Among the air assets available to the International Security Assistance Force, are Dutch and Belgian F-16s. Frank Visser visited Afghanistan to report on their contributions to the Force.
On December 6, 2001, following defeat of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was established with a mandate from the United Nations to assist the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in providing a safe and secure environment in and around Kabul. Its secondary role is assisting in the reconstruction of a new Afghanistan. ISAF operations may be divided into four phases. These comprised support to Kabul followed by provincial reconstruction teams (PRT) in the north and west of the country, a further extension of the PRTs in the south of Afghanistan and finally a focus on the east of the country. Phase two was completed in September 2005 and this was followed immediately by phase three. During the past few years ISAF has been gradually extended. At the moment approximately 11,250 military personnel from 26 NATO and eleven non-NATO countries are stationed mainly in the Kabul region, North and West Afghanistan. In addition a substantial number of ISAF soldiers are based in the surrounding countries of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The total number of ISAF personnel will be extended to 15,000.
Aircraft are indispensable in a country so inhospitable and desolate as Afghanistan. Nearly all troops and most of the military equipment need to be transported by air. At the outset of operations all of the runways in the region were badly damaged, many had been bombed by the Americans in 2001 and the air traffic control (ATC) system was obsolete. Consequently a new air traffic control infrastructure had to be put in place and the runways repaired before large-scale air movements could begin.
At the time of my visit to Kabul in late October 2005, ATC at Kabul International Airport (KAIA) was carried out by ISAF personnel, who only controlled incoming and outgoing traffic. Gradually their task will be taken over by Afghan air-traffic controllers who are presently being trained.
EPAF F-16s over Afghanistan
On February 25, 2005, the Dutch Cabinet resolved to put four Lockheed Martin F-16s and approximately one hundred personnel at the disposal of ISAF for a year. The first detachment left for Kabul on March 23, followed the day afterwards by four F-16s that departed from Volkel Air Base. These F-16s were from 312 (Volkel AB), 313 (Twenthe AB) and 323 Squadron (Leeuwarden AB). They arrived at Kabul on March 28 and flew their first mission on April 1, thus marking the third time Dutch F-16s had flown over Afghanistan. The two previous operations were from Manas AB in Kyrgyzstan. The principal tasks of the detachment are: support and air presence for ISAF and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, 24-hour quick reaction alert (QRA), close air support (CAS) with forward air controller (FAC), and support of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and national / allied troops.
A RNLAF F-16AM low level over northern Afghanistan.
The first deployment of Dutch F-16s took place on October 2, 2002, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on The World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon. As part of Operation Enduring Freedom eighteen F-16s of the European Participating Air Forces detachment (EPAF) were stationed at Manas Air Base. The Dutch, Danes and Norwegians each provided six aircraft. They were initially detached for six months, during which support was provided by a McDonnell Douglas KDC-10 tanker of the Royal Netherlands Air Force. On January 31, 2003 Denmark decided to extend its detachment and the Dutch followed on the February 14. Due to the high costs the Norwegian government ended its detachment on April 1, 2003 and the refuelling task was taken over by a USAF Boeing KC-135R, which also operated from Manas AB. The Afghan elections on October 9, 2004 led to a renewed deployment of six Dutch F-16s to Manas to safeguard the safety of ISAF during the election period.
With full afterburner this Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16AM of the 1 NLD/BEL EEAW F-16 Det ISAF takes off from Kabul International Airport.
The current deployment, an EPAF Expedition Air Wing (EEAW), comprises eight (four Dutch and four Belgian) F-16AMs, which have all had their MidLife Update (MLU) M2 modification. Both countries fly their missions separately to prevent potential communications misunderstandings and for judicial reasons they also fly their own aircraft. The total detachment consists of some 170 military personnel, of which just over one hundred Dutch ground staff from Leeuwarden Air Base will be deployed to January 2006. Their tasks will then be taken over by personnel from Volkel Air Base. Dutch pilots have a five week duty rota and come from all of the F-16 squadrons (311 and 312 from Volkel AB, 313 from Twenthe AB and 322 and 323 from Leeuwarden AB).
The Belgian contingent, of some sixty personnel, includes ground crew and pilots from Kleine Brogel (10 Wing) and Florennes Air Base (2 Wing). The Belgian Air Force named their deployment Eastern Eagle.
Although both countries supply operations and engineering personnel, the RNLAF has additional responsibilities such as runway maintenance, and logistics, medical and military police support
From Kabul International Airport, the F-16s of 1 NLD/BEL EEAW Det ISAF can cover the entire Afghan air space and by taking advantage of air-to-air refuelling by American KC-135 tankers their missions can be extended. However, since the weather conditions in Afghanistan can be changeable, a number of alternative airbases are provided, including Peshawar and Islamabad, Pakistan. Dushanbe in Tajikistan, is also used as an alternative base for the F-16s of the 1 NLD/BEL EEAW F-16 Det ISAF.
