Operation Southern Watch

Operation Southern Watch
Part of the Iraqi no-fly zones conflict

Two F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft from the Texas Air National Guard and New Jersey Air National Guard prepare to depart Prince Sultan Air Base on a patrol as part of Operation Southern Watch in 2000.
Date27 August 1992  19 March 2003
LocationSouthern Iraq, below the 32nd and 33rd parallels.
Result Inconclusive
Ended with Invasion of Iraq
 United States
 United Kingdom
 Saudi Arabia
 France (until 1998)[2]
Commanders and leaders
United States Bill Clinton
United States George W. Bush
Iraq Saddam Hussein
5,000[1] Various Iraqi air defense forces
Casualties and losses
19 American airmen killed and 372 Coalition personnel injured in the Khobar Towers bombing
4 RQ-1 Predator shot down
1 F-16 damaged

1 MiG-25 Foxbat and
1 MiG-23 Flogger shot down
10-15 air defense systems destroyed
175+ civilians killed and 500 others wounded[4]

Operation Southern Watch was an air-centric military operation conducted by the United States Department of Defense from Summer 1992 to Spring 2003.

United States Central Command's Joint Task Force Southwest Asia (JTF-SWA) had the mission of monitoring and controlling the airspace south of the 32nd Parallel (extended to the 33rd Parallel in 1996) in southern and south-central Iraq during the period following the end of the 1991 Gulf War until the 2003 invasion of Iraq.


Operation Southern Watch began on 27 August 1992 with the stated purpose of ensuring Iraqi compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 688 (UNSCR 688) of 5 April 1991, which demanded that Iraq "immediately end this repression and express the hope in the same context that an open dialogue will take place to ensure that the human and political rights of all Iraqi citizens are respected." Nothing in the resolution spelled out the Iraqi no-fly zones or Operation Southern Watch.[5]

Iraqi bombing and strafing attacks against the Shi’ite Muslims in Southern Iraq during the remainder of 1991 and during 1992 indicated Saddam Hussein chose not to comply with the resolution. Forces from Saudi Arabia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France participated in Operation Southern Watch. The commander of JTF-SWA, an aeronautically rated United States Air Force (USAF) Major General, assisted by an aeronautically designated United States Navy (USN) Rear Admiral, reported directly to the Commander, United States Central Command (USCENTCOM).[5]

Military engagements in Southern Watch occurred with regularity, with Coalition aircraft routinely being shot at by Iraqi air defense forces, though they were usually only reported in the Western press occasionally. An intensification was noted prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, though it was said at the time to just be in response to increasing activity by Iraqi air-defense forces. It is now known that this increased activity occurred during an operation known as Operation Southern Focus.

Military operations

Immediate postwar

At first, Iraqi forces did not attack Coalition aircraft. However, after the United Nations voted to maintain sanctions against Iraq, Iraqi forces began to fire on the aircraft and American E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft reported an unusual amount of Iraqi Air Force activity.

On 27 December 1992, a lone Iraqi MiG-25 Foxbat crossed into the no-fly zone and flew towards a flight of USAF F-15 Eagles before turning north and using its superior speed to outrun the pursuing Eagles. Later in the day, several Iraqi fighters dodged back and forth across the 32nd parallel, staying out of missile range of American fighters. However, an Iraqi MiG-25 crossed too far and was trapped inside the 32nd parallel by a flight of USAF F-16 Falcons of the 33rd Fighter Squadron. After intelligence verified the aircraft was hostile, the fighter pilot received clearance to fire. The lead plane piloted by then-Lieutenant Colonel Gary North, USAF, fired a missile which destroyed the Iraqi fighter. This was the first combat kill by an F-16 in USAF service, and the first combat kill using the AIM-120 AMRAAM missile.[6] On 17 January 1993, a USAF F-16C destroyed an Iraqi MiG-23 with an AMRAAM missile for the second USAF aerial victory.[7]

On 7 January 1993, Iraq agreed to American, British, and French demands to withdraw their surface-to-air missiles from below the 32nd parallel. However, they did not remove all of them, and U.S. President George H. W. Bush ordered U.S. aircraft to bomb the remaining missile sites. On 13 January, more than 100 American, British, and French aircraft attacked Iraqi missile sites near Nasiriyah, Samawah, Najaf, and Al-Amarah. Around half the Iraqi sites south of the 32nd parallel were hit.[8] On 29 June, a USAF F-4G Phantom II destroyed an Iraqi radar which had illuminated it, and a month later, two U.S. Navy EA-6B Prowlers fired AGM-88 missiles at more Iraqi radars.[9]

Operations "Vigilant Warrior" and "Desert Strike"

The first nine months of 1994 were quiet, and the USAF began to withdraw forces from the region. In October, Saddam deployed two divisions of Iraqi Republican Guard troops to the Kuwaiti border after demanding that UN sanctions were to be lifted, precipitating Operation Vigilant Warrior, the rushing of American troops to the Persian Gulf region. Saddam later withdrew the Iraqi Republican Guard out of the Kuwati border due to massive American military buildup. This served to increase Coalition resolve to enforce the no-fly zones and contain Iraqi aggression.

