Future suppressors?

Despite the familiar Wild Weasel mission that continues in the Gulf, the USAF and other are moving to new technology for the suppression of enemy air defences on the ground. Former Vietnam fighter pilot John Roberts surveys the action, and all the changes and new equipment, in the SEAD mission of Allied air forces.

WILD WEASEL is dead, though the popular phrase continues in use. Now the term is officially suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD). The old phrase, created in Vietnam, has been dropped in favour of a less vivid, but more accurate description of the toughest fighter mission in the air power spectrum.

When Saddam Hussein decided to push into the no-fly zones in December and January, the Allies reacted with four kinds of attack, two of them SEAD. First, they shot down Iraqi MiG-23 aircraft entering the no-fly zone; second, they conducted a 112-aircraft SEAD attack on air defence facilities in the southern zone; third they mounted a Tomahawk cruise missile attack on Iraq’s nuclear facility; and fourth, the Allied SEAD fighters reacted to air defence radar, missile and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) activity in order to protect Allied fighters defending the zones against Iraqi Air Force (IAF) fighter penetration.

Most recently, in April, SEAD fighters again reacted against active radar and missile threats in the no-fly zone. Thus, we saw the three key elements of maintaining air superiority over enemy territory — clear the sky, clear the ground, and punch ’em every time they move.

Although the term SEAD does not include air-to-air combat, SEAD air-to-ground fighters, such as the F-16 (and the F-15E coming soon), are fully-capable of engaging the enemy in the air. This flexibility is the key element in the future of this specialised mission — SEAD will be integrated into the multi-role fighters of the future. It is notable that Iraq announced on February 13, that it had removed its air defence units from the no-fly zone to encourage better relations and the relaxation of sanctions. These units are small and easily camouflaged — there is no way, at least from the air, to be certain that they have been removed whilst they refrain from transmitting radar signals. If USAF fighters attack Iraq in retaliation for the apparent assassination attempt on President Bush in Kuwait, or attack missile-equipped Serbian forces around Bosnia, SEAD fighters will once again lead the way.

Recent action saw the re-formation of the hunter-killer teams of F-4G and F-16C SEAD aircraft that had long been the modus operandi of the 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. Although Gulf War conditions did not lend themselves to this kind of team, with F-16s required for broader missions, it has served a useful purpose this year as 52nd crews cruise the no-fly zones in search of air defence sites. In typical operations on January 19, the hunter-killers fired AGM-88A high-speed anti-radiation missiles (HARMs) at radar and dropped cluster bomb units (CBUs) on AAA guns. On the 21st, F-4G Phantoms launched missiles against surface-to-air missile (SAM) radar in the north which had illuminated a French Mirage recce aircraft, and F-16s then dropped CBU canisters on the same location, apparently because the radar quickly shut down before HARM terminal tracking. F-4Gs fired their missiles at other targets during the confrontation, and the continuing threat means that the planned return of these aircraft to the US will be delayed.

This action emphasises the importance of rolling back enemy defences on the ground as part of maintaining control of the air over enemy territory. It was of course, the primary tactic on the first nights of the Gulf War, and a main reason why the IAF never came up to fight. In addition to radar, missile and gun sites, communication and command and control facilities are also prime targets. It is now even clearer that SEAD has become more important than ever before in air combat operations.

Wild Weasel has been important since Vietnam, where the SA-2 SAM posed a serious threat to fighters attacking targets or MiGs over the north. Weasel crews, flying two-seat F- 100F, then F-105G fighters, braved heavy missile and AAA ground fire to attack radar and missile sites with anti-radar missiles and conventional weapons. Just as in the Gulf, the CBU was an important weapon for attack when radar silence left the anti-radiation missile without a target to home on. Since then, modern air power, as seen in the Gulf War, has moved sharply toward the concept of The Strike Package’. When the attack fighters head for their targets in enemy territory, the situation may call for them to be supported by specialised refuelling, AWACS, electronic countermeasures (ECM), recce, MiG-CAP and SEAD aircraft in carefully-timed and co-ordinated packages of up to 100 aircraft established by the detailed Air Tasking Order (ATO), that is produced from the planning computer every night.

The SEAD aircraft are essential to the safely of the ECM, attack and air combat fighters that must fly deep in enemy territory against heavy SAM defences. SEAD also now encompasses the destruction of enemy command, control and communication sites, which can also be detected and identified by the more advanced in-flight systems. Indeed, the success of SEAD has caused many defenders, from North Vietnam to Iraq, to fall back on conventional AAA weapons in massive numbers as a major defence that forces Allied fighters to resort to expensive stand-off weapons and less-accurate intermediate-altitude bombing.

