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Tomcats at war

Photo: A pair of ‘Checkmates’ F-14As formates on a tanker high above poor weather during the 2002 deployment. US DoD

 

Although developed during the Cold War as a fighter, the mighty Grumman F-14 Tomcat evolved into the US Navy’s premier precision-strike platform by the autumn of 2001, writes Tony Holmes. The veteran jet’s effectiveness in this mission would be shown time and again during the US-led Operation ‘Enduring Freedom’.

 

A VF-102 F-14B prepares to launch from USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) in late January 2002. US Navy via Tony Holmes

Leading the first manned air strikes on Afghanistan from 7 October 2001, Tomcat-equipped Fighter Squadron 14 (VF-14) and VF-41 aboard USS Enterprise (CVN 65) and VF-213 embarked in USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) hit Al-Qaeda and Taliban strongholds across the country. These units were soon supplanted by VF-102 aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) and VF-211 embarked in USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74).

After weeks of precision bombing by carrier-based tactical air (TACAIR) assets, supported by US Air Force heavy bombers, the US-backed Northern Alliance launched its ground offensive. Thanks to overwhelming air support, controlled by special operations forces (SOF), Al-Qaeda and Taliban strongholds were soon captured. In early December Kandahar fell, and remaining enemy fighters slipped into the mountains in eastern Afghanistan or fled into neighbouring Pakistan. At this point Tomcat crews commenced the Tora Bora anti-cave campaign.

By February 2002, senior officers in Central Command (CENTCOM) believed that most Al-Qaeda fighters still in-country were holed up in the mountainous Shah-i-Kot region south of the city of Gardez, in eastern Afghanistan’s Paktia Province. In what would eventually become the first major conventional action of Operation ‘Enduring Freedom’ (OEF), the US Army’s Task Force (TF) Mountain, consisting of 2,000 troops from the 10th Mountain Division and 101st Airborne Division, in conjunction with Afghan forces, engaged more than a thousand hardcore Al-Qaeda fighters entrenched in ridgelines and caves throughout the Shah-i-Kot Valley.

Dubbed Operation ‘Anaconda’, the objectives of this campaign were supposed to have been achieved within 72 hours of the offensive commencing, according to senior TF Mountain planners. In actuality, combat on the ground raged for a full two weeks, costing the lives of eight SOF team members and countless Afghan soldiers. A further 80 US troops were wounded.

The US Army had seriously underestimated the size of the enemy force opposing them. Spoiling for action, TF Mountain’s opponents were battle-hardened Arab and Chechen fighters equipped with crew-served heavy machine guns, sniper rifles and mortars that were located in well-camouflaged positions in the mountains surrounding the Shah-i-Kot Valley. These men had plenty of provisions, as well as a robust communications system.

Although Coalition forces eventually prevailed in ‘Anaconda’, the battle was only won thanks to an overwhelming, and sustained, aerial bombardment. Ironically, no TACAIR assets were originally briefed into the ‘Anaconda’ battle plan by TF Mountain, the US Army instead choosing to rely on Apache helicopters.

Having not been dialled into the operation, and therefore unaware of its scale, Carrier Task Force 50 had allowed CVN 71 to have its first port call in 159 days on 28 February 2002, when the vessel briefly visited Bahrain. Key staff from Carrier Air Wing 9 (CVW-9), embarked in CVN 74, were also in town at the same time, as the Fifth Fleet was conducting a tactics review conference with TACAIR commanders and operations officers from both air wings. Attending this event was VF-211’s Operations Officer (OPSO), LCDR Nick Dienna:

‘We should have realised that something was up when we were tasked with flying a series of TARPS [Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod System] missions over the Shah-i-Kot area in late February. Our frustration rapidly grew during the first two days of the campaign when we saw just how poorly the TACAIR aspects of the offensive had been planned. With most of the air wing leadership in town on the eve of ‘Anaconda’, we felt that CVW-9 could have at the very least rendered some assistance in the development of a plan for airspace control for prepping the battlefield. This would have given us some insight into the primary aims of the campaign, and how the commanders on the ground wanted the battlefield to be shaped so as to achieve their goals expeditiously and with minimum casualties.’

