Operation IRAQI FREEDOM
From my arrival in Qatar in February until my departure in April, I spent approximately 70 days in what was classified as a combat area. During my entire stay I never experienced fear for my life, either in the air or on the ground. Our base was on a peninsula in the Persian Gulf, relatively distant from the fighting in Iraq and low even in potential terrorist threat. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, a small civilian aircraft had approached the airfield undetected, much to the chagrin of the Patriot batteries ringing the base. During the war, the presence of a light aircraft near the base was the cause of the only increased threat condition during our stay. The base rapidly went from MOPP 0, a protective posture where no chemical protection gear is worn, to MOPP 4, where full gear—heavy overgarments, boots, gas masks, and gloves—is required. Whatever it was that approached the base turned out to be no threat, and there were no further reactions while we were there. In fact, a few days before I returned home they brought the base out of “lock-down” and allowed us to leave the base to see the local area. So our home was a fairly safe one, particularly when compared to the airbases further north that came under fire from SCUDs and other missiles and were in a MOPP 4 fairly frequently. Our route to and from the combat area was also a safe one. While we flew along the gulf we were in range of several other neutral countries, but we could virtually walk along the Navy sea craft from Qatar to Iraq.
The true threat only began once in Iraq, and even then the threat was minimal. Years of sanctions and the effectiveness of our anti-radar weapons had made most of their defense systems and operators work with limited efficacy. Our primary threat was unguided anti-aircraft artillery (AAA, or “triple A”) and ballistic (unguided) SAMs, which were really no threat at all given the low probability that an aircraft and the threat would coincidentally end up in the same piece of sky. This is the same belief from previous wars that an aircraft would be downed not by a dramatic surface-to-air intercept but by a “golden BB.” The AAA was only effective at lower altitude and the Iraqi gunners had demonstrated no ability to damage or down any coalition aircraft. I had seen my first AAA barrage while flying an OSW sortie on 18 March; while impressive as a glowing fireworks display, it was also obviously being randomly sprayed into the air by gunners hoping to get lucky. With AAA such a minor threat, no enemy air force, and SAMs virtually unused, our combat flights took on the air of training sorties with the caveat that the remote golden BB—which we could do nothing about—might find us. Some pilots even considered the American defenses a higher threat than the Iraqi ones; US Patriots had shot down twice as many coalition aircraft as had the Iraqis.
The F-16CJs would often be assigned to protect a specific strike package or asset, which could be anything from slow moving A-10s to the silent, swooping B-2s. Early in the conflict some flights, like the A-10s and the British Tornadoes, specifically requested SEAD before they entered their target area. Others, like B-1s and B-2s, would often “accept” the SEAD coverage but would generally plan on entering their strike zone even if the CJs could not provide protection, relying on their self-protection systems or stealth as their primary means of defense. A few days into the war it became evident that the SAMs would be a little menace. A few pot shots had been taken at various aircraft but no missiles had even been guided through an engagement; since the radars were staying off, they were a little threat, and the radar-killing SEAD platforms had little at which to shoot. The surface threat was so low, in fact, that our squadron soon stopped outfitting our flights solely with HARMs. Our role of suppressing SAMs was being so underutilized that we began to fly mixed elements, with one aircraft carrying HARMs and the other bombs. It was only the necessary reassurance of the presence of SEAD support to the coalition packages that prevented us from totally switching from HARMs to bombs.
The Realities of War
Occasionally other events reminded us of the reality of the risk we faced. While headed into the tanker track on one sortie I observed two bright explosions just north of us near our altitude: Patriots had intercepted a missile inbound to a Kuwaiti base. The sorties also took on a more serious tone when aircraft went down; the coalition lost aircraft to maintenance, pilot error, and US Army Patriots. In March a British Tornado was shot down by a Patriot while on approach to land. In April an F-18 was shot down, again by a Patriot. An F-15E—whose unit was stationed at Al Udeid with us—was also lost in April. When emergency events occurred, pilots did go above and beyond to attempt to rescue and protect those on the ground. We also attempted to provide as much assistance as possible to the other coalition members and services. My flight was tasked during one sortie to provide SEAD coverage to a US Army deep helicopter strike. We covered our assigned period and then continued to monitor the general area. Though we never observed any radars on air, the Army experienced tremendous ground fire and severely damaged several helicopters that night. When one helo made frantic emergency radio calls, my flight and virtually every other one on frequency offered assistance through AWACS. The next day we saw two captured helicopter crewmen on CNN. With those few exceptions, the vast majority of our sorties were routine, and hardly more dangerous than those we practiced in the skies over our home base.
The Result of a Mortal Threat–or Lack Thereof
The majority of our sorties carried a similar threat to the training sorties we accomplished on a nearly daily basis. While the low level of risk may have made our families feel better, the lack of real danger, with few harrowing or life-threatening events, actually had a restraining affect on a Christian’s ability to talk about God. In the military there is the oft-quoted phrase that “there are no atheists in a foxhole” because the mortal threat forces even the most unbelieving men to acknowledge a Supreme Power. The majority of fighter pilots, though, did not experience any mortal threat, but felt as though they were at the “big show” and therefore accomplishing the “fighter pilot dream.” This had the regrettable effect of reinforcing the godless lifestyles and attitudes of the pilots, rather than drawing men to God as they faced their own mortality. I made no secret of my Christianity and before every sortie I prayed for protection, that we would do our jobs well, and that ultimately the glory would go to God. My flight lead throughout most of the conflict was a self-described atheist. He joked that we’d know it “got bad” when I started drinking and he started believing in God. It might be unfortunate that it never did get that bad.
The invasion was completed in relatively short order, though the war itself would continue for some time in the form of an insurgency. Since the Iraqi military no longer posed a SAM threat to coalition aircraft, our unit was one of the first to go home. Though not pristine, our unit had done its job and done it well.