By The Independent Team
Here, The Independent talked to Maj. Gen. Zed Maruru, former army chief-of-staff under Gen. Tito Okello’s short-lived government. Maruru is an air force pilot trained in Czechoslovakia and at Bracknell Staff College of the Royal Air Force of United Kingdom, one of the world’s most respected aviation military academies. He also served as Acting Commander of the Uganda Air Force in 1973/74 and later as President Yoweri Museveni’s advisor on military affairs.
According to the UPDF, the army’s OLT was supposed to begin with aerial bombardment of LRA camps at 6 am ‘ just before the rebels got out of bed ‘ taking them by surprise. UPDF would send in MiG-21 bombers, drop bombs on the camps sending the rebel army into panic and disarray. Then it would send in Mi-24 helicopter gunships with Special Forces troops to carry out search and destroy missions from the air and even land forces on the ground to capture the objectives.
Maruru told The Independent that the plan must have faced serious problems from the word go. ‘First of all,’ he said,’The MiG-21 series are designed as a fighter and interceptor jets, not a bomber. You detect enemy planes and scramble them to intercept bombers and destroy them in the air before they deliver bombs on their targets. They are also used to escort bombers. Here they are used to fight other fighter jets of the enemy in the air to enable an army take control of the air so that its air force can bomb enemy targets without much interference. So, although the MiG-21 can carry some bombs, its load is really small.’
The problem with MiG-21 jets
Maruru said that MiG-21 series therefore largely carry machine guns and a few missiles to shoot down enemy planes. He said that to increase their bombing capacity, you would have to remove some of their fuel tanks and use the space to carry bombs. However, this would reduce the range of operation i.e. their flying distance. In UPDF’s case, they would not be able to fly from bases in Uganda, for example, bomb Garamba and return to base without refuelling. This is one reason the secrecy of the operation was jeopardised by involving SPLA and DRC.
Maruru explained that historically, the Americans used the B52 bomber ‘ a huge plane that can carry huge tonnes of bombs to drop on enemy targets. The aim of such bombardment is to neutralise the enemy’s fighting ability and to disorient his troops. The B52 bomber is as big as a Boeing 747 and can fly long distances without refuelling. But this makes the bomber big, heavy and therefore not easily manoeuvrable. To partly resolve this problem, the American army developed the Stealth Bomber.
The Stealth Bomber is a large plane with capacity to carry a heavy bomb load, have large tanks to travel long distances without refuelling. They are fast, easy to manoeuvre and undetectable by radar. Thus, rather than use radar guided missiles, it uses laser guided ones i.e. it sends a laser-beam to a target and then directs a missile to follow the beam.
‘Even if they reduced its flying range to increase its bomb carrying capability,’ Maruru said, ‘The MiG-21 would never provide you with sufficient bomb delivery capability to really neutralise an enemy. And given that UPDF could ultimately not use the MiGs due to bad weather; then they must have used the Mi-24 helicopter gun-ships to bomb the camps.’
According to Maruru, this later option must have made an already bad plan even worse. The Mi-24 helicopter gunship cannot carry more than 500 kg of bombs. Since UPDF has only four of them, even if all were in the operation, the bomb load was too little to effectively neutralise LRA. Under such circumstances, Operation Lightening Thunder was dead on arrival.
Secondly, Maruru reasoned, MiGs fly faster than the speed of sound. So they can fly and bomb a target even before the people at the target can hear them come. But helicopters are slow; you can hear them at a distance and have five to ten minutes to run, scatter and hide. Abandoning the MiGs for the helicopters significantly weakened the element of surprise and must have given Kony and his soldiers time to escape.
Maruru says the helicopters also weakened the operation because they had to drop the bombs first, and then fly back to pick the commandoes of the special forces, thus giving Kony and his men legroom to return, rescue the injured, collect the dead, pick up their ammunition and arms and disappear again. This must therefore have limited how much UPDF would capture ‘ hence the saucepans and jerry cans.
Finally, Maruru said the date of bombing LRA camps could not have been hidden from the DRC troops because of the contingencies involved in preparing attack planes for an operation. For the operation to work, UPDF needed to fly to Garamba, bomb Kony’s camps and return to bases in DRC to refuel, reload bombs and check on the mechanical health of the MiGs before flying back. To establish this capability, Maruru reasoned, UPDF would have had to inform the Congolese authorities about the timing and use of their airfields.
‘For the operation to work,’ Maruru said, ‘UPDF would have had to stock fuel and bombs at DRC airfields. To fly a plane at 6 am, you need technical people to be there two hours earlier to prepare the plane. Secondly, after every bombing mission, the plane needs something called ‘Turn-around time’. This refers to the time taken in refuelling, reloading bombs and checking its mechanical condition. If the pilot has not reported any fault, all this can take 20 to 30 minutes.’
Maruru said that if a pilot has reported a mechanical fault on the plane, it can take an hour or more depending on the gravity of the fault. Whichever way, there has to be preparation on the airfields of DRC which Uganda would not hide from DRC authorities.
The camps in Garamba were far away, located on an expansive territory yet MiGs can only work where a target is located in a tight place and is clear ‘ like a bridge or building. MiGs would also have required that UPDF pinpoint a particular target ‘ like Kony’s hut and then feed that information in the GPS coordinates for the operation to be effective. Maruru said he cannot comment on these details since he does not have all the information.