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Harriers win the day for Marine Corps aviation during Operation Iraqi Freedom

Marine Corps News

Release Date: 7/17/2003

Story by Sgt. David A. Bryant

MCAS Yuma, Ariz.(July 17, 2003) -- One of the biggest challenges for Marine Corps fixed-wing aviation during Operation Iraqi Freedom was the scarcity of airfields within the theater of operations.

Commanders were aware of this fact before operations began overseas. More than 400 aircraft deployed with the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, most of which require traditional airfields to operate from, said Col. Mark Savarese, commanding officer, Marine Aircraft Group 13.

In order for the Marine Corps to bring the combat power necessary to support ground troops, the only option was to base attack jets on ships, he said. However, with traditional aircraft carriers already loaded with Naval aircraft and only a limited space available at Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base, Kuwait, the only place to base those jets were the LHD class ships, a type of miniature aircraft carrier designed for amphibious assault[Sgt. Nap1].

Enter the AV-8B Harrier, a single engine attack fighter capable of Short Takeoff and Vertical Landing and the only fixed wing aircraft able to operate from a LHD.

"The beauty of Harriers is their flexibility," Savarese said. "It is a unique airplane that can go anywhere and operate from anywhere, which is what allowed them to operate from what I like to call an attack carrier."

The Marine Corps deployed 76 Harriers to the theater of operations during OIF, 60 of which were spread between USS Bonhomme Richard, USS Bataan, USS Tarawa and USS Nassau, he said. The remaining jets were stationed in Kuwait. Harriers made up more than 50 percent of the Marine Corps' fixed-wing offensive air support aircraft -- the 60 Harriers on ship comprised 45 percent of the total airborne firepower.

"During the twenty-six days of combat operations, we flew more than 2,000 sorties and logged more than 3,000 flight hours," Savarese said. "Harriers expended more than 750,000 pounds of ordnance in support of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, dropping 1,000-pound and 500-pound bombs.

"The Harrier community on both the East Coast and West Coast has worked diligently over the past two years to revise what we do professionally," he said.

From a standpoint of logistics support, maintenance and operational flying, OIF was the Harrier's "finest days."

"I'm so absolutely delighted with the total professional effort of both the Sailors and the Marines that were out there working so hard to get these airplanes flying so pilots could go fly combat missions," Savarese said.

Even after all the missions the Harriers conducted, not a single plane returned with bullet-holes in it, a fact he credits to the professional flying of the aviators and superior intelligence on enemy forces and capabilities. The mission capable readiness rates for the Harrier were an unprecedented average of 80 percent.

"For this conflict, we required the basing flexibility that STOVL aircraft provide," Savarese said. "The STOVL concept has come with a price, as sometimes innovation does, but OIF demonstrated that through persistence, a vision can become reality."

Operation Iraqi Freedom showed not only the flexibility of the Harrier, but it's dependability as well.

"I think Harriers were well-trusted by the ground folks in the theater of operations," said Lt. Col. Paul K. Rupp, commanding officer, Marine Attack Squadron 211. "Not only are they extremely effective in missions, but extremely efficient. Our airplanes had tremendous tactical aircraft readiness availability in the theater for the 3rd MAW -- our planes were always ready to go."

The AV-8B was one of the few TACAIR platforms that did not lose an aircraft in combat during OIF, he said.

"The Harrier wasn't used to it's full potential out there when it comes to (Forward Arming and Refueling Points) and (Forward Operating Bases)," Rupp said. "But it takes a lot of support and logistics to support FARPs and FOBs -- about 45 tons of ordnance a day are needed at a FARP alone, so we chose to use other platforms."

Basing the Harriers on ship, in Kuwait and using the FARP at An Numaniyah, 60 miles southeast of Baghdad, also helped with refueling issues, he said. The Harrier did not need to refuel in mid-air, which allowed aircraft without STOVL capabilities the opportunity to make full use of aerial-refueling aircraft.

Precision-guided munitions helped the AV-8Bs post a 65 percent mission effectiveness rate, verified by the new Northrop Grumman Litening II targeting pod, Savarese said. Effectiveness was determined by a narrow definition of target bomb hit assessment -- a hit is when a bomb lands within 13 feet of a target, and not a single bomb dropped fell outside of 200 feet of its target.

In one wave alone, 12 Harriers flying off USS Bonhomme Richard completely destroyed the Republican Guard Baghdad Division's one and only armored tank battalion, he added. The tank battalion was found by MAG-13's intelligence team to be hiding in Al Kut, captured on video by the Litening II targeting pod on a Harrier returning from a sortie. That one mission allowed the MEF's push on Al Kut to continue without a pitched battle.

"There was one other incident that I think was pretty noteworthy," Savarese said. "One of our pilots saved Oliver North's bacon, as well as a few others. He was embedded as a Fox News broadcaster, and he went down in a UH-1 with some engine trouble. It didn't crash, but I think they had to land near An Numaniyah when immediately they started receiving fire from enemy artillery, mortars or such, with enemy infantry moving in from the east.

"We had a section of Harriers airborne at the time, and our pilots engaged, taking out the enemy position closest to the helicopter and provided delaying action against the enemy infantry moving west, allowing Marine rescue helicopters into the landing zone to get those guys out of there. It wasn't until afterward we found out that Oliver North was one of the guys in that helicopter. We were pretty proud of that."

Elements of VMA-214 also took out a Baath Party headquarters building near the hospital where Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch was held, he said. The target was taken out to allow the rescue attempt to proceed.

"I think we were highly effective because we had an incredible team of great individuals working together," Savarese said. "Everybody gave 110 percent, we had the equipment, we had the readiness, and I believe we had the squadron commanders that were top notch and ready to move these guys in the right direction."

General Randolph Pate, Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1956 to 1959, once said "vertical takeoff and land characteristics are an ultimate requirement for all Marine aircraft in support of amphibious operations in the future ... obtaining a STOL/VTOL capability is vital to Marine aviation."

"The AV-8B Harrier has fulfilled those characteristics," Savarese said. "The contributions the aircraft made during OIF have validated the STOVL basing flexibility as a fundamental feature for responsive offensive air support.



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