Operation “Desert Falcon”
At the request of the United Nations and the governments of the United States and Iraq, the inner cabinet of the Belgian federal government decided on 24 September 2014 for a military participation in the multinational coalition against DAESH. The inner cabinet’s decision was endorsed two days later by 114 out of 128 members of the federal parliament. That same 26 September, six Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcons departed Florennes Air Base for Lieutenant Muwaffaq Salti Air Base near Al Azraq in Jordan. A night stop was made in Araxos, Greece.
Under the codename “Operation Desert Falcon” (ODF), the Belgian F-16s supported the US-led multinational coalition, launched in August 2014 and later named “Operation Inherent Resolve”, with reconnaissance missions and airstrikes against DAESH combatants, their positions, weapons and infrastructure in Iraq. The initial parliamentary approval was valid for one month and did not cover any missions over Syria.
The first operational mission was flown on 5 October 2014 by a pair of F-16AMs. It consisted of an armed reconnaissance flight over positions of the extremists west of Bagdad and lasted around three hours. By 13 October, the Belgian detachment had already completed 30 armed reconnaissance and ground attack sorties. On 23 October, the government extended “Operation Desert Falcon” until the end of the year. A second extension till 30 June 2015 was approved by the council of ministers in its session of 19 December. During the night of 27-28 December, the most widely publicised mission by the Belgian detachment was flown. That night, a pair of F-16AMs neutralised the oil refinery of Al Qaim, which was used by DAESH to supply fuel for its vehicles in western Iraq, with four laser-guided 500-lb bombs. When “Operation Desert Falcon” came to an end on 30 June 2015, the six Belgian F-16AMs had flown 796 sorties, totalling 3,552 flying hours with an average of 4.5 hours per sortie. The Belgian contribution represents no less than 5.5% of all missions flown by the multinational coalition during the period from 1 October 2014 to 30 June 2015.
The Salafi jihadi extremist militant group of Sunni Arabs from Iraq and Syria and its self-proclaimed caliphate and Islamic state is usually named “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL, ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fī 'l-‘Irāq wa-sh-Shām), “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) or short, “Islamic State” (IS). In the Belgian military, however, the Arabic equivalent of the acronym ISIL, DA'ISH or DAESH, is used. This acronym is also widely used by Arab opponents as several homophonic words of it exist with negative undertones creating an additional aversion to the extremist militant group. For western people, who rarely speak or understand Arabic, the acronym DAESH is just a sound that does not refer to Islam, hence avoiding the unwished-for impression that the multinational coalition is fighting against Islam, nor to a state a nation, a connotation which the coalition partners do not wish to assign to the terrorist group.
Muwaffaq Salti Air Base
The Belgian participation in “Operation Inherent Resolve” operated from Lieutenant Muwaffaq Salti Air Base near Al Azraq in Jordan. The city is located around 85 kilometres east of the Jordanian capital Amman and has a population of around 10,000. The region of Al Azraq is known for its good visibility and fine weather for flying. Military aviation started here during the final year of World War I and of the Arab Revolt when T.E. Lawrence, a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia, used the plains around the city’s historic castle, one of his headquarters, as a landing ground for aircraft supporting troops advancing northwards into Syria.
In the mid-1970s, Al Azraq was selected by the Royal Jordanian Air Force for the construction of a new major air base with two main runways (13/31 and 08/26), around 30 hardened aircraft shelters north of runway 13/31 and 12 quick reaction alert shelters near the threshold of runways 13, 31 and 26. When it was completed in 1980, two squadrons equipped with Northrop F-5A/B “Freedom Fighters” and F-5E/F “Tigers” were based at Al Azraq Air Base. It was officially opened on 24 May 1981 and named after Lieutenant Muwaffaq Salti, a Hawker Hunter pilot who was killed in an aerial combat with the Israeli Air Force during the Samu incident on 13 November 1966 on the Jordanian-controlled West Bank. Later on, the “Freedom Fighters” and “Tigers” were replaced by subsequently two squadrons of Dassault Mirage F-1CJ/EJs and a squadron each of Lockheed Martin F-16AM/BMs and F-16A/B ADFs. The six Belgian aircraft were accommodated at an apron just south of the threshold of runway 31. Al Azraq Air Base was not completely unknown to the Belgian Air Component as it participated in the “Falcon Air Meet 2007”, which was held there between 14 May and 1 June 2007. The distance between Al Azraq AB and Iraq’s capital Baghdad is a mere 750 kilometres or one hour flying.
