Friday, November 11, 2005

In Their Own Words #2: Eleven Stories For Veterans Day

Colonel Michael Svejgaard, Royal Danish Air Force, currently serves as Chief of Staff, Joint Operations Forces, Denmark. Colonel Svejgaard is author of the book Der Luftnachrichten Dienst in Denmark about the German Luftwaffe's night-fighter command-and-control network in Denmark during WWII, an excerpt of which is published here: Who'll Stop the Rain?

For photos accompanying this story, go here.


I am sitting in an old Soviet hangar at the CTF 82 command facility on Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. I am dressed in desert BDUs and carry a loaded 9mm under my left armpit. I have been posted as senior national representative to Coalition Task Force 82's Air Support Operations Center, controlling the close-air support missions flown by Danish F-16 MLUs operating out of Ganci AFB, Kyrgyzstan. I am not reflecting upon the fact that I am here; I know why. As a member of the global counter-terrorist coalition, it is our mission to hunt down any terrorists still in the area to make this world a better and safer place to live. No, I am reflecting back to the time when I joined my first squadron in 1965, when my knowledge of Afghanistan was limited to what I had read in Rudyard Kipling's Stalky & Co . If anyone at that time had told me that I would be here, at the age of 59, I would have had them committed to a suitable facility.

My first squadron was RDAF 729 (Reconnaissance) Squadron. Back in October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the squadron had flown several missions daily to cover the Soviet ships in the Baltic that were carrying missiles, light bombers, and torpedo boats to Cuba. There is a persistent squadron legend that says when the Soviets issued the order for their ships to turn back, the first detected to do so were those in the Baltic. So the first indication that President Kennedy got that the Soviets were backing down was the direct result of the squadron's work. Unit morale was sky high. We flew alone in RF-84 Thunderflashes, under-armed with four .50-caliber machineguns, but unafraid. A new pilot joining the squadron was told in no uncertain terms to live up to the standards, or find employment elsewhere - i.e., with a fighter-bomber squadron whose pilots could not find their own mother in an otherwise empty hangar, let alone pinpoint a target.

These were the times before satellites, so we had to fly daily surveillance missions over the Baltic in order to keep a semblance of a Recognized Maritime Picture. We worked closely with the naval radar stations, which could locate contacts but not identify them. This was part of our job. In areas outside radar coverage (even the Baltic can be a big sea), a West German recce squadron and we did most of the sea surveillance for Denmark and NATO.

It was also pre-GPS/INS [inertial-navigation system]. The attitude indicator acquired precession errors of five degrees in pitch and 10 degrees in roll at the slightest provocation, and the weather was frequently awful: visibility was three miles in haze with a 500-ft. ceiling over a gray sea with absolutely no horizon. Unless you constantly checked the attitude indicator you could quickly - and some did - become a 420-knot submarine.

The Soviet, Polish, and East German navies conducted training, exercises, surveillance, border patrols, and live firing of anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles. Whenever they performed some kind of activity, we were there - sometimes much to their annoyance. It was fairly standard for the ships' crews to fire flares in our general direction. When one is at 100 ft. at 300 knots a couple of hundred feet off the ship, flares can be quite distracting. At times they would also lock a fire-control radar onto us (Drum Tilt, Owl Screech, etc.). This was also before radar-warning receivers (RWRs), so we wouldn't even know about the radar lock until the film was developed and we saw that the AAA [anti-aircraft artillery] guns were trained at us during the entire photo-run.

In addition, certain types of ships were built only in the Soviet shipyards in the Baltic. Through intelligence sources, we would follow some of construction milestones, and we had a fairly good idea about when a given ship would complete her maiden voyage or start work-up. Needless to say, there was a fierce competition to be the one to get the first picture of a new-build vessel and beat the Germans. Those pictures were in high demand in many places.
The nations bordering the Baltic were the Soviet Bloc countries, neutral Sweden, West Germany, and Denmark. It was an absolute no-no to infringe upon the territory of the Soviet Bloc countries and Sweden. But after conducting an area search for almost an hour with no navigational aids and a compass that would drift about 10 degrees, one had a fairly good idea of one's position - within five miles, thereabouts. So it did happen that we violated foreign airspace once in a while, and then there was hell to pay! Tons of paperwork and an appearance before the squadron commander, or worse.

