Airpower Shaped by Iraqi No-Fly Zones
An F-15C Eagle tops off its gas tanks during an aerial refueling with a KC-135R Stratotanker during Operation Northern Watch. Both aircraft were part of a coalition task force that enforced the no-fly zone over northern Iraq and monitored Iraqi compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions for 12 years. (USAF Photo)
1 photo: An F-15C Eagle tops off its gas tanks during an aerial refueling with a KC-135R Stratotanker during Operation Northern Watch. Both aircraft were part of a coalition task force that enforced the no-fly
Photo 1 of 1: An F-15C Eagle tops off its gas tanks during an aerial refueling with a KC-135R Stratotanker during Operation Northern Watch. Both aircraft were part of a coalition task force that enforced the no-fly zone over northern Iraq and monitored Iraqi compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions for 12 years. (USAF Photo) Download full-resolution version

Introduction: During a media interview on the flightline last year, a reporter asked an F-16 pilot if he'd ever previously been a part of Operation Northern Watch. The pilot laughed and flippantly replied, "Are you kidding me? My whole career has been Operation Northern and Southern Watch." The aviator had, in fact, been deployed to Operation Northern Watch seven times and made three trips to Operation Southern Watch. As a veteran, experienced in patrolling the skies over the Iraqi no-fly zones, he was not alone.

Since the end of Operation Desert Storm, more than 100,000 U.S., U.K., French and Turkish troops have contributed to a number of coalition operations supporting humanitarian relief, enforcing no-fly zones and monitoring the Iraqi regime's compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolutions. For more than a decade, these operations contained Iraq's aggression against their own populations, hindered Saddam's ability to rebuild his own military force, and ultimately set the stage for the unparalleled military successes of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Additionally, the no-fly zones of northern and southern Iraq were the U.S Air Force's longest steady-state deployments. Ultimately, the lessons learned from these operations would reshape the future of airpower. They spurred the development and implementation of a new Air and Space Expeditionary Force concept of operations, refined the tactics and procedures of composite force employment, and prepared an entire generation of Airmen for the challenges of expeditionary operations in the 21st Century.

Aftermath of Desert Storm: The Iraqi northern no-fly zone was originally instituted to support humanitarian relief efforts. As Operation Desert Storm drew to a close, the Kurds of northern Iraq saw an opportunity to throw off the chains of oppression and quickly revolted against Saddam Hussein's weakened military forces. Kurdish rebels attacked Iraqi units and seized control of several key northern Iraqi towns. Days later, though, Saddam's forces unleashed ruthless counterattacks, quickly recovering lost territory and more. Kurdish villages were attacked with assault helicopters, artillery, and Surface-to-Surface Missiles, so the Kurd's fled to any sanctuary they could find.

As the Iraqi military forces pursued them, more than three million people escaped northward from their homes to hide in the mountains. Various reports indicated, by April 1991, more than 800,000 Kurds had fled to Iran with another 300,000 crossing into southeastern Turkey. Approximately 100,000 continued to hide in the mountains along the Turkish/Iraqi border. The lack of food, water and shelter in the mountains made matters worse as winter lingered on and temperatures plunged below freezing. Aid workers reported more than 1,000 people were dying daily, mainly the elderly and children.

In response to these attacks, the United Nations passed Security Council Resolution 687 on April 3, 1991. This resolution warned Iraq not to threaten its neighbors and proscribed Iraq's manufacture or use of weapons of mass destruction. Two days later, the United Nations also passed resolution 688, condemning Iraq's repression of its own population and called on member states to assist Kurds and other refugees in northern Iraq. The resolution also demanded Iraq cooperate with relief efforts. It was these Security Council Resolutions that formed the basis for coalition air operations over Iraq.

Mission: Stabilize the region, contain the regime To fulfill U.N. Security Council resolutions, Operation Provide Comfort was started on April 7, 1991, bringing humanitarian aid to more than a million Iraqi refugees fleeing Saddam Hussein's brutal attacks. Maj Gen James L. Jamerson, the USAFE deputy chief of staff for operations, commanded the combined operation involving forces from 13 nations led by U.S., United Kingdom, France, and Turkey.