The detachment Commander Lt Col Peter Tankink.
The renovated runway of Kabul International Airport allows the pilots to fly night missions, the first of which was flown in August. The detachment Commander Lt Col Peter Tankink: "Pilots can carry out the entire flight with night vision goggles although less experienced pilots will switch on their landing lights just before touchdown. All pilots must have flown at least one night sortie before being allowed to fly QRA missions.” This is Lt Col Tankink’s fifth deployment. During 1993 and 1994 he was based at Villafranca in Italy, in 1995 he flew missions over former Yugoslavia and from January to April 1999 he was deployed at Amendola in Italy, from where he flew sorties over Kosovo.
On March 24, 1999 (then Major) Tankink, flew a sweep over Kosovo, during which a Serbian Mig-29 was detected about to attack fighter-bombers flying towards their targets in Kosovo. Major Tankink intercepted the MiG-29 and downed it with an AIM-120 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Air to Air Missile), thus becoming the first non-American pilot to shoot achieve a kill with this missile. The Mig-29 pilot ejected and survived." For its QRA task1 NLD/BEL EEAW F-16 Det ISAF retains two F-16s on a one hour alert. This befits the current level of tension in the region and the aircraft could
be airborne within 30 minutes if necessary. The Belgian and the Dutch Air Forces take turns on QRA duty, alternating weekly. The F-16s’ normal war configuration is: two GBU-12 500lb (227kg) laser-guided bombs, 510 rounds of 20mm ammunition, two AIM-9L Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, an AN/AAQ-14 Enhanced Lantirn laser targeting pod and a pair of underwing fuel tanks. As of mid-November 1 NLD/BEL EEAW F-16 Det ISAF had flown 520 missions, amassing 720 flying hours
A RNLAF F-16AM of the 1 NLD/BEL EEAW F-16 Det ISAF waits for permission to taxi to the runway.
F-16s and FAC
Co-ordination between forward air controllers and the F-16 pilots is of great importance for the operations in Afghanistan.
An ISAF FAC-team consists out of at least four personnel - a forward air controller, laser operator, communication specialist and an operator who can carry out all four duties.
Before an aircraft reaches the target area a coded communications check is carried out between the pilot and the controller. This is to ensure that the communication is not ‘spoofed’ by the enemy. An analysis of the situation, and the co-ordinates and altitude of the target are then transmitted to the pilot who is then free to devise his own strategy. The FAC team illuminates the target with a laser, or the pilot can elect to illuminate the target himself using the F-16’s AN/AAQ-14 laser targeting pod.
A PRISM photo taken from a Dutch F-16AM. The white cross is the target. On the left the second
Dutch F-16AM can be seen flying low of the target as a "Show of Force".
Photo: 1 NLD/BEL EEAW F-16 Det ISAF
For their Afghan missions Dutch F-16s are equipped with the PRISM (Photo Reconnaissance Intelligence Strike Module) system. This converts the AN/AAQ-14 images into JPEGs which can be downloaded in real-time to the FAC who can verify the target. (Within 1 NLD/BEL EEAW F-16 Det ISAF only the Dutch aircraft are equipped with the PRISM system.) PRISM is also used for bomb damage assessment, together with the FAC’s thermal imaging binoculars.
A RNLAF 312 squadron F-16AM of the 1 NLD/BEL EEAW F-16 Det ISAF flying over west Afghanistan.
Although the initial plan was for the F-16 detachment to redeploy after a few months to Bagram AB this now seems unlikely to happen due to the poor condition of its runway, but transferring the detachment from Kabul to Kandahar might be a suitable alternative. At the time of writing late November, the airbases at Bagram, north of Kabul, and Kandahar in the south are used by the American and coalition forces for Operation Enduring Freedom.
The F-16AMs of the 1 NLD/BEL EEAW F-16 Det ISAF operate 24 hours a day. For the night missions the pilots use their night vision goggles as can be seen here.
Kandahar is ISAF’s most important forward support base and is likely to become a primary base for even more air assets in the future. The Belgian F-16s, however, will not be part of it, as they are leaving on January15, 2006. They will be replaced by Norwegian F-16s. The Norwegian government has decided to send four F-16AMs to Afghanistan in the spring of 2006.
With full afterburner this Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16AM of the 1 NLD/BEL EEAW F-16 Det ISAF takes off late in the afternoon. This particular aircraft is from 312 squadron, which is normally bases at Volkel Air Base.
The deployment will last for three months, probably from early February to late April but the exact date of the deployment is not finally decided. It is of the utmost importance to ISAF that its third phase is successful as there is still appreciable unrest in southern Afghanistan. Maj Gen Jaap S Willemse summed up his feelings of ISAF operations by saying that “creating democracy always takes a lot of time, we will have to be patient, otherwise all of the effort to date will have been to no avail”.