Tank Plinking

When US fighters began picking off individual Iraqi tanks with precision weapons in the Persian Gulf War, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander in chief of US Central Command, is said to have groused to his air boss, Lt. Gen. Charles Horner, about the nomenclature.

Schwarzkopf: “Tell them not to call it ‘tank plinking’!”

Horner: “That’s the surest way to get them to call it ‘tank plinking.’ “

In postmission debriefs, aircrews would watch tape after tape of these attacks. They observed the ease with which tanks and other revetted objects were blasted to pieces. This reminded them of “plinking” tin cans with a BB gun. Thus “tank plinking” was born.

Much has been written about the tank-plinking mission, usually from the perspective of those who flew the missions. Not much is known about the origin of the mission or how airplanes ordinarily thought of as “interdiction” or “deep strike” fighters ended up bombing tanks, in revetted positions, one by one, with laser-guided bombs from medium altitude at night.

As Saddam Hussein consolidated his grip on Kuwait in the summer and fall of 1990 and US leaders began to develop plans for dealing with Iraq’s aggression, a concept for an offensive air campaign emerged. This led to a devastating air campaign and an Air Tasking Order used by General Horner.

In the early days in Riyadh, before much ground power had arrived in the theater, General Horner’s director of campaign plans, Brig. Gen. Buster Glosson, worked closely with the ground planners to integrate the emerging ground plan into the existing air plan. In September, his planning staff worked with an analytical team at the Pentagon to help determine how quickly airpower could destroy the enemy’s armor, artillery, logistics, and personnel to make the enemy combat-ineffective.

The Fifty Percent Solution

Most armies use an attrition figure of thirty percent as the threshold at which a unit should be “pulled off the line” because it has become combat-ineffective. The Pentagon analysis team, the Air Staff’s “Checkmate” division, ran its analysis to fifty percent and ninety-five percent attrition of enemy ground forces. General Glosson checked his analysis with General Schwarzkopf’s lead planner, Lt. Col. Joe Purvis, asking, “At what attrition level is an army considered combat-ineffective?” Colonel Purvis answered, “Thirty to sixty percent, depending on whom in the Army you ask.” General Glosson then asked Colonel Purvis if he could live with fifty percent, and he answered, “Yes.”

With the CINC’s approval, air planners and commanders paid more attention in the planning process and during the prosecution of the war to destroying the combat effectiveness of the Iraqi Army, especially the Republican Guards, through the independent use of land- and seabased airpower. To do this, they needed to execute precision bombing and around-the-clock attacks on enemy forces in the field similar to the attacks carried out against Iraq’s military-industrial complex.

In the early stages of the planning process, attacks against the enemy army were to be carried out primarily by F-16C, F/A-18C, A-10, AV-8B, and other aircraft using Maverick missiles, guns, and cluster and general-purpose bombs.

By December 1990, General Horner, General Glosson, and Maj. Gen. John Corder, General Horner’s deputy for operations, had concluded that fighter aircraft equipped with new infrared (IR) targeting pods would be able to find and destroy armored vehicles from medium altitude at night. This seemingly simple idea was a radical departure from the tactics manuals, which advocated the traditional concept of low-altitude ingress against a single fixed target deep in enemy territory. This concept was advanced primarily in response to the assumed deadliness of radar surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).

The generals believed instead that an effective attack on enemy air defenses would allow sophisticated aircraft carrying precision guided munitions (PGMs) to loiter over enemy ground deployments. Once air superiority was achieved, airmen could exploit their freedom of action to dismantle the enemy’s ground defenses in the same way that strategic attack could dismantle enemy telecommunications, infrastructure, leadership, and weapons of mass destruction following the suppression of enemy air defenses and the air-superiority campaigns.

Operation Night Camel

In December 1990, a month before the beginning of the air campaign, Air Force wings equipped with infrared navigation and targeting pods began flying night training missions against VII Corps armored forces. These training missions, known collectively as Operation Night Camel, were intended to determine whether IR-equipped aircraft could carry out night interdiction against supply lines and cluster-bomb attacks against armor.

Night Camel had an unintended consequence, however. On cockpit videotapes from the training missions, armored vehicles showed up clearly on IR screens between sunset and midnight. This key piece of information led directly to the tank-plinking idea. The videotapes also demonstrated that IR-equipped aircraft could be used for nighttime, medium-altitude attacks.

For most of the F-15E, F-16C, and F-111F crews who flew in these tests, medium-altitude attack on field armies was a new mission. The majority of Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night (LANTIRN) and Pave Tack peacetime training was oriented toward low-altitude, first-look strikes against fixed, high-value targets. Crews did not fly medium-altitude night missions in search of armor and armored personnel carriers (APCs) routinely in peacetime.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as radar-directed SAMs became too sophisticated, numerous, and deadly for medium-altitude ingress, it made sense for strike tactics to move toward lower altitudes. Attack aircraft, avionics, weapons, fuzes, tactics, and training were optimized for use at low level. After Vietnam, in operations such as Peace in Galilee in 1982 and El Dorado Canyon against Libya in 1986, these tactics (and increasingly sophisticated electronic countermeasures) caused a dramatic decline in losses to radar-guided SAMs. Although the number of aircraft lost to antiaircraft artillery and handheld SAMs increased, aircraft ingressing and egressing at low altitude minimized their exposure to enemy radar and therefore suffered fewer overall losses.

