By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez
SOUTHWEST ASIA (Sept. 12, 2004) -- Just last month, crewmembers aboard an American helicopter were wounded when the craft was shot down over the Iraqi city of Najaf.
The helicopter was shot down August 5 by the militia of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Crewmembers were evacuated, but the event marked the beginning of three weeks of intense ground fighting in the Islamic holy city.
Aircraft from the 134th and 336th Expeditionary Fighter Squadrons at one forward deployed location, provided air support to the Army and Marine Corps ground troops in Najaf as they tried to liberate the city and an important Islamic mosque, the Imam Ali Shrine, from the clutches of al-Sadr's Mehdi army.
"Our two squadrons spent 21 days over Najaf," said Lt. Col. "K-9". "We got there at the start of hostilities, which for us was the shoot down of the helicopter. We were there to support American ground troops working to get al-Sadr out of the city."
Colonel "K-9" is commander of the 336th EFS, an F-15 squadron. He and his unit are deployed from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C.
The 134th EFS commander, an Air National Guardsman from Vermont, had flown over the city the day prior to the downing of the helicopter.
He said he had initially thought his activities there that day spelled the end violence in the city.
"August 4th was the first day I was over Najaf," Lt. Col. "TJ" said. "A Marine unit had just moved in, and I had gotten called because there was an ambush set up and we actually found enemy forces on top of a roof. Our aircraft did a couple shows-of-force and they ran away. We thought 'Najaf is over,' but the very next day, things got a lot worse."
A "show-of-force" maneuver simply means aircraft fly low over enemy forces, make a lot of noise, and perhaps shoot off some flares - essentially airborne saber rattling.
The intent is to show enemy forces the air power presence in the area, and to perhaps scare them away or get them to surrender.
Colonel "TJ" commands a squadron of F-16 aircraft deployed from Air National Guard units across the middle to eastern United States.
His team includes pilots from Vermont; Atlantic City, New Jersey; and Fort Wayne, Indiana.
The aircraft from the 336th and 134th EFS provided close air support for ground units in Najaf.
The role is something F-15E pilots, while not entirely unfamiliar with, are not generally used to flying in combat.
"It's a little different fight than what we train for," said Captain "Stump", an F-15E pilot from Seymour Johnson AFB. "Traditionally, the F-15E is an interdiction platform. We fly deep into enemy territory and strike targets that have strategic implications. In this fight, we flew in very close proximity to friendly forces and provided close air support. That's something we didn't traditionally train to do in earlier missions."
Friendly forces in this case are American foot soldiers doing actual combat on the ground.
They carry M-16s, and ride in HUMVEES, tanks or Bradley fighting vehicles.
They get in close to the enemy and take fire. One military asset that goes with them into battle is the Air Force supplied Joint Terminal Air Controller.
"No other Air Force in the world could do what we do," Colonel "K-9" said. "Nobody else can launch a fighter and get our aircrew to the fight with the right ordnance, fuel and proper training to support the ground commander. It takes lots and lots of training to work in an urban environment with a JTAC and destroy or disrupt what the ground commander wants. Nobody else can put a fighter above a JTAC - all you know is that he is an American and that is it. He has had his training, and you know it is good. You have had yours. He can talk us on to a palm tree in the middle of a city. It's that accurate."
A JTAC is an Airman that travels with ground units and is trained to call in support from Air Force assets loitering in the area. Captain "Stump" said once aircraft from his unit arrived at their assigned area above the city, they tuned their radios in to ground frequencies to get an understanding of what they would be needed to do.
"You go to your area and you turn on the radio and start listening to the chatter," Captain "Stump" said. "You listen to what's going on between the aircraft already there and the JTACs. As you do that, you build situational awareness. You let the JTAC know who you are, how long you can stay, and what your ordnance is."
Once the JTAC in the area is aware of the presence of a new aircraft, that plane becomes a tool in the arsenal of the ground troops he is embedded with.
"They have artillery, they carry weapons, they have embedded firepower - we give them air power," Captain "Stump" said.
Lt. Col. "Stoli", an F-16 pilot from Fort Wayne, Indiana, was asked to provide close air support for a unit that wanted to move forward, but were impeded by sniper fire.
"The mission we dropped on was in support of a ground team," Colonel "Stoli" said. "They requested an air strike to suppress the enemy fire coming from this building, plus a lot of enemy troops were in this building. My wingman and I dropped one 500 pound GBU-12 each. The JTAC wanted us to attack it again, so we came back with another GBU-12. Later, we came back around and I dropped a JDAM on it. That bomb didn't go off, but it went right through the hole where it was supposed to go."
Both the GBU-12 and the JDAM are considered "smart bombs." The guided bomb unit is laser guided. The joint direct attack munition is GPS guided. By adding intelligence to weapons, the accuracy of a bomb drop is increased, and the cost of putting bombs on target decreases.
Colonel "Stoli" said that while the building didn't implode due to the bombs he dropped on it, him and his wingman had achieved a partial success for the JTAC and troops on the ground.
"I'm sure they would have liked for us to level that building," Colonel "Stoli" said. "While that didn't happen, we did take out the top two floors, and more important, we stopped the sniper fire coming from that building."
When Colonel "Stoli" returned to his flying unit, video footage of his bombing had already been shown on U.S. news channels.
"My coworkers had made a screensaver out of it on our computer," Colonel "Stoli" said.
One of Captain "Stump's" experiences over Najaf involved both strafing and bomb dropping.
Flying with his wingman they were asked to help eliminate Mehdi personnel entrenched in the cemetery that surrounds the city.
The cemetery, the largest in Islam, is rumored to contain relatives of Mohammed.
