NATO Targets Gaddafi: A Rare AWACS Ride-Along

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Alberto Pizzoli / AFP / Getty Images

A crew member works inside a NATO Airborne Warning and Control System plane on July 9, 2011, while flying over the Mediterranean Sea

This post is in partnership with Worldcrunch, a new global-news site that translates stories of note in foreign languages into English. The article below was originally published in La Stampa.

Big Brother is flying over the Libyan war. Here, Big Brother is NATO's Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), which is an airborne radar system designed to detect aircraft. La Stampa was given a rare opportunity to go aboard the AWACS plane used to monitor Libyan-war operations.

At sunset, at NATO's Forward Operating Base in Trapani, Sicily, 18 military personnel, whose identities cannot be revealed for security reasons, prepare for a secret night flight over the war zone. During the flight, they will record a huge amount of classified data. The personnel on board include men from New York City, Dallas, Copenhagen and Enschede in the Netherlands, and two Italian air force officers.

We leave from the Trapani-Birgi airport, a base for the Italian air force's 37th Wing. In one hour, we are already in Libyan airspace. The AWACS connects with the radars at NATO's bases in central Italy's Poggio Renatico and in Naples. The huge radar, rotodome, starts to collect data. Its sound is like the cry of a whale, jokes an officer.

"The AWACS is not an espionage platform," said U.S. Air Force Major General Stephen Schmidt before we boarded. "It is an airborne control center."

After one hour of flight, one of the NATO officers points at a multicolored spot on the monitor. "Here we are," he says. We are over Tripoli. And we are not alone. The radar detects other signals that on the screen become letters and numbers. The Libyan sky is crowded tonight. A big arrow and a "Who is this?" in capital letters appear on the monitor. A radar operator makes a sign to the others, showing that he has understood who sent the message. Everything is under control.

"NATO is still systematically destroying all the chances of the regime to strike its own people," Schmidt had told us. It is happening tonight. For two hours the AWACS are only assigned to surveillance tasks, collecting and sending data to other planes and to the bases. Diplomatic talks are going on late at night in Tripoli. For this reason, no one was shooting. For now.

But then, zero hour arrives. The AWACS plane becomes the coordinator of the raids. Thirty planes, eight of which are Italian, are in action. No one pays much attention to the many small spots on the monitor. "A guy gets in a car in Libya in the middle of the night? We immediately know it," says one of the men.

Some signals that switch on and off are more suspicious. There are still a few Muammar Gaddafi supporters testing some radar. But it is more and more infrequent. NATO is performing surgical action, looking for any and all remaining Gaddafi backers. Sometimes, they can find them with the planes' infrareds, the radars and the analysts who read data 24/7.

Around 1 a.m. a pilot sees something in a southern suburb of Tripoli and sounds the alarm. On the monitor we see a Predator spy plane moving around the possible target, which looks like a military base. It takes pictures and sends video. Two F-16 jets arrive. The pilots check for any reactions. Nothing. The AWACS double-checks with the control base. No one wants to risk collateral damage. The data from satellite and from planes are compared.

After one hour, the O.K. arrives. "We have a relevant target and no concern [of causing civil victims]," says an officer. They give the go-ahead to the F-16. The pilots ask for permission to use a laser-guided bomb. They obtain it. The airspace is evacuated. Only a pilotless drone stays on. It floodlights the target, which has been identified as a small base with weapons inside. The jets move 30 miles (48 km) away, then come back, descend toward the target and shoot. After a few seconds, the first updates arrive. Hit. The Predator comes back to verify: mission accomplished. In the meantime, other activities continue. A helicopter goes on a control mission and comes back without attacking.

In Tripoli, a manhunt is under way. The NATO planes are looking for Gaddafi and his supporters. Around 2.30 a.m., the radar detects near the first base that was attacked, another base, four buildings and something that looks like a launching ramp. Eight vehicles are seen coming in and out of the barracks. A pilot, Striker01, double-checks. "I see them, but I'm too far away, I cannot see what kind of soldiers they are," he says. Another Predator double-checks. Striker01 is ordered to attack. He consults the commanders on the device to release. They choose a laser-guided GPS-controlled bomb. It weighs 507 lb. (230 kg).

Stiker01 asks if the drone can give updates about the outcome of the raid. "It seems good, but we'll double-check in 20 minutes. There's too much dust now," answers an officer. After a few minutes, he tells Striker01 that another raid is necessary. "Adjust the target, I need you to shoot a few meters further north," he says. The pilot does it and hits the target.

For tonight, it is enough. We head back to Trapani. The AWACS planes have been on almost 250 missions over Libya from the beginning of the military campaign, and have flown for more than 2,100 hours. Almost every minute that Gaddafi and his men look up at the sky, someone is looking down.

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