February 9, 2012 (by SrA Daniel Phelps) - Fire rained down from the sky as the F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 20th Fighter Wing demolished the Libyan air defense systems, protecting NATOs air power and empowering the revolutionaries to topple a corrupt regime.
Capt. Jason Blodzinski lands USAF F-16C block 50 #94-0044 from the 77th FS at Aviano AB following an Operation Unified Protector sortie. [USAF photo]
The primary mission of the 20th FW is to be a counter-air wing through the suppression and destruction of enemy air defenses.
"When something like this kicks off, you want the best," said Col. Charlie Moore, 20th Fighter Wing commander. "Of course, I'm biased, but we do this better than anyone else. They asked for the best and that's what they got."
Two squadrons from the 20th FW answered the call - the 77th Fighter Squadron and the 55th Fighter Squadron.
The 77th FS
arrived at Aviano Air Base, Italy
, April 8, 2011 and flew the NATO
mission until Sept 10, 2011, when the 55th took the lead.
"When Odyssey Dawn ended there was a huge void in the effort to take down the Libyan integrated air defenses," said Lt. Col. Johnny Vargas, 77th FS commander. "There was no plan. But, the 77th pilots stepped and developed a systematic approach to take them down."
Large portions of Libyan air defense systems were cut off, but there was still a viable threat, he added. When we got there, we destroyed them.
"By the time the 55th FS got there, they were pretty much on their heels," said Lt. Col. Michael Schnabel, 55th FS commander. "The only concern we had was tactical surface-to-air missiles that had been unlocated, a couple of guys in vehicles who had the radars to take shots. But, we had the capability with our sensors to spot them if they ever turned their radars on."
The 20th FW never directly engaged Libyan ground forces, their rules of engagement were to seek out and destroy the Libyan IADS.
Sometimes they'd track forces to see who they were, Schnabel remarked. But, we never engaged because we were only providing air defense. Instead, we'd provide the targeting information for other NATO aircraft to engage such non-air defense targets.
"We were sent a couple of times to seek out potential low-flying helicopters that might be a threat to support the embargo, but generally we were taking out anti-aircraft artillery and SAM
[surface to air] sites," Vargas added.
"We prevented them from wanting to do anything in the air," Schnabel commented. "We kept them from even thinking about messing with us. We'd go out and find things, bombing their radar sites, triple-A, and missile storage areas, and things like that, which would basically prevent them from organizing any kind of air defense and try to strike back at NATO aircraft."
Missions generally lasted between 8 to 11 hours a day providing 24-hour suppression of enemy air defense coverage and sending out several aircraft per day.
Vargas usually flew during the day, showing up 4 a.m., spending an hour and a half on the ground preparing and then flying two and a half hours to Libya. During the missions, he would leave the country's airspace to refuel, only to return to continue hunting for air defense assets. The process was repeated 3-5 times per mission throughout the day.
The vulnerability periods when they were in the country providing SEAD coverage for NATO was generally an hour a piece, Schnabel said.
"The first time you cross the fence into bad guy land is an experience," Vargas said. "You're there for a specific thing: protect the good guys and destroy the bad guys."
When they took off they coordinated with the combined air operations center to get preapproved target areas in case we didn't have anything to go after, Vargas said. Little intelligence from the Air Operations Center was given on what was out there and what the threats were.
"We had to find a way to track that," Vargas explained. "We developed targeting books on every known SAM site in the Libyan inventory. We tracked what we had and hadn't hit so the next sortie could find what to go after next. There was an incredible amount of target study that went into this."
At times it was difficult to identify targets, Schnabel added. They were finding them on their own from a variety of intel sources and seeing them from the aircraft.
"We'd go to great lengths to ensure that what we were dropping on were valid targets,' Schnabel described. "We would get different views and make sure that we all agreed. We had to make sure it was something we could drop on."
The 77th FS developed targeting cells, which normally doesn't happen at the squadron level, Vargas said. Normally it happens at the AOC but the 77th guys would go through and find threats and have them destroyed.
"We took a lot of things that normally happened at a higher echelon and took care of it in house," he added. "We rewrote the dynamic kill chain. Layers of excess were cut. We got the info from the people we needed to and gave it to those it needed to go to; us in the cockpit with the bomb. The targets were destroyed in minutes instead of days."
Generally there wasn't any real threat to NATO forces because of the pressure the 20th FW was putting on the Libyan forces, Schnabel explained.
"Our mission and capabilities really dissuade the enemy from shooting at coalition forces because they know they are going to eat a bullet if they fire," he said.
However, one time there was a pretty big threat, Vargas commented. A highly capable and lethal threat had gone missing.
The 77th FS had to go on a search to find it and destroy it, Vargas said. One month into the hunt, they finally found it and destroyed it.
"We were right," Vargas exclaimed. "The threat was real and we destroyed him. If we hadn't found him, there was a high possibility that he could have taken down a NATO jet and it would have been a game changer in the war."
Both the 77th and 55th FS played key roles in key victories in the war.
The 77th helped facilitate the fall of Tripoli August 20 by being in the skies when the city was taken by anti-Gaddafi forces.
They didn't engage direct threats due to the established rules of engagement, but took out the radars that could threaten their coalition partners.
"Being overhead and seeing the chaos as the city was over ran was incredible to see," Vargas described. "I was watching and helping make that happen by allowing NATO to do what they needed to do."
The 55th played a key role in a raid to remove a pro-Gaddfhi safe haven deep in Libya's interior.
The mission on the city of Sebha was led by Capt. Beau Diers, 55th FS F-16 pilot. He led a large coalition strike that targeted the city's SAM sites and got them out quickly and safely. They took out the enemy's air defenses so NATO could perform follow-on strikes.
"We railed on them so well, that after that raid, the anti-Gaddfhi force became emboldened and took over the town within 24 hours of our attack," Schnabel said. "The follow-on strikes weren't even needed."
"The success of the 20th FW in Operation Unified Protector was superb," Moore said. "The number of SAM sites, radars, missiles and triple-A pieces they targeted and destroyed was phenomenal. There's no telling how many lives we saved by being so good at what we do."
This is part two of a four-part series on the 20th Fighter Wing's role in Operation Unified Protector.