VF-211 pilot LT Dan Buchar expressed the feelings of most aircrew aboard CVN 74. ‘The planning of ‘Anaconda’ certainly left something to be desired in respect to Naval Aviation’s contribution to the operation, as we were enjoying a rare beer day when it all kicked off!’

VF-102’s Tomcats worked closely with Forward Air Controllers (FACs) during the ‘Anaconda’ missions. VF-102

With USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67) due in theatre in early March as relief for CVN 71, CVN 74 had chosen 2 March to make the transition from night to day operations by declaring a no-fly day. CENTCOM had raised no objections when informed of this brief operational stand-down prior to ‘Anaconda’ being launched.

The offensive had originally been due to start on 28 February, but it was delayed until 2 March because of poor weather. Just hours before troops moved into the Shah-i-Kot Valley, LCDR Dienna and other senior officers in CVW-9 were briefed that the biggest OEF campaign since the air wing’s arrival in-theatre on 15 December 2001 was about to commence. ‘My first questions as OPSO were, ‘Where are the airspace control measures, where are we going and who are we supporting?’ I received few answers from the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC)’, recalled LCDR Dienna.

‘The first two days of ‘Anaconda’ reflected the fact that there had not been a whole lot of co-ordination between the 10th Mountain Division, which was running the offensive on the ground, and TACAIR assets in theatre, which were in essence charged with supplying the aerial artillery for the troops’, he continued.

‘I experienced this lack of big picture airspace and tactical control during the early phase of the offensive at first hand when my section made 10 runs through the Shah-i-Kot Valley trying to release our weapons. Each time we had Apaches come through beneath us working targets in the valley, thus preventing us from getting our ordnance off.

‘There were numerous SOF teams in the Shah-i-Kot too, and our primary concern when we started flying ‘Anaconda’ missions was our lack of knowledge as to the exact location of our troops on the ground. We would check in on a frequency with one Joint Tactical Air Controller (JTAC) and start working targets for him without having any real understanding of what the overall battlespace looked like. It really took CVW-9 a good 48 hours to get a handle on what was going on on the ground in the Shah-i-Kot.’

A VF-102 RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) performs a pre-flight check on a GBU-12 before an ‘Enduring Freedom’ mission. US Navy

VF-102’s final missions

While CVW-9 was left kicking its heels for the first day of ‘Anaconda’, CVN 71’s CVW-1, fresh from its brief Bahrain port call, responded to anxious requests for help as TF Mountain troops came under withering machine gun and mortar fire as they were airlifted into the Shah-i-Kot Valley by US Army CH-47s. Eight Apaches had been tasked with covering the insertion, but three had to be scrubbed pre-mission due to technical problems. Once in the valley, Al-Qaeda fighters immediately targeted the remaining five, with every one of them being hit either by machine gun rounds or shrapnel from rocket-propelled grenades. Limping back to base, the AH-64s were all declared unserviceable.

With JTACs and GFACs (Ground Forward Air Controllers) on the ground bombarding the TF Mountain command cell in Bagram with anxious pleas for air support, the CAOC did its best to get jets into the area as quickly as it could. The call went out to CVW-1, and VF-102 was among the units to respond. It hastily launched a division of four jets on 2 March on what would prove to be the last OEF mission of the 2001-02 ‘Diamondbacks’ combat cruise. Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) LT Andrew Hayes was in the lead aircraft, and he noted the details in his cruise diary:

‘Somehow I conned the OPSO into including me in the unit’s final OEF mission when we got the call to support Operation ‘Anaconda’ — after months of no action, we were all certain that we would be getting bombs off on this flight. I convinced him because I had seven carryover missions from Operation ‘Southern Watch’, and this flight would be my 43rd for OEF, thus giving me 50 in total. This would earn me five strike/flight air medals post-cruise.

‘I briefed the flight and we manned up five jets. This was just as well, as our planned wingman went down. The crew of the fourth Tomcat in our division had a bad LTS (LANTIRN Targeting System) pod, but we took them in any case.

