Iraq to Afghanistan
F-16, B-1B, B-2A
How things have changed for pilots since young
Americans flew Spads in 1918! The F-16 pilot in his pressurized air-conditioned cockpit has computer control over flying and navigation, an array of weapons, and has an ejection seat for escaping his plane. Spad pilots had no computer or parachute.
Even more dramatic was the change in the world below him. When Wright’s first airplane flew, the United States had only recently become an imperial power after the Spanish-American War. President Theodore Roosevelt had an impressive Navy and small Army, but American forces seemed smaller than those of at least seven other empires that straddled the world.
The century’s last decade found the United States the only super power, able to project its strength into any part of the world. At the heart of its power were the airplanes produced by its national wealth and technology. The cost of air power had become too high to allow any other nation to become a credible contender for world power.
The Cold War had vanished by 1992, as the USAF was noticed for humanitarian missions such as flying medical supplies to Mongolia, Lithuania, and other places once considered hostile territory. On March 4, two B-52s landed in Moscow on a friendship mission, and on March 24 the United States signed the Open Skies Treaty, allowing unarmed reconnaissance flights over any of the 25 signatory nations.
Symbolic of the new era was first American military band to parade in Moscow, the AFRES Command Band in May 1992. The “most far-reaching nuclear arms reduction pact in history”, START III, was signed by Presidents George H. Bush and Boris Yeltsen on January 3, 1993.
Reorganization of the USAF in June 1992 meant the end of both SAC and TAC as their combat aircraft were combined in the new Air Combat Command (ACC), while cargo and tanker aircraft joined the Air Mobility Command (AMC). The new United States Strategic Command now controlled long-range Air Force and Navy ballistic missiles.
Nuclear weapon capability had been removed from the B-1Bs in 1995, as confirmed by Russian inspectors. So the first combat mission, Operation Desert Fox, centered on two Oman-based B-1Bs releasing 63 500-pound Mk 83 bombs each. President Clinton ordered that attack on Iraqi Republican Guards barracks on December 17, 1998, in response to Saddam Hussein’s expulsion of United Nations inspectors. Navy fighters supported that mission, as well as a second raid the following night.
Coalition air forces flew 40,000 strike sorties in 30 days as air skirmishes continued over the Iraq no-fly zones and F-16s downed two MiGs and bombed an airfield. Operation Provide Comfort, a no-fly zone to protect Kurdish people in Northern Iraq, continued from 1991 into the next century.
The need for precision bombing led to development of the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) glider bomb family, satellite-guided by their own individual GPS to hit targets up to six miles away. The 2,000-pound GBU-31 is the first of these weapons to be used in combat.
Conflict in the former Yugoslavia led to Operation Allied Force with 9,000 NATO sorties being flown in 30 days. Two B-2As flew the first of 45 combat missions all the way from Missouri on March 24, 1999, each launching 16 GBU-31s. Eight B-1Bs and 18 B-52Hs flew from Fairford, England, to drop Mk 82s on Serbian targets. On May 1, B-1Bs dropped 168 bombs on the Novi Sad oil refinery. 86th FW F-16s shot down four Serbian attack planes in Bosnia.