Operation Freedom Falcon
Training in Greece
Arabian Spring in Libya
Operation “Freedom Falcon”
Offensive Counter Air
Rules of Engagement
Types of missions
Operation “Freedom Falcon” in numbers
The Belgian Air Force Lockheed Martin F-16AM aircraft that participated in Operations “Odyssey Dawn” and “Unified Protector” in order to enforce United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 dropped 472 bombs over Libya with an accuracy rate of 97% and without collateral damage, the highest figure among coalition partners. Such a result can only be obtained by committing well trained pilots and support personnel, deploying state-of-the-art aircraft equipped with highly capable sensors and advanced precision weapons, and rigorously respecting strict rules of engagement and combat discipline.
Training in Greece
When eight Lockheed-Martin F-16AM/BM aircraft (FA-56, 81, 82,
103, 116, 123, 136 and FB-20) of No. 349 Squadron of the 10th
Tactical Wing left Kleine-Brogel Air Base for Araxos, Greece, on 14 March 2011
for a squadron exchange with No. 335 Squadron, none of the participants could
have imagined that their detachment of 80 support personnel and 7 pilots would
be transformed into an operational combat unit within a week. The squadron
exchange, however, started in a rather relaxed atmosphere. As No. 349 Squadron,
like all other F-16 units of the small Belgian Air Force, had been extremely
busy during the previous months with engagements in international operations,
national QRA duties and other training commitments, a next intensive training
session would be planned in a somewhat easier environment. On the programme was
a mix of early training for an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan in the
framework of Operation “Guardian Falcon”, and of pilot preparation for other
essential, but less addressed qualifications in present-day conflicts. It hence
included not only air-to-ground missions typical for intensive close air support
operations as in Afghanistan, but also the at present somewhat less practiced
Arabian Spring in Libya
The success of the revolution in Tunisia quickly inspired other North African and Middle Eastern countries. In Libya, the first protests and subsequent clashes with security forces took place in mid-January. The scale and intensity of unrest and confrontations increased when a protest action in Benghazi was broken up violently by police on 15 February. Notwithstanding the military force Colonel Muammar Gaddafi used against rebel unrest, the opposition soon controlled a significant number of cities and calls for dismantling the Gaddafi regime grew stronger every day. Ministers, ambassadors and high ranking members of the armed and police forces resigned or joined the revolt. From 8 March onwards, however, forces loyal to Gaddafi pushed back the rebels and eventually reached the insurgents’ strongholds Benghazi and Misrata.
The recapture of lost territory by Gaddafi’s troops increased the
already important flow of refugees to the neighbouring countries. On request of
the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International
Organisation for Migration (IOM), the Belgian Air Force repatriated 1,523
refugees with its Airbus A330-322 CS-TMT of the 15th Transport Wing
in Melsbroek. The aircraft was based in Djerba, Tunisia, between 7 and 11 March
and flew people back home mainly to Cairo, Egypt, and Bamoko, Mali.
When it became clear that the arms embargo, and the travel ban and asset freeze for the Libyan leadership, as adopted by the United Nations Security Council in its Resolution 1970 (UNSCR 1970) on 26 February, would not restrain Colonel Gaddafi from excessive violence against civilians, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 (UNSCR 1973) - proposed by France, Lebanon and the United Kingdom - on 17 March. UNSCR 1973 demanded the immediate establishment of a ceasefire, imposed a no-fly zone over Libya and authorised all necessary means to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas. By ordering an attack against Benghazi on 19 March, Muammar Gaddafi clearly indicated that he would not comply with this resolution neither. Against this backdrop and under codename Operation “Odyssey Dawn”, American and British submarines launched 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles that same day, mainly against Libya’s air, air defence and command assets in order to create safe corridors in Libya’s coastal Ground Based Air Defence (GBAD) belt enabling the coalition to begin the enforcement of the no-fly zone and the protection of the civilian population. French, British and American combat aircraft started flying their first sorties over Libya not much later. They were soon joined by Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Norway, Qatar, Spain and the United Arab Emirates to form a coalition of the willing.
On 22 March, NATO’s North Atlantic Council (NAC) responded to the
United Nations’ call by launching an operation to enforce the arms embargo
against Libya. On 24 March, NATO decided to enforce the UN-mandated no-fly zone
over Libya, beginning operations the following day. On 27 March, NATO
Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced that, from 1 April onwards,
NATO Allies would implement all aspects of UN resolutions 1970 and 1973 under
Operation “Unified Protector”
in order to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under
attack or threat of attack from the Gaddafi regime.