Given this background, it is understandable that A-6, F-111, F-15E, and F-16 crews, who had trained for years at low altitude, considered it “unnatural”–even “suicidal”–to loiter over an enemy army at medium altitude. F-111 wing planners wanted their crews to spend as little time as possible on medium-altitude sorties during Night Camel. They preferred instead to train at low level, preparing for the low-level war they expected to fight against the dangerous and sophisticated Iraqi Integrated Air Defense System.

Despite the skepticism, the results of Night Camel were far better than expected. Pave Tack and LANTIRN pods could pick out ground targets at night from medium altitude. Reviewing the tapes of these missions built up the confidence of senior commanders that airpower could carry out effective night deliveries against an enemy army.

From the first night of the war, the strategic air campaign had been brought to bear on one of the regime’s centers of gravity-the Republican Guards. By January 29, most combat shooter sorties were flown against enemy military forces in the Kuwait Theater of Operations, carrying out direct attacks on air defenses, artillery, armor, personnel, logistics, and command and control, eroding the will of the Iraqi Army to fight.

Faster Work Needed

However, there was a problem. Intelligence sources could not report the destruction of enemy forces in the field quickly enough to fit General Schwarzkopf’s timetable for executing his theater campaign to eject the Iraqis from Kuwait. Coalition air planners knew they had to concentrate around-the-clock precision firepower on the Iraqi Army’s huge array of dug-in equipment. By day, air planners could achieve high kill rates with tactics recycled from earlier conflicts. In order to wreak the same amount of destruction at night, the planners had to come up with totally new tactics.

General Glosson, as 14th Air Division Commander, laid out his plan to Col. Tom Lennon, the F-111F wing commander at the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing (Provisional), based at Taif, Saudi Arabia. Colonel Lennon’s initial response to General Glosson’s idea was negative, to put it mildly. Nevertheless, the Colonel did all he could to make it work, even scheduling himself in the lead airplane.

Colonel Lennon and Maj. Steve Williams, flying in Charger 07, with Lt. Col. Tommy Crawford and Capt. Scott Gillespie on the wing in Charger 08, became the first combat tank plinkers. The two F-111Fs proceeded to their station above a sixty-by-thirty-mile area comprising two “kill boxes,” grids overlaid over Iraqi-held territory for purposes of scheduling and deconfliction.

Each aircraft was loaded with four GBU-12 500-pound, laser-guided bombs. Each bomb was to be dropped on any tank, APC, truck, artillery piece, command-and-control bunker, or supply dump that crews could find in their box. The two initial sorties were so successful that planners scheduled forty-four more sorties for the next night. They sent two-ship and four-ship formations into kill boxes to fly medium-altitude attacks against the enemy’s field army. This mission was a radical departure for F-111 crews, but it proved so effective that F-111Fs flew 664 successful sorties over twenty-three days.

Precision made the use of smaller warheads possible. Weapons experts, both civilian and military, had said that 500-pound precision bombs would not be accurate enough to kill tanks, but the GBU-12 had great success. The Pave Tack targeting pod was optimized for large targets at short slant ranges. The resort to medium-altitude attacks forced Weapon System Officers to learn how to discriminate among tanks, trucks, artillery pieces, and other battlefield objects from miles away.

Mission videotapes showed that the first missions were much more effective than had been thought possible-and much more survivable. The F-111Fs had returned with no losses and no battle damage. Picking off enemy armor from medium altitude at night suddenly seemed a wise use of the aircraft’s lethal PGMs, infrared targeting pod, heavy payload, and ability to loiter for long periods.

Generals Schwarzkopf, Horner, and Glosson were impressed by the results, if not by the nickname the crews had given the mission. They had to learn to live with “tank plinking.”

Sixteen at a Time

For operational security reasons, videotapes of tank plinking never made CINCCENT’s evening press briefings, so the extent of the devastation was not known to the public in the days leading up to the ground operation. In the nineteen days preceding the start of the ground operation, F-111Fs, F-15Es, and A-6s flew hundreds of tank-plinking missions. On several occasions, two F-15Es carrying a total of eight GBU-12s destroyed sixteen armored vehicles on a single sortie.

The new tactic seemed strange to the aircrews but even stranger to the ground intelligence and operations staffs charged with estimating enemy strength. The existing bomb-damage assessment system was not designed to accept videotape-derived BDA from F-111Fs, F-15Es, or A-6s. It took some convincing for Central Command to accept reporting from PGM-equipped units as accurate. When it did, the assessed rate of Iraqi attrition rose dramatically.

The Iraqis, as well as most other armies and military thinkers up to February 1991, believed that digging into the ground and dispersing forces or massing only at night would make them nearly invulnerable to air attack. This was an effective defense for ground forces forty years ago, but its time has passed. Today, if armies dig in, they die. If they come out of their holes, they die sooner.

In the future, an air force that gains and exploits air superiority with precision weapons and persistent attacks will gain tremendous economies and efficiencies of scale. Each GBU-12 dropped on the Iraqi Army cost about $10,000. The export model of Iraq’s T-72 tank goes for about $1.5 million on the open market. Since airplanes like the F-111F or stealthy air-to-ground airplanes such as the F-117 can destroy $6 million worth of tanks with $40,000 worth of bombs, it soon becomes costly and nearly impossible for armies to deploy massed armor or artillery against a US Air Force with command of the airspace over the battlefield.

Maj. Michael J. “Boone” Bodner is an F-111F pilot and Fighter Weapons School graduate who flew tank-plinking missions during the Persian Gulf War and is now assigned to Air Combat Command. Maj. William W. Bruner III is an F-111 Weapon System Officer and Fighter Weapons School graduate who worked for CENTAF’s Director of Campaign Plans in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, during the war. He is now at the Air Command and Staff College.