Ride along with F-16 pilot Nate “Buster”Jaros, as he takes us and his wingman for a night mission over Iraq to help an Army convoy in trouble.
It was a cold winter night over Iraq. It was 2003 and OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) was in full swing and US fighter aircraft were getting used to their regular un-impeded patrols over the country. Operation Southern Watch and Operation Northern Watch had recently ended and “Shock-and-Awe” was completed earlier that March as well.
All of Iraq was our playground.
At the time, just two fighters, and a tanker were the only things airborne, 24/7 over the war-stricken country. And maybe a few UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) too. Air operations were slow actually, and modern airpower was more of a presence than an active participant…
We were with the 510th Fighter Squadron, out of Aviano, Italy. The Balkan Buzzards as we were sometimes called, but more commonly known in the Viper community as just “The Buzzards.”
Our whole squadron and 20+ jets were deployed to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, and was supporting OIF as well as OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom) with daily and nightly two-ship sorties. A squadron of F-15E Strike Eagles was also with us, and we each alternated VUL (vulnerability) times over Iraq to maintain this 24/7 coverage.
Every four or five hours, a two-ship of Vipers or Mud Hens would launch from “The Deid,” head north along the Persian Gulf. The section would get gas entering Iraq and proceed to their assigned tasking, while also relieving the other squadron that was finishing their business over the country after a five hour long sortie.
We typically had missiles (both long and short range) on board as well as an assortment of 500 pound LGBs (Laser Guided Bombs) and GPS guided JDAMs (Joint Directed Attack Munition). We were a Block 40 F-16 squadron and also carried our primary “tool” the LANTIRN Targeting Pod. The Targeting Pod was an Infra-Red telescope basically that was cockpit controllable, and had a laser designator for LGBs.
On this night, I was the flight lead with my young but combat-proven wingman “Chaos” on the wing. Chaos and I were paired by the squadron leadership, and enjoyed flying together every other night or so.
Leadership kept most flight leads and wingman paired over the course of the four month deployment to help build solid and reliable two-ship teams. Keeping guys paired together really helped reduce errors and develop a sense of camaraderie as well as professional in-flight synergy. Chaos knew what to expect out of me, and I knew what to expect out of him.
On a typical mission we would have three or four taskings across Iraq. We would maybe have an hour with a JTAC (Joint Terminal Air Controller) providing high cover for ground forces doing building searches. We would then move on to oil and gas pipeline patrols, or maybe an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) road scanning tasking, or even Army convoy support. We typically had lots to do in one mission.
The Threat of IED’s
During this timeframe the IED’s were getting so bad across Iraq that they were an expected daily threat. Finding “bad guys” digging along road sides was quite common. “In August and September 2003, IEDs were responsible for more U.S. combat fatalities than the combined totals for direct fire weapons (small arms and rocket-propelled grenades [RPGs]) and indirect fire, the methods that had, historically, caused the majority of battle casualties” (Smith, 2011).
Chaos and I had come off the tanker and were proceeding to North-Central Iraq. It was just a 15 to 20 minute transition as the tanker was orbiting nearby. Below us was a heavy cloud deck and seeing anything on the ground with our eyes, NVGs, or the “pod” was impossible. As we passed over various cities this dark night, glowing amber-yellow city lights lit up the low clouds below us and cast an odd eerie feel to the solid cloud deck.
We were assigned to convoy support for a line of Army vehicles near Bayji and Tikrit traveling south toward Samarra along the major North-South road that went from Mosul in Northern Iraq to Baghdad.
Army Convoy in Trouble
I recall checking in with the convoy commander on time, on the designated freq as they began their slow and nervous drive south. We reported that we couldn’t see them for the weather, but would support in any way possible from high above. We had their coordinates and with updates we could track their position and be ready to assist if needed.
We circled above their position, like buzzards, in the dark and cold night with nothing to look at but softly-lit orange clouds below.
I don’t remember any hostilities initially, but the convoy commander soon became loud and concerned about something. His voice changed a few octaves and we heard him halt the convoy. We heard him coordinating a lot of actions and activity as well. Something was happening below us.