On April 10, 1991, U.S. officials warned Iraq not to fly north of the 36th parallel or to interfere with the relief operations. To protect those forces and agencies tending to the refugees, Gen. Jamerson established the northern no-fly zone north of the 36th parallel. The air occupation of Iraq had begun, however, Iraq's reaction to the no-fly zone was unpredictable so the task force took all necessary precautions. A-10 Thunderbolt IIs led the cargo planes carrying relief supplies, checking the drop areas for any signs of Iraqi aggression. F-15 Eagles and F-16 Falcons also patrolled the skies to deter any air-to-air threat. An E-3 Sentry AWACS was incorporated into the force for command and control, while KC-135s provided aerial refueling. The composite team of tankers, fighters, jammers, reconnaissance and command and control aircraft maintained minimal presence patrols that carried the threat that aggressors would be dealt with severely and hostile intruders would not be tolerated.

Soon, the cargo aircraft along with approximately 20,000 U.S. troops and many non-government-organization workers were able to deliver much needed food, water, shelter and fuel to the refugees without fear of Iraqi air attack.

By the middle of July, the task force's troops pulled out of Iraq and civilian relief workers and other U.N. agencies assumed responsibility for the refugee camps. Operation Provide Comfort completed its mission in December of 1996, flying more than 100,000 patrol sorties and airlifting more than 12,400 tons of food, shelter, medical aid and fuel.As the humanitarian relief effort in northern Iraq ended, the coalition turned its focus to the U.N. Security Council resolutions that required Iraq to disarm and dismantle weapons of mass destruction programs. On January 1, 1997, Operation Northern Watch began enforcing the northern no-fly zone and monitoring the Iraqis to determine compliance with the U.N. Security Council resolutions. Although U.N. Resolution 687 required Iraq to dispose of weapons of mass destruction and production facilities, Iraq continued to interfere and on several occasions even expelled UN arms inspectors.

To accomplish the enforcement mission, Combined Task Force Operation Northern Watch used a composite force of approximately 50 U.S., Turkish and United Kingdom aircraft. Coalition fighters, tankers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets worked as a team to enforce the no-fly zone. Missions required a mix of aircraft and on any given day could have included: E-3B Sentry AWACS, EA-6B Prowlers, EP-3, F-15C and F-15E Eagles, F-16CJ and F-16CG Falcons, HH-60 and UH-60 Black Hawks, MC-130 Combat Talons, KC-135R Stratotankers, C-12, British GR-3 Jaguar, Nimrod and VC-10 tankers

The size of the coalition force provided to Operation Northern Watch did not permit around-the-clock presence over Iraq. The daily missions were a constant reminder of the power that could come if the Iraqis defied the U.N. Security Council resolutions. By denying Saddam's forces control of the air, Operation Northern Watch also denied him effective military operations on the ground as well.

"By containing Saddam Hussein's regime with the no-fly zones, we confined his military to a well-defined box, ultimately preventing him from rebuilding the bulk of his military infrastructure," said Gen. James L. Jones, commander of U.S. European Command headquartered at Stuttgart, Germany. "Our U.S., British and Turkish combined joint task force prevented him from further attempts to oppress and attack his own people as well as neighboring states."

As the "Green line" was established to separate Iraqi ground forces from the Kurdish populations in northern Iraq, Operation Northern Watch slowly brought stability to the region. However, this stability did not come without some risk. Though not officially at war, coalition aircraft flying in the no-fly zones were engaged by surface-to-air threats on nearly every mission. Anti-Aircraft-Artillery fire was the most common threat and usually seen firing from multiple locations on each mission. There were also surface-to-air missiles and a wide assortment of targeting radar threats to deal with.

"Our mission was defensive in nature, but we were not defenseless," said Maj. Gen. (Select) Robin Scott, Co-Commanding General of Operation Northern Watch from 2002 to 2003. "Every mission was a combat sortie. We responded to Iraqi attacks on our terms, at our time and place of choosing to ensure we had unimpeded access to our tactical area of responsibility."

