Inside Australia’s top gun mission

Written By komlim puldel on Jumat, 26 September 2014 | 20.01

The RAAF have released footage of the first test firing from their Super Hornets outside of the United States. Courtesy: Royal Australian Air Force

AFTER spending weeks locked in briefing rooms poring over maps and intelligence reports the RAAF's top-gun strike fighter pilots are ready to take up the fight to murderous Islamic militants in Iraq.

Since Tuesday dozens of the Super Hornet pilots and air combat officers (ACOs) have been working in secure air-conditioned briefing rooms at task group headquarters at al-Minhad air base near Dubai reviewing tasking orders, combat reports and preparing for war.

Meanwhile teams of weapons technicians and so-called "black handers", who arm and maintain the lethal $70 million strike jets, are working long shifts in a huge air conditioned hangar preparing the eight RAAF fighters and an array of "smart" weapons for missions that could begin this weekend.

In between the detailed briefings — that began back at their base Amberley near Brisbane — the two-person flight crews, aged mostly in their 20s, will be flying brief sorties in the skies above the Arabian Desert to hone their flying skills on what former air force chief Geoff "Shep" Shepherd calls the "knife edge".

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Ready to go ... ground crew assist as RAAF F/A-18F Super Hornets prepare for departure to the Middle East from RAAF Base Amberley in Australia. Picture: Royal Australian Air Force via Getty Source: Getty Images

They won't be engaged in air-to-air combat or "dog fights" during the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but they will be flying eight to 10-hour missions in a cramped cockpit over hostile territory where the trophy value of a downed Australian pilot would be priceless.

As the Government contemplates when the jets will join the fight the crews are planning the long transit from Dubai to northern Iraq, the same distance as Melbourne to Alice Springs. The "four ship" flights of jets will refuel from a RAAF KC-30A tanker or another coalition tanker at least once in each direction as they spend between eight and 10 hours aloft on each mission.

On the tarmac ... the RAAF KC-30A Tanker Transport in Dubai. Source: Supplied

Up ahead over the combat zone the RAAF's Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft will be coordinating the battle with other coalition air assets from the US, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or the United Arab Emirates. This is a multinational effort.

An E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft departs for the Middle East from RAAF Base Williamtown. Picture: Getty Source: Supplied

As they fly out of al-Minhad the powerful twin-engine fighters will climb rapidly away from the gleaming edifices of downtown Dubai. Past the tallest skyscraper on earth — the Burj al-Arabia — up to their cruising altitude of about 10,000 metres above the Arabian Gulf. They will avoid heavy civil airlines traffic as they track northwest above the Gulf States towards Kuwait and southern Iraq. The crews will be extra vigilant to ensure they do not stray too close to Iranian air space off to their right hand side.

The Super Hornet has a top speed of about 2000km/hr, but for the transit flight to war they will cruise at about half that to optimise fuel burn.

The fighter pilots and ACOs in the back seat represent the elite of the Royal Australian Air Force.

Prepared for war ... RAAF F/A-18F Super Hornet aircrew departing. Picture: ADF Source: Supplied

Of the 500 or so candidates who apply for RAAF pilot school each year just 70 make it to Basic Flying Training School and a mere 45 will graduate from the Number 2 Flying Training School at Pearce near Perth with their coveted pilot wings.

Just 15 of the 45 will be selected for the introductory fighter course and only 10 or so of them will survive four years of intensive training to become fully fledged fighter pilots.

According to Super Hornet pilot John Haly the two-seat jet provides a major multi-role and multiplier effect to the force.

"It's now near simultaneous multi-roles so the jet can be doing everything at exactly the same time across all the spectra or its roles and capabilities,' he said.

"Now the biggest limitation is the man in the seat and if you have just one person there you are not able to do multiple things at once, like you can when there are two people working on potentially two totally different roles using the same sensors."

Geoff Shepherd was intimately involved in the purchase of the RAAF's 24 Super Hornets and the retired Air Marshal and former fighter pilot regards it as the best fourth generation fighter going around.

He said the aircraft was ideally suited to the job it will be doing in northern Iraq.

Shepherd said the air force's combat wing would have deployed most of its Super Hornet crews for the latest Iraq mission.

Once the government gives the green light to proceed with attacks the task group will be issued with a classified "targeting directive" that will specify in clear, legally binding language exactly what the RAAF crews will be allowed to target.

Their missions will be very different to those undertaken by American jets because the Australians will be strictly tasked with avoiding collateral damage and with definite target identification.

"That document will drive the targeting process and the task group will be given targets by the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC)," Shepherd said.

Just like the 2003 Iraq War the CAOC will be located at the vast al-Udeid air base near Doha in Qatar.

War plans ... RAAF F/A-18F Super Hornet aircrew in a pre mission briefing. Picture: ADF Source: Supplied

Once they receive their tasking order the crews will plan the mission by poring over maps and detailed intelligence reports gleaned from sources on the ground as well as electronic signals hoovered up by aircraft and satellites. They will plan their refuelling "stops" to the minute, they will decide the direction of their attacks, the risk of collateral damage including nearby civilian installations and the types of weapons they will carry for the job.

According to Geoff Shepherd the aircrews would meticulously run through six steps in the cockpit to assure themselves that a target was valid before they pressed the red button.

"We are more constrained regarding targets than the Americans," he said.

Super Hornet ... carrying AGM-154C Joint Standoff Weapon during tests at Woomera Test Range, South Australia. The weapon is about to be used in anger against ISIL militants in Iraq. Picutre: ADF Source: Supplied

"During the 2003 war some of our crews actually declined to launch weapons because they could not be 100 per cent sure."

The Super Hornet carries an array of "smart" weapons including GPS guided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), Air to Ground AGM 154C Joint Stand-off Weapon (JSOW) and numerous laser guided bombs.

The biggest weapon is a 1000kg laser guided bomb but that is unlikely on such long-range missions.

The 500kg $700,000 JSOW is the most likely candidate for strike missions against fixed targets such as buildings with its 130km range.

Fire ... the release of the AGM-154C Joint Standoff Weapon from a Super Hornet during firing at Woomera Test Range. Picture: ADF Source: Supplied

For so-called "time sensitive targets" such as tanks or vehicles weapons such as the 250kg $25,000 Guided Bomb Unit (GBU) 54 laser guided bomb or a range of other smart bombs would be used.

The jets will orbit inside predetermined airspace "boxes" before conducting attacks from between 5000 metres and 10,000 metres above the desert staying as high as possible to avoid any surface-to-air missile threat.

"We must honour that threat," Geoff Shepherd said.

The Islamic militants are well funded and equipped and no one knows exactly what their arsenal includes.

Should the worst happen and a crew be forced to eject over hostile territory, special-forces search and rescue troops would already be airborne nearby in specialised US Black Hawk helicopters ready to recover the downed airmen.

All RAAF aircrew undertake intensive survival training at the Combat Survival Training School in Townsville.

The tough 21-day course is one of the hardest things that any air force flyer will do as they are taught to survive and pushed to the limit by hardened infantry instructors whose tough lessons could be the difference between life and death. They are also schooled in techniques to resist interrogation and the vital secret code words to identify friend from foe.

The key element to survival is physical fitness and as one pilot who flew 16 combat missions over Iraq in 2003 said, "If I was going to end up on the ground and had to run, I was going to run pretty quick and for a long time."


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