SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. --
Amidst the Arab Spring, a series of citizen uprisings in Africa and the Middle East, the United Nations Security Council approved Resolution 1973 March 17, 2011, 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 77th Fighter Squadron “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 FS 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,” Thornton said. “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’ training sorties focused on preparing for the suppression of enemy air defenses. The 77th FS received orders April 1, 2011, 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,” Koonce said. 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,” Thornton said. “Typically, one two-ship [formation] right at dawn would go down, fly two and a half 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,” Thornton said. “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 Aug. 11, 2011, the number of sorties increased to six daily. The squadron re-deployed six jets Sept. 10, 2011, and the rest of Gamblers returned home Sept. 14 that same year.
“It was an operation to take out a bad guy,” Koonce said. “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, 2011, 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,” Thornton said.