The Belgian detachment at Lieutenant Muwaffaq Salti Air Base consisted of 110-120 personnel, around half of whom were technicians and armourers. The other half was made up by pilots and staff personnel, about 20 mission support specialists (mainly intelligence and mission planning) and roughly 20-30 force protection troops. Each rotation lasted about two months. In total, 618 personnel were deployed, of which 48 were pilots. Pilots accomplished 75 flying hours during their rotation. Personnel originated from the 2nd Tactical Wing at Florennes Air Base and the 10th Tactical Wing at Kleine-Brogel Air Base. Most flying personnel participating in “Operation Desert Falcon” had previous experience from missions flown in Afghanistan (“Operation Guardian Falcon”) or Libya (“Operation Freedom Falcon”).
The Belgian detachment closely collaborated with a similar detachment of the Koninklijke Luchtmacht (KLu, Royal Netherlands Air Force) which was also based at Al Azraq.
Further Belgian personnel were deployed to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, at the Coalition Air Forces’ Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC) of the U.S. Air Forces Central Command (USAFCENT). A key role in the Belgian air operations was played by the national red card holder. He, usually an F-16 pilot, evaluates each and every mission for compliance with the multinational coalition’s rules of engagement as well as with the additional national caveats drawn up by the Belgian government. Not only pre-planned missions, but also missions redirected in flight are evaluated by the red card holder before execution. To enable him to do so expertly, he is assisted by an intelligence specialist and a legal adviser. They often have a real time view on the target through unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) of the coalition. Even when a go is given for a mission against an objective which is determined as a legitimate military target, the pilot does not execute it blindly. He always evaluates the target with his own eyes before attacking it in order to avoid unwanted collateral damage or civilian victims.
Three types of missions
The Belgian detachment was authorised by the government for armed reconnaissance (AR), air interdiction (AI) and close air support (CAS) missions over Iraq.
The objectives of armed reconnaissance were among others gathering of intelligence to improve situational awareness on the positions, movements and possible intentions of DAESH militants, preparation of the advance of Iraqi troops on the ground and identification of targets for air interdiction missions. The main asset of the Belgian F-16AMs for such missions is the AN/AAQ-33 PANTERA (Precision Attack Navigation and Targeting with Extended Range Acquisition), the export version of the Sniper XR (Extended Range) advanced targeting pod, which is carried on starboard fuselage station 5R. The pod’s advanced image processing technology enables the pilot to detect and observe tactical-size targets from distances outside jet noise range, allowing him to fulfil his mission without being heard or seen by the extremists. Over its predecessor with the Belgian Air Force, the AN/AAQ-14 LANTIRN (Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night) targeting pod, it offers a three to five times increase in detection range. The high-resolution imagery produced by the pod’s sensors allow positive identification as well as autonomous tracking and coordinate generation of observed objectives.
Armed reconnaissance flights sometimes lasted up to six hours or even longer, during which the aircraft were refuelled up to five times. When during such flights targets were identified as of high priority or in need of immediate action (time sensitive targeting), the armed aircraft could intervene with just a short delay sufficient for consultation with the red card holder. In a similar way, armed reconnaissance aircraft could also be re-tasked in flight to perform air interdiction or close air support missions at the request of the coalition’s CAOC at Al Udeid Air Base.
Air interdiction was aimed at the neutralisation of among others staging areas, heavy equipment, command centres, strategic infrastructure and communication lines of DAESH by using high precision weapons in combination with the Sniper XR targeting pod. Paramount during such missions was zero collateral damage. The missions were performed mainly against intentional or pre-planned targets and were well-prepared and approved in advance by the national red card holder at the Coalition Air Forces’ CAOC. Examples of air interdiction missions during “Operation Desert Falcon” were attacks against positions with main battle tanks, armoured vehicles and other heavy equipment that DAESH had captured from Iraqi Armed Forces, destruction of meeting places of radical key factions or troop concentrations of extremist militants, temporary interruption of roads in order to block advancing extremists, etc.
For such purposes, the F-16AMs carried a pair of 500-lb bombs consisting of a mixture of the laser-guided GBU-12 “Paveway II”, the GPS-guided GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and the Laser/GPS-guided GBU-54 Laser-JDAM. The internal 20 mm short range General Electric M61A1 “Vulcan” cannon with its M70 low drag ammunition could also be fielded against ground targets, but was never used during “Operation Desert Falcon”. In spite of its long range ammunition, the use of the cannon required the aircraft to descend below safe altitudes that could preserve them from hits by small arms fire or small calibre AAA. Such unnecessary risks were not taken, especially after the downing over Syria of Royal Jordanian Air Force F-16 pilot Lieutenant Muath Safi Yousef al-Kasasbeh on 24 December 2014 and his subsequent murder. MANPADS or other SAMs were not observed by Belgian aircraft.
