Gulf War Air Campaign – First Strikes

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Fury of Desert Storm: Air Campaign by Bert Kinzey

In Baghdad at 0230L on January 17, an hour when the human body seems to reach both a physiological and psychological nadir, Iraqi radar operators peering 150 to 200 miles deep into Saudi Arabia saw nothing they had not seen dozens of times before. From early September, the Coalition had begun to move a nightly tanker track (a series of aircraft refueling from the same group of tankers) slowly west until it stopped opposite the portion of the Iraqi border closest to Baghdad. Since August, the AWACS orbits and the CAPs had maintained standard locations. Now, however, four F-15Cs sought not only to protect their own HVAA, but they would shoot down the Iraqi AWACS (which could serve as IOCs for the air defense system) if it put in an extremely rare appearance. The Iraqi operators may not even have noticed that on this night the tanker track came within thirty miles of the border before turning for home. At 0235L (H-25 minutes) they almost certainly did not notice ten F-117As drop off the tankers, button up, place themselves in the stealth mode, and continue north. Two of the F-117As (Thunder 36 and Thunder 37) veered to the northwest to strike air defense control centers. One (Thunder 6) flew east to bomb the SOC controlling the Iraqi southern air defense sector. The remaining seven F-117As pointed toward thirteen targets in the Baghdad area. Other non-stealthy aircraft also hurried to participate in the first wave of the first attack. During the first night of the conflict, the weather cooperated by supplying almost cloudless skies over northern Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The first wave of aircraft would find its targets in the clear.

At 0220L Task Force Normandy, consisting of twelve American helicopters, crossed the Iraqi border. Three MH-53J Pave Lows of the 20th Special Operations Squadron, using specialized night-operating equipment and equipped with GPS receivers, led nine Army AH-64 Apache gunships of the 101st Air Assault Division to their target. Nineteen minutes later, at H-21, after flying in low to avoid radar detection and taking a roundabout route to miss Bedouin camps and Iraqi ground observers, the Apaches used AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, Hydra 70 (2.75-inch) rockets, and cannon fire to destroy two Iraqi early warning radar sites. There are unconfirmed indications that one of the targets may have gotten off a message before its destruction, or the radars may have had “deadman” circuits with their associated IOC. If this permanently open circuit were to shut off, alarms would sound at the IOC, alerting it to possible trouble. Videotapes reveal that Iraqi AAA in the Baghdad area began to fire heavily at H-20 when no Coalition aircraft were overhead. In addition, subsequent American intelligence noted that by H-15, numerous radars associated with Iraqi SAMs had become active in the Baghdad area, apparently in reaction to the Coalition attacks. Nonetheless, the elimination of these two western radar sites created a gap in local Iraqi coverage that allowed three separate groups of American and British aircraft to cross the border with less chance of detection as they penetrated Iraqi airspace en route to their targets. One group, consisting of three of the 366th TFW(P)’s EF-111As, headed for an area southwest of Baghdad from which to provide electronic jamming support for the second wave of attacking F-117As. The initial wave of F-117As over Baghdad relied solely on stealth and surprise. Another group, a strike package of twenty-two F-15Es of the 4th TFW(P), headed for five Scud launching areas containing fixed launchers in northwest Iraq and one at H-2 airfield. To avoid attention, the F-15Es of the 4th TFW(P)’s 336th TFS would fly without top cover. After takeoff from Al Kharj AB they flew northwest, hitting their tankers at 20,000 feet in Saudi airspace, 300 miles from the Iraqi border and beyond detection range of Iraqi radars. The tankers had their lights off and were difficult to locate. Once they released from the tankers, approximately 100 miles from the border, the F-15Es lost altitude until they barreled along, 300 to 500 feet above deck. With this mission, the planners hoped to demonstrate to Israel that the Coalition intended to strike the SRBM complex from the opening instant of operations. A third package of two EF-111A jammers and four Tornado GR-1s, carrying the highly effective air-launched anti-radiation missile (ALARM), coordinated their actions with the F-15Es.

The F-15Es carried LANTIRN navigation pods but not LANTIRN laser-targeting pods. The initial attack on twenty-six permanent Scud launchers in western Iraq, scheduled for H+5 minutes, would use Mk-20 Rockeyes delivered at low level to increase accuracy. The Rockeye contained 247 Mk-118 shaped-charge submunitions each weighing 1.32 pounds and designed to penetrate hard targets such as tanks and buildings. As the F-15Es entered Iraqi airspace the USAF E-3 AWACS aircraft in the western orbit detected no Iraqi aircraft air borne. 10 Planners scheduled this attack on the first wave, fearing that Saddam, in his first retaliation, would lash out at Israel. He would employ his most effective weapons in range of it-the Scuds situated in the western part of his territory. To minimize the possibility of Israeli intervention, the Americans struck the permanent or fixed Scud sites there at once.