On 25 June 1996, terrorists bombed the U.S. base at Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia which housed personnel supporting Operation Southern Watch, killing 19 American airmen and injured 372 people. This tragic event led to a re-alignment of American forces in Saudi Arabia from Khobar Towers to Prince Sultan Air Base and Eskan Village, away from population centers.[10]

In August 1996, Iraqi forces invaded the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq and American forces responded with Operation Desert Strike against targets in southern Iraq. As a result, the no-fly zone was extended north to the 33rd parallel. This marked renewed conflict with Iraqi air defenses and several more radars were destroyed by F-16 fighters.[11]

Operation "Desert Fox"

Main article: Operation Desert Fox
Two US Navy aircraft an F-14B Tomcat of VF-102 (foreground) and an EA-6B Prowler of VAQ-137 over Iraq during January 1998.

On 15 December 1998, France suspended participation in the no-fly zones, arguing that they had been maintained for too long and were ineffective. On 16 December, U.S. President Bill Clinton ordered execution of Operation Desert Fox, a four-day air campaign against targets all over Iraq, citing Iraq's failure to comply with UNSC Resolutions. This resulted in an increased level of combat in the no-fly zones which lasted until 2003.[12]

Last years

On 30 December 1998, Iraqi SA-6 sites fired 6 to 8 surface-to-air missiles at American military aircraft. USAF F-16s responded by bombing the sites.

On 5 January 1999, four Iraqi MiG-25s crossed into the southern no-fly zone, sparking aerial combat with two USAF F-15 Eagles and two USN F-14 Tomcats. The American fighters fired a total of six missiles at the Iraqi aircraft, but they were able to evade them all and escape back to the north.[13]

On 22 May 2000, it was reported that since Operation Desert Fox there had been 470 separate incidents of AAA or surface-to-air missile fire at Coalition aircraft, while at the same time, Iraqi aircraft had violated the southern no-fly zone 150 times.[14] Over the same time period, American aircraft had attacked Iraqi targets on 73 occasions.[4]

On 16 February 2001, American and British aircraft launched attacks against six targets in southern Iraq, including command centers, radars and communications centers. Only about 40% of the targets were hit. This operation sparked scathing editorials in the foreign press, which reflected growing world skepticism about American-British policy towards Iraq.[15] Incidents of Coalition planes coming under fire, followed by retaliatory air strikes began to happen on a weekly basis.

In late 2001, a Sudanese man with links to al-Qaeda fired a man-portable SA-7 Strela missile at a USAF F-15 Eagle fighter taking off from Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. The missile missed the target and was not detected by the pilot or anyone at the base. Saudi police found the empty launcher in the desert in May 2002, and a suspect was arrested in Sudan a month later. He led police to a cache in the desert where a second missile was buried.[16]

In June 2002, American and British forces stepped up attacks on Iraqi air defense targets all over southern Iraq. It was later revealed that this was part of a pre-planned operation called Southern Focus which had the goal of degrading the Iraqi air-defense system in preparation for the planned invasion of Iraq.

From August 1992 to early 2001, Coalition pilots had flown 153,000 sorties over southern Iraq.[4]

From 1992 to 2003, various Coalition naval assets also supported maritime interdiction operations in the Persian Gulf under the banners of Operation Southern Watch and Operation Northern Watch.


Prior to late February 2003, all USAF, RAF and French Air Force aircraft based in Saudi Arabia had been "defensive" assets in support of the defense of Saudi Arabia, e.g., they carried no offensive air-to-ground ordnance with which to strike ground targets in Iraq in response to hostile actions against Coalition aircraft in Iraqi airspace enforcing UNSCR 688. As a result, strike aircraft with offensive ordnance were limited to USAF, RAF, and occasionally USMC aircraft based in Kuwait, and USN and USMC aircraft aboard US aircraft carriers operating in the Persian Gulf.

On 27 February 2003, it was announced that the U.S. would be allowed to launch warplanes from its bases inside Saudi Arabia, to support the Iraq War – and would in turn begin a phased withdrawal from the country.[17]

On 29 April 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced that he would be withdrawing U.S. troops from the country stating that the Iraq War no longer required the support. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz had earlier said that the continuing U.S. presence in the kingdom was putting American lives in danger.

See also


  1. 1 2 http://www.afhso.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-120823-024.pdf
  2. https://warisboring.com/warning-mig-25-f03d8f62c8fc#.8f03mkdc7
  3. Knights, Michael (2005).Cradle of conflict: Iraq and the birth of modern U.S. military power. Naval Institute Press, p. 242. ISBN 1-59114-444-2
  4. 1 2 3 John Pike. "Operation Southern Watch". Globalsecurity.org. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  5. 1 2 http://www.afhso.af.mil/topics/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=19816
  6. "f16viper.org". f16viper.org. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  7. "F-16 Aircraft Database: F-16 Airframe Details for 86-0262." F-16.net. Retrieved: 16 May 2008.
  8. John Pike. "Air Strike 13 January 1993 – Operation Southern Watch". Globalsecurity.org. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  9. John Pike. "Operation Southern Watch". Globalsecurity.org. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  10. John Pike. "Operation Desert Focus". Globalsecurity.org. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  11. John Pike. "Operation Southern Watch". Globalsecurity.org. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  12. John Pike. "Operation Southern Watch". Globalsecurity.org. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  13. John Pike. "Operation Southern Watch". Globalsecurity.org. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  14. John Pike. "Operation Southern Watch". Globalsecurity.org. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  15. John Pike. "Operation Southern Watch". Globalsecurity.org. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  16. "TRACES OF TERROR: THE DRAGNET; Sudanese Says He Fired Missile at U.S. Warplane". New York Times. 14 June 2002. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  17. Telegraph.co.uk
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