Air Force squadron keeps eyes on southern no-fly zone

KUWAIT - Before the crisis in Kosovo heated up, the U.S. military campaign over Iraq was the largest sustained U.S. air combat operation since the Vietnam War. In support of that effort, the U.S. Air Force 9th Expeditionary Air Control Squadron operates a key node from Kuwait that enables the unit to track air traffic in the southern no-fly zone over Iraq.

The 9th EACS works out of out of Modular Control Equipment shelters parked inside a bunker and topped with a powerful AN-TPS 75 search radar. The radar has a range of more than 200 miles that provides the Joint Task Force-Southwest Asia headquarters in Saudi Arabia with a "highly accurate air picture" of the no-fly zone, according to Maj. Lee Gardner, the 9th EACS' commander. Weapons controllers in the squadron, which has slightly more than 100 personnel, work 12-hour shifts in front of their scopes, tracking every aircraft operating in the zone - including, during the past few months, occasional Iraqi aircraft challenging U.S. and British planes.

"We have the critical job of coordinating air operations over the no-fly zone," Gardner said. To manage all that air traffic - which includes not only strike aircraft but also KC-135 and KC-10 aerial tankers - Gardner said the shelters are equipped with their own integral communications gear, including VHF and UHF ground-to-air radios, high-frequency radios and tactical satellite communications systems.

The workstation displays integrate the radar tracks with a variety of intelligence information, including the locations of mobile Iraqi missile units, which enables controllers to steer U.S. aircraft around potential harm, said Lt. Jim Ware, a weapons controller at one of the shelters. The shelter systems also incorporate tactical data links to sensor systems on Air Force and Navy aircraft operating over Iraq, as well as similar links to Navy ships operating in the Gulf, to flesh out the tactical picture provided by the radar.

The 9th EACS controls all aircraft entering the no-fly zone until they reach the northernmost sector, and then "we hand them off to the [Airborne Warning and Control System] aircraft," Gardner said. "Any coalition aircraft entering the zone will check in and check out with us." The 9th EACS' radar also tracks commercial flights into and out of Kuwaiti airspace, and Gardner said he provides a real-time version of his air picture to a liaison unit operating at the Kuwaiti airport.

The 9th also has responsibility for another key mission: providing alerts of any potential Scud missile launches by Iraq and controlling Patriot anti-missile batteries in Kuwait. Two of these batteries are operated by the U.S. Army and one by Kuwaiti forces. In case of a Scud attack, Gardner would feed targeting data directly to the Patriot batteries via tactical data links.

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