Thunder 36 and Thunder 37 widened the breach begun by Task Force Normandy by dropping at H-9 the first bombs on Iraq, successfully landing one bomb on each of the two bunkers of the Nukhayb IOC, which supervised the Iraqi air defense and warning net that included the two stations the helicopters had destroyed. The IOCs consisted of two separate bunkers (the IOC and associated reporting post). Each required a hit to be rendered ineffective or destroyed. The two F-117As proceeded west-northwest to their next targets, the Iraqi western sector SOC and the air defense communications sector headquarters, both at airfield H-3, which controlled the Nukhayb IOC. Unfortunately, neither aircraft scored a hit. In the meantime, the F-15Es roared in on their targets. The commander of the 336th TFS, Lt. Col. Steven L. Turner, USAF, led the six-aircraft cell assaulting H-2 airfield. Defenses included 150 AAA pieces and 10 SAM sites. On the flight in he reported,

It was like flying over North Carolina. Lights were on, people were driving down the highway, and when I climbed up to roll in on H-2 airfield…it looked like RDU [Raleigh Durham Airport]. The lights were on, the strobe lights were on leading the way to the runways, I actually didn’t need to use my FLIR [forward- looking infrared].I could see what I was going to bomb.

The atmosphere changed abruptly when the first bombs hit at H+5. Within three minutes the remaining aircraft of Colonel Turner’s cell delivered their weapons. Wildly and, as it appeared to the colonel, without direction, the Iraqis filled the air with AAA and SAMs. Many raids against the Scuds would follow this one as the conflict wore on. The NCA, anxious to avoid Israeli intervention, had directed CENTCOM to maintain a permanent air presence over the H-2 and H-3 areas. 14 Postraid intelligence found that the mission inflicted no damage to the H-2 airfield fixed Scud sites or to the Wadi al Jabariyah, Wadi ar Ratqa, and Wadi Amij SRBM launch complex. Postwar analysis indicates that the Iraqis never used the fixed sites. Nonetheless, from a political standpoint the United States had demonstrated its intent, from the opening gun, to do its utmost to suppress Scud targets within launch distance of Israel.

On the return flight, at approximately fifty miles from the Saudi border, the F-15Es encountered far more dangerous threats. An Iraqi MiG-29 had left the Baghdad area, probably from Al Taqaddum airfield, and headed south on a course to intercept. Several miles northeast of Mudaysis airfield a flight of F-15Cs of the 33d TFW(P) picked it up. Capt. Jon K. Kelk, USAF (callsign Pennzoil 63), acquired the bandit on his radar, and the AWACS declared the aircraft hostile. Captain Kelk used his F-15C’s look-down, shoot-down capability and fired one AIM-7 missile at the fighter below him. A few seconds later he observed a “sparkling flame,” and the aircraft disappeared. The captain had made the first air-to-air kill of the conflict. A few minutes later several F-1 interceptors scrambled from Mudaysis airfield apparently to down the Strike Eagles. American AWACS in the western orbit promptly vectored a four-ship flight of F-15Cs from the 33d TFW(P) to interfere with the enemy’s plans. These fighters, other F-15Cs of the 1st TFW(P), and F-14s of the USN had swept across several portions of the Iraqi border at H-hour to catch any fighters that might intrude into Coalition operations. Intelligence had indicated that pairs or flights of Iraqi fighters stood on alert at ten airfields. The B Flight Commander, Capt. Robert E. Greater, USAF (callsign Citgo 65), targeted the enemy leader. After his first radar lock-on failed, Captain Greater reestablished lock at about the same time the AWACS declared the aircraft hostile. Captain Greater fired one AIM-7M at the interceptor below him. He saw the missile detonate and its target turn into a fireball that impacted the ground ten seconds later. He and his wingman, 1st Lt. Scott G. Maw, USAF, both locked onto a trailing aircraft that crashed into the ground thirty seconds later, untouched by the Americans. It seems that the fate of his companion and the reaction of his radar warning receiver to the F-15C lock-ons so rattled the pilot, supposedly one of Iraq’s finest, that he reacted into the ground. An interested observer, twenty miles from the shootdown, Colonel Turner, saw the two fireballs and assumed that the Iraqi wingman had accidentally blasted his leader and had then run himself into the ground. Likewise, Capt. William Bruner, USAF, a member of the CENTAF Directorate of Plans, flying that night with the ACE of the western AWACS, observed the engagement and concluded that “if that was the best the Iraqis could do, it would not be nearly good enough.”

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