Close air support missions were flown in support of friendly forces on the ground under fire by snipers, mortars or other arms. The main weapons of choice were, like for air interdiction, 500-lb high precision bombs, which could be launched from safe altitudes and distances. Belgian CAS F-16s were among others fielded in support of the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga who were holding a hundreds of kilometres long front against the DAESH extremists, especially in the northern and north-eastern parts of Iraq. Some CAS missions were pre-planned, but most were performed at the urgent request of troops on the ground under fire transmitted via the coalition’s CAOC and with approval of the national red card holder. Military legitimacy of the targets and zero collateral damage continued to take priority.
During armed recce, air interdiction and close air support missions, self-defence was provided by a pair of short range AIM-9M “Sidewinder” infra-red guided missiles and a pair of medium range AIM-120B AMRAAM radar-guided missiles, as well as by an AN/ALQ-131 electronic counter measures pod and chaff and flares dispensers. The Belgian F-16AMs never came across enemy air threats.
During 163 out of the 796 sorties flown against DAESH, bombs were dropped. None of these caused any collateral damage.
The value of air power
When reviewing the results of “Operation Desert Falcon”, Major General Frederik “Fred” Vansina, Commander of the Belgian Air Component, stated that the use of air power is essential to defeat DAESH, but not sufficient, as it fulfils a supporting role by shaping the battlefield for future operations. The most important trademarks of air power are its very short reaction time, its ability to cover great distances and its flexibility to perform a wide range of missions. The Belgian F-16AM aircraft represent a mature and a state-of-the-art equipment able to produce high quality images and to combat static or moving targets with high precision weapons from safe distances and with a very low risk of collateral damage. With more than 40 years of experience on the type, the Belgian F-16 pilots are highly appreciated worldwide within the community of military combat pilots.
The Air Component Commander confirmed that the effects of the air campaign become more and more visible on the ground every day. DAESH has been stopped to a large extent, but thanks to its good communication skills, the extremist group still succeeds in exploiting to a maximum the limited tactical successes it nowadays achieves only rarely. DAESH’s freedom of movement is reduced significantly. The long conspicuous convoys with numerous black or yellow flags that once paraded almost daily in the streets of Iraq have become a rare sight. The group’s military capabilities are degraded to a large extent by the destruction from the air of much of its heavy equipment and infrastructure. About 30% of the territory it once occupied, has been regained by Iraqi ground forces.
The air campaign has been effective in preventing the fall of Baghdad and the establishment of a caliphate in Iraq, which buys some extra time for Iraqi security forces to regain momentum in its fight against DAESH. The intervention by the multinational coalition has also reduced the risk of ethnic and religious cleansing in Iraq and has safeguarded the regional stability by containing the extremist militant group.
The way ahead
The return of the F-16 detachment does not mean that Belgium has left “Operation Inherent Resolve” completely. It still provides force protection for the F-16 detachment of the Royal Netherlands Air Force at Al Azraq Air Base and will continue doing so until at least 31 December 2015. The Belgian government has the intention to prolong this mission later this year until 30 June 2016. A pair of liaison officers remains at the Coalition Air Forces’ CAOC at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar allowing the Belgian Air Component to stay well informed on the situation and developments in Iraq pending the government’s decision to resume air operations in July 2016.
The Belgian and Dutch military are at present setting up an integrated EPAF EAW (European Participating Air Forces Expeditionary Air Wing (EEAW)) detachment in the Middle East. The detachment should enable the two air arms to continue supporting the multinational coalition in a cost-efficient way by six month rotations between both countries. The recent developments in Europe and in the Middle-East could change this planning at any moment. The massive influx in Europe of refugees from Iraq and Syria as well as the intervention of the Russian Federation in the conflict did after all change the political context radically.
With the photographs
Map of Operations
The Belgian government only approved interventions over Iraq, not over Syria. Belgian aircraft participated in most of the battles of the major cities and communication lines of Iraq. Kinetic events occurred mainly over the northern part of the country.
F-16 Al Al Azraq (© Belgian Defence – Michael Moors)
The aircraft participating in “Operation Desert Falcon” were accommodated at an apron near the threshold of runway 31 at Al Azraq Air Base, Jordan. Around the turn of the year, the detachment operated the F-16AMs FA-70, 87, 114, 121, 126 and 131.
