The Weasels at War

July 1, 1991

On January 17, the Air Force’s Wild Weasels once again went to war, this time against the forces of Iraq. This was significant because one year before the start of Desert Storm, Washington decided that the Air Force would have to be able to light a war without having a full-up Wild Weasel on hand.

The classic Wild Weasel task is to attack and thereby suppress radar-controlled surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites. A Vietnam-era pilot once described the process as “three-dimensional chess where cheating is legal.” Sometimes the assault is direct. Sometimes Weasels use feints, distraction, and intimidation.

I am an F-16C pilot assigned to the 23d Tactical Fighter Squadron from Spangdahlem AB, Germany–the only mixed F-4G/F-16C squadron in the world. Until the US began preparing for combat against Iraq, the 52d Tactical Fighter Wing, to which the 23d belongs, was a single-mission, all-missile kind of wing trained to fly in the low-altitude European war that never was.

Yet we were sent to a different theater–the Middle East–to go to war against a vastly different type of enemy. The 23d, for example, found itself based in Turkey, conducting attacks from the north against Iraqi targets. Flexibility is the key to airpower, so we flexed. We knew the locations of most of Iraq’s essential surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites and radars, so the actual targeting wasn’t that hard.

However, instead of punching a hole in a true integrated air defense network, we had to knock out concentrated SAM batteries around strategic targets. Moreover, we were operating up to 250 miles into Iraq, exposing us to more threats so we didn’t own the low-altitude environment as our training regimen had always assumed.

In addition to having lots of familiar Soviet equipment, Iraq also used some modern Western defense systems. We had never expected to fight against them. Their capabilities, particularly the French systems, were largely unknown at the outset of war. Thus, the situation was a far cry from the big East-West war in Europe that was always our most likely scenario.

In the Wild Weasel/F-16 team’s training for that kind of conflict, the fundamental tactic was to employ a mixed four-ship or six-ship flight of aircraft in a relatively static Restricted Operation Zone (ROZ) along the forward edge of the battle area. The idea was that the F-4G using the APR-47 system, would detect and pinpoint the enemy’s mobile surface-to-air missile batteries and then shoot them in the face with the AGM-88 high-speed antiradiation missile (HARM).

The Soviet Union’s integrated air defense system was dense and formidable, with an estimated 10,000 intercept radars, 4,000 interceptor aircraft, 13,000 surface-to-air missile systems, and 12,000 antiair guns. In the 1980s, it showed new agility in use of electromagnetic frequencies and new skill in cloaking telltale emissions, among other advances.

In going against this kind of system, the F-4G is extremely well suited, for two basic reasons.

Last-Minute Updates

First, the F-4G’s APR-47 radar attack and warning system can pass real-time target information to the HARM up to the second that it comes off the rail, which is a nice capability to have when you are confronting a rapidly changing tactical battlefield. Second, the F-4G crew has an Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO), the extremely talented guy in the back seat who is half engineer and half magician. He extracts information from a clutter-filled screen and translates it into bad news for the other side.

The other half of the hunter-killer concept called for the F-16, with its magical radar and high maneuverability, to be the close air-to-air escort and backup HARM shooter. The squadron planned to use the F-4G fighter primarily to target the pop-up Soviet-bloc mobile threats whose locations rapidly changed. For its part, the F-16 equipped with the HARM was to be employed in either of two ways.

First, in general terms, a range-known shot was used to attack a specific site, usually a strategically located SAM, for which we had coordinates. Before the mission began, the pilot of the F-16 was to program all the targeting information into the HARM system. The HARM shot from an F-16 does not get real-time updates, so the so-called “probability of kill” (PK) of the shot would depend on how close a pilot gets to his programmed target parameters. It may sound easy to do, but when one is flying at 550 knots only about 250 feet above ground, or in the chaos of combat, it can be tough.

The other F-16 method of delivery is called the range-unknown shot. Essentially, the F-4G locates an emitting radar and points the F-16 at it for its shot. This allows for a much more flexible type of missile delivery, but there is a penalty. The weapon has a much shorter effective range, which means the pilot must get a lot closer to the SAM that he is trying to kill.

In both methods of HARM delivery, the F-16 depends absolutely on the F-4G’s power to see the emitter, determine its location and range, and pass this critical data to the F-16. Without the F-4G, or a suitable replacement, we would waste a lot of missiles.

That is where the 23d TFS stood last August when the Iraqi armed forces invaded Kuwait and Washington began preparations for launching a military attack on Iraqi defenses By the time the war began on January 17, quite a lot had changed. In a major change from the war-in-Europe scenario, the entire strike package would operate deep in enemy territory, thus being denied low-altitude cover and finding itself exposed to every SAM acquisition radar and missile system in the theater.

Very quickly, the air operation became a medium-altitude war, fought at that height in order to avoid fire from the 4,000 or so pieces of anti-aircraft artillery that Iraq deployed.

The Go/No Go Item

As a result, the presence of Wild Weasels became a go/no go item for each and every strike package. One day, about Day Eight of the war, something strange happened. The skies above the battlefield became deathly quiet. Not even a whimper. We came home, scratched our heads, and tried to figure out this new trick. We had gotten good intelligence that the Iraqis had moved some mobile, short-range SAMs up into the mountains along the border with Iran. Combined with the movement of the Iraqi Air Force’s Mirage F1s and MiG-23s to the northern bases, this move began to look a lot like a trap.

What was really happening, of course, was that Iraq had mounted a massive exodus to Iran of its best aircraft to save what was left in order to tight another day. We saw the dismantling and storage of many sites, the use of deception when they were capable of it, and, surprisingly, almost total emission control on the part of their air defense systems.

