Gamblers provide SEAD, protect Libya

Airmen from the 20th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron scramble on the flightline to support the 77th Fighter Squadron as they depart for Operation Unified Protector. The 20th Fighter Wing received short notice deployment orders and departed in less than 48 hours. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Louis Rivers/Released)

Airmen assigned to the 20th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron “scramble” on the flightline to support the 77th Fighter Squadron as they depart for Operation Unified Protector from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., Aug. 8, 2011. The 20th Fighter Wing received short notice deployment orders and departed in less than 48 hours. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Louis Rivers/Released)

The 77th EFS participated in Operation Unified Protector in 2011, providing the suppression and destruction of enemy air defenses to protect North Atlantic Treaty Organization and coalition assets along the Libyan coastline.

An F-16CM Fighting Falcon assigned to the 77th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron (EFS) flies toward Libya circa 2011. The 77th EFS participated in Operation Unified Protector in 2011, providing the suppression and destruction of enemy air defenses to protect North Atlantic Treaty Organization and coalition assets along the Libyan coastline. (Courtesy Photo)

The F-16 is a compact, multi-role fighter aircraft that the 20th Fighter Wing employs to provide combat-ready suppression and destruction of enemy air defenses.

An F-16CM Fighting Falcon taxis down the flightline at Aviano Air Base, Italy, during Operation Unified Protector circa 2011. The F-16 is a compact, multi-role fighter aircraft that the 20th Fighter Wing employs to provide combat-ready suppression and destruction of enemy air defenses. (Courtesy Photo)

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- Six years ago in September, the 77th Fighter Squadron “Gamblers” returned home to Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, after approximately six months providing the suppression of enemy air defenses over the skies of Libya during Operation Unified Protector – a capability that continues to be the calling card for Shaw Weasels of today.

On March 17, 2011, amidst the Arab Spring, a series of citizen uprisings in Africa and the Middle East, the United Nations Security Council approved Resolution 1973 as a response to the growing Libyan civil crisis, demanding an immediate ceasefire in the country and an end to the attacks against civilians.

“A lot of people were tired of living under totalitarian regimes,” said Christopher Koonce, 20th Fighter Wing historian. “Libya was one of those places. Muammar Gaddafi was ruling the country at the time and he was a brutal dictator. People were tired of it and they decided to rise up. When they did, we decided to help them out; that’s where Operation Unified Protector started.”

Two days later, as they stepped off their plane on the way to Neptune Falcon, a joint interoperability exercise at Nellis AFB, Nevada, the Gamblers were met with a symphony of phones buzzing with news updates.

“We look at the news and see that we’re now bombing Libya,” said Maj. Adam Thornton, 20th Fighter Wing chief of safety, who then acted as the 77th Fighter Squadron chief of standardization and evaluation. “The next step for most people was to google ‘Libya’ and find out where in Africa that actually is.”

At the time, the 77th was part of a global response force, units pre-identified to deploy on a given timeline — a duty soon to be taken over by the 55th Fighter Squadron.

“The decision was made that since the 77th was currently ‘on-task’ (for the global response force), we were going to go,” said Thornton. “So we grabbed our bags, got right back on the airplane and flew home.”

For the next couple of weeks the squadron was uncertain of whether or not they were headed to war. During this time, the 77th FS pilots’s training sorties focused on preparing for the SEAD. On April 1, the 77th FS received orders to join Operation Unified Protector and became the 77th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron.

When a large portion of a squadron deploys, a brand new unit is often formed as an “expeditionary squadron,” said Koonce. The new unit then belongs to a different command while conducting operations in the deployed location and confers with their home unit about the operations upon their return.

The Gamblers deployed to Aviano Air Base, Italy, with six aircraft and 30 pilots.

“We show up, we start fighting the war with our six airplanes and initially we were launching four sorties a day,” said Thornton. “Typically, one two-ship (formation) right at dawn would go down, fly 2 ½ hours to get down there with tankers and everyone else, stay on station for three hours, then fly two hours to get home and ‘high-five’ with the other guys over Italy who were taking off.”

Pilots, maintainers, intelligence and other deployed Airmen assigned to the Gamblers worked together to continually provide SEAD coverage for NATO and coalition partners across Libya, which helped establish a no-fly zone and protect ally assets.

“Our job was to do SEAD,” said Thornton. “It’s our bread and butter mission, and it’s what we do. It’s absolutely necessary. Anytime the enemy has the capability to attack another airplane and use a missile defense system to protect their airspace, for whatever adversary of that nation that wants to go into that spot it’s dangerous. Without SEAD, you have to rely on the self-protection measures that aircraft have or different tactics, but the probability of survival of going into those areas is greatly diminished.”

After six more jets arrived on Aug 11, the number of sorties increased to six daily. On Sept. 10, the squadron re-deployed six jets, and the rest of Gamblers returned home Sept. 14.

“It was an operation to take out a bad guy,” said Koonce. “We did it well, we did it quickly and, since then, it has had a domino effect on policies; it helped stabilize the region. It helped people have a say in their government who hadn’t had a say in their government for so long.”

From April 8 to Sept. 8, the 77th EFS flew 674 sorties with approximately 5,377 combat hours flown and 745 weapon employments.

“Being able to ‘bring the might’ that the coalition brought and being able to enable that firepower to be there to protect civilians was incredibly rewarding,” said Thornton.