North Africa LibyaAviationReport

A day with Belgian F-16s in Araxos. Reporting

the logo of Operation Araxos 2011 on the shoulder of an airman (© NGV /Bruxelles2)

(BRUSSELS2 in Araxos – Greece) Eighth day of mission for the Belgian “Falcon Freedom” mission deployed to Libya. The detachment of the 349th squadron from Kleine-Brogel, which had come for F-16 training, entered the operation without firing a shot. As Belgian Defense Minister Pieter De Crem explains: “ In a few days, we transformed what was an exercise into a real commitment. Immediately after the UN resolution, there was the decision of the government, a debate and the approval in Parliament ". It is the demonstration that the Belgium is a reliable partner for the Allies ».

36 hours to turn training into a combat mission

Several C130 rotations were necessary to transport all the necessary equipment (© NGV / Bruxelles2)

The Belgians are settled in Araxos, with a brand new infrastructure, never used before by the Greeks. " On Friday, the Greeks left us in a training situation. On Monday, they found us in combat position. “Throughout the weekend, several rotations of C-130 Hercules brought the necessary equipment » to transform the training team into a combat team, testifies Ltt “M” (*), head of the DMO (the maintenance department). It was therefore necessary to bring the weapons but also the equipment and personnel of CIS (communication and information systems). The planes - in training did not have the "Net centric warfare" encryption device, a NATO standard which allows encrypted information to be exchanged between the planes, with the Awacs and the G. Likewise, it was necessary to have on the base a system for securing messages with the headquarters in Ramstein, in particular to receive ATOs (travel orders. Around a hundred people now work on the base

The Greeks made it a lot easier

Partial view of the Araxos base (© NGV / Bruxelles2)

It was also necessary to adapt the system on the base, particularly in terms of securing armaments. Each F16 aircraft that is armed must be placed at a greater safety distance (at least 50 meters). As a result, additional hangars were needed. " Our Greek colleagues helped us a lot – explains a soldier –. Without them, it would have been difficult to do so quickly. And that would have required more resources ". A technical agreement (Light Sofa type) was made with the Greeks to share the costs, in a way extending the agreement made for the exercise. Basically, the Greeks provide the equipment and make the base available (it's their contribution to the operation), the Belgians pay for what they consume (food, petrol, etc.).

6 “No Fly Zone” missions and 2 strike missions

The Belgians were very quickly involved in the “Paris coalition” and Operation Odyssey Dawn, since Friday March 18, 12 p.m. Zulu. The “ready to operate” (Rto) was reached on Saturday at 17 p.m. for the plane ban and on Sunday at 20 p.m. for the “No fly zone / embargo”, at 18 p.m. Zulu.

An F16 lands on the Araxos base returning from mission on Monday (© NGV / Bruxelles2)

The F-16s have already carried out 5 “no fly zone” missions without problem. And a mission (Saturday) with ground strikes. Several air defense installations were targeted, with at least two shots being fired. And the missions continue. This Monday, 2 missions (4 F-16s in total) have just returned: one from “No Fly zone” and a mission planned on ground fire. “ Mission successful. » We won't learn any more. The Belgians want to remain discreet. “ It is an operational obligation. And the Americans are very careful on this point comments a veteran of operations.

« At the start of the operation, Libya had many installations, with threats to aircraft coming from land, strategic and tactical systems (SA5, SA3, SA2) which can exceed 50.000 feet, and therefore constitute a real threat to airplanes explains a Belgian air expert. " It was therefore necessary first to acquire air superiority and then what is called air supremacy. Now all the big threats are gone. We can operate over Libya without high risk, the risk is acceptable. »

A pilot, well equipped, ready for the desert

Standard equipment of a Belgian F-16 pilot (© NGV / Bruxelles2)

When the pilot leaves, however, he equips himself with a “desert” color suit allowing him to have all the necessary equipment with him in the event of a problem and ejection: water, food, medical equipment, survival beacon and radio equipment. specific to trigger the SaR (Search and Rescue) device. “ That's a few kilos. It's quite heavy - comments a pilot. But it is necessary ". Precautions not entirely useless given the events (cf. the American F-15 which crashed following a technical problem).

When the aircraft approaches its target, it has on screen both the target and the arming circle which traces the area where potential damage is possible (which allows possible collateral damage to be assessed and to give up just in case). The laser (or GPS depending on the case) guided bombs GBU 31, GBU 24 and GBU 10 are calculated as close as possible to the targets to be struck. We " will calculate the impact so that all the installations to be targeted are destroyed, even if the impact seen from the sky appears to be little achieved". For example, the roof of a hangar hit by a bomb may remain intact (or almost) while the bomb which penetrated inside destroyed everything (planes, equipment, etc.).

Belgians stay in Greece (for now)

Return from mission, interview, 1st technical debrief (© NGV / Bruxelles2)

The Belgians got used to the Greek base and are not planning – as had been considered for a while – to move to Italy, near other F-16s from the coalition. " The fact that the Greeks also have F-16s makes things much easier for us explains an airman. " The runways are well suited to F-16s. They provide us with stopping equipment, electricity to NATO standards…”. And in terms of travel time in the area, “ we're not really much further » than in Italy.

“They gave us more than a helping hand – agrees Pieter de Crem – if only for traffic control, guarding the base, support and support… It allowed us to focus on the mission ».

Being in current affairs didn't bother me. There is a Belgian consensus

(© NGV / Brussels2)

« We are a country with a Latin tradition, where war is the prerogative of the government, the Parliament is generally simply informed and its approval is not obligatory. “, specifies the Minister of Defense. the “being in current affairs has led to a different situation. This enabled us to have a very clear mandate from Parliament (1), perhaps clearer than if we had been in a normally constituted government. We live in a complicated country in difficult times. And divisions could have appeared then, not only North / South, but left / right or NATO / anti-NATO."

And the minister clarified to a question from “B2”, “ Placement under NATO command was not a condition of our commitment. We immediately joined the Paris coalition. Because we had to go quickly confirms the Belgian Defense Minister. Corn " NATO makes it easier for us. If only to define the rules of engagement ».

(*) The anonymity of the personnel involved is preserved

(1) The Belgian Parliament voted, Monday March 21, “the resolution concerning the situation in Libya” unanimously minus one vote (that of the former MP of the People's Party)

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Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).