Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Harriers Over Afghanistan

The News Market has a compendium of video releases from the UK Ministry of Defense about Harrier operations in Afghanistan. Operating from Kandahar airbase since September 2004, six Harrier GR7A aircraft have played a role in coalition efforts to rebuild Afghanistan. Video clips include air-to-air shots of the aircraft and pilot interviews (free, but registration is required):

By Paul Brook, UK MoD

Harrier GR7As, part of Joint Force Harrier, based at RAF Cottesmore have been employed in Afghanistan since September 2004. They have been constantly engaged in supporting both the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in rebuilding Afghanistan and Operation Enduring Freedom in the south of the Country. They played a pivotal role in the successful Presidential elections last year and are planning to do the same again in the run up to the forthcoming Parliamentary elections in the autumn.

The Harriers of No 3 (Fighter) Squadron, under the command of Wing Commander Bruce Hedley, operate from Kandahar airbase in one of the most hostile environments in this war torn, barren province. The Squadron maintains crews at 30 minutes notice to launch throughout daylight hours to fly in support of Coalition forces. Wing Commander Hedley said that "their main role is to provide a reconnaissance and a deterrent effect to support troops on the ISAF and Op Enduring Freedom missions."

The insurgent and anti-government forces operate in the towns and remote mountainous regions in the southern provinces and along the Pakistani border. These regions are barren, hostile and are riddled with caves and opportunities for the insurgents to ambush coalition forces. The enemy fighters easily blend in with the local population which makes their identification particularly difficult.

The Harrier GR7A carries Enhanced Paveway precision guided bombs, rockets and Maverick missiles as well numerous sensors and defensive flares. However, it is testament to the resolve of the crews and physical presence of such a capable aircraft they have only had to resort to deploying munitions on less than 14 operations.

Wing Commander Hedley said that the "Coalition operations in the south of this enormous country are best supported by fast air. The Harrier is excellent in terms of its agility, adaptability and speed of response and this small detachment of only 6 aircraft has had a disproportionately large effect on the success of Coalition operations in the region."

Wing Commander Hedley said that "when the Harriers launch on operations they deploy a graduated response to situations." Having first identified precisely the location of the enemy, they will then fly low and fast over the enemy positions as a show of force and "their sheer presence often coerces the enemy to stop what they are doing."

The Harriers frequently support pre-planned missions against the insurgents. The commander of a US Army task force operating on the ground recently remarked on the excellent coordination and effect of the Harrier in theatre. He said "I have never had a mission where ground manoeuvre and air assets were so well linked. When we kicked in the door, less than a second later the Harriers were over the target building. All the insurgents were so shocked, there were no engagements and we secured the objective in less than a minute."

Pilots liaise closely over radio with the Coalition ground forces to ensure they correctly identify the locations of the enemy targets and the coalition forces to be precisely sure of the ground situation before launching weapons if they are required.

US Army troops who have been ambushed in this most hostile of environments regularly contact the Harrier crews to thank them for their outstanding support. Another US Army commander said "the battalion had been pinned down and could not get out of their vehicles due to direct fire." He went on to say that "they have never felt more secure in their lives once the Harriers screamed over."

The initial deployment to Kandahar was established by No 3 (Fighter) Squadron, who have recently returned to the theatre for a further 4 months tour of duty. They handed over responsibility initially to No 1 (Fighter) Squadron who then passed the mantle to No. IV (Army Cooperation) Squadron, all from RAF Cottesmore.

The deployed operating base, commanded by Wing Commander 'Arnie' Palmer, who is OC Operations Wing for RAF Cottesmore, is part of the NATO base in Kandahar which accommodates approximately 5000 Coalition forces. The overall British detachment has 6 Harrier GR7As and a total of around 180 personnel.

This austere, remote outpost presents our people with many demanding challenges. Flight Lieutenant Jamie MacGillivary, one of the Squadron pilots, said that "the heat is the greatest challenge with temperatures in the summer regularly in excess of 45oC." In the winter, the temperatures plummet and the base regularly floods, turning the dust bowl into a quagmire.

The base is 3300' above sea level which also presents the aircraft with performance issues, which coupled with high winds and dust makes the aircraft engineer's life extremely difficult. It is testament to their skill and determination that they have always been able to keep the aircraft ready for operations.

The US Forces are slowly rebuilding the runway but currently Harrier is the only fast jet fighter that is able to operate in the south of the country and is the sole asset readily available to support Coalition troops on the ground. Often there is less that 3500' of runway available from which to operate and even this regularly breaks up with the force of the Harrier's powerful Rolls Royce Pegasus engines.

Next year, the Headquarters Group of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) is expected to deploy to command ISAF in Afghanistan and options are being discussed to determine the British military contribution in southern Afghanistan as part of the planned NATO expansion.

UPDATE: Defense Industry Daily has some more on UK Harriers in Afghanistan and Iraq, including a link to a report by the UK Royal Marines about Harriers in the Falklands War.


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