In October 2012 the F-16s of the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) achieved a milestone in the type's long and illustrious history, when they marked exactly 10 years since they began flying operations over Afghanistan. Northern Skies Aviation has visited Afghanistan several times during this decade to report these operations. Frank Visser went to Mazar-e-Shafir in the northern part of Afghanistan see the RNLAF F-16s in action.
When the Dutch soldiers left Tarin Kowt in southern Afghanistan and the Dutch Police Training Group was established in northern part of this country, ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) requested a re-location of the Air Task Force (ATF) to Mazar-e-Sharif. This took place in October 2011. The actual set-up of the ATF is the same as in the final period at Kandahar.
A RNLAF F-16 pilot preparing for its mission.
The RNLAF F-16s operated from these tents called clam shelters.
Currently this comprises some 100 personnel and four F-16AMs in the M5 configuration. Among other changes, the M5s have an enhanced Inertial Navigation System and improves Link 16 datalink for communication with aircraft such as the E-8C Joint STARS. The average Combat Air Support (CAS) mission last about three hours, usually with one air-to-air refuelling per hour, whereas a RecceLite sortie takes approximately one-and-a-half hours. The area of operations covers all of Afghanistan, though most CAS missions are carried out over the west and east of the country. By contrast, most RecceLite missions are flown on behalf of ISAF North.
Clearly visible are the the GBU-12 on the left wing an GBU-38 JDAM on the right wing.
The detachment has three RecceLite pods at its disposal, and these are regularly updated. The Dutch F-16s flew with the 1.6 version at Kandahar; at the time of writing they used the 1.9, with the 2.1 version being anticipated to come into use in early 2013.Not only does the reconnaissance task consist of counter-IED missions: the system is also used for reconnoitring buildings and other suspicious objects. For a counter-IED mission, one F-16AM equipped with a RecceLite pod and a second jet with the Litening AT Block II Advanced Targeting Pod (ATP).
The Litening AT Block II Advanced Targeting Pod.
Take-off from Mazar-e-Sharif International Airport.
The pilot with the ATP assumes the task of protection, enabling his colleague with the RecceLite to focus entirely on taking photos (first zero measuring, and then a second RecceLite mission along exactly the same route). If a RecceLite sortie interrupted by a troops in contact (TIC) call the mission will end in order to provide assistance to the ground forces in trouble. This has already happened on a few occasions. After dealing with the TIC, the reconnaissance task will be resumed. Night missions are not flown with the RecceLite. Although the system carries infrared cameras, the resultant photos are of inferior quality than the shots taken in daylight.
RTB this F-16AM M5 taxies back to its clam shelter. Clearly visible is the GBU-38 JDAM and the ATP.
At Mazar-e-Sharif, three photo interpreters complete assessment of the thousands of photos gathered in a single flight, for which they require about four hours. All this work can take place during the mission, though it is wholly dependent on realisation of a line of sight with the F-16. In the north,
a mountainous region, real-time image transfer is possible up to a distance of 100 km, whereas in
the south the evaluation of photos during flight can be carried out up to 350 km away. Over the last few years a lot of experience has been acquired in carrying out successful counter-IED missions with the RecceLite. Knowhow and collected data are shared with the other ISAF partners. For example, the Luftwaffe at Mazar-e-Sharif uses data and photos from previous ATF missions when preparing for reconnaissance flights with the IAI Heron unmanned aerial vehicle.
In mid-May 2012 Lt Col Bart Bakker took over as detachment commander of ATF20 for a four-month period. He immediately had to deal with a great challenge, namely arranging for an additional Quick Reaction Force task without extra manpower and/or F-16s. He was able to succeed because the serviceability of the F-16s was almost 100 per cent. Thereafter ATF 20 had 100 flying hours per month at its disposal, these mainly being used for CAS and RecceLite missions. The effective 'show of force' tactics resulted in reduced use of weapons (the 20mm Vulcan gun, the GBU-12 an GBU-38 JDAM). You can see that we are going through a transition here', Lt Col Bakker remarked. 'From a leading role in Kandahar to a support role here. At Mazar-e-Sharif we act much more out of self-defence and try to avoid or minimise collateral damage'. Although the ATF flies its missions exclusively for ISAF, in extreme situations the Operation Enduring Freedom can make use of the four Dutch F-16s.
Over the past 10 years the RNLAF F-16s have played a key role in Afghanistan. In August 2012 the milestone of 20.000 flying hours over the country was achieved, and by April 2013 AFT 22 had taken the total up to the 22.500-flying hour mark.