‘The USAF had dropped plenty of JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) in the area during the night, but these had clearly been ineffective as we had received reports that several AH-64s had suffered battle damage just hours earlier. The flow into the area was pretty orderly, and we were passed to a GFAC frequency, then immediately switched to another with the call sign ‘White Lightning’. We were given co-ordinates for enemy bunkers, but got bogged down with a bad talk-on.

‘With weather blocking our view of the target area half of the time, we asked the GFAC to mark it with a smoke round fired from an M203 grenade launcher. Although his first round dudded, the second hit home, and I pulled the correction from him of ‘800 NW’ (north-west). Just as we were getting ready to throw some bombs down to get the ball rolling, ‘Dragon’ (the Direct Air Support Center in Bagram) called the GFAC and told him that his sensors in the area were picking up friendlies near the bunkers — not a good feeling at all. Here we were on the last day of our part of the war and they had tried to get us to kill some good guys.

‘‘White Lightning’ then went off the air for a while as he tried to unscrew his programme, so we talked to another GFAC. He passed us co-ordinates of a cave he wanted us to attack, but he couldn’t see it. He had people observing it though, so we could get corrections, but they were delayed too. Eventually, using our LTS pod, we found something ourselves that was close to his cave, and we and our wingman attacked it with a single LGB (laser-guided bomb) apiece. The GFAC called the correction of 100m east. We then made another attack, putting the bombs 100m east as directed, and the next correction from the GFAC was 300m east!

‘We were getting low on fuel, so we handed the tasking off to the second section of Tomcats just as the GFAC passed us a third target set — yet another one that he couldn’t see, and with friendlies within 300m of the aim point. We declined and went off and stole some gas (about 4,000lb each) from an off-going tanker, before all joining up at our last tanker. The GFACs were asking for guys to strafe as we were leaving, but the French E-2 that took over from ‘Bossman’ — the airborne USAF AWACS — had no clue. The good thing was another division of strikers was on station to give the guys support, however. We headed back to CVN-71 for the ‘diamond break’.’

VF-102’s Operations Officer, LCDR Tom Eberhard, was also involved in this final mission, and he too was less than impressed with the ground control he received on 2 March:

‘Overall, the FACs [Forward Air Controllers] I worked with in OEF were phenomenal at doing the job — SEALs that had completed the FAC course at Fallon, Air Force Combat Controllers, US and foreign SOF teams and the Green Berets were all very good to work with. The Green Berets, in particular, were a little less doctrinal and more ‘blue collar’ in the way they controlled TACAIR assets. There was much more plain-English communication involved when conducting target talk-ons. Things only went downhill when the regular US Army arrived in-theatre in mid-January.

‘I was flying with the CO, CDR Roy Kelley, on the 2 March mission, and we were directed by the GFAC to bomb what turned out to be a friendly position. Just 10 seconds before we were due to drop the LGB I told the CO not to pickle the weapon — he quickly safed up the bomb release system. Listening to the talk on the radio I got this feeling that something wasn’t right. Sure enough, 10 seconds later, we got an abort call from the guys on the ground when they realised what they had done. I knew that they weren’t in contact or taking fire from any bad guys, being some 10 miles from the nearest enemy position.

‘The friendlies, who were brand new in-theatre, had intel on where the Taliban forces were in relation to their position, but they were so bad at the doctrine of calling in fire support that they simply screwed up. Both the American and Taliban forces were fighting in a heavily wooded area not too far from the ‘Whaleback’ that dominated the Shah-i-Kot Valley, and that meant we would be dropping our ordnance on co-ordinates without actually seeing the target. I suggested to the CO that we should check out and head home, as I did not want to end my time in Afghanistan by dropping a bomb on some good guys.

‘The US Army certainly got a lot better after ‘Anaconda’, with lessons being quickly learned and high-level conferences taking place at CENTCOM between air and ground representatives.’

The following day CVN-71 departed the Northern Arabian Sea and set course for home.

