UAE Air Force on the offensive in Libya

Jon Lake looks behind the headlines at the performance of the UAE Air Force in its deployment over Libya and its weapon success.

The UAE was the second Arab nation to contribute fast jet aircraft to the multi-national operations over Libya but is believed to have been the first to start flying bombing missions.

The operation had been known as Operation Odyssey Dawn while under US command but was known as Operation Unified Protector following NATO’s formal assumption of command on March 31.

Though the deployment of 12 fighter jets (six Mirage 2000-9s drawn from Nos 71 and 76 Squadrons at Al Dhafra and six Block 60 F-16E/Fs from No1 Squadron) was officially stated to be merely “an extension of the UAE’s humanitarian operations”, both types are known to have started offensive operations against ground targets.

The fighters deployed to Decimomannu, near Cagliari, on the island of Sardinia, on March 27 2011 but repositioned to Sigonella, Sicily, on April 26 and 27 to reduce the transit time to the Libyan area of operations, cut response times and save fuel.

Unfortunately, on landing at Sigonella, one of the F-16s overran the runway and the pilot ejected. Until the wreckage could be cleared Sigonella’s main runway was closed.

Soon after the move local photographers and aircraft spotters noted that the UAE’s fighters were flying with air-to-ground weapons.

The UAE Air Force Mirage 2000-9s carried a Shehab laser-targeting pod under the starboard wing root and an MBDA Al Hakim rocket-boosted precision guided munition (PGM) with a 500lb warhead under the port wing root. The aircraft also carried a pair of 1,700 litre RP30 fuel tanks and a pair of IR-homing MICA air-to-air missiles.

The F-16E/Fs flew with two 500lb GBU-12 Paveway III laser guided bombs, four AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles and a SNIPER targeting pod.

The Al Hakim is a short-range, solid propellant, air-launched stand-off air-to-surface weapon developed in the early 1980s by Ferranti (subsequently taken over by GEC-Marconi-Dynamics which, in turn, became part of MBDA), and was funded by the UAE. A new weapon was required because the USA was unwilling to integrate certain classes of weapon on aircraft that it supplied to certain Arab nations, to avoid upsetting particular regional sensitivities.

Al Hakim is totally modular and features a variety of guidance systems. It is available with two warhead weights and was once intended to use a variety of warhead types.

As delivered to the UAE Air Force and Air Defence, the weapon has three interchangeable seeker types. The PGM1 is a semi-active laser seeker, the PGM2 a television imaging seeker, and the PGM3 an imaging infra-red (IIR) seeker. These seekers ensure that the weapon is fully operational 24 hours a day, even in poor weather conditions. All three seekers use the same operator/control interface, which minimises the impact on pilot training requirements.

The laser seeker is compatible with all standard ground and airborne laser designators, while the TV and IIR seekers can send post-launch images back to an aircraft more than 100km away right up to the point of impact. Alternatively, images can be relayed to a third-party aircraft or ground control centre – useful if the PGM’s mission is being managed remotely.

The Al Hakim missile can be pre-programmed, using a portable loading module before flight, allowing it to be used against pre-planned targets by aircraft that do not have a suitable on-board data link and which, therefore, cannot control the weapon in flight. Usually, though, the weapon can be updated at any time, allowing it to be used against targets of opportunity.

The pilot or off-board mission controller can regain man-in-the-loop (MITL) control from the PGM’s own automatic tracking system at any point in the mission to refine or optimise the aim point or even to attack alternative targets.

The weapon has blast fragmentation warheads of either 500lb or 2000lb. It has proven firing accuracies of less than 1m circle error probable (CEP) in service, and has selectable fusing options to allow it to detonate on impact or by proximity to the ground or the target.

At one time, it was thought that four warhead types were under development for the Al Hakim, including blast fragmentation, high-explosive, anti-tank, and area-denial (with minelets). The status of the other types is unknown.

The Al Hakim’s solid fuel booster rocket (two rockets in the case of the 2,000lb weapon) give it a stand-off range of 15km from a low-altitude release, up to 30km from a medium-altitude release and up to 50km from a high-altitude release.

The Al Hakim has been integrated on the Mirage 2000-9 and also on the F-16E/F, though it has not been used by the Desert Falcons during the Libyan operation.

The UAE Mirages usually carry a Thales Shehab laser designation pod when using Al Hakim.