Thus, after the second week of the war, AAA was our biggest enemy. The Iraqi defense forces employed anything from rapid-fire 23-mm rounds to the big 100-mm stuff. The concentration and intensity of the gunfire varied according to the target’s worth and the Iraqi mood of the day. However, we saw only occasional ballistic (that is, unguided) SAM launches.

This forced a reevaluation of our purpose. With no Iraqi radars operating, we frequently returned home with unfired HARMS. The local Air Force leadership, however, allowed us to adapt to a situation that no one predicted. The suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) mission has always been loosely defined, and this time it worked to our advantage.

Our answer to all of this was the formulation of what I call DEAD (Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses), and it was deadly. Our basic reasoning, and justification for using bombs, CBUs, and Maverick missiles was that, if the enemy is in little pieces on the desert, then he’s about as suppressed as can be.

The HARM, good as it is, does little damage to the actual SAMs because it homes in on the emitting radar. Because they are undamaged, these SAMs can still be launched ballistically, modified for infrared use, or used in other unexpected ways. Also, the radars themselves can be repaired or replaced.

Gone Forever

We concluded that the only way to kill a site permanently would be to bomb it to splinters. If the sites are not popping off SAMs in your face, why not go ahead and destroy them outright

We flew a twelve-ship Weasel package in each of the two daytime mass packages plus an eight-ship flight as part of each nighttime package. As we substituted DEAD for SEAD, we kept one mixed four-ship flight as dedicated HARM/Shrike shooters for the times the SAMs did come up. The Weasel/HARM flight always covered a vulnerability window when the strikers were in the immediate target area and at the greatest risk.

The other mixed, four-ship flight had a Maverick/HARM loadout and responsibility for using their precision ordnance to surgically remove very specific high-value targets. Since they also carried HARMs, they could suppress enemy defenses for themselves if the need arose or go on to support the strike package. The last flight was an all F-16 four-ship, which carried Mk. 82s, Mk. 84s, CBU-58s, and the weapon of choice–CBU-87s.

For the most part, the Iraqis preferred to keep their heads down, so the result was an infrequent need for the bombers to defend against SAM launches while rolling down the chute. When SAMs did come up to shoot, they got spanked hard.

The Hunter/Weasel teams also covered the vulnerability time, but during the egress, they took their Maverick missiles and went hunting. Their target list is much too long to recite. They shot about fifty Mavericks during the last month of the war. I can say that they turned the lights out in northern Iraq; they destroyed virtually every hydro-electric powerplant in the area. They also shot early warning radars, ground-control-intercept radars, direction-finding facilities, jets parked in the open, and so forth.

Originally, the Killer/Weasel flight of F-16s had the job of destroying Iraqi AAA sites. However, we soon realized that one Killer flight per package couldn’t carry enough weaponry to do much damage against the mass of AAA emplacements in Iraq. So we began to target those specific SAM sites that were still a threat, our reason being that every site taken out by our bombs was one that could not be repaired to bother us the next week.

The CBU-87B turned out to be all it was advertised to be and more. Because it has no delivery restrictions and can be tailored for use against virtually any target, it was ideal for the medium-altitude attacks we were using. In fact, “devastating” is a better word. In one attack against a SAM in northern Iraq, we saw the CBU-87 create nine secondary blasts in the target area. Post-attack reconnaissance photos confirmed the kill. The terrain surrounding the site was chewed up to the extent that it looked as if it had just been plowed. We called it the “shotgun” school of bombing.

Of course the situation kept changing and probably the biggest advantage of operating from a composite wing was our adaptability in the face of shifting circumstances on the battlefield.

Day Raid on Baghdad

For instance, the raid mounted on February 19 was the first daylight attack on Baghdad that was launched from the north. On this raid, we reconfigured the mixed flights with wall-to-wall HARMS in anticipation of heavy SAM activity. During this and several other raids, the strikers were stretched a little thin, so our F-16s carried Mk. 82s or Mk. 84s and flew as bombers.

We fought a smart fight and did what was required to get the job done. If this meant changing or adding to former peacetime missions, then we did it. Much of the credit for this flexibility goes to the wing staff that ran the northern show.

The Wild Weasels of the Northern Theater of Operations passed their combat test with honors. As of February 26, our 100-aircraft package had racked up some 13,000 combat hours flying over Iraq without suffering a single combat loss. Some 3,000 of those hours belonged to the mixed-force Weasels. The F-4G/ F-16C combination showed itself to be a viable and flexible fighting team.

The wing did have some battle damage and lost one F-16 on the Turkish side of the border, but no one suffered a silk letdown into enemy hands. The F-4G with its radar and SAM destruction weapons, AIM-7 face-shot capability, and precision Maverick delivery proved that it still has teeth. Added to this is its ability to provide that real-time threat information so vital to mission commanders and flight leads during combat.

The F-16C proved itself to be the versatile, precision-bombing strike platform that it was advertised to be. The Wild Weasel F-16s have done a little of everything. We started as HARM shooters and air-to-air escorts. For about a week, we picked up a commitment to provide High-Value Airborne Asset protection, a role normally performed by the F-15. We even had a Zulu alert (i.e., twenty-four-hour alert) mission for a few days.

We became SEAD/DEAD bombers and accounted for destruction of nine SAM sites and twenty-four AAA emplacements in addition to other critical targets.

We were prepared, if the need had arisen, to load out with Mavericks. Also, in the last days of the war, the Air Force sent into the theater four F-4Es equipped with Pave Tack. Had the war not ended, the Weasel F-16s would have carried and dropped laser guided bombs.

Dan Hampton is a captain in the US Air Force. This is his first article for AIR FORCE Magazine.