My next squadron was an air-defense squadron flying the F-104 Starfighter. In war our job was air defense; in peacetime it was airspace policing. There wasn't much to "police" in Danish airspace in those days, so again our missions often were over the Baltic. The Warsaw Pact's air-training and exercise activities were well known, so we were only scrambled if they deviated from their normal pattern - like the time when the Soviet Long-Range Air Force conducted a division-size exercise with dozens of TU-16 Badger medium bombers in cells of six heading straight for Danish airspace only to turn away within a few miles. Every F-104 airborne on a training mission that day was directed to intercept.

Years later I again flew reconnaissance missions over the Baltic, this time against naval and air targets, but in the RF-35 Draken, a Danish derivative of the Swedish Draken. Our version was equipped with an INS, HUD [head-up display], HOTAS [hand on throttle and stick], radar altimeter, laser rangefinder, ALR-69 RWR, and ALQ-162 RF [radio-frequency] jammer. Now there was no excuse for wandering into Swedish airspace! When we taxied back to the squadron area after a mission, the INS would display range and bearing from the point we had started. We had yet to start "harvesting the peace dividend," so it was business as usual, except that our modern equipment increased mission effectiveness by orders of magnitude. But sometimes too much information could also be nerve wracking.

On one standard mission, I came across an East German Koni-class patrol ship just north of the island of R¬łgen. Judging from my trusty INS, she was half a nautical mile outside East German territorial waters and, thus, in international waters, so she could be photographed, which I proceeded to do. Shortly thereafter, the ALR-69 lit up, indicating that I had been illuminated by a Pop Group, which is the fire-control radar for the SA-N-4, the naval derivative of the SA-8 surface-to-air missile. However, there were no missiles on the launch rails, so the ship was just playing cat-and-mouse (although the automatic missile loader could populate those rails faster than you could blink). As this did not dissuade me, a shore-based Low Blow fire-control radar for a SA-3 locked on and proceeded into ACTIVITY; the next indication you get, if the SAM crew complete their procedure, is LAUNCH. They were seriously annoyed. A Danish ground-control-intercept (GCI) station was monitoring me, so when I got a High Lark indication at my six and asked GCI about strangers, he told me that I had a MiG-23 at 10 miles and closing. I decided that the pictures I had already would have to do, and I departed the area accompanied by angry noises over the ALR-69.

On the F-104, we had carried hand-held cameras, but the resulting pictures were useful for identification of contacts only, and intelligence wanted details of small, sometimes flush antennas. So why not use the RF-35 as a camera-laden interceptor? After a short training program, we proceeded to ambush Warsaw Pact aircraft whenever they did something out of the ordinary.

As well all know, though, the people of Eastern Europe finally had enough. The Berlin Wall came down; the Soviet empire collapsed; and for quite some time, we had more violations of Danish airspace each month than we had during the entire Cold War. I was then director of operations in the Combined Air Operations Center, responsible for policing Danish airspace. The nations that had hitherto had been part of the Soviet empire took a while to fully understand the implications of sovereignty and the need for diplomatic clearances, flight plans, and proper aircraft markings. We had transport aircraft in civilian markings (with tail guns!), military display teams in armed fighters, and Backfire bombers flying through our airspace without proper clearance. The amendment process for the rules of engagement (ROE) simply could not keep up with developments in the new world disorder. As battle-staff director, on more than one occasion, I had to act in sprit of the time and use common sense. Following the letter of the ROEs would have been counterproductive, to say the least.

October 2003

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