As the last USAFE F-4G Wild Weasels return to the United States for the last time, Barry D Smith talks to the crews that flew the type with such success during the Gulf War.
ONE OF THE MOST dangerous missions of the Gulf War was the suppression of enemy air defences, both missiles and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). Two squadrons of F-4G Phantoms were sent to the Gulf to combat radar-guided missiles and AAA. Known as Wild Weasels, they tracked and destroyed sites with radar-homing missiles. What follows are comments of several crew members assigned to the 561st Fighter Squadron based in Bahrain.
Captain Kevin Grince Hale is an electronics warfare officer (EWO) with the 561st who operated the radar location equipment in the backseat of the F-4G:
«The deployment took over 20 air-to-air refuellings from tankers to get from the US to Bahrain, We had some excitement off the coast of Libya when one of our guys got some radar warning indications in the direction of Libya, it really perked us up but turned out to be a KC- 10 tanker’s radar sweeping through us. It was a long and basically boring flight.»
On the trip over, everyone carried three external fuel tanks and every other aircraft had two high-speed anti-radiation missiles (HARMs). Every flight leader carried one HARM and one travel pod. The pods carried enough equipment to keep the aircraft operational until our support and maintenance people caught up with us. We had aircraft sitting alert, armed and fuelled within 18 hours of landing.
The air base, called Shaikh Isa, was brand new. It looked like no one had ever landed on it before. The Tarmac bore no trace of tyre marks or oil drippings. It would eventually be home for 48 F-4Gs, 18 RF-4 Phantom photographic aircraft, as well as US Marine Corps EA-6B radar jammers, and F-18 and A-6 attack aircraft. It got pretty crowded. We had to build and expand the facility to accommodate the aircraft and men. We put up 250 tents in addition to the dormitories already in place.
Before the war started, day-to-day life was pretty much the same as on our Stateside base, except there were not as many recreational opportunities, though we trained with other US and Allied units. After the war started everything changed quite a bit. Our missions averaged about five hours, with mission planning and pre-flight briefing taking another three hours. Since it took an hour for debriefing after the mission, your day was pretty well shot.
All the Weasel flights used beer callsigns like Budweiser and Coors. One night, there was a strike package of bombers that wasn’t sure whether there were any Weasels around and came up on the radio and asked, «Are there any beers airborne?» That got a lot of chuckles for a few days.
The first night we went into the Baghdad area at about 20,000ft (6,096m). There was a thin layer of clouds at 19,000ft (5,791m). My pilot didn’t like not being able to see the ground, so he went below the clouds to see what was happening. That was probably not the best thing to do because the lower you went, the more AAA fire you got. This being our baptism of fire, we started jinking all over the place all the way down to 14,000rt (4,267m), which was the lowest we ever got during the whole war.
Each day after that we would climb 2-3,000ft (6-900m). By the end of the first week we were operating at about 28-30,000ft (8-9,000m).
The AAA presented a greater hazard than the missiles due to its high concentration around targets. We were better off at a medium altitude to stay above most of the guns. Even so, the large calibre guns could snoot higher than we could fly with our loads — three external fuel tanks and two HARMs. The F-4 just doesn’t perform well above 25,000ft (7,600m) at those weights.
My primary job was to operate the APR-47 to locate the enemy radar sites. We still had the air-to-air radar for aerial intercepts and navigation. But it didn’t work very well for navigation over the desert.
I stared at this little TV screen that displayed the enemy’s radar signal at the appropriate azimuth and range. It gave the exact distance and could read out the latitude and longitude of the radar site very accurately. Once I got a signal, I designated it as the target for the computer. If there was more than one, I designated the highest priority target. The computer then transferred the information to the HARM missile.
It is what is known as a fire and forget missile. Once it is launched, it needs no more direction from me, so I could immediately move to another target. We liked to monitor the target to make sure the signal was still up. If it stopped when the missile was supposed to hit, it was a pretty good indication that we had got it.
