A pair of RAF Lakenheath based USAF F-15E Strike Eagles that were bristling with live bombs and air-to-air missiles, along five KC-135R tankers, flew on a secretive and grueling 12 hour mission over the Southern Mediterranean on Monday, May 25th, Memorial Day.
Multiple radio interceptors and plane spotters state that four F-15E’s, callsigns ABLE 01 through 04, took off from their home base at RAF Lakenheath laden with yellow banded (live) AIM-9M sidewinders, AIM-120 AMRAAMS and no less than seven 500lb Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs). These aircraft were accompanied by five KC-135Rs tankers, callsign QUID 91 through 95, that launched out of their base at RAF Mildenhall, just as the Lakenheath based F-15Es were departing.
After forming up over the UK, ABLE 01 and 02 and QUID 91 through 95 headed south, while ABLE 03 and ABLE 04 turned around and landed back at Lakenheath, their pylons still full of weapons. These two aircraft were clearly air spares, a common technique used for ensuring success during critical missions. Complex combat aircraft are notoriously prone to technical issues that may allow them to continue flying just fine but will greatly limit their effectiveness in combat. These issues can be as simple as a defective radio or targeting pod, or a serious as a malfunctioning engine or environmental system. They also often manifest themselves once the aircraft has ‘warmed up’ and is underway. By adding airborne spare aircraft to a mission plan the chances of mission completion greatly increase. Because of America’s aging and ever more complex air combat fleet, this is a common practice for everything from long-distance re-deployments to critical missions aimed at taking out high-value targets.
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You can see pictures of ABLE 01 through 04 departing fully laden with weapons from RAF Lakenheath on Monday morning, May 25th, here. Keep in mind that flight operations, especially with this much weaponry, almost never happens on a national holiday, let alone Memorial Day. If anything, a pair of local fighter aircraft may fly over known cemeteries and military ceremonies around their geographical area to salute those who sacrificed greatly in combat. For such missions, the aircraft are not loaded down with 4,500lbs of live ordnance and their routes are highly publicized.
Radio interceptors followed the flight sporadically as it made its way south and then east, deep over the Mediterranean. At some point in time, while south of Malta, a portion of the tanker armada went operational and orbited as the F-15s went about their business in the area. Seeing as they were loaded with air-to-ground weaponry, this mission was not a combat air patrol alone.
The tankers were on station for hours before they each peeled away and headed home one by one. Just two tankers, QUID 94 and QUID 95 were still on station as the Eagles returned from whatever it was they were doing and they all headed back east toward their home bases. You can see Quid 95, flying south of Malta, just before it was about to return to base with ABLE 01 and 02 in tow in the Mode S tracker screenshot below.
This screen shot shows the beginning of the operation, with four QUID tankers still in the area south of Malta.
Here are the radio transmissions from the tankers themselves. The first one correlates loosely with the first screenshot, happening as the mission was wrapping up and returning to base. As you can hear, QUID 95 states that his KC-135 has ‘two chicks in tow” when the controller inquires about how many aircraft are in their formation. This second clip, which is very short, puts ABLE flight on the scene shortly after the tankers setup their orbit high over the Mediterranean. The tanker pilot gives ABLE flight a communications check. You do not hear the F-15 pilot’s reply because they use UHF radios, not VHF radios like those used primarily by civilian and commercial air traffic.
The mission ended with all aircraft returning safely to their bases in England. Radio interceptors in the area of Lakenheath reported that the jets did not taxi to the de-arm areas and instead went directly to their hardened aircraft shelters. Though this could be indicative of the possibility that the jets dropped their weapons in combat, the aircraft’s air-to-air missiles, gun and expendable chaff and flares would have to be de-armed under traditional practice. Still, after a roughly 12 hour complex combat mission in an F-15E, and the fact that RAF Lankenheath has isolated hardened aircraft shelters, probably allowed the process to go down differently. Also, the radio scanners reports could be erroneous as we don’t have the radio transmissions on tape as of now to prove it.
So what would require a pair of F-15Es loaded with thousands of pounds of 500 pound JDAMs to fly thousands of miles to the middle of the Mediterranean on Memorial Day? The list of possible answers to that question is daunting. Libya is a total mess right now, with Islamic Extremists controlling large parts of the country along with other warring tribes and militias. The internationally recognized Libyan central government is extremely weak, operating outside the country’s capital of Tripoli which is currently in total disarray, and they are under nearly constant threat of assault. Case in point: The Prime Minister of Libya was almost assassinated just yesterday.
The situation is so bad in Libya that a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions is occurring in the same area of the Mediterranean where ABLE 01 and 02 and their tankers were operating Monday. Libyans are fleeing their country in droves aboard over-packed ships and ramshackle rafts for a better life as refugees in Europe. The results of this exodus are mass drownings and a very serious looming refugee crisis.
Still, the weak Libyan Government is trying to fight back with the limited resources they have. On Sunday, just before this shadowy Strike Eagle mission into the area, Libyan MiGs attacked an oil tanker that was waiting to dock in the extremist controlled port city of Sirte. The tanker was supposedly carrying 30,000 metric tons of gas & oil that was loaded onto the ship at the Motor Oil Hellas refinery in Greece, although Libyan military commanders loyal to the central government claim it also carried Islamist fighters and weaponry bound for extremist militias controlling the city.