F-16 Al Al Azraq (© Belgian Defence – Malek Azoug)
The basic weapons load of an F-16AM participating in “Operation Desert Falcon” consisted of a pair of precision guided 500-lb bombs (GBU-12, 38 or 54 on stations 3 and 7), a pair of AIM-9M “Sidewinder” (on stations 2 and 8) and AIM-120 AMRAAM (on stations 1 and 9) missiles for self-defence, 510 20 mm rounds for the internal Vulcan cannon, an AN/ALQ-131 ECM pod (on station 5), a Sniper XR targeting pod (on station 5R) and a mixture of chaff and flare cartridges. A pair of Sargent-Fletcher 370-US gallon (1,400 litres) underwing fuel tanks was carried on the stations 4 and 6.
F-16 Al Al Azraq (© Belgian Defence – Michael Moors)
The detachments participating in “Operation Inherent Resolve” were assigned a block of six hours (0-6 a.m., 6-12 a.m., 0-6 p.m. or 6-12 p.m.) during which they had to fly their missions or had to be prepared to do so. After a week, the assigned block shifted backwards six hours. This means that in a four-week period, about half of the sorties were flown during the dark hours of the day.
USAFCENT CAOC Al Udeid (USAF, public domain photo)
The U.S. Air Forces Central Command Combined Air and Space Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar serves as the Coalition Air Forces’ CAOC during “Operation Inherent Resolve”. The CAOC is staffed by personnel of the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps as well as of the multinational coalition partners. It executes day-to-day combined air and space operations and provides rapid reaction, positive control, coordination and deconfliction of weapons systems fielded by the multinational coalition. The Belgian red card holder, his intelligence assistant and legal advisor operate from this location.
Recce (© Belgian Defence)
These images made by the Sniper XR advanced targeting pod of a Belgian F-16AM show three hot spots (left), which appear to be gun equipped heavy vehicles hidden under what looks like camouflage netting (right).
Airattack Zero collateral damage (© Belgian Defence)
Stills from a Sniper XR film show a series of buildings around a diamond shaped square (left). The two most eastern buildings represent legitimate military targets and are destroyed by a pair of 500-lb precision guided bombs (middle). A post-strike image shows that both targets are destroyed with no collateral damage to the adjacent buildings. In the near future, the 250-lb small diameter bomb (SDB) will be added to the Belgian Air Component’s inventory and will reduce the risk of collateral damage in urban warfare even more. The white circle, created by the targeting pod, represents the area in which the weapon could cause injuries to civilians. Its diameter is defined by the national rules of engagement. When civilians are observed within this circle, the attack is a no go or is postponed until the civilians have left the danger zone.
Road (© Belgian Defence)
The mission of the pilot of this aircraft was to interrupt the junction of two roads (left) in order to halt the advance of a convoy of DAESH vehicles. 500-lb precision guided bombs were to be used to create contained damage, sufficient to temporarily stop the extremists’ vehicles, but sufficiently easy to repair so that civilian use can resume shortly afterwards. While searching the surrounding area of the junction, the pilot detected a pair of vehicles parked at the roadside near the junction (centre). When he observed that civilians were present near the vehicles (right), he postponed the attack until they had left the area.
CAS Sniper (© Belgian Defence)
When a DAESH sniper (crosshairs in the left image) was firing at friendly troops on the ground, a pair of Belgian F-16AM aircraft was called in to neutralise the threat. The target was attacked with a single 500-lb precision guided bomb. The use of a precision guided bomb against the sniper was dictated by safety. It would have been more cost-efficient to use the aircraft’s internal cannon against such a target, but its shorter range would have forced the pilot to descend to altitudes within the range of small arms fire or small calibre AAA.
After the downing and brutal murder of RJAF F-16 pilot Lieutenant Muath Safi Yousef al-Kasasbeh, even more attention was given to survival, evasion, resistance and escape (SERE) training and procedures than before. All Belgian military pilots receive an initial theoretical and practical SERE education during pilot training. Refresher courses are organised thereupon at regular intervals and a pre-deployment training is mandatory for all participants in operations abroad. For SERE and CSAR (Combat Search and Rescue) purposes, pilots participating in “Operation Desert Falcon” carried among others a night vision capable telescope and a state-of-the-art secure radio to contact the personnel recovery task force (PRTF) assigned to locate, support and recover them in case of a crash or shoot-down over enemy territory.
The six F-16AMs of “Operation Desert Falcon” that returned to Florennes Air Base on 2 July 2014 were FA-72, 116, 129, 131, 134 and 135. The brownish dirt on top of the fuselage and wings and on the tail fin is composed of a mix of hydraulic and lubricating oil, fuel and desert sand. The flight from Al Azraq Air Base to Belgium was made without stopovers.
To avoid retaliation by DAESH against Belgian military personnel that participated in “Operation Desert Falcon” and their relatives, pilots returning to Florennes Air Base on 2 July 2015 could only be interviewed with the visor of their joint helmet mounted cueing system down.
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Operatie “Desert Falcon”