To Bomb in Iraq and Kuwait, Allies ‘Line up Like Safeway On Payday’
OVER SAUDI ARABIA (AP) _ Dozens - sometimes hundreds - of little green symbols flash on a computer screen. Some inch forward toward red flashes on a map of Iraq and Kuwait; others hang back, awaiting their turn.
Away from the swarm, to the north and west, other green symbols move about freely in more open spaces - airspace deep inside Iraq.
The computer screen, which could easily be mistaken for a fast-paced video game, is aboard a U.S. Air Force AWACS plane high above Saudi Arabia. From this high-tech vantage point, the Air Force directs a daily ballet of sorts, tracking an allied air siege that often includes more than 200 planes airborne at one time.
On this night, as on most since the opening days of the war with Iraq, the Air Force’s traffic cop in the sky is policing a crowded, but one-way, street. ″All we’re doing is going up there, dropping bombs and breaking all of his toys,″ Col. Gary A. Voellger, commander of an Oklahoma-based AWACS wing, told a visitor. ″Welcome to the friendly skies.″
AWACS is an abbreviation for Airborne Early Warning And Control. The planes, bristling with radar and electronic monitoring equipment, are designed to keep track of allied aircraft and watch out for hostile ones. Lately, there hasn’t been much need for the latter.
Still, crew members watch intently for the enemy that never comes, the red ″V″ that would, in this deadly showdown, represent in Iraqi airplane.
With none in sight, the word goes out from the AWACS to all the green symbols - the hundreds of allied warplanes - ″Picture Clear.″
This day’s program includes 2,800 allied sorties and runs 950 pages.
The warplanes roaming in western, central and northern Iraq are hunting Scud missile launchers, bombing bridges, raining laser-guided munitions down on hardened aircraft shelters, and circling to protect allies and prevent Iraqi planes from scooting to Iran.
As midnight approaches, a wave of B-52 bombers arrives on cue. On the screen, they appear the same as the comparatively tiny F-15s. But as they pass methodically over their target, an Iraqi missile facility at Taji, it is clear they are different.
The distant yellow glow on the horizon offers proof.
Sitting at his console aboard the AWACS plane, Canadian Air Force Capt. Bjorn Helby considers the spectacle before him. ″There are about as many American planes over Iraq as there are over New York,″ he says.
And there are even more over and near Kuwait. Throughout a 17-hour AWACS mission, the first flown by journalists since the war began four weeks ago, green symbols were stacked one atop the other along the crescent-shaped western Kuwait border.
At the receiving end are troops in southern Kuwait and two Republican Guard divisions along the Iraqi side of the Kuwait border.
Always there are ″packages″ of fighters and bombers waiting to go next.
″It kind of looks like Safeway on payday - they’re just lining up,″ Voellger said. ″We own the skies.″
Indeed, not one Iraqi aircraft was detected airborne during an AWACS mission that began at midday Wednesday and ended just before dawn Thursday. As the sun rose, allied aircraft were still pounding Iraqi ground forces, artillery and forward command posts.
″Punishment, pure and simple punishment,″ said Maj. Clark Speicher, the mission control commander.
This crew flew the first night of the war, when some Iraqi fighters were airborne and the skies were filled with antiaircraft fire. Now, there are but pockets of fire, and not an Iraqi plane to worry about.
″They know if they come up, they die,″ said Sgt. Jeffrey Boyland, a surveillance officer. ″It’s that simple.″
Virtually every allied attack plane in the war was involved in missions during the AWACs flight. There were F-15Cs, F-15Es, F-117A stealth fighter- bombers, B-52s, F-111, EF-111s, A-6s, EA-6Bs, F-16s, FA-18s, F-14s, Tornados, F-4 Wild Weasels, British Bucanneers, Mirage F-1s and Saudi F-5s.
With the skies so crowded, it’s a daunting task even when the Iraqis refuse to challenge the allies in the skies.
On several occasions the AWACS controllers had to order new routes at the last minute, and track jets that drifted dangerously off course. As the AWACS prepared to refuel under the stars, several aircraft passed within sight of it, including several across its nose.
But the friendly traffic was the only big worry on this mission.
Early in the flight, still in daylight hours, British aircraft bombed a bridge southwest of Baghdad.
Later, U.S. and British aircraft bombed hardened aircraft shelters at the Iraqi airfield at Alasad, flying boldly through an area of heavy antiaircraft batteries - the red symbols on the AWACS screens.
The biggest strike of the night came just before midnight, as about a dozen B-52s approached with escorts before parading one at a time over Taji.
As Lt. David Addington of San Antonio watched, the Taji area enlarged on his scope, a reporter guessed there would not be very many people at a missile facility at such an early hour.
″I hope so,″ Addington said. ″Even though they’re Iraqis, I hope so. That’s devastating.″