"We had enemy personnel hiding in the cemetery, in underground shelters and in mausoleums," Captain "Stump" said. "There was a bus in the cemetery with enemy personnel in it. Because we were concerned about collateral damage, we didn't want to put a GBU-12 into that bus. We wanted to limit the effects on the cemetery. They asked for a strafe."
Captain "Stump" said the flight lead for his mission conducted the strafing, and then headed back to base. Enemy personnel dispersed from the area and started moving north through the cemetery.
"We stayed on the scene and monitored those guys and talked directly to an unmanned aerial vehicle - the Predator," Captain "Stump" said. "The Predator gave us point-outs on where the enemy personnel were moving throughout the cemetery. The JTAC told us to destroy those personnel, with an interest in minimizing the effects to the cemetery. We chose to strafe again."
This time, militia members hid in underground shelters in the cemetery.
"The JTAC had two enemy positions with underground hideouts and asked us to drop bombs there," Captain "Stump" said. "We dropped two GBU-12 on those hideouts, again, adjusting the attack axis for friendlies and the mosque."
Paying attention to where the bombs fell and where they strafed, to ensure they didn't destroy any part of the Iman Ali Shrine mosque and didn't do irreparable damage to the cemetery, was on the mind of all the pilots who flew there.
Respecting holy Islamic sites is key in ensuring a win in the war on terrorism, because it re-confirms for Muslims that America is fighting terrorists, not Islam.
"At the forefront of our mind is not killing friendlies or innocent people," Captain "Stump" said. "We try to do everything we can to support the friendlies, while minimizing damage to the holy sites - and that's not propaganda, I believe that from the bottom of my heart. The more we destroy of their holy sites, the more they rally around the damage we do."
In addition to providing CAS for ground troops, pilots from the 336th and 134th provided intelligence to JTACs.
Called non-traditional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance or "armed reconnaissance," war birds from the two units were able to loiter in the area and provide a "God's-eye-view" of the area to JTACs on the ground.
"Not only did we drop bombs, strafe and do shows-of-force, but we did a lot of finding and locating enemy of positions," Colonel "K-9" said. "That's nontraditional ISR from our platforms and pods - looking down and saying something looks weird, perhaps a congregation of four or five guys with rocket propelled grenades. We pass that information to the JTAC and he passes it to the ground commander."
Colonel "TJ" was able to locate the source of enemy mortar fire. By giving that information to the JTAC on the ground, he was able to secure clearance attack.
"I was orbiting over the cemetery and I knew where the friendlies were - just north of the city, just south of the cemetery," Colonel "TJ" said. "I look down and saw mortars going off just inside the Marine's perimeter. They started screaming about getting hit, and that it came from the south. So I looked south and found where the mortars were coming from. Minutes later, they cleared me to drop a bomb there on those coordinates. Then they see where the guys are shooting from, and five minutes later we put bombs on that building as well. Then all the firing stops. And that's what we did for 21 days. We would find the source of enemy fire and eliminate it."
The 336th and the 134th EFS are from two different parts of the Air Force. The 336th pilots and aircraft are active duty and come from Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C.
Those from the 134th come from various ANG units in the central to eastern United States.
In the past, there has sometimes been a conflict of cultures between active duty and Guard components.
But, as evidenced in the air battles over Najaf, that appears to be a thing of the past as these two parts of the Total Force worked together seamlessly, say the two commanders.
"Here we have an active duty squadron and Air National Guard squadron working in the same building," Colonel "K-9" said. "We are set up in the same shop, we work out of the same area, we share duties, and we have mixed fighter force operations standards so we fight as an element if required. Together we have dropped a lot of iron in support of our land component."
Captain "Stump" said he has seen a change in the way active and Guard units work together.
"The Guard guys here are some of the sharpest guys I've seen in any one unit," Captain "Stump" said. "They have a lot of experience and they have shared it with the younger guys. In the past, I've seen healthy competition between active duty, Guard and Reserve pilots. I've also seen some negative competition. But here, I'd say there wasn't a lot of competition. It was just teamwork here. Everyone here recognized we are supporting assets here to help the Army and the Marines. We do everything we can to help the 18-year-old on the ground with a rifle."
Bombloaders part of the team too
Pilots don't ever do the mission all by themselves.
Back at base, hundreds of maintainers keep fighter aircraft in top condition. Somebody fuels the plane, and somebody even puts the pilot in his seat before the mission.
Airmen 1st Class Scott Sanchez and Courtney Dorsey are weapons loaders in Southwest Asia. Their job is to load bombs and other munitions onto the F-15 Strike Eagle before its missions. Both are deployed from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C.
Airman Sanchez, who joined the Air Force shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, is on his second deployment to Southwest Asia. He says activities here are not as busy as they were the last time he was in theater, but are definitely more busy than back in the States.
"Back home, we do load barn once a month, and load just to show we know how," Airman Sanchez said. "Here, I've loaded probably 100 bombs, but that's not as many as I loaded last year."
Airman Sanchez admits he really hasn't kept count of the bombs he loaded on this tour. Experienced bomb loaders probably don't do that.
Airman Dorsey is on his first deployment overseas. He says he's loaded about 30 bombs while in theater, and prefers to see them gone when the planes come home.
"I like to see the racks empty when the planes come back," he said. "That means we've done our job."
Both Airman Dorsey and Sanchez are aware of their contribution to the mission, and say they are happy to be part of it.
"I like being part of the action," Airman Dorsey said. "I like being able to contribute to it."
"I know we help the ground troops a lot," Airman Sanchez said. "That's what we hear from our captain… we're helping out the ground troops whether we believe it our not." (The pilots in this story are identified by their call signs only at their request.)