We normally tried to operate as high as we could. Even then, it wasn’t safe, as one night over Baghdad we took an AAA hit at 28,000ft (8,534m). We were on a suppression mission in an area from southeast of Baghdad to the north-northeast of the city in a racetrack pattern. As we got to the northeast comer, we could see the AAA coming up out of the city. We couldn’t see anything coming up in the direction we were going and relaxed.
All of a sudden, we felt and heard a loud thump under the aircraft. I looked out of the left side and felt two more thumps. I saw it explode right under the bottom of the aircraft and at the same time, we flipped upside down with about 120° of bank and we lost about 8,000ft (2,400m) of altitude. Though the pilot yelled, «We’re out of control», he got it back at about 20,000ft (6,000m) and started to climb back up. It turned out there was a 100mm AAA gun under us that straddled the aircraft and the concussion rolled us over.
It blew out the lights on the left side, damaged some of the systems and broke the electronics counter-measures pod. We thought we were hit worse than we were because we lost one of our stability augmentation systems causing the aircraft to wallow like it was really hurt. My pilot was a bit tense and he pulled up to 32,000ft (9,753m) as a reflex action to get as far away from the danger as possible. We headed south and made a beeline for the border.
As luck would have it, this was the only time in the war when we really needed a tanker and we couldn’t get one. When we were upside down, we blew off our external tanks to reduce weight and drag, but kept our missiles. We were in urgent need of some gas when we got to the border and there wasn’t a tanker around. Fortunately, AWACS was able to vector us to a tanker 150 miles (241 km) away. We were able to tank up and return home safely.
The first night of the war, we saw a parachute flare being used to attack ground units. We didn’t know what it was and thought it might be a SAM. We started jinking in case it was a missile. It really scared us, but as the war progressed, we became a little more blasé about ground fire.
It was about four weeks into the war before the first SAM was shot in my direction. We were flying up the western side of Kuwait on a night Weasel patrol. We looked down through the clouds and sow this spark coming up towards us. We said to ourselves, «Hmm, I wonder what that is?» Well, I didn’t know. It wasn’t a flare because it was moving. It was moving back on the canopy, so it wasn’t coming at us. We decided to put some chaff out.
The aircraft behind us was in a trail formation and saw our chaff on its radar. The crew realised that something must be wrong so they put some chaff out and began to look around for a missile. This was their first indication a missile was in the air. Our equipment didn’t detect any radar emissions that would normally go with a SAM launch. They then saw the missile and determined it was tracking them.
Jack, my pilot, and I were talking back and forth about whether or not to tell our wingman there was a missile out there. We told him and he yelled back, «Yeah, I know!» and he broke into the missile at his 9 o’clock. It exploded safely.»
While Kevin Hale didn’t see many missiles fired, the crew of Major Steve Jenny, pilot, and Captain Mark Bucci Buccigrossi, EWO, had six SAMs shot at them in less than three minutes on one mission. They were awarded the Silver Star for avoiding the missiles and covering the bombers they were escorting. This is the story of their mission as told by Steve Jenny:
«This was our third mission of the war. We were covering a B-52 strike, going after the Republican Guard along the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border. We knew where the bombers were coming from and when they would be on target. We had a four-ship flight and it was our job to protect them along their route of travel near the target, both in and out of area. We took off with two two-ships. Numbers 3 and 4 would take the western area and 1 and 2, us, the eastern area of the target. This put us more over Kuwait than Iraq.
«We were a little late on take-off and had to cut across some planned turns to make up time and arrive before the B-52s. The weather was great during Desert Shield, but as soon as the war kicked off, the weather turned ugly. On this mission, there were scattered clouds with layers at different altitudes. We could still see the ground in places, even though there was no moon.
