Exercise GREEN FLAG
Sitting in the main briefing room for the initial exercise briefings it all begins to sink in – I am participating in Exercise GREEN FLAG; a pre-deployment training exercise prior to 31 Squadron deploying to Afghanistan in support of Operation HERRICK.
Ten days ago I was a student on a training course; now here I am as part of a front line fast jet squadron, on a heavy weapons Detachment. The familiarity of the GR4 Operational Conversion Unit at RAF Lossiemouth seems very far away. The apprehension I feel seems balanced by the excitement at the potential of what lies ahead. More experienced squadron members are asking questions about things I hadn’t even considered, and the look of concentration on their faces is doing nothing to ease my concern! It is clear that this is no longer the training world – everyone is treated as an equal and is expected to pull their weight. As the Junior Weapons Systems Officer, and most junior member of the Squadron, it becomes evident that I won’t have long to get up to speed in order to contribute sufficiently to the running of the Detachment. A lot of weekend reading lies ahead before the flying begins…
Day two of the exercise and it’s my turn: I was programmed as part of a pair to drop live Paveway IV weapons in the nearby range. This is my second trip on 31 Squadron and I am dropping live weapons! I soon begin to realise that things happen extremely quickly on the front line and you need to keep up. The programmed crews consist of two fairly experienced pilots with two relatively inexperienced WSOs, the other WSO being someone that I went through the initial stages of training with! The planning stage is unexpectedly simple due to the proximity of the weapons range, the restrictions placed on us whilst carrying live weapons, and the nature of Close Air Support. However, during the brief I find myself concentrating harder than I have in a long time. There is a lot to take in and I am determined to be absolutely certain about the required processes at every stage of the weaponeering. During the eight month GR4 conversion course at Lossiemouth I had operated using simulated weapons dozens of times, but actually having a live Paveway IV attached to the bottom of the jet significantly changed the way I thought about the sortie! That being said, leaving the brief I was happy I knew what was required of me in the air.
The Paveway IV is an extremely advanced and effective bomb and I was about to get the chance to see what it could do! My pilot and I meticulously go through the flight reference cards to check the condition of the bomb. It is imperative that we know the bomb is in the correct condition before we take it flying. Once airborne I am thankful to be number 2 within the formation as it allows me slightly more capacity to concentrate on what I need to do without needing to control the formation en-route to the weapons range. Once established in the range, I watch as our formation leader carries out the first attack just as we briefed. I watch on my Litening III targeting pod as the bomb impacts the target – now the pressure is on me to do the same! We run through the work cycle pedantically, exactly how we briefed, keeping the chat between us to a minimum. I tell the pilot I am happy with my targeting processes and I am happy for him to release the weapon. There is a very distinct ‘clunk’ as the bomb leaves the jet and we tell our controller that we have released the weapon. I watch the picture of the target provided by my targeting pod and monitor the ‘Time to Impact’ indication. As the numbers count -down I begin to hope that, as the timer reaches zero, something will happen on the screen. Then, 1 second earlier than indicated, the armoured vehicle that was once there is replaced by a cloud of dust and destruction. As we carry out the post-target checks we receive a call of, ‘Good Bomb Good Bomb’, from the ground controller. There is certainly a sense of elation within the jet as, after many months of intensive training, I have made my first drop of a live weapon.
Back on the ground I now completely understand why we have travelled all of the way to Las Vegas for Exercise GREEN FLAG. The terrain and vast area make it a perfect place for this type of weapons training. My confidence in the weapon and my ability to employ it has grown immeasurably. The training benefit of this one sortie alone has given me more than a simulated weapons sortie ever could. I look ahead at the remainder of the exercise with more confidence and a new motivation with the experience of my first live bomb behind me.