On March 19th the US, France, UK and their allies unleashed the full strength of their air and naval power on the Lybian leader Moammar Khadaffi. It was the start of operation Oddyssee Dawn, which would later turn into operation Unified Protector under NATO command. On March 21st Belgian F-16’s flew their first mission and it quickly became clear to us that sooner or later 31 sqn would be involved as well.
That sooner or later became the month of May. Obviously this made us revise our schedule for the coming weeks, since we also had to take into account our deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan as from June.
All pilots of 31 sqn are of course combat ready and thus ready to go to theater any time, however we did want to adapt our flight schedule to be well prepared for the task at hand. Especially the EW range at polygone in Germany provided us useful training versus the SA6 and SA8 surface-air systems combined with air-ground training using simulated JDAM’s (GPS guided bombs) and LGB’s (laser guided bombs). A series of briefings covering the rules of engagement, weapons and tactics, local procedures and combat survival procedures completed our pre-deployment training.
Once arrived in Araxos, Greece, everything went fast: theater in-briefings and one day later our first pilots were already flying combat missions over Lybia. Details about the targets we hit during these missions are classified; however, it is no secret that we were regularly flying back to Araxos with empty racks.
Although most of us already participated in operations over Afghanistan, operation Unified Protector was of a totally different scale. For most of us these were actually the first bombs dropped during a combat mission. It was thus the opportunity for us to put into practice everything we learned during training missions over Belgium and abroad.
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There were generally 2 types of mission scheduled. Some missions already had their targets assigned prior stepping to the jets. These missions usually involved hitting targets which were used by the Khadaffi regime to sustain their war effort against the civilian population. The other type involved patrolling the Lybian skies and performing surveillance over key areas threatened by the Khadaffi military. If we would then spot for example a main battle tank firing towards a populated civilian area, we’d be cleared to engage it. The main objective during all missions was however the same: protect the civilian population by doing what we’re good at and avoid any collateral damage or civilian casualties.
During the month of May we started flying at night as well, which was previously not possible due to works on the main runway at Araxos. Again, the rule we use in training to “train as you fight and fight as you train” proved its value. As expected, we had no problems to transit to night operations, which shows the high level of expertise we have in our combat air force and squadron. Night operations did, however, have an impact on the working rhythm, especially since the night flying window in combat doesn’t stop at midnight like it does in Belgium during day-to-day training. Sometimes we came back from a mission at 8 o’clock in the morning and we’d have breakfast in between German tourists at the hotel prior going for a well deserved sleep.
Although participating to an operation like Unified Protector can be very exciting for us combat pilots, off course nobody wants to go to war. Especially our wives, girlfriends, friends and family weren’t thrilled about the fact that every day we were flying over a hostile territory with military personnel on the ground shooting at us. Luckily every mission returned to base safely and thus neither 31 squadron, nor the Belgian Air Force lost any plane or life during this extremely successful operation.