Watch on the Desert

March 1, 1999

It was midmorning at 29,000 feet, where the dull gray, four-engine aircraft droned over northern Saudi Arabia. Back in

the windowless gut of the loudly humming airplane, past two radio operators and a bank of computer hardware, 12 crewmen stared at green radar screens dotted with colored marks floating over electronic maps of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait.

One of the marks moved every few seconds as its position received regular electronic updates. It denoted a high-flying Air Force U-2 reconnaissance aircraft soaring over Kuwait on its way into Iraqi airspace. On the screen, a red horizontal line marked the 33d parallel. To the north of that line, another four marks indicated the presence of Iraqi aircraft—some identified, some not. At least one was a military jet. To the south of the line lay the southern third of Iraq.

Another mark on the screen—an X just south of Iraq—represented the location of the Air Force E-3C Airborne Warning and Control System airplane, in which I was a passenger. It is one of the keys to United States surveillance of Iraqi military activity south of the 33d. Still another mark indicated the presence of an RC-135 Rivet Joint, the Air Force’s electronic reconnaissance aircraft. The Rivet Joint also was orbiting south of Iraq and searching for signals from Iraqi Surface-to-Air Missile sites.

The airliner-sized AWACS gave US military forces a broad, all-weather electronic snapshot of airborne objects and a wide-ranging ability to communicate and to command and control friendly air forces. Data from the AWACS, communications signals gathered by the equally large RC-135, and information from other classified intelligence sources provided a comprehensive and detailed sense of Iraqi military activity.

One-Minute Line

Baghdad’s military aircraft are not permitted to fly over the southern third of Iraq, nor over the northern third. This is part of the fallout from the 1991 Persian Gulf War and Saddam Hussein’s subsequent attacks on his own people. On this morning, a second Iraqi fighter appeared bent on testing the prohibition. It dipped across the “one-minute line”—meaning that, after one more minute of southward flight, it would cross the 33d parallel and “become a bad guy,” as one airborne technician termed it.

Below the 33d, two F-15 fighters of the 27th Fighter Squadron, Langley AFB, Va., were weaving back and forth within “the box,” as the southern third of Iraq was known. Pilots in the air superiority aircraft waited as the Iraqi aircraft headed south.

An AWACS operator drew an electronic line between the positions of the Iraqi fighter and the nearest F-15, instantly calculating the heading of the interloper, its range, and the time it would take for it and the F-15 to close on each other. It was information that would simplify the US fighter pilot’s job in the event he were called on to shoot.

SSgt. Rich Holley, an AWACS radar operator, pointed to the screen and indicated a narrow triangle of space to the front of the F-15s. “They [the pilots] are only seeing this, right here,” he said. He added, “We’re seeing everything.”

That sort of information has always given American fighters a huge advantage during operations over the largely flat desert. “The bad guy has nothing to hide behind,” explained Lt. Col. Jimmy Clark, an F-15 pilot who was serving then as the 27th FS’s operations officer.

The conflict was not to be on that day. After a few more seconds, the Iraqi fighter pilot folded his cards, turned, and headed back northward. For an AWACS crew in the Middle East, it was a typical mission, spent watching and waiting. SrA. Jason Rucker, an airborne computer technician, summed up the daily duty as “waiting for it to hit the fan.” Capt. Craig Campbell, a veteran F-15 pilot with the 27th, said, “We see a lot of nonsense.”

The level of air activity, however, has picked up considerably since the start of the new year as US and Iraqi forces clashed on numerous occasions in both no-fly zones. Sporadically, Iraq has challenged no-fly zone enforcement. In the aftermath of Operation Desert Fox in December 1998, these challenges have increasingly taken the form of threats to coalition aircraft from Iraqi aircraft operating in the no-fly zones and SAM sites on the ground. As a result, contributions of USAF’s surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft have become more valuable than ever.

Inside the unarmed AWACS, marked by a distinctive rotating radar dome mounted over its rear section, the operators sat quietly, staring at their radar screens, occasionally murmuring a comment into a microphone or to a colleague. Their focus was on the big picture—a constant, real-time assemblage of intelligence from a variety of sources.

Lords of the Dance

“All the assets are choreographed,” said Maj. Sean Mercadante, director of operations for the 4405th Airborne Air Control Squadron (Provisional), the AWACS unit then conducting no-fly zone missions out of Prince Sultan AB, Saudi Arabia. “We’re kind of the glue that holds it all together.”

The onboard AWACS crew was divided into four sections. Three crew members were in charge of flying the airplane. A group of technicians made sure that the electronics were functioning. The weapons section controlled the fighters that were flying farther north. The surveillance group studied various sectors of the area of responsibility.

“We’re looking for any tracks approaching us,” said Capt. Mark Hahnert, a surveillance officer responsible for radar operations. “You look at the speed, look at the altitude, how he’s flying. Is he acting like an airliner or a military jet out there doing proficiency flying?”

Radar alone can’t identify specific aircraft, the observers said. Knowing the lay of the land, such as the locations of Iraqi military airfields, helped narrow the possibilities that one blip could represent. However, it was the combination of intelligence not only from AWACS but also from various other platforms that helped the spotters determine whether a track represented a MiG-29 or a civilian airliner.