The Belgian Inner Cabinet convened on Friday 18 March to examine NATO’s request for participation in the military intervention in Libya. It agreed that the three essential conditions for such an intervention by Belgian armed forces were fulfilled: a real need for military intervention, a UN mandate and support of other Arab and African countries. As the Belgian government was resigning, the Inner Cabinet added a fourth condition requesting Parliament to agree to a military intervention. On Monday 21 March, the resigning Council of Ministers confirmed its will to support the international military intervention in Libya and Parliament almost unanimously voted it through with only one abstention. Belgium would commit an average of 135 personnel: 80 in an F-16 detachment of four plus two aircraft, 40 on a mine hunter, four in NATO’s A-3E AWACS detachment and the remainder in the coalition’s air and naval command structure. These numerical strengths, however, were flexible and could vary temporarily if necessary. The F-16 detachment, for example, could have a maximal complement of 150 and was at its highest with around 130 in the early days of operations.
The F-16 detachment would consist of six of the 8 F-16s already present in Greece. This figure represented the number of aircraft Belgian Minister of Defence Pieter De Crem assigned, in agreement with the Council of Ministers, to the NATO Response Force (NRF) on 24 December 2010. Four aircraft would participate in imposing the no-fly zone over Libya, suppressing Libyan air defence assets threatening coalition aircraft, and protecting civilian-populated areas against attacks, while two aircraft would serve as backup. The four Belgians committed to the AWACS detachment would be personnel permanently assigned to the E-3A Component of the NATO Airborne Early Warning & Control Force (AEW&CF) in Geilenkirchen, Germany. Mine hunter BNS M923 Narcis, and from 19 August onwards BNS M921 Lobelia, would assist in making the Libyan authorities comply with the weapons embargo imposed by NSCR 1970 and further tightened by NSCR 1973, and in keeping the sea lines of communications to Misrata open. BNS Narcis was at that time detached to the Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group 1 (SNMCMG 1) in the framework of Belgium’s participation in NRF and present in the Mediterranean Sea since early February. Personnel in the command structures would among others man a national cell advising and supervising Belgian air interventions, especially in case of doubt concerning the rules of engagement or combat discipline, and hence comprised a legal adviser and a red card holder under supervision of a brigadier general.
Operation “Odyssey Dawn” was led by the regional United States
Africa Command (U.S. AFRICOM). Joint air and sea operations were commanded from
the US Navy command and control ship USS Mount Whitney deployed in the
Mediterranean Sea. Like all air assets, the Belgian F-16 detachment was placed
under the command of the 603rd Air & Space Operations Center (603rd
AOC) of the Headquarters Allied Air Command at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. It,
however, remained under national control through the Belgian national cell
located there. Upon NATO’s decision to take over the lead of all operations, the
transfer of authority of the Belgian F-16 detachment took place on 31 March. A
national cell supervising Belgian interventions was activated that day at NATO’s
Combined Air Operations Centre 5 (CAOC 5) in Poggio Renatico, Italy, where
real-time tactical control of air operations over Libya was exercised. When the
Commander of AFRICOM passed his responsibilities to the Supreme Allied Commander
Europe (SACEUR), the transfer of authority was complete.
Operation “Freedom Falcon”
Between the decision of the Inner cabinet on 18 March and the green light from Parliament on 21 March, the training detachment at Araxos Air Base was transformed into an operational combat detachment. A list of equipment needed to start Operation “Freedom Falcon”, the Belgian aerial participation in Operation “Odyssey Dawn”, with Defensive Counter Air (DCA) missions was drawn up and over the weekend of 19 and 20 March, a pair of Lockheed C-130H Hercules transport aircraft flew in the requested supplies. They mainly consisted of satellite communications systems and air-to-air armament: infrared-guided Raytheon AIM-9M Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missiles, radar-guided Hughes/Raytheon AIM-120B Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) and M70 20 mm low drag ammunition for the aircraft’s internal General Electric M61A1 Vulcan cannon. Add-ons like the AN/AAQ-14 LANTIRN (Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infra-Red for Night) targeting pod and the more capable 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, as well as the Northrop Grumman AN/ALQ-131 electronic countermeasures (ECM) pod were already carried by the aircraft when they arrived at Araxos for their training mission. Over the weekend, the detachment’s personnel not only changed accommodation at Araxos Air Base so as to dispose of an aircraft apron much closer to the personnel’s quarters, but also made its aircraft combat ready for air-to-air missions in less than 48 hours, much to the astonishment of their Greek colleagues. All six F-16AMs assigned initially to the operations over Libya (FA-56, 81, 82, 103, 123 and 136) were of the mid-life upgrade MLU-M5.2 standard, the highest standard operational in the Belgian Air Force, and were equipped with among others an Embedded GPS and ING (EGI) system for precise navigation and weapons delivery, Link 16 for secure tactical data exchange, an Improved Data Modem (IDM) for automatic target data transfer to the Head-Up Display (HUD), an Automatic Target Handoff System (ATHS) for direct digital target/mission data exchange, Night Vision Goggles (NVG), a Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) and the Thomson-CSF-Detexis CARAPACE threat warning system.
