Directing Libyan Air Strikes 'Like Playing a Computer Game'
TEN thousand metres above Libya, the war against Muammar Gaddafi is being directed over the roar of aircraft noise by men hunched over banks of computer screens.
This is Magic 52, one of three Royal Air Force E-3D spy planes in charge of the operational effort to enforce United Nations Security Council resolution 1973.
From the airborne command, control and communication centre, specialists direct every part of the bombing campaign.
In the course of a nine-hour sortie, they can direct 100 aircraft to carry out strike after strike. With access to Britain's most sensitive military secrets, they co-ordinate reconnaissance, refuelling, and missions to track and attack Colonel Gaddafi's military.
At the weekend there were further strikes by the RAF on the dictator's compound in Tripoli.
The military pressure on the regime is about to be dramatically escalated with the arrival of British and French attack helicopters, which will step up attacks on forces on the ground.
South Africa's President, Jacob Zuma, will visit Tripoli this week on behalf of the African Union in a last-ditch attempt to broker an exit plan for Colonel Gaddafi, though signs are he is digging in against threats from the G8.
Last week Magic 52, one of three E-3D Sentry aircraft on the mission, flew to a position 130 kilometres off the Libyan coast from its forward operating base at Trapani in Sicily. It remained there for the next seven hours, flying in an orbit close to Sirte, Colonel Gaddafi's home town.
In the sky below, dozens of NATO jets began filling the ''battle space'', ready to strike at any enemy forces entering the ''kill chain'' - the process by which targets are identified, evaluated and destroyed.
After three hours, an RAF strike patrol composed of two Tornado GR4s and a Typhoon informed Magic 52 that they had identified four armoured vehicles near the rebel-held town of Misrata.
The vehicles were Russian-made T-55 battle tanks - one of the main weapons in the Libyan armoury. The aircraft requested permission to engage the tanks and the Sentry's mission team swung into action. All three jets needed to refuel from one of the air-to-air tankers being co-ordinated by the Sentry before the attack could take place. By 5pm, 30 minutes after the tanks had first been identified, the attack was under way.
One tank after another exploded in a ball of flame and burning metal as the bombs struck. Escape was impossible and no survivors were reported.
The three RAF jets refuelled for a second time before heading for their next target close to the town of Brega, where some days earlier a Libyan radar station had made the fatal mistake of emitting a radar signal. It was now in the ''kill chain''. Minutes later an RAF GR4 fired a Brimstone missile which locked on to its target, destroying it in seconds.
The mission teams control the air battle and enforce the no-fly zone. All air sorties are planned by NATO's Combined Air Operation Centre at Poggia, near Venice, but the missions are co-ordinated on board the Sentry.
Almost every piece of electronic surveillance equipment on the Sentry is categorised as top secret, but none more so than the sensors, known as ''Yellow Gate'', operated by Flight Sergeant Phil Thornton, 43. They search for the electronic signals emitted by enemy radar which can identify the location of surface-to-air missiles.
Even Britain's allies cannot see Yellow Gate in operation: it is marked ''UK Secret. UK Eyes Only''. Most questions about it received the answer: ''Sorry that's classified.''
When asked what his work entailed, Flight Sergeant Thornton said: ''It is like playing a computer game. You can't just view it as a flat screen. I have to be able to see into the battle space and develop a situational awareness so that I can relay the information to whoever needs it.''
The team can identify an enemy target, relay the information back to the NATO centre at Poggia and call in a strike operation in minutes.
Flight Sergeant Thornton continued: ''Our job is to speed up the kill chain. We have managed to do that in under a minute. Speed is vital. If you had a main battle tank attacking civilians you want to be able to destroy it pretty quickly.''
The mission arrived back at Trapani airbase shortly after 10pm. The crew disembarked, all tired, some exhausted. In 24 hours time they would do it all again, working one day on, one day off, 10,000 metres above the battlefield - until the war in Libya is over.