The RC-135 was one major source. The information collected and processed by the Rivet Joint was used “to fill a lot of gaps” in the air picture, said Lt. Col. John Preisinger, then the commander of the 4416th Intelligence Squadron (P).

Not much can be said about operations of the Rivet Joint. The aircraft’s systems are highly classified, and those who work with the aircraft are a tight-lipped bunch. Asked if the system could intercept, say, cellular phone calls, Lt. Col. Garry Evans of the 4407th Reconnaissance Squadron (P) stonily replied, “That’s too much detail.”

The officers said the US had two Rivet Joints in the theater and that they each carried a mission crew of 22 to 33 people. The onboard airborne mission supervisor and analyst are almost always linguists. In December, the Rivet Joint system passed the milestone of 3,000 continuous days of service in the Middle East. Information collected by RC-135s is shared with the AWACS, all US, British, and French fighters operating in “the box,” and “all the command and control folks” as Evans termed them.

The Rivet Joint crews generally come to the desert for 30-day visits; unit staffers spend four months at Prince Sultan AB. The visits are frequent. “This is my 22d trip,” said TSgt. Steve Rasmussen, an airborne maintenance technician on the Rivet Joint. He made his first trip to the desert in October 1990, during the buildup to the Gulf War.

Onboard directors in both AWACS and the Rivet Joint have spent as many as 200 days a year flying out of Prince Sultan. The systems, as well as the fighters, are kept aloft by KC-135 fuel tankers, which fly the same orbit patterns and whose crews come here for an average of 120 days annually.

Bad Guys Aren’t Boring

The intelligence gathering work is quiet, cerebral. Like the AWACS, the Rivet Joint crews patiently cruise far above the desert floor, often for 10 or more hours at a stretch, watching and listening for anything out of the ordinary. “It’s not boring, routine, or mundane,” Evans said. “Those are bad guys, and they’re out to get us.”

Meanwhile, the U-2 continued to make its way north on a search for evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Such missions were so typically uneventful that the pilot, USAF Maj. Greg Dotter, said he often turned to taped music to pass the time and fend off boredom. This mission called for Dotter to fly across nearly all of Iraq and make many turns—so many, he said, “I’ll be busy today for most of the flight.”

As Dotter soared along at altitudes exceeding 70,000 feet, the U-2’s classified collection of high-resolution cameras and sensors mapped everything on the surface of Iraq. Every time that he flew, for more than nine hours running, Dotter knew that he and his large airplane formed a big target—and, undoubtedly, a temptation for Iraqi SAM operators. Information gathered during the overflights was used to help track the Iraqi military.

In all of those operations, the U-2s were conducting tasks for the United Nations, under the control of US Central Command. Chief UN weapons inspector Richard Butler on Jan. 11 announced a temporary suspension of UN requests for U-2 spy flights over Iraq while the UN Security Council debated what to do about Iraq’s refusal to cooperate with arms inspectors.

Butler said the U-2 flights had provided vital information to inspectors trying to track Iraqi weapons. For that reason, the flights had been roundly condemned by Baghdad. The Iraqi regime always was given formal advance notification of each U-2 mission and was asked to formally acknowledge receipt of the notification.

The Iraqis, however, always issued those receipts through clenched teeth; Saddam Hussein had even threatened to shoot down a U-2. US officials knew that two of Iraq’s three anti-aircraft missile systems were capable of reaching the U-2 in its lofty perch. Iraqi radar tracked the flight but did not “lock on” to the U-2 with missile-firing radars.

All of which meant that Iraq and Saddam Hussein were never far from Dotter’s thoughts. “It certainly heightens your awareness when you fly into the missile rings,” he said, “and they’ve got active missiles sitting down there.” It also made the mild-mannered airman fully aware of just how vulnerable a pilot actually was. Said Dotter: “It’s just a matter of them not turning on the switch, that keeps you safe.”


U-2 flights always put harsh demands on the pilots. Whether in the Gulf or someplace else, the glider-like U-2 is notoriously difficult to fly, a problem made worse by the fact that the pilot is cramped into a motion-limiting space suit. Missions are very long; pilots must urinate into a special tube and eat specially prepared food out of tubes.

Late in the mission, when fatigue begins to set in, the pilot then has to land the wide-winged jet without being able to see the runway. A chase car speeding down the runway behind the U-2 calls out the height of the landing gear and talks the pilot down to the ground. Landing, Dotter said, is “all hit or miss.” He added: “It’s the most difficult airplane I’ve ever flown.”

Dotter, as well as the other 34 Air Force U-2 pilots, admitted that he liked the sense of flying so high. “Well, I’ll tell you, the view is fabulous,” said Dotter, as others attended to the helmet to the orange space suit. “When you’re just east of Lake Tahoe, you can see, on a good day, Salt Lake [City] and San Francisco at the same time.”

That’s hardly the same as flying over Iraq, but Dotter said he doesn’t fly scared. “It’s the job. It’s what I signed up to do,” he said. “If that’s what the President and the good people of the United States think we should do to protect our interests, I have no problem being here.”

William H. McMichael, the military reporter for the Newport News, Va., Daily Press, recently visited US Air Force units in Saudi Arabia. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Desert Stronghold,” appeared in the February 1999 issue.