Naval Air: March 18, 2002


The US Navy has been flying its P-3C Orion patrol planes over Afghanistan, using their various sensors to add to the intelligence picture. The Navy has scattered detachments of two Orions and three crews at commercial and military airports around the region, and is flying frequent missions to patrol the area in general (looking for al Qaeda leadership trying to escape) and battle areas of Afghanistan in particular. Many of their missions are to assess damage caused by bombing raids launched hours or days earlier. With their existing equipment, Orions can take a digital photo and transmit it to a ground base in about five minutes. New equipment (fitted to only two aircraft in the theater) can provide real-time steaming video. A typical flight is about 12 hours, including four hours from the base to Afghanistan, four hours over the battle area, and four hours to return to base. Because the Orions are not used to flying over land (where an enemy air defense threat could rise from any hillside), they have had to develop new tactics, using a lot of flares to protect themselves from shoulder-fired missiles. All Orions keep two crewmen on duty during the entire flight doing nothing but watching for a missile rising from the ground. During the first attacks, Orions were used to fire SLAM cruise missiles, but most subsequence flights have been for recon only.--Stephen V Cole


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