‘Fighting Checkmates’ in action

On 3 March 2002 VF-211 at last got the chance to show its mettle in OEF, the unit’s aviators having spent almost three months kicking their heels flying uneventful XCAS (the CAOC’s moniker for immediate close air support missions) patrols over Afghanistan. Having missed the first day of ‘Anaconda’, the ‘Fighting Checkmates’ soon made up for lost time. As had been the case during the ground campaign in the early months of OEF, Forward Air Controller (Airborne) — FAC(A) — Naval Aviators like LCDR Nick Dienna played a particularly important role in this chaotic offensive:

‘In ‘Anaconda’, we had a much larger force than had previously been seen in Afghanistan operating in a much smaller area. A standard kill box controlled by one FAC at the start of OEF was 30 nautical miles by 30 nautical miles, but in ‘Anaconda’ that area had shrunk to eight nautical miles by eight nautical miles, run by 30-plus Coalition SOF, US SOF and TF Mountain controllers! With a much larger friendly footprint on the ground, you now needed those more traditional controls that we strictly observed when conducting CAS training during our work-ups at home. Unfortunately, these did not exist in the early stages of the campaign.

‘Quickly realising that there was no real airspace control plan for ‘Anaconda’, our FAC(A) crews took it upon themselves to organise TACAIR support in their assigned target areas. They would initially check in on the primary control frequency given to them by ‘Bossman’ and then try and get all other TACAIR assets in the immediate area to tune into this frequency too. They would then determine who was talking to which FAC, and where they were located, and then go about de-conflicting the strikers either laterally or vertically. This worked well, as the number of jets in the Shah-i-Kot at any one time was of a manageable number — typically two divisions at a time from CVW-9.

‘The first division would check in, with the second division some 45 minutes behind it. These would then alternate between the target area and the tanker so that there was always a two- or four-ship formation over the target the entire time. The divisions were typically mixed, with a single section of two Tomcats being paired up with a similar number of Hornets. The latter were usually armed with JDAM and LMAVs (laser-guided AGM-65E Maverick missiles), while the F-14s carried LGBs and iron bombs — a spread of weapons that CVW-9 found covered most targeting requirements during ‘Anaconda’.

‘We would usually split up into sections once over the Shah-i-Kot due to the jets’ differing tanking cycles. There were also some USAF F-15Es in the mix, but they tended to do their own thing.’

VF-211’s most memorable day of fighting in OEF occurred on 4 March after a SOF team was ambushed soon after dawn as they attempted to insert themselves on the ridgeline of Takur Ghar. They were heading for Objective Ginger, which had a commanding view of the entire Shah-i-Kot Valley, but Al-Qaeda forces in hardened, and well camouflaged, bunkers shot up the team’s MH-47E just as it landed and forced the helicopter to hastily leave — crucially without US Navy SEAL PO Neil Roberts.

When word reached Bagram that there was a soldier missing behind enemy lines, a US Army Ranger quick reaction unit scrambled in two more MH-47Es. When the first of these touched down 50m from the top of Takur Ghar, the enemy again targeted the helicopter and shot it down through a combination of RPG and machine gun fire — four crewmen died and several others were wounded. The survivors set up defensive positions just 150m from one of the snow-covered Al-Qaeda bunkers, and they were eventually rescued at around 20.00hrs, having relied exclusively on CAS to keep the enemy at bay. Their combat controller, USAF Capt Gabe Brown (call sign ‘Slick 01’), later told his superiors that he had handled some 30 CAS sorties throughout the day. Flying one of those aircraft near Takur Ghar was VF-211 pilot LT Dan Buchar:

‘Shortly after dawn, I launched as part of a division of four F-14s sent into Afghanistan in support of ‘Anaconda’, having been briefed to head to the Shah-i-Kot Valley to help troops in contact as they continued to battle with enemy forces. As we headed north, the SOF MH-47E was shot down near Objective Ginger. Shortly after that, our division lead, LT Larry Sidbury, got a call from ‘Bossman’ telling him that our bombs were needed straight away. We had to refuel first, however, so each jet quickly topped off its tanks and then headed independently to the target area.