With the introduction of its new Boeing E-3 Sentry Airborne Early Warning aircraft, the RAF now has a complete strike package of early warning, tanker, cargo, recce, strike and air combat aircraft which it can deploy around the world. With only the Tornado F.3, it does lack a dogfighter, at least until the Eurofighter 2000 arrives. The SEAD portion of the RAF mission is covered by Tornado GR.1s which can carry the British Aerospace/Marconi air-launched anti- radiation missile (ALARM), In contrast to the Texas Instruments’ AGM-88 HARM carried by USAF fighters, the ALARM missile is self-contained and does not require on-board computers, although this is at the cost of some of the sophisticated information that can be passed to the HARM from aircraft systems or relayed from other ground and air elements for targeting and frequency-band discrimination.

The ALARM does have a unique feature, an alternative stealth mode whereby the missile is launched at too high an altitude over a suspected enemy site, where it then deploys a parachute and silently waits for a radar to begin transmitting. This is designed to override the favourite tactic of SAM operators when they detect SEAD fighters — turning off their sets frequently to confuse the homing missiles. Both ALARM and HARM have inertial memories to carry the missile to the target during shutdown, but this can cause severe inaccuracy compared to the homing mode.

The Wild Weasel mission was extremely successful in the Gulf. Along with stealth fighters, they were indispensable in destroying enemy defences on the first night of the air war before strike forces could enter the area. In the following weeks, everyone wanted the F-4G Phantoms to go in first and come out last when enemy radar and missile sites were neutralised.

The F-4G was created by modifying the cockpits and taking the internal nose gun out of the E model and replacing it with the electronic package that enables the crew to pin-point the location of enemy radars. The sophisticated APR-38, now the APR-47, is able to store azimuth information from radar transmissions until it has enough to triangulate the exact position. It also compares the electro-magnetic waves to its frequency library to tell the crew the exact nature of the radar, including the kind of missile it is intended to guide. This information is given to the HARM computer and Inertial navigation system before launch. The experience and wisdom of The Bear, the back-seat weapon systems operator, who must interpret and select information from a confusing array of transmissions for the ideal launch, is crucial to the success of the mission. He will also direct other fighters in the flight to aim their HARMs at specific targets.

But, with old airframes and budget cuts, the USAF is no longer able to afford dedicated F-4G Weasel squadrons around the world. Two units will be maintained in the US, with the Idaho Air National Guard and at Nellis AFB, Nevada, as part of the Fighter Weapons Wing. The last F-4Gs have departed George AFB, California, and the Philippines, and the final aircraft will be leaving the 81st Fighter Sqn at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, to make way for the F-16 replacements, even if they are retained in the Gulf for the time being. Command may be shifted to the Nellis wing.

For several years, Spang has had three squadrons of combined F-4G/FT6 hunter-killer teams. The F-16, although lacking the APR-47, was able to provide two additional HARMs and a better air defence capability to the team, usually led by the Phantom. After the Gulf War, the new USAF plan led to the formation of multi-role F-16s in the 23rd and 480th Fighter Sqns, the F-4s in the 81st, and a new squadron, the 510th from RAF Bentwaters, of A-10 Tankbusters and OA-10 FAC aircraft. The F-16 squadrons are converting from older Block 30 aircraft to the latest Block 50 with low-altitude navigation and forgetting infra-red, night (LANTIRN) all-weather capability, making the new composite wing a potent strike force for world-wide deployment and ground support. Spang F-16 crews now train like other F-16 units in the full range of air-to-air and air-to-ground missions, while adding the SEAD capability. Current F-16s use the Maverick wiring system and a HARM computer in the wing-mounted missile launch rail. This enables the pilot to call up HARM pages on one of the multi-function displays for checking, selecting and firing the missiles.

The F-16, however, does not have the internal capacity for the large and heavy APR-47 system, so it does not have the capability to triangulate target position by measuring different angles. It must rely on its normal radar homing and warning (RHAW) system to tell the pilot the direction, signal strength and type of radar transmission. Digital readouts on the RHAW scope assist in this. So, the missile must be fired without knowing the exact distance to the target and this is a significant deterioration from the F-4G precision.

USAF, however, has and is improving a miniaturised triangulation set for both the F-16 and F-15E Strike Eagle, which is currently undergoing HARM certification. The F-15 may also receive anti-electro-optical lasers to counter the growing non-radar detection systems that are being developed. At some future date, any F-16 or F-15E strike force may include some aircraft with HARMs and a crew trained in the mission, although not all crews will practise this.