Over the years, coalition aircraft responded to Iraqi attacks by dropping munitions on a wide variety of targets that threatened the no-fly zone patrols. These targets included missile sites, radar systems, command and control facilities and anti-aircraft artillery. During these engagements all coalition aircraft returned safely despite the fact that Iraq's leader set a $14,000 bounty for anyone able to down a coalition aircraft.

"Enforcing the northern no-fly zone was a combat mission and to measure success in combat you count the numbers of lives lost and saved," said Gen. Jones. "To never lose an aircraft to the Iraqi gunners who were shooting at our aircraft nearly every mission is an incredible accomplishment."

In recognition of their achievement, Headquarters Combined Task Force Operation Northern Watch received the Joint Meritorious Unit Award from the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for seven years in a row. "We were able to achieve this success because of our people," said Gen. Jones. "The coalition had the best aircrews, the best maintainers and the best support teams in the world. Our outstanding people are what made this mission a success."

After more than six years and 36,000 sorties, Operation Northern Watch's mission was completed when the last patrol landed March 17, 2003 -- one day before the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Building expeditionary warriors: Future uses of combat airpower will most likely be a combined operation with coalition forces working together. Experiencing the combined environment firsthand, more than 50,000 U.S., U.K., and Turkish aircrew, maintainers and support teams worked together and sharpened their combat skills at Incirlik Air Base during the six years of Operation Northern Watch.

Coalition forces gained invaluable experience planning combat missions, generating mission-ready aircraft, and controlling missions from a Combined Air Operations Center. Also, coalition forces gained excellent experience with composite force operations. By creating a composite team, Operation Northern Watch included a spectrum of airpower capabilities similar to the Red Flag training aircrews experienced at Nellis AFB, Nev."Because it was real combat flying, Operations Northern and Southern Watch were a step beyond Red Flag and the other 'Flag' exercises," said Maj. Gen. (Select) Scott. "Squadrons deployed and joined a composite team, planned, patrolled and responded when necessary to enemy threats."

For more than six years, the Operation Northern Watch mission was performed by a task force of more than 1,400 U.S., United Kingdom and Turkish troops. More than 1,000 positions in the task force were filled by U.S. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen from active duty, National Guard and reserve units who rotated through Turkey on 45-to-90-day tours.

"Our outstanding people did this difficult and dangerous job and made it look easy," said Maj. Gen. (Select) Scott. "Each year, Operation Northern Watch had a 700 percent turnover rate. In order to achieve mission success, everyone had to show up well-trained for the job at hand and ready to hit the ground running when they arrived in this challenging expeditionary environment."

Shaped New AEF System: On the U.S. side of the house, 12 years of enforcing Iraqi no-fly zones have had a profound effect on the Air Force. The requirement to man the no-fly zones forced the Air Force to evolve into today's Expeditionary Air Force instead of the cold-war force of forward basing.

"Since 1991, the service has lost two-thirds of its foreign bases and one-third of its force structure and personnel," said Gen. Michael E. Ryan, chief of staff of the Air Force from 1997 to 2001. "Yet our nation's strategy of selective engagement dictated that the service be ready to fight and win two nearly simultaneous major theater wars, while maintaining its commitments to a growing string of small-scale contingencies."

This meant less Airmen to do more and more deployments and the strain quickly became evident. Also, drops in retention rates and recruitment indicated that the Air Force needed a new system to take care of its people. "The mismatch between resources and requirements was forcing the men and women of the USAF into a lifestyle characterized by high personnel tempo at the expense of family life," said Gen. Ryan. "The answer was to create the Expeditionary Aerospace Force -- a new way of doing business that improved predictability and stability in personnel assignments and furnished the service with a powerful management tool to more efficiently align its assets with the needs of the warfighting Commanders in Chief."

Under the pressure of increasing deployment schedules -- especially the manning required for the no-fly zones -- the Air and Space Expeditionary Force construct was born.