Interestingly enough, and a sign of just how screwed up Libya has become, the country now has multiple air forces. One controlled by commanders loyal to the internationally recognized government, and others ran by tribal militias and Islamist groups.
Nearby countries like Algeria continue to struggle with extremist elements as well, and farther south, Mali continues to be an incredibly fertile breeding ground for Islamist militants that are becoming more and more aligned with ISIS’s ideology.
As a result of so much instability and turmoil in the region, the Eagles could have ventured to many places in Northern Africa, although Libya remains by far their most likely destination.
A fighter aircraft’s unique weapons load can also tell us a lot about its mission. The two F-15Es in question, which appear to have strictly GBU-38 500lb JDAM based loadouts, are setup best for attacking a series of semi-fortified, fixed targets. These can be either pre-located or targeted on the fly. Even without dual-mode laser guided JDAMs, or GBU-12 laser guided bombs, the F-15E can use its targeting pod to ‘squirt’ the target in order to get a precise GPS location to load into the weapon. This does not allow the weapon to hit moving targets, but it does allow for the rapid employment of the bomb against ‘pop up’ targets that remain relatively stationary. So although laser JDAMs are better in a close air support scenario, GPS only guidance is still a workable solution in most circumstances.
Lakenheath’s F-15Es are the most highly upgraded in the USAF’s inventory, and are able to sling Small Diameter Bombs and other advanced weapons. When you take this into account, along with the reality that all the weapons in the F-15E’s quiver should have been made available for such a small and seemingly high-priority mission, the possibility that there are no laser guided weapons loaded onto these Strike Eagles would lend weight to the idea that the mission was most likely aimed at striking stationary targets and not necessarily to provide close air support.
With only 500lb GPS guided munitions loaded onto the jet, targets like an air base, which is plausible considering that extremist elements are known to be now flying MiGs over the country, or something like a training camp or gathering of buildings and people are all possible. These targets’ coordinates could be all pre-programmed into the weapons before takeoff, and a single pass by both aircraft could see 14 individual structures totally destroyed with minimal risk to the aircraft and crew.
If there were a few GBU-54 dual-mode laser JDAMs mixed in with their strictly GPS guided cousins, the mission was much more likely to have been focused on close air support. Laser guided weapons allow for F-15E crews to hit targets on the move, and in some cases crews can engage targets more rapidly and more precisely using laser guided weapons than when using weapons that rely on inertial and GPS guidance alone.
What we know for sure is this was not strictly a combat air patrol aimed at warding off marauding fighters or to keep certain aircraft from flying at all. Nor was it strictly a surveillance mission, and the threat environment was permissive enough that the F-15s involved did not need to employ standoff weaponry or need a Wild Weasel escort.
Seven 500lb smart bombs is a lot of firepower, and 500lb bombs are generally used for making large effects with minimal damage to nearby structures or people. In other words, this was not an attack against a deeply buried bunker or single hardened facility. Quite the contrary, it was either a strike against a fixed target made up of multiple sub-targets. or it was a meant for providing close air support on the fly, possibly air cover for a critical operation.
As of now, there are no reports that any targets exploded in Libya or in surrounding countries on May 25th, although parts of Libya and its neighbors are so embattled and/or so remote, the news may not have really made its way out of the region. This is especially true if you kill everyone on site during such an attack. Alternatively, the target in question may have never panned out and the F-15Es actually never dropped their weapons in anger at all, a normal occurrence during sustained wartime operations.
Regardless of their intended target, it is interesting to know that the US continues to fly fighter missions over the region, and not just any fighter missions, but 12 hour ones that include five aerial refueling tankers. Missions that are so time critical that they have to be launched on Memorial Day, once again, largely a limited flight activities day for US air combat forces. It also reminds America’s enemies that the USAF can reach out and destroy them virtually anywhere in the world and with little notice.
Then again, all this mission could have occurred for reasons outside of the realm of logic or conjecture discussed here. Maybe the 48th Fighter Wing thought it would celebrate its long-range striking roots by re-flying a throwback version of Operation El Derado Canyon, when the unit struck Qaddafi’s Libya in their F-111s from their home base at RAF Lakenheath on April 15h, 1986. A feat they pulled off again during Operation Odyssey Dawn, which saw the fall of Qaddafi just a few years ago. That was also an operation they lost an F-15 in, with both pilots being plucked to safety by locals and Marine Corps Ospreys. Then again, why would they ever do such a thing while laden with live weapons, on Memorial Day, and in without explanation? Well, they probably wouldn’t but that is besides the point.
Foxtrot Alpha contacted the 48th Fighter Wing for comment, on what could have been a historic mission. Here is their response:
To answer your questions, U.S. Air Forces - Air Forces Africa units routinely support Geographic Combatant Command for ongoing exercises and operations. The forward presence of USAFE-AFAFRICA allows us to provide timely, decisive air assets and support to meet emerging challenges and execute missions across Europe and Africa.
Just let us know if you need anything else!
48th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
A huge thanks for the spotters and radio interceptors that made this article possible. Photo credits DoD aside from Libyan refugee photo which is via the AP.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.