Tuesday, December 22, 2009


The six F-16 Belgian fighter-bombers operating from Kandahar Airfield currently operate low key. It seems that two flights a day suffice given the enhanced US air activity over the whole of Afghanistan. The MoD report for the week of 10-16 December is sketchy, as usual. On December 12, 13 and 16 two missions each without using weapon systems; only on December 15 some target was engaged with GBU 12 bombs.

The photo below, taken over KAF, gives a nice view of the fighter's standard equipment. On the wingtips (in Air Force parlance stations 1 and 9) two Raytheon AIM-9M Sidewinder infrared AA missiles - although the need for those eludes me completely. Then a pair of 500 lbs Texas Instruments GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided bombs on stations 3 and 7 (the bomb pylons of these also contain PIDS, for Pylon Integrated Dispensing Systems, for chaff and/or flares). Sufficient radius of action is provided by the use of two Sargent-Fletcher 370 US gallon (1,400 litres) underwing fuel tanks, on stations 4 and 6. Then there is of course the trusted 20mm General Electric M61A1 Vulcan cannon, now with 520 rounds of the new M70 high velocity/low drag ammunition.

But the most advanced piece of technology in our fighter arms inventory is the pod you see slung to the starboard side: that's the AN/AAQ-33 PANTERA (Precision Attack Navigation and Targeting with Extended Range Acquisition), aka "Sniper Pod". The Belgian Air Force acquired these as a complement to the AN/AAQ-14 LANTIRN (Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infra-Red for Night) pods, already in use since 1997. The PANTERA performs substantially better than the LANTIRN, with its combination of an amazingly effective stabilisation system, a 3G FLIR (Forward Looking Infra Red) and daylight CCD-TV camera, giving it an unparalleled long-range target detection, identification and designation accuracy from altitudes of up to 40,000 feet - 3 to 5 times higher than LANTIRN's. PANTERA is thus also able to operate from outside the danger zone of most ground-based AA systems. Not only that, but it allows for the jet to launch its weapons systems from outside its own noise range, a priceless asset for ground attacks in Afghanistan.

As for the aircraft themselves, they seem older than they actually are. Belgium bought 160 F-16's in the eighties, building them under licence in the SABCA factories in Haren (near Brussels) and Gosselies (near Charleroi), and the "youngest" airframes, four F16B Block 15OCU's date from... 1989-1990, so almost twenty years old! However, a couple of years ago I had the opportunity of a chat with an accomplished BAF pilot, an officer with the somewhat unfortunate initials of P.C., and he stated that there had been so many updates throughout the years that there's possibly only 5% of the original material left on the oldest airframes. I have never been able to verify this info with other accounts, but what is certain is that most Belgian F-16s are now at Mid-Life Update Tape M4 (MLU-M4) software and hardware standard, so I guess that still places them among the world's best fighters.

On Kandahar Airfield (KAF) the air arm with which our pilots cooperate the most are, not surprisingly, our northern neigbours the Dutch. They have four comparable F-16's present. Originally, they had six, but the arrival of two more Belgian planes in addition to the four already present allowed them to call back two of their own, a move also spurred on by budgetary reasons. One cannot blame the Dutch - their ground committment is much heavier than ours, with several infantry units, many wheeled and tracked AIFV's, mechanized howitzers and so on. These are also in the thick of the fight, with regular heavy clashes with Taliban in Aghanistan's volatile Uruzgan province. Anyway, on KAF and in the air a special camaraderie has developed between our nations, with our jets sometimes being refueled in the air by a Dutch KDC-10 tanker, and Belgian C-130's providing mission support for them (e.g. delivery of liqid hydrogen for their F-16s).


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