"Increased operations and the potential for more are placing demands on our armed forces like never before," said Maj. Gen. Timothy A. Peppe, special assistant for Air and Space Expeditionary Forces. "The AEFs were created as an organizational and scheduling mechanism designed to spread Air Force capabilities across the force, and to produce scheduling predictability for our Airmen."

The new system was designed to make the new deployment lifestyle less stressful. Airmen were based primarily in the states and forward deployed as necessary through 15-month cycles of training, preparing, supporting, deploying and reconstituting.

"The idea was to rotate Airmen through these commitments on a 90-day cycle once every 15 months or so," said Maj. Gen. Peppe. "Knowing when they were in a training mode or when they were on call well in advance allowed Airmen to plan their professional and personal lives around these obligations."

As part of the legacy of the no-fly zones, our Air Force has been re-shaped to be more agile and ready for the challenges of future conflicts.

"The expeditionary Combined Task Force at Incirlik Air Base, using rotational forces, provided the level of agility necessary to conduct operations efficiently and effectively to support our National Security Strategy," said Gen. Jones.

Thanks to the model provided by the no-fly zone deployments, the Air and Space Expeditionary Force system now cycles Airmen to the fight at the top of their game.

Foundation for Operation Iraqi Freedom: In a rough neighborhood, the no-fly zones provided the stability needed to lessen hostile Iraqi threats to all people in the region. After Operation Provide Comfort brought humanitarian aid in accordance with U.N. Security Council resolutions, the Kurdish people began to flourish. The humanitarian efforts restored 70-80 percent of the villages that had been destroyed by Saddam's earlier attacks. Saddam could not mount definitive military operations in the northern no-fly zone and soon the rebelling Kurds had broken free as Iraq completely conceded control of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

"The 'Green line' was drawn to separate the Kurds from the Iraqi regime," said Gen. Jones. "The northern no-fly zone prevented Saddam Hussein from attacking and oppressing the Kurds as he had done in the past. In fact, the Kurdish people enjoyed a significantly better quality of life than the people who were still caught under the Iraqi regime."Because of the coalition force's experience in this region, U.S. forces have never been better prepared to prevail in armed conflict as they were for Operation Iraqi Freedom. For years, U.S. aircrews had flown over the terrain, intelligence units had studied the threats, and seasoned maintenance and support troops could sustain any operation required. United States troops and equipment had rotated into the Iraqi theater of operations for years. "Through the no-fly zones, we trained an entire generation of expeditionary warriors, providing them with the valuable combat skills that have in no small measure made Operation Iraqi Freedom so successful," said Maj. Gen. (Select) Scott. "Twelve years of combat flying in Iraq provided the expeditionary skills and experience that make our forces unparalleled in the world today."

Ultimately, the extensive experience gained in the no-fly zones set the stage for the successful liberation of the Iraqi people.

Conclusion: In the aftermath of Desert Storm, the no-fly zones stabilized a rough neighborhood, contained the Iraqi regime, built expeditionary warriors, shaped the AEF system and provided the foundation for Operation Iraqi Freedom's success.

Operations Provide Comfort and Northern Watch trained more than 100,000 U.S., U.K., French and Turkish troops to become experts at expeditionary, composite, combined and joint airpower operations. For more than a decade, these operations contained the Iraqi dictator's aggression against his own populations and hindered his ability to effectively engage the coalition.

As the Air Force's longest steady-state deployments, lasting 12 years, the no-fly zones of northern and southern Iraq ultimately reshaped the future of airpower. They spurred the development and implementation of a new Air and Space Expeditionary Force concept of operations, and refined the tactics and procedures of composite force employment.

This new generation of 21st Century warriors directly contributed to peace and stability in the region. Their efforts supporting humanitarian relief, enforcing no-fly zones and monitoring the Iraqi regime's compliance with United Nations Security Council resolutions led to well-seasoned leadership guiding our military forces during the liberation of the Iraqi people. The veterans of the no-fly zones set a new benchmark of excellence against which future coalition operations will be measured.

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