The HARM itself has been upgraded to the B version with a better computer and other features to make it more deadly and compatible with its new carriers. The F-16 and F-15E are also capable of merging their LANTIRN all-weather strike capability with the SEAD mission, finding and striking radar and missile sites with conventional weapons. In addition to this expansion of the attack envelope to night, and bad weather, new technology such as the global positioning system (location accuracy within a few metres from satellite triangulation), and the hand-off and integration of target information from many sources into the fighter cockpit, now allows the kind of pin-point weapon-delivery accuracy needed to destroy small radar and missile locations. New tactics must also be established to make the most efficient use of all the new technology.

While the RAF is using the ALARM with the GR.1, the French use their own Matra ARMAT missile, and the Russians are known to have a similar capability. USAF, with Northrop and Texas Instruments, has long been developing a cruise missile known as the AGM-136 Tacit Rainbow. This expensive system, which has suffered from budget restraints, flies into the target area on a small jet engine and gathers information on radar sites, eventually attacking the specified or self-selected highest priority target.

The German and Italian Air Forces are buying the more advanced electronic combat and reconnaissance (ECR) Tornado with the US HARM, The ECR is a modified interdiction strike (IDS) GR.1, designed for SEAD, tactical reconnaissance and electronic mapping and pathfinding, while retaining the full all-weather ground attack system of the IDS. The RAF has divided the missions up differently, adding thermal imaging recce equipment to some GR.1s, calling them GR.1 As in 2 and 13 Sqns, six of which played a valuable role in the Gulf.

The new ECR has a much better HARM system than the F-16, providing range information, and even the F-4 by better systems integration. The emitter location system (ELS) is highly advanced, tying together for the first time the mission computer, cockpit displays, HARMs and control unit, RHAW, ECM jamming and the IR line scanner of the recce system. As information is gathered and processed, it is displayed on one of two identical rear-cockpit TV tabs or the pilot’s combined electronic display and map (CEDAM), showing a variety of radar threats, with their precise location, lethal range circle and the presence of missile launch and guiding. This display therefore facilitates pathfinding or penetration of weakly-defended areas. Target information is also provided to the pilot’s HUD, The original anti-radar missiles used in Vietnam, the AGM-45 Shrike and AGM-78 Standard ARM, lacked some of the modern aids. The Shrike had to be tuned on the ground to the specific threat and neither missile had a memory. The Shrike had a range of about 25 miles (40km), the ARM about 50 miles (80km). HARM range is also around 50 miles (80km). It is important to be able to destroy a site while flying outside the range of its missile defences. HARM is much improved over these earlier generations — it can detect the latest SAM and AAA radar threats, plus most early warning, acquisition and ground control instrument (GCI) radars. It is also designed to counter new defensive techniques like frequency jumping and blinking and to ignore decoys. Its Mach 3 speed and improved manoeuvrability also enhance its striking power. It is a big missile, 13ft (4m) long, 800lb (362kg), with a fragmentation warhead and pre-impact loser fusing. Crews love the quick reaction defence capability on the ECR, whereby the RHAW gear picks up a sudden threat and passes the information to the missile for immediate firing to the target area, even if the threat is not yet in the missile field of view. An important aspect of the new air power technology is the ability to provide fighters with a complete, up-to-date picture of the battle environment. The ECR can react to, store or transmit to other ground and air stations information it gathers on enemy radar and communication site type and location. This in turn, can be displayed on the Collins joint tactical information distribution system (JTIDS), which is soon to be installed on many aircraft, including RAF Tornados and Sentries. This secure and jam-resistant cockpit colour display shows many different items, such as the current location of enemy and friendly radars, aircraft, missile and gun sites, ground forces and others on a ground map. With such real-time information, the aircrew has a much-improved situational awareness, the ability to avoid threats and to strike opportunist as well as pre-planned targets. This will also help to avoid the kind of tragic friendly fire incidents we saw in the Gulf.

More than ever before, the diverse elements of air power, regardless of service or nation, are learning to work together under the Air Component Commander to ensure the most efficient use and safe preservation of every air asset. For the moment, it seems strange that the USAF and RAF, the two highest quality air forces in the world, lack the kind of SEAD capability that is being delivered to Germany and Italy. But, much of this development is classified, and it is likely that we will see some surprising improvements in the next few years, especially in the integration of the enhanced SEAD technology into the F-15E. It will have to happen, because without SEAD, you can’t have air superiority, and without that, you can’t win the war.

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