Friday, November 11, 2005

In Their Own Words #7: Eleven Stories For Veterans Day

Pierre-Alain Antoine served in the French Air Force. He was the senior marketing manager and operational advisor for the EW Systems Business Unit of Thales.

I was serving as a flight commander of a Jaguar squadron in the French Air Force during the civil war in Chad in 1986.

The Jaguar is an Anglo-French fighter-bomber, similar to the F-4 and armed with the French "Martel" anti-radiation missile (ARM). As flight commander in our squadron, out of Nancy Air Force Base, North East of France, I was responsible for half of the squadron during air missions.

At the time, Chad, a former French colony in Africa, was in the midst of a civil war between the nomadic Muslim rebels in the northern desert region of the country and the government, primarily Catholics of the much-greener southern region. France was supporting the government forces against the rebels and their Libyan allies.

Libyan leader Colonel Moammar al-Khaddafi had built an air base at Ouadi-Doum in the north of Chad, claiming that the base was being used to launch humanitarian mission to help the people of Chad. While the base was being built French Jaguars, specially equipped with recce pods, performed surveillance and recon missions over the Libyan base. The assessment: Yeah, the Libyans were using the base for humanitarian missions --but only if they were carrying food in fighter planes! In fact, some Il-76 transport aircraft arrived at the airfield with military materiel and personnel, presumably for an invasion of Chad.

Based on the information gathered by these recce missions, it was decided that French forces would attack the airfield at Ouadi-Doum. My Jaguar squadron -- along with Mirage F1Cs, transport aircraft (such as the C-160), C-135 tankers and a Breguet Atlantic I maritime-patrol aircraft of the French Navy, acting as an airborne command/ELINT post -- was detached to Bangui (in Central Africa) where we began preparations for the attack on the airfield. The attack wasn't going to be easy, though, since the base was protected by ZSU-23-4 anti-aircraft guns, a Flat Face surveillance radar and three SA-6 surface-to-air-missile (SAM) sites.

There were really two missions. The first consisted of bombing the runway at Ouadi-Doum -- a task not as simple as it might sound. The runway was specially made for the sandy desert environment. It was built with no concrete, only oil (to stabilize the sand) and steel planks, called grating, built in East Germany. It was also very long -- more than 3,000 m. I prepared the strike mission, but another squadron actually flew it in February '86. The runway was destroyed, but not totally. It was quickly repaired and was even stronger than before. One year later, in December '86, it was decided that a second mission would be flown, this time to take out the base's air defenses -- the Flat Face radar and the SAM sites -- because by now, the government's forces were advancing North, well supported by French troops, of course.

Again, I prepared the mission, which meant finding a way to solve a dilemma: the Martel ARM does not cover the full frequency spectrum, and because the frequencies of the radars at Ouadi-Doum were different, we needed different seekers on the missiles for each target. I decided to equip three of the Jaguars with Martels fitted with the appropriate seeker for the frequency of the SA-6s' Straight Flush radars and one with the seeker dedicated to the frequency of the Flat Face -- four targets, four aircraft and four missiles. The mission would have to go perfectly.

Once again, I did not get to fly the mission. My detachment was replaced by another the week before the attack was to be carried out, and the mission went ahead without us. The Jaguars took off from Bangui (in Central Africa), but as it turned out, one of the missiles was inoperative. The three other aircraft landed at N'djamena, Chad's capital city, located in the southern region. They were joined by the fourth aircraft a day later.

Unfortunately, by now, there were no signs of radar activity from Ouadi-Doum. The Breguet Atlantic I, patrolling nearby, noted that all the radars were switched off. To lure the radars into lighting up, we launched two Mirage F1CRs (recce version) from N'djamena. It worked! Well, it worked partially anyway. The Libyans had turned on their Flat Face radar. Quickly, all the Jaguars were scrambled from N'djamena. Since only the Flat Face had popped up, though, only one missile was fired in the ensuing strike. The Flat Face was destroyed - coincidentally, by the same aircraft that had been carrying the broken missile the day before.

After the destruction of the Flat Face, the government troops overran the airbase, capturing the three SA-6s. It was the beginning of the end of the war.

Although we had come back from the front with the SAMs, we had no suitable transport aircraftto carry them, so a deal was struck between the French Command and the US Command. One USAF transport aircraft came to N'djamena to carry one SA-6 radar, one SA-6 missile and one BMP (Soviet-made armored personnel carrier) to France, while a second carried the same package to the States.

Ironically, while visiting Nellis AFB a couple of months ago, a US Air Force general said to me, "Hey, Pierre, look on the back end of the ramp. We have a Straight Flush radar, an SA-6 launcher and a BMP."

I said to him, "Hey, do you know where you got this SA-6?"

"No," he said.

I smiled proudly as I told him, "I was in the C-5A that carried it to the States!"

December 2000


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