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Harriers prove they can-do in Kandahar

Published Wednesday 10th August 2005

An RAF Harrier GR7A carrying enhanced Paveway precision guided bombs on the runway at Kandahar.
An RAF Harrier GR7A carrying enhanced Paveway precision guided bombs on the runway at Kandahar View from the sky: A picture taken by a Harrier GR7A while on a sortie over southern Afghanistan.
View from the sky: A picture taken by a Harrier GR7A while on a sortie over southern Afghanistan An RAF Harrier GR7A based at Kandahar being readied for a sortie over southern Afghanistan.
An RAF Harrier GR7A based at Kandahar being readied for a sortie over southern Afghanistan View from the sky: A picture taken by a Harrier GR7A while on a sortie over southern Afghanistan.
View from the sky: A picture taken by a Harrier GR7A while on a sortie over southern Afghanistan View from the sky: A picture taken by a Harrier GR7A while on a sortie over southern Afghanistan.
View from the sky: A picture taken by a Harrier GR7A while on a sortie over southern Afghanistan

RAF Harrier GR7As, part of Joint Force Harrier based at RAF Cottesmore, are playing a major role in Afghanistan.  The Harriers, deployed in Afghanistan since September 2004, support both the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in rebuilding Afghanistan, and Operation Enduring Freedom in the south of the country.

The Harrier detachment, from No 3 (Fighter) Squadron, operates from Kandahar airbase, one of the most hostile environments in the province. The detachment is commanded by Wing Commander Bruce Hedley: 

"Our main role is to provide a reconnaissance and a deterrent effect to support troops on the ISAF and Op Enduring Freedom missions," he said. 

The insurgent and anti-government forces operate in the towns and remote mountainous regions in the southern provinces and along the Pakistani border.  The area is barren, hostile and riddled with caves.  Enemy fighters easily blend in with the local population, making identification particularly difficult. 

“Coalition operations in the south of this enormous country are best supported by fast air," he continued. "The Harrier is excellent in terms of its agility, adaptability and speed of response and this small detachment of only six aircraft has had a disproportionately large effect on the success of coalition operations in the region." 

The Harrier GR7A carries Enhanced Paveway precision guided bombs, rockets and Maverick missiles, as well as numerous sensors and defensive flares. However, it is testament to the resolve of the crews and physical presence of such a capable aircraft they have only had to resort to deploying munitions on less than 14 operations.

"When the Harriers launch on operations they deploy a graduated response to situations," said Wg Cdr Hedley. "Having first identified precisely the location of the enemy, they will then fly low and fast over the enemy positions as a show of force and their sheer presence often coerces the enemy to stop what they are doing."

The Harriers frequently support pre-planned missions against the insurgents.  US Army troops who have been ambushed in this hostile environment regularly contact the Harrier crews to thank them for their outstanding support. The commander of a US Army task force operating on the ground recently remarked on the excellent coordination and effect of the Harrier in theatre. 

"I have never had a mission where ground manoeuvre and air assets were so well linked," he said. "When we kicked in the door, less than a second later the Harriers were over the target building.  All the insurgents were so shocked, there were no engagements and we secured the objective in less than a minute."

Pilots liaise closely over radio with ground forces to ensure they correctly identify the locations of the enemy targets and of coalition forces, to be precisely sure of the ground situation before launching weapons if required. 

The initial deployment to Kandahar was established by No 3 (Fighter) Squadron, who recently returned to Kandahar for a further tour of duty.  No 1 (Fighter) Squadron and No. IV (Army Cooperation) Squadron, all from RAF Cottesmore, have also contributed during the past ten months. 

The deployed operating base is commanded by Wing Commander 'Arnie' Palmer, OC Operations Wing at RAF Cottesmore. Part of the NATO deployment in Kandahar, which accommodates approximately 5000 coalition forces, the British detachment has six Harrier GR7As and a total of around 180 personnel. 

The austere and remote outpost presents British military personnel with demanding challenges.  Harrier pilot, Flight Lieutenant Jamie MacGillivary, said:

"The heat is the greatest challenge, with temperatures in the summer regularly in excess of 45 degrees Centigrade."  During winter, the temperatures plummet and the base regularly floods, turning the dust bowl into a quagmire. 

The base is 3,300 feet above sea level which also presents the aircraft with performance issues. Coupled with high winds and dust, this makes the aircraft engineer's life extremely difficult.  It is testament to their skill and determination that they have always been able to keep the aircraft ready for operations.  Although US forces are slowly rebuilding the runway, the Harrier is currently the only fast jet fighter able to operate in the south of the country and the sole asset readily available to support coalition troops on the ground.

Next year, the Headquarters Group of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) is expected to deploy to command ISAF in Afghanistan. Although options are being discussed to determine the British military contribution in southern Afghanistan as part of the planned NATO expansion, while the Harriers remain they will continue supporting the mission to the full.

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