The first missions were carried out by four F-16AMs of No. 349 Squadron in the afternoon of 21 March, just after the green light was given by the Council of Ministers. The aircraft carried a pair of AIM-120B medium-range air-to-air missiles on stations 1 and 9, a pair of AIM-9M short-range air-to-air missiles on stations 2 and 8, a pair of Sargent-Fletcher 370 US gallon (1,400 litres) underwing fuel tanks on stations 4 and 6, an AN/ALQ-131 active ECM pod on station 5, either an AN/AAQ-14 LANTIRN or AN/AAQ-33 PANTERA targeting pod on station 5B on the starboard side of the air intake, and 510 rounds of 20 mm ammunition for the internal cannon. During these first air-to-air patrol flights, the F-16s did not have to launch any of their weapons in anger.
At first glance, Araxos Air Base in Greece did not seem an ideal
location for missions over Libya. Most tanker tracks during the early days of
the conflict, however, were situated off the Libyan coast north and northeast of
Benghazi, on an almost straight line between Greece and the Joint Operations
Area (JOA). Belgian aircraft thus could span the approximately 850 kilometres
from their Forward Operating Base (FOB) to the JOA with a minimal detour in
comparison with aircraft operating from southern Italy. Most tanker aircraft
came from the US military, which sometimes had up to 35 or 40 per day in the
air, as did assets for psychological operations, intelligence gathering and
knocking-out of Libya’s GBAD. This again underlines the importance of US
participation to bring such a conflict to a good end.
Offensive Counter Air
By 21 March, all SA-2 “Guideline”, SA-3 “Goa” and SA-5 “Gammon” fixed SAMs were taken out by the coalition and only SA-6 “Gainful”, SA-8 “Gecko”, SA-9 “Gaskin”, SA-13 “Gopher” and Crotale mobile SAMs, as well as SA-7 “Grail” MANPADS remained a possible threat to aircraft entering Libyan airspace. At that moment, the Belgian detachment considered the risk level still as medium, which meant that it would accept some losses to reach accomplishment of the commander’s mission. The risk, however, was considerably reduced by flying at 20,000 feet or above. By doing so, the killing zone of most of the remaining SAMs was avoided without reducing the effectiveness of the aircraft, their sensors and weapon systems.
The Belgian F-16s continued flying DCA mission during four days
in support of the no-fly zone. Meanwhile, three C-130s conveyed the necessary
weapons and guidance systems to switch to Offensive Counter Air (OCA)
operations: Mk.82 500-lbs and Mk.84 2,000-lbs bombs, and laser and GPS guidance
systems. Mk.82 bodies were transformed into GBU-12 (Guided Bomb Unit)
laser-guided Paveway II or GBU-38 GPS-guided JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition)
smart weapons, while Mk.84s became GBU-10 Paveway IIs or GBU-31 JDAMs. Against
extremely hardened targets like secure command locations, protected weapon
storage sites and key communication resources, 2,000-lbs BLU-109 (Bomb Live
Unit) penetration bombs with JDAM GPS guidance were used. Weapons could be
equipped with nose or tail fuses, or both, and fuses could be set for delayed,
contact or air burst according to the desired effects. The first OCA missions by
Belgian F-16s were carried out by two pairs of aircraft on 27 March. They all
used their offensive weapons.