«We were coming in from the south to protect the B-52s from some known SAM sites. Our APR-47s picked up several sites that would be threats to the bombers. We were working two particular sites at the time the bombers were coming onto the target. Bucci was working the — 47 gear. I was flying on instruments, working the navigation, and at the same time, looking at the radar warning repeater scope to keep my flight at a safe distance from the known threats.
«We started to manoeuvre to get into position to fire our weapons. That was great, except that as soon as we started to do that, some sites came up that were closer than the ones we were working. We were within range of the weapons of these sites, which also meant the strike package was within their range. About the same time, we saw one was about to shoot and received a launch indication. We were right in the middle of where he could reach out and touch us. He was a definite threat to us. About this time, Bucci said we had to get our missile off pretty quick.
«All I could see was a glow in the bottom of the clouds that was growing as it came up. I watched it, waiting for it to pop out of the clouds. Sure enough, a little white light popped out and headed right for us. I said, ‘Un, Oh!’, and saw that it was not moving a lot which told me it was tracking on our airplane. Bucci took the shot and sent our missile off to take out the site.
«At this point, we were totally defensive. We don’t know, or care, what our missile was doing. We were within range, made a good shot, and were now trying to defeat this missile. Bucci’s head came out of the cockpit so he could track the incoming missile if I lost sight of it. I said, ‘Bucci, I got one, now two missiles coming up at 10 o’clock.’
«I turned away from them slightly to give Bucci a better view. He saw them and began to track them. No matter what I was doing with the aircraft, the missiles were still following. I told Bucci, ‘Get the pod! Chaff! Get the pod! Chaff!’ I was telling him to turn on the electronics counter-measures gear and eject chaff to try to blind the radar that was guiding the missiles. He came back, ‘It’s on. It’s on!’ I thought to myself, ‘Boy, I hope this stuff works!’
«In the mean time, our missile was still in flight. I was doing some evading manoeuvres on instruments to try to defeat the missiles. As I was turning, I picked up two more missiles coming up from this same damn site. I felt more comfortable after Bucci called out, ‘Boom! One away. Boom! Two away’. The first two SAMs exploded at a distance behind us. I told him, That’s great, but I got two more heading right at us!’. He looked and said, ‘OK, OK, I see ’em!’ We started to do the same thing to defeat these two, dropping chaff and manoeuvring.
«Our altitude was in the low-to-medium range of 20,000ft (6,000m) when all this started. Manoeuvring the aircraft cost us energy and airspeed, so we had no choice but to work downward. There is no working upwards with the F-4, it doesn’t have the power. So we ended up going lower and lower, getting closer and closer to the AAA.
«We saw the flak sites going off but my priority was getting rid of the missiles. As with the first pair, they exploded behind us without hurting us. We were now well into the AAA environment and it was going off all over the place. Bucci was yelling at me, ‘Altitude, airspeed! Altitude, airspeed!’. I said, ‘Bucci, I’m trying! I’m trying!’. I knew I had to go down to gain enough airspeed to climb back up.
«Then, a third pair came up at us. Luckily, they never tracked on us and we evaded them easily. We were low and slow and needed to get out of there. The missile site went down shortly after that. By then, we were so low on gas that we needed to leave. The B-52s never took any hits. We think we got the site but in the fog of war, who knows? During this time, numbers 3 and 4 of my flight were also taking missiles and shooting at sites.
«We played a lot of cat and mouse. We wanted to stay out of their lethal range and yet intimidate them enough to turn on their radar so we could shoot. We wanted them to activate but not be close enough to shoot at us. We tried to keep the sites interested in us and not the strike package. If we kept the site from shooting at the strikers, even if we didn’t shoot, we were achieving our mission.
«Towards the end of the war, we would basically come into the target area and free-roam the airspace because they wouldn’t turn on their radars. Without a radar, they couldn’t shoot effectively. So, our mere presence protected the strike missions. We like to think they were afraid of us because of the early success of the Weasels.
