The 12-year no-fly mission over northern Iraq that began just after the first Gulf War has ended with Operation Iraqi Freedom, throwing into question the fate of the largest U.S. military presence in Turkey.
The final Operation Northern Watch no-fly mission flew March 17, two days before the war began on March 19, said Maj. Bob Thompson, ONW spokesman at Incirlik Air Base in southeast Turkey.
The end of the no-fly mission frees up a full wing of aircraft for possible strikes against Iraq. They just won’t attack from Turkey.
Aircraft and crews assigned to ONW are now leaving Incirlik, but Thompson declined to discuss their destinations.
About 50 U.S. Air Force and British Royal Air Force aircraft and about 1,400 people including pilots, maintainers and support personnel are either returning to home bases, or are redeploying to support the war in Iraq, Thompson said.
People are dispersing “fairly rapidly,” he said. “This is the, no kidding, last act.”
The end of the no-fly mission frees up F-15s from the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, F-16s from the Indiana National Guard’s 113th Fighter Squadron from Terre Haute and from the 55th Fighter Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., as well as Navy EA-6B electronic warfare planes, refuelers and AWAC planes.
Once the war began, the mission of protecting Kurds and other minorities in northern Iraq ended, Thompson said. The Turkish government, which controls Incirlik, is allowing U.S. aircraft to fly over Turkey, but refuses to allow the U.S. to launch offensive missions from Turkish soil.
It will take time for the units — including British Jaguar fighter-bombers and refuelers, to be completely gone, Thompson said. “This operation has been flying for 12 years, and it’s a big footprint. It’s going to take time to get sorted out.”
Some ONW officers and capabilities will stay at Incirlik under a new command designation.
As the new Combined Air Forces North, the group will operate out of the former ONW combined air operations center, or CAOC, to coordinate coalition overflights into northern Iraq with the Turkish General Staff, which controls Incirlik.
What remains uncertain is how the end of ONW affects the perhaps 2,000 people assigned to the 39th Wing, the large Air Force support wing. Officials with the U.S. Air Forces in Europe officials did not respond to inquiries by Stripes’ deadline.
While the 39th Wing has no aircraft, it does service aircraft transiting to American operations in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
The wing also has other responsibilities including wartime and contingency planning, weapons storage, housing, a hospital, communications and training. It has 21 tenant units, as well as separate operations in Izmir, Diyarbakir and other locations in Turkey.
ONW began in 1991 as Operation Provide Comfort, with British, U.S. and French planes keeping Saddam Hussein’s aircraft from going north of the 36th Parallel and attacking Kurdish refugees fleeing the Gulf War. The French soon withdrew, and the mission was renamed Operation Northern Watch in 1997.
ONW in brief
ONW began in 1991 as Operation Provide Comfort, with British, U.S. and French planes keeping Saddam Hussein’s aircraft from flying north of the 36th Parallel and attacking Kurdish refugees fleeing the Gulf War.
The French soon withdrew, and the mission was reflagged Operation Northern Watch in January 1997.
Over 11 years, OWN pilots reported attacking hundreds, if not thousands, of Iraqi, command-and-control centers, missile sights and anti-aircraft sights after being fired at, or being tracked by radar. They also turned back dozen of Iraqi aircraft.
The mission was notable for a nearly miraculous error-free record, losing two planes — one British, one American — to mechanical failure in 11 years and more than 200,000 sorties. In both cases, the pilots were rescued after the planes crashed in Turkey.
The only other reported incident came in August 2001, when an Aviano-based F-16 pilot strayed into Syrian airspace for about 45 minutes. However, Syrian air defense did not respond.
— From staff reports