Rules of Engagement
The resigning Council of Ministers defined the conditions on 21 March that had to be met before Belgian pilots could engage a target by force of arms. Five of these were coalition-wide applied rules, the sixth was a Belgian national caveat.
1. The engagement has to meet the commander’s intent (COM INT), i.e. fulfil objectives like the enforcement of the no-fly zone, protection of civilians and civilian-populated areas, etc.
2. The target has to be positively identified (TGT/PID) as a legitimate military target. This was rather straightforward for predetermined, well described deliberate targets. Newly emerging, dynamic targets, however, had to be determined and positively identified with the aircraft’s sensors. The PANTERA/Sniper XR targeting pod allowed clear identification of even small targets like cars and vans from altitudes as high as 25,000 feet and at distances as far at 15 kilometres. This standoff capability of the Belgian aircraft was regularly called upon to positively confirm, without endangering the reconnoitring aircraft and pilot, whether targeted SAM sites had been knocked out effectively.
3. The coalition’s rules of engagement (ROE) have to be respected. For air-to-air missions, these could be summarised as strict target identification and prior clearance granted before engagement. Air-to-ground engagements were subject to self-defence or to offensive and preventive measures towards the enforcement of the no-fly zone or the protection of civilians.
4. A collateral damage estimate (CDE), especially in populated areas, has to limit unwanted collateral damage caused by the engagement to a strict and absolute minimum. The use of state-of-the-art high precision targeting pods and guided munitions reduced the number of no-go engagements considerably.
5. Fires or their effects may not cross the Restrictive Fire Line (RFL), established on a daily or even hourly base according to the position of rebel forces.
6. Civilian casualties have to be avoided at all times (NOCIVCAS). This was a sixth, Belgian caveat.
In case of doubt, pilots were advised by the legal advisor and
red card holder at the national cell in the 603rd AOC and later on in
the CAOC 5. These advisers followed each mission in detail, from preparation to
debriefing, and had access to all available intelligence products and means of
communications. Pilots, moreover, often used the simple rule of thumb, saying
“When there is a doubt, there is no doubt: NO DROP”.
Like all participants in the coalition, the Belgian detachment received a daily Air Tasking Order (ATO) for its missions from the 603rd AOC or CAOC 5 24 hours in advance. The ATO listed the necessary details for all missions that had to be executed over the next 24 hours. As an ATO is always subject to possible changes, mission preparation usually started at X-4 hours.
During mission preparation, pilots received a thorough Intel and Electronic Warfare (EW) briefing, an update on the weather over the Mediterranean Sea and the JOA, as well as statements on the mission’s desired effects and possible restrictions. Weather conditions were not only important for flight safety, but also determined the type of weapon guidance as GPS-bombs are not weather sensitive unlike their laser-guided counterparts. During the weaponeering briefing, other elements to determine the type of weapons carried were discussed. The weapon of choice was the one that would do the job in the most efficient and effective way without breaking the basic rules of proportionality and collateral damage. Targets like aircraft and armoured vehicles could be destroyed completely. Of GBAD systems, only vital elements like radar sites or command and control vehicles had to be destroyed to render them completely unserviceable. Airfields and other infrastructures would only be damaged to the extent that they would be temporarily impracticable, but repairable at minimum costs after the conflict. 500-lbs bombs were often the weapon of choice as their smaller explosive charge reduced the risk of unwanted collateral damage. The same applied for GPS-guided weapons as they could be moved away from a target, if necessary even after launch. Other important weaponeering tools discussed were, among others, the trajectory of the selected weapons, their impact speed and their instant of explosion. For the elimination of anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) or SAM sites, for example, bombs were released at high altitude and long distance to minimise risks for the launching aircraft. High and long trajectories were also used when the effect of surprise was of paramount importance and weapons thus should be launched out of earshot. To make bombs explode inside hangars or hardened shelters or bunkers, it was important to make them impact at the appropriate speed and angle so they could penetrate the roof without fragmenting or ricocheting. Finally, the instant of ignition was carefully considered in order to create the exact level of desired damage: fragmentation above the target, upon impacting it or after penetration.