«We would go into a target area and it would not be until the bombs started to fall that they would turn on their radars and try to hit some of the strikers as they were leaving the target area. We got to expect that tactic and would get ready to shoot a HARM at any sites that came up. On quite a few missions we heard the strikers come up on the radio and ask, ‘Do I have my beers here with me?’ They would not go into high threat areas without Weasel support.
«The Weasels were spread thin, with only 48 aircraft in the Gulf. During the later stages of air war we set up what we called the Weasel Police. We’d take-off, hit a tanker for fuel, go into the target area, come out and retank. AWACS would give us a new target area and time-on-target for the strikers and we would cover the next strike. Some of those missions lasted seven to eight hours. We would keep covering strikers as long we had missiles. Weasels were sent out at intervals so there was constant coverage. If someone was running late or having trouble getting tanked, the crews would talk among themselves to make sure all areas were covered. The Weasels had dedicated tankers to make sure they could cover all the target areas and didn’t have to wait for a tanker. The problem for us was gas because the F-4 was a real fuel pig.
«When we were going to the Baghdad area, we carried three 370 gallon external fuel tanks and two HARMs. Originally, when operating in Kuwait, we were going out with one centreline tank and four HARMs. When we went with the Weasel Police, because of the loiter time needed and lack of active SAM sites, we went back to three tanks and two missiles. This allowed us to stay in the operational area longer.
«We could stay in a target area in southern Kuwait almost 45 minutes before we needed to go to a tanker. We could stay around Basra for about 30 minutes. We could stay for 15-20 minutes over Baghdad towards the end of the war when the tanker tracks were moved further north. In the beginning of the war, we could only stay about five minutes in the Baghdad area, so timing was very critical on these missions.
«Our worst flight was the one after the mission where we dodged the six SAMs. Just after landing from that one, I stepped out of the shower and was told to get a four-ship together. I asked when we were briefing and was told there would be no formal briefing and we would be walking out to man-up in 35 minutes. My reaction was ‘Oh, shit! This is bad’.
«It got worse. When the truck came by to pick me up I was told we were going to Baghdad. I thought, ‘Oh, real fine. The most heavily-defended target in Iraq and no brief’. With a minimum amount of information about the mission, we took off, hit the tanker, and started in to hit the nuclear plant on the southeast side of Baghdad.
«No one was on the radio frequency designated for the strike. The strike commander was on one channel and the bombers on another. I stayed with the strike leader’s channel. We had five minutes in the target area with the fuel we had. We came off the target with no hits on the strikers and headed for the tankers.
«We had six tankers for the entire strike package, all on the same track, all in bad weather, all at different altitudes. We had four Weasels, 8 F-15s, and 40 F-16s all trying to rendezvous with these tankers. Each one was trying to find its assigned tanker without colliding with anyone else. It was like a shark attack. I tried to pick out some clear airspace and hopefully miss everybody else.
«The F-4 doesn’t have the best of radars. The good news was that I had the best radar in the flight, so the rest of the flight joined up on me. Numbers 3 and 4 didn’t have any radar at all so we had to use ours to find and join up on them and then try to find our tanker. Looking at the radar, you could see all these returns, tankers and fighters, but you didn’t know which was your tanker.
«I finally talked our tanker into going below the weather at about 8,000ft (2,400m) so we could see him. I took the flight below the weather but still couldn’t see the tanker. Number 2 was almost on fumes so I sent him to another base to land or he was going to flame-out pretty soon. I hooked onto the tanker with 2,000lbs (900kg) of fuel, which was about ten minutes to flame-out.
«Refuelling in bad weather was a nightmare. We would be in and out of clouds. The boom would be there one second and gone the next. It got real hairy! On one flight, a tanker and a F-111 tanking collided near us. We heard the call on the radio that everyone dreaded, ‘Mid-air! Mid-air!’. We expected to see a huge fireball, but they were both able to limp home.
«The F-4 is an old aircraft and maintenance intensive, but our ground guys did a fantastic job of keeping them flying. Without their round-the-clock effort, we could not have done our job.»