It was typical for IEDs to be rigged for timed detonation, while others would detonate actively when a ‘bad guy’ typically hidden somewhere pressed his detonator switch at the appropriate time. Some IEDs could detonate automatically when they sensed a vehicle or a large movement, or noise…but those were rarer as they required more technology. In 2003 the enemy was just looking for ways to easily disrupt or kill our ground forces, and they were good at it.
The convoy commander indicated over the radio that they had some suspicious activity and personnel ahead, as well as intelligence reports that IED planters and enemy were all along this route near them, placing their deadly weapons and waiting. He informed Chaos and I that they had reason to believe there were IEDs a few miles ahead, due to the skeptical roadside activity they were witnessing.
Calling us in for immediate weapons effects was not typical.
With no way to truly know if the people in the fields and roadside ahead were friendly civilians, kids playing, or bad guys, and no way to tell if that box on the side of the road was a bomb or just junk—there wasn’t much we could do at times. We could spend weeks bombing along roadsides and just waste a lot of weapons. Use of force was atypical for this type of problem.
The Show-of-Force Tactic
The preferred tactic was called a Show-of-Force (SoF). The Show-of-Force was akin to a shot across the bow, as they say. Basically it was one step before the use of actual force, and it was appropriate near certain high collateral damage areas.
In any fighter, a SoF equalled “be as loud, visible, and aggressively postured as possible.” A low pass with the ear shattering afterburner engaged was the preferred method. Additionally, intelligence reports told us that most enemy combatants would drop their weapons, detonate their IEDs, and simply run in the presence of any US aircraft. We used that fact to our advantage.
The commander requested a SoF from our two-ship, north to south, a single pass each. Somehow Chaos and I got below the weather and I remember emerging from the soup at about two or three thousand feet above the dark desert, with a clear, serpentine, well-lit road carving through the desert visible to the East…and on it were the tiny dots of a convoy, holding its position.
Getting low in a combat situation has the effect of heightening the senses. Not only was it dark and the unforgiving desert a real threat (from hitting it), but they had people down there that liked to shoot back. Anything below about 5,000 feet above ground level really got you on edge. Above that, there were no threats. Speed (and lights off) was life down low. NVGs kept you sane because at least you could see.
With clearance from the commander, we reported five miles to the north for the SoF. I went in first with Chaos offset and about two miles in trail. I lowered the nose toward the road as I aligned, and offset a bit to the right, on the west side. I would take the road down my left side, as fast as I could.
Accelerating through 300 knots, now lower, then 400 knots… I came overtop the convoy and plugged in the afterburner. The jet lurched forward as if kicked in the ass and I watched the fuel flow climb through 40,000 pph (pounds per hour) while the airspeed slipped past 500 knots. The road and earth was not far below me and screaming past at an incredible rate.
Then I saw the flashes.
Were they shooting? No those flashes were too big and bright. Did Chaos get hit I thought? No I could see his burner plume back there, following me and repeating my flightpath on the other side of the road.
Those were IEDs going off! One flash, two flash, then another!
Huge explosions flashed in the night, lighting up the atmosphere and casting strange flashbulb effects on the low clouds above us. Yet we could hear nothing. It was quiet in the cockpit, nothing to hear but the sound of cooling air flowing and the visual spectacle of the serpentine lit road passing extremely fast below. But down below, it must have looked like the 4th of July to the troops in the convoy.
We terminated afterburner approaching the Mach and became instantly invisible again. Over the inter-flight radio freq I told Chaos I was climbing back into the weather and headed for clear air. He followed and we quickly rejoined up above the weather, slowing our fire-breathing machines in the relative safety of altitude.
Our time was up and by now gas was getting low as well. “That ought to do it” the Commander’s voice crackled on the radio, clear happiness and relief audible in his voice.
We were set for one more tanker and then the long drive home down the Gulf back to Al Udeid. We checked out with the convoy commander and he had a few words of praise and thanks. It seemed that our SoF scared off enough bad guys and caused a few others to hit their detonators and run back into the deserts and towns nearby. Those Army boys would be safe tonight on their long slow drive. Pretty cool.
We reflected on the sortie as the pink sun rose over the dusty gulf on our way back home. I still can’t imagine the courage it would take to drive a vehicle in a war zone, knowing that any second it could just explode.
We were glad to have helped, if even just a little… and with all our weapons still on board.