A major aspect of mission planning was fuel management. Belgian F-16s usually took off with 12,000 lbs of fuel. After about an hour’s flight, the aircraft had their first mid-air refuelling. They usually took in 6,000 to 7,000 lbs of fuel, which took about 10 minutes per pair of F-16s at a fuel flow of about 3,000 lbs per minute. The same procedure was followed when aircraft returned from their mission over Libya before initiating the long journey back home to Araxos. Belgian F-16s at all times conserved 7,000 lbs of reserve fuel in order to be able to reach Malta in case of an emergency. Most of the time, aircraft flew at the fuel efficient high subsonic speed of Mach 0.8. Flying altitude was never lower than 20,000 feet, out of reach of most surviving GBAD systems, against which the aircraft also carried an AN/ALQ-131 ECM jamming pod.
Also because of the threat of the few remaining air defence systems, PR/CSAR (Personnel Recovery/Combat Search And Rescue) briefings formed an essential part of mission preparation. In Libya, three PR/CSAR zones were delimited. In a zone of up to 50 NM behind the Libyan coast, downed personnel could be recovered within 6 hours. Up to 140 NM, recovery could take up to 24 hours, and further up to 350 NM, this became 24 hours plus the following night. Behind that last limit, the YOYO (you’re on your own) principle became applicable. Downed there, crews could in first instance only rely on their SERE-skills (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape). Missions behind this 350 NM inland line were less numerous, but not inexistent, as the Gaddafi regime had well dispersed its weapons stockpiles, even at remote sites in the southern desert.
Pilots stepped at X-1 hour. Average mission time was just over 4 hours: one hour each to and from the JOA and about two hours tactical time in the JOA. The shortest mission lasted around 2.5 hours, the longest around 8 hours.
Types of missions
Missions flown by Belgian combat jets can be subdivided in the
following categories: air-to-air missions to enforce the no-fly zone, deliberate
targeting, dynamic targeting, Time Sensitive Targeting (TST), Strike
Coordination And Reconnaissance (SCAR) and airborne alert interdiction (XINT).
Deliberate targeting is the procedure for prosecuting targets that are detected,
identified and developed in sufficient time to schedule actions against them in
tasking cycle products like an ATO. Dynamic targets are previously
unanticipated, unplanned or newly detected and are of such importance that they
warrant prosecution within the current execution period, i.e. without a
new, preplanned ATO. Dynamic targeting consists of six phases which the pilot
has to follow and which are colloquially known as the “kill chain”: Find, Fix,
Track, Target, Engage and Assess (F2T2EA). In the Libyan case, dynamic targets
could be found by US Navy Lockheed P-3C “Orion” or USAF Northrop Grumman E-8
Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar Systems (JSTARs) orbiting over the
Mediterranean Sea at distances of several hundreds of nautical miles from the
Libyan coast. F-16s would then be tasked to fix these emerging targets by
positively identifying them as worthy of engagement and by determining their
position and other data with sufficient fidelity to permit engagement. This was
usually done by means of the sensors of the PANTERA/Sniper XR targeting pod. In
the subsequent phase, confirmed targets and their location were tracked and the
desired effect against them was confirmed. Then the targeting solution, the
weapon of choice, was identified, taking into account target restrictions
including collateral damage, ROEs, etc. In this phase too, approval to engage
the target was obtained. The engagement itself was managed and monitored by the
AOC or CAOC. After confirmation of the target as hostile, the engagement was
ordered and transmitted to the shooter. Finally, in the assess phase either the
shooter himself or other ISR assets collected information on the engagement and
measured the obtained effect against the desired one.
Operation “Freedom Falcon” in numbers
In all, the six Belgian F-16AMs carried out 614 missions, 234 of which at night, in 2,557 flying hours over a period of 179 flying days. They fired no air-to-air missiles and no 20 mm shells, but dropped 472 bombs. Of these, 259 were 500-lbs Mk.82s, 167 2,000-lbs Mk.84s and 46 2000-lbs BLU-109s. As regards guidance systems, 141 bombs were laser-guided and 331 GPS-guided. In none of the 472 cases, unwanted collateral damage was observed. The improved precision of sensors and weapons resulted in similar effects as during the Balkan conflict while using only about one third of the number of weapons.
Around 50 Belgian F-16 pilots participated in Operation “Freedom Falcon”, often alternating with missions over Afghanistan in the framework of Operation “Guardian Falcon”.
The author wishes to thank Belgian Air Force Major Nico “Nickel”
Claessens, Commanding Officer of No. 349 Squadron and twice Detachment Commander
of Operation “Freedom Falcon”, for his assistance in the realisation of this
|With thanks to Jos Schoofs, the author of this article.|