Thumrait, Oman January 2002

Operations Over Afghanistan

There is one big problem with waging an air war over Afghanistan: range.  The operating area is a three hours transit from the Oman, and this coupled with many hours on station led to a long time airborne.  The operational day was broken up into three 8 hour windows, the USAF E-3Cs taking two, and the E-3D taking the third.  The E-3Ds had to refuel half way through their window, taking up to 60,000 lbs of fuel to complete the mission.

The E-3D’s mission was to provide support for the air operations over Afghanistan.  As well as the routine surveillance task of providing the recognised air picture for the CAOC at PSAB in Saudi Arabia, the weapons team had to provide threat warnings and area control for aircraft in the theatre of operations.  Added to this was the passing of tasking instructions and tanking control.  Once again the weapons team were provided with an additional controller, which not only spread the workload but also helped to minimise fatigue on console.

Crew 5 Over Afghanistan
January 2002

Success

By December, the Northern Alliance had launched their offensive southwards, and the northern cities, including Kabul, fell.  Kandahar, the Taliban heartland, surrendered soon afterwards and the pace of air operations slackened.  However, pockets of Al-Quieda fled to the surrounding hills and holed up in caves and other strong-points.  One by one these locations were attacked by aircraft and ground forces until they surrendered.  British troops occupied and repaired the airfield at Bagram, and American troops occupied Kandahar.  British troops eventually entered Kabul as the leaders of an international peace keeping force.

Crew 5 Co-Pilot
Photographed from a KC135 Tanker January 2002

The E-3D task was now one of airspace control.  International relief began, and transport aircraft began to fly in troops and supplies, while intelligence gathering continued in the hunt for the terrorists and their leaders who had escaped justice.  Close Air Support aircraft still patrolled the skies as the peace keepers, heavy artillery and were occasionally used as Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, hiding places were discovered.  AAR also remained a vital task.  Unscheduled flights by helicopters attached to the ground troops often added to this complicated task.  The AWACS crews were assisted by USN E-2C Hawkeyes, which were operating from carriers in the Persian Gulf.  They helped to control the aircraft in transit over Pakistan.  A final complication to the operation was the threat of conflict between Pakistan and India during the early weeks of 2002.

Early Days

The primitive Afghan air defence system was destroyed during the first few days of operations.  After that, the E-3Ds began to orbit over Afghanistan itself, leading to the carrying of much survival equipment – although parachutes were still not provided.  Once again in their history, 8 Squadron’s crews were carrying personal weapons and ‘goolie chits’!

B52 over Afghanistan pictured from a KC135
Tanking over the AOA was controlled by the E-3D

Early close air support missions involved the bombing of Taliban troop positions to clear the way for the Northern Alliance’s offensive towards Mazir e-Shariff and Kabul.  These strikes were often directed by forward air controllers attached to special forces who were on the ground with the Northern Afghan fighters.  On one memorable occasion, a B-52 was tasked to Recce a road.  Thirty minutes later the pilot checked in again to report that he had wrecked the road as ordered and he had one bomb left!  Fortunately, no friendly or civilian casualties resulted, although tasking procedures were tightened up as a result of this confusion of accents.

Life at Thumrait

As has already been seen, Operation Veritas ran on the back of Exercise Saif Serrea II.  Unfortunately, the exercise finished in October, and by November most of the facilities being used by the Ops crews were due to leave Thumrait.  As the fast-jet crews left, however, their air-conditioned tents became available to the E-3D crews.  Each crew was given a large tent, about 60ft x 40ft which comfortably fitted 18 camp beds.  Other advantages included a power supply and electric lighting!  The crews began to add home comforts, mattresses, duvets and pillows were bought from the local Omani shop, and camouflage netting was added to the surrounds of the tent creating a shaded patio area.  Tables and benches were made from whatever planks of wood could be appropriated.  Bedside cabinets were manufactured from the cardboard boxes which once contained bottles of water.  In short, the crews did what they could to make life a little more comfortable.

Crew 6 at home outside their tent
Thumrait January 2002

After seven weeks in theatre, the crews began to rotate.  The new crews brought out TVs and video recorders to add to the tents, which were now strung with para-chord, and room partitions made from whatever pieces of material were to hand, time for construction was not a problem as monotony reared its ugly head.  By this time, the army field kitchen had disappeared to be replaced by civilian contract caterers.  Considering the difficulties, the food was excellent and became one of the highlights of the day.  However, there were a few tummy troubles early on, and one crew-member was taken ill during a mission.  He was put to rest at the back of the aircraft, and on recovery a message was sent, via Operations, requesting that a medical team meet the aircraft.  The crew was surprised to see a fleet of ambulances, and a set of medics with full resuscitation equipment climbed onto the aircraft as soon as it landed.  Apparently the field hospital had received the message that a member of the crew had ‘shot himself’!!

Each crew flew once every 3 days.  A 15-seat minibus was made available to be shared among the crews, and it was allocated to the crew on the day after flying.  Sports facilities at a hotel in Salalah were arranged, and the crews could drive the 40 miles across the desert to laze by the pool and use the poolside bar for a day, there were even hot showers.  It was most relaxing to escape the dust and noise of Thumrait.

The Billion Dollar Alarm Clock
USAF B-1B operating from Thumrait, January 2002

A special rate was negotiated, and personnel could also stay in the hotel overnight.  This at least allowed the crews an uninterrupted nights sleep in a real bed , the airfield at Thumrait was operating around the clock and it was impossible to sleep in a tent when aircraft such as the B-1B were taking off at night just a few hundred yards away!  At least the night temperatures fell to bearable limits during January, it even became too cold on occasions, with temperatures dropping to 7°C by morning.  Proper shower blocks arrived on site in January, but they used too much water so they quickly closed and shower bags remained the norm: fill the bag from the tap, leave it in the sun to warm up for a couple of hours, then hang it up in the shower tent and stand underneath! They actually worked.

Hot water also appeared in January, although washing facilities remained a plastic bowl on a wooden trestle table in the open air.  Laundry facilities were the same bowls!  At least clothes dried quickly in the desert!  A professional ‘two day’ laundry service was started at the detachment but clothes could be away for up to 5 days so was little used by the crews , ‘only a fool and his flying kit are soon parted’.

Hours passed slowly on non-flying days.  Eventually the crews were allowed the use of the Omani base swimming pool, and a large tent was converted to a gymnasium.  The phones and computer terminals remained from Saif Serrea and these gave a welcome link home via the internet.  The bar turned into the ‘Talibar’ which was open 5 nights a week, and each person was rationed to four cans of beer per day.  However as it was open only 2 hours each night, the flying schedule often got in the way of its full use by the crews.

By February, all the crews had been through Thumrait once, and the crews that had deployed in October were starting their second stint.  Deployments lasted for 4 weeks (with 8 weeks back home).  The Squadron now braced itself for a long time in what they thought would be its new second home (after Aviano).   It wasn’t long before the E-3D moved again, to another desert location, to rid Sadam Hussain of his weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).