News: Dutch airmen utilize F-16s and new technology to help Coalition Forces
Story by Spc. Jennifer Spradlin
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan – Since 2002, the 1st Royal Netherlands Air Task Force has flown more than 7,000 missions in Afghanistan. Here at Kandahar Airfield, more than 120 Dutch personnel including pilots, aircraft maintenance crews, logisticians and analysts, oversee a two-fold mission that provides reconnaissance and armed overwatch support to coalition forces.
“The biggest thing we bring to the fight is a true multi-role fighter -- which is flexible in the air to support whatever need is the most urgent,” said Maj. Marcel, head of mission operations for 1 (NLD) ATF. “With a fighter instead of a helicopter, we can be there fast and with the utilization of air-to-air refueling, we will be able to endure longer and cover bigger ranges of support.”
These airmen are utilizing the newest reconnaissance technology available to repurpose the F-16A “Fighting Falcon,” a fighter jet pioneered in the 1970s, into an aerial tool for the protection of Afghan civilians and coalition forces from improvised explosive devices.
The original intent for the F-16A was to create a fighter suited to air-to-air combat missions and precision air-to-surface attacks, but over time the aircraft has been updated with modern avionics and fitted with external pods to expand the variety of mission uses, said Marcel. The four F-16s flown by the Dutch airmen are outfitted with the RecceLite and the Advanced Targeting Pod.
The RecceLite gathers and transmits high resolution infrared and visual digital images through a data link to a location on the ground where image analysts are able to track changes in the terrain of a specific area. This capability is extremely useful to commanders prior to combat missions or in anticipation of a ground convoy, said Marcel.
By contrast, the ATP produces a live video feed for task force commanders who can then get a better understanding of the whole battle space, including the location of enemy fighters and friendly forces. The ATP can also be used in conjunction with laser-guided weapons to accurately identify targets and reduce the unintentional loss of life.
“It’s about us being there, able to support our troops on the ground and truly effect their mission and make it more safe. To help them build a picture and bring to the fight the best combination of assets,” said Marcel.
In use at KAF since 2009, the RecceLite system has been a huge advantage to the combat group leaders.
“The main benefit we have with this system is time. We don’t have to wait for the imagery to come out of the aircraft because we have a data link that provides us with near real-time imagery,” said Sgt. 1st Class Rob, chief of the RecceLite Ground Station, who is on his second deployment to Afghanistan. “If we discover a possible IED emplacement, we are able to contact the task force right away and issue an immediate threat warning.”
Rob said prior to this advancement, imagery specialists had to review film negatives before conducting intelligence update briefs. On an average mission day, these specialists will review more than 1,000 images each and more than 1 million images are taken annually. The analysts also have the capability to form 3-D impressions of buildings to give basic size and height specifications to troops.
Technology has made it much simpler and quicker for information to be processed and disseminated to units, but highly-trained imagery analysts are still necessary to decipher the information and determine which threats are real and should be passed on to the task forces.
“The human factor is still the most important issue in his line of work, because our system is good at identifying certain threats, but it is not familiar with enemy tactics and that’s where our experienced analysts come in,” said Rob.
Rob said that hearing positive feedback from task forces is enough to keep his six-person team motivated throughout the long hours put into the analysis.
“The actual find of IEDs is really important. It has saved lives over here,” said Lt. Col. Erik Rab, 1 (NLD) ATF commander and F-16 pilot since 1991. He said the task force was proud of their accomplishments and looked forward to continuing the mission.
“This is an important mission and our greatest satisfaction is from being able to help troops on the ground,” said Rab.