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Forces rotate for Operation Northern Watch

  • Published
  • By Maj. Bob Thompson
  • Combined Information Bureau
More than 1,000 airmen are replacing Operation Northern Watch veterans as the Air and Space Expeditionary Force system performs its regular three-month rotation from late November through the first part of December.

Based at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, the new airmen join Turkish and British coalition partners to enforce the no-fly zone in northern Iraq and monitor Iraqi forces to determine compliance with United Nations Security Council resolutions.

"This is a combat mission that has been going on for more than 11 years," said Brig. Gen. Robin Scott, Combined Task Force Operation Northern Watch commanding general. "This is the real thing. Coalition aircraft are under fire and threatened by Iraqi anti-aircraft systems nearly every time we fly."

Though most of the U.S. contingent is made up of people on three-month tours, Operation Northern Watch is a combined task force which includes active duty Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force members as well as National Guard and Reserve troops on 14- to 180-day tours.

"We have a 700 percent annual turnover rate in personnel," said Col. Stephen West, combined task force chief of staff. "More than 9,000 troops cycle through Operation Northern Watch each year."

The task force includes more than 50 U.K. and U.S. aircraft. Coalition fighters, tankers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets work as a team to enforce the no-fly zone. Missions require a mix of aircraft and on any given day could include EA-6B Prowlers, E-3 Sentry AWACS, F-15Cs, F-15Es, F-16CJs, F-16CGs, HH-60s, HC-130s, KC-135 Stratotankers, UH-60 Blackhawks, EP-3s, C-12s, British GR-3 Jaguars, Nimrods and VC-10s.

"We have the best pilots, flying the best aircraft, maintained by the best ground crews in the world," said Scott. "Our people make our mission a success."

The northern no-fly zone includes all Iraqi airspace north of the 36th parallel. Started in 1997, Operation Northern Watch is the successor to Operation Provide Comfort, which began April 1991.

Regardless of the name, Saddam Hussein's forces have shot at the coalition patrols ever since the northern no-fly zone was established, challenging coalition efforts to enforce the U.N. Security Council resolutions.

"Our aircrews must deal with these threats," said Scott. "We are defensive in nature, but not defenseless. Our crews have the right of self-defense and won't let anything get in the way of fulfilling their mission."

"Our unit has been here four times, and I'd say that nothing is different," said Lt. Col. "Shaggy," and Air National Guardsman with the 124th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron. His name is being withheld for security reasons.

U.K. and U.S. aircraft fly patrol missions over Iraq an average of 18 days each month. On nearly every mission they are under fire and threatened by elements of the Iraqi integrated air-defense system. Anti-aircraft-artillery fire is the most common threat and is usually seen from two to five locations. "You can't really fully prepare yourself to be under fire," said Lt. Col. "Stillie," 78th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron deputy commander from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. "Your training takes over and you try to remain as calm as possible."

Though it is not unusual for the Iraqis to shoot at coalition aircraft regularly, the experience is anything but routine.

"I haven't seen any anti-aircraft fire really close yet," said Maj. "Gizmo" of the 124th EFS. "I've seen Triple-A puffs in the distance and it gets your attention. But you practice so much that your job is ingrained in you, no matter what the situation."

Since Operation Northern Watch began, no coalition aircraft have been lost during missions over Iraq. Over the years, coalition aircraft have responded to Iraqi attacks by dropping munitions on targets that supported anti-aircraft activities. Some of the targets have been missile sites, radar systems, command and control sites and anti-aircraft guns.

"Our people do an outstanding job in accomplishing this dangerous duty," said Scott. "They come in here usually for just 90 days. They work side-by-side with our Turkish hosts and our U.K. partners. Everyone hits the ground running and that's what has made us so successful at this job for the past 11 years." (Courtesy of United States Air Forces in Europe News Service)