‘LT Sidbury and his RIO, LCDR Tim Fitzpatrick, who were both FAC(A)-qualified, reached Takur Ghar first and quickly made contact with ‘Slick 01’. The latter was pinned down near the wreckage of the MH-47 along with the survivors of the US Army Ranger quick reaction unit. LT Sidbury and his wingman LT Bryan Roberts worked directly with ‘Slick 01’, and they dropped ordnance within 500m of the friendlies.

‘Ordered to return to the ship by the AWACS after expending all of his bombs, LT Sidbury told everybody — including a rear admiral and a USAF general — ‘No’ because the guys on the ground were still taking withering fire. He got to the point where he turned his radios off, thus blocking out the distraction of the ‘return to base’ calls. Eventually relieved on station, LT Sidbury somehow made it to the tanker before running out of fuel and finally trapped back aboard CVN 74.

‘His CO was still flying at the time, but his XO [Executive Officer] started grilling him about why he had ignored the calls to return. At this point CAG [the air wing commander] stormed into the ready room and started to tear strips off LT Sidbury for disobeying a direct order. A few minutes later the admiral also walked in and everybody immediately stood to attention. His first words to LT Sidbury were, ‘That’s the best thing I ever saw. Don’t you ever do anything different!’

‘While LT Sidbury and his wingman had been controlling the airspace over Takur Ghar, my RIO, LCDR Ed Galvin, and I, along with LT Mark Bruington and his RIO, LT Shaun Swartz, had been sent to attack some mortar positions that were firing on our troops in the south-eastern corner of the Shah-i-Kot Valley.

‘We got to work with an EP-3E rather than a JTAC during this mission, with targeting information being fed to us by the aircraft as it circled high over the valley. The EP-3E had a SOF guy in the back picking out the mortar positions with the Orion’s various sensors. The descriptions that he gave us of the various mortar locations were eye watering in detail! He would say, ‘Do you see the mud hut with the courtyard?’ as he tried to talk us on to a building while we were circling at 20,000ft! The enemy’s firing positions were actually within mud huts on the edge of the town of Shah-i-Kot itself.

‘After we failed to locate the target, the EP-3E had a B-1 that was on station throw a JDAM down to act as a mark for us. My RIO quickly spotted the impact point on the FLIR [forward-looking infra-red], and then the SOF guy also talked his eyes on to it — we hit the mortar pit and two vehicles with a pair of LGBs. Their destruction was confirmed by the EP-3E, and we then targeted another position with our remaining GBU-12s later in the mission. All four jets in our division returned to base without their bombs.

‘There was also a Predator UAV on station near the EP-3E as well as the B-1, and some F-15Es checked in just as we left. It was an all-out effort to provide TACAIR coverage for the guys pinned down on Takur Ghar, as well as our troops coming under fire in the valley below.

‘Things had gotten a little frantic for a while there when we were struggling to locate the mortar position. We actually had the B-1 split our section at one point while LT Bruington was working the target area and I was providing high cover for him. The bomber basically flew between us! It was after this near miss that we decided that we needed to get altitude separations between aircraft types sorted out before we bombed anything. Thereafter we stuck to individual CAP points that were widely spaced, and only came into the valley when instructed to by the EP-3E.

‘We never actually saw the Orion at any stage during this mission, the aircraft being up higher than us, and some distance away from the valley. We did, however, spot the Predator, which was down close to 10,000ft, while we stuck to a hard deck height of 20,000ft.

‘As we headed back to the carrier we could hear the gunfire, and calls for help, over the radio from the guys stuck on Takur Ghar, and although we had done our best to help the Rangers, they still weren’t out of trouble when we returned home out of ordnance. That was the worst I felt during the whole cruise, and I couldn’t sleep when I got back to the boat, despite the exhaustive nature of the mission. It was a huge relief to everyone when we heard that they had extricated all of the survivors that evening. We got to meet some of these guys in Bahrain during a port call two weeks later, when they told us that our actions had saved their lives.’

This feature first appeared in the June 2012 edition of Combat Aircraft.

A dusk launch for a VF-211 F-14A in full reheat for an ‘Anaconda’ strike mission. US Navy

 

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