The F-15E in ‘Desert Storm’ – 2 – Hunt
The Great ‘Scud’ Hunt
Although unknown at the time, Saddam Hussein was hiding his mobile ‘Scuds ‘in specially adapted buses and underneath road bridges, and the Iraqis were inventive and highly skilled in the art of deception and camouflage. The USAF’s E-8 Joint STARS had prematurely finished its operational test and evaluation program and had been rushed to the region. It carried a massive synthetic aperture and ground moving target radar in a canoe-shaped fairing under the lower fuselage, and was able to see many miles into Iraq and Kuwait. US commanders in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, assigned F-15Es and A-1Os to work ‘Scud’ boxes — patches of desert where ‘Scud’ launches might be possible — every night using intelligence gathered by the E-8. If a suspected ‘Scud ‘was picked up on radar, the E-8 would pass the co-ordinates and the striker would put the bombs on the target. F-15Es would patrol their ‘Scud’ box for four to six hours, at which time they would be relieved by another flight, and would then move on to drop their ordnance on pre-briefed secondary targets — anything from armor, artillery pieces or known fixed ‘Scud’ sites.
Throughout the war, the F-15E force was continually frustrated by the search for the missiles and their launcher vehicles. Diverted from its deep strike role, the Strike Eagle failed to have much of an impact on eliminating continued ‘Scud’ launches: this is also true of the other USAF and US Navy strikers assigned to ‘Scud’ box interdiction. Despite random bomb releases in the hope of dissuading the Iraqis from setting up for a launch, many of the mobile ‘Scud’ kills claimed by Strike Eagle crews during the war were later discredited following a more thorough post-war analysis. This did not suggest any dishonesty or propensity for exaggeration by the F-15E crews, but was instead indicative of the fact that they could not adequately identify what they were hitting from medium altitudes at night. Even when they had the benefit of the infra-red picture of the AN/AAQ-14 LANTIRN targeting pod, which was in short supply, the resolution of the picture was not always good enough. Indeed, several ‘kills’ were subsequently identified as commercial fuel tankers or buses — ironic given that the ‘Scuds’ were later discovered to be hidden inside such vehicles. On other occasions, the infra-red signatures of herds of hapless — and, in truth, very unlucky — camels closely resembled mobile ‘Scuds’ and were consequently attacked. Flocks of sheep and goats also fell victim to their collective likeness from the air to tactical ballistic missiles!
On the second day the 4th TFW (Provisional) lost its first jet to hostile fire. Maj Donnie ‘Chief Dimpled Balls’ Holland (WSO) and Maj Thomas F. ‘Teek’ Korftzwere part of a six-ship strike against a Petrol Oil and Lubricant (POL) station near Basrah, defended by SA-3, SA-6, SA-8 and Roland SAMs, in addition to a full range of radar-directed AAA. Two other F-15E packages joined ‘T-Bird’ flight en route that night, making for a total package of 16 jets. ‘T-Bird’ flight separated to ingress the target at 300ft, intending to loft its Mk82 bombs into the objective — a technique suitablefor a large, highly explosive target such as this Intense fire greeted them and several jets were forced to turn tail and attempt another run at the target. Koritz and Holland were in ‘T-Bird One-Six’ (88-1689), the sixth jet to attack the POL station. The two were observed to have delivered their bombs on target, but what happened after that remains unclear to this day. All that is known for sure is that soon after weapons release the Strike Eagle impacted the desert with both men on board. No ejection attempt was made.
Two nights later came the second, and final, F-15E combat loss of the war. Flying 88-1692, Col David Eberly and Maj Thomas E. Griffiths Jr were downed by an SA-2 on January 20 while attacking a fixed ‘Scud’ site. They ejected and managed to evade capture for several days, but both spent the remainder of the war as PoWs.
For much of ‘Desert Storm’, the 4th TFW (P) operated without the AN/AAQ-14 pod. Those pods that did arrive were quickly rushed into service, but often only the lead jet of a particular package would be equipped with one. In instances where an additional pod was available, this was usually assigned to the element lead (number three in a formation of four). The pod was invaluable at night, and was therefore mostly used by the 335th TFS ‘Chiefs’, who had eventually been given the order to deploy from Seymour Johnson AFB, and had assumed responsibility for night flying. For almost two weeks solid, the ‘Chiefs’ flew nothing but ‘Scud’ kill box missions. For th is, the AN/AAQ-14 not on ly helped them to identify these elusive targets from medium altitude at night, but also offered some form of bomb damage assessment capability.
The Chiefs’finally passed a few examples of the pod to the’Rocketeers’at the end of January, enabling the latter to drop a limited number of laser-guided bombs (LGBs) on high-value targets such as airfields and bridges, and to augment theChiefs’ontheir’Scud’-hunting sorties. When necessary, the two squadrons worked with each other to buddy lase LGBs onto target, a technique at which they excelled. On one memorable sortie, four F-15Es equipped with targeting pods destroyed 18 Iraqi jets atTallil airfield using CBU-87 Combined Effects Munitions and 5001b GBU-12 LGBs. ‘Tank-plinking’ was another successful area for pod-equipped Strike Eagles. A term borrowed from the F-111F community, tank-plinking was a euphemism for lasing GBU-12s onto semi-buried Iraqi armor — it was akin to shooting fish in a barrel.
On February 14, the F-15E scored its first official air-to-air kill — a Mi-24 attack helicopter. In response to a request for help from US special forces, AWACS vectored Capts Richard T. Bennettand Dan B. Bakketowards three Iraqi helicopters. Arming and selecting a single 2,0001b GBU-10 LGB, Bennett took the F-15E at full power through bad weather and into the area as directed. At SO miles out, Bakke picked up contacts on the radar and later cued the targeting pod as they broke through the weather at 3,000ft. With two helicopters now dearly visible on the pod, Bakke pickled the GBU-10 six miles from the target — it would have a 30-second time of flight. As the 30 seconds came and went, the crew assumed that the bomb had missed or failed to detonate. Bennett pulled the jet into a left turn, his intention being to comeback and target the helicopters with an AIM-9 or two. But as he reefed the jet around again, the ‘Hind’ blew up and literally vaporized. Special forces troops on the ground estimated the helicopter to be at about 800ft AGL when the bomb impacted just in front of the main rotor.
Following 42 days of intensive combat flying, a ceasefire was announced. Northern and southern no-fly zones were established to prevent Iraqi fixed-wing aircraft from posing a threat to the coalition. Despite this, Saddam Hussein made full use of the loophole to allow helicopters to operate in the NFZs, and ordered Mi-24s to strike Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq. Helpless and unable to offer protection, F-15E crews enforcing the NFZ watched in horror as the gunships started attacking approximately 600 fleeing civilians in the village of Chamchamal. Denied the ability to fire upon the Iraqis by stringent rules of engagement, the F-15E crews improvised by making highspeed passes as close as they dared in the hope that their wake turbulence would snap a rotor blade. They also fired the targeting lasers of their AN/AAQ-14s into the cockpit of the Mi-24s, with the intention of blinding the pilots. While the latter technique was probably ineffective, the former was enough to cause the gunships to land, and in one instance caused a ‘Hind’to crash. No kill was awarded, but USAF leadership soon became wise to these creative activities and put a stop to them.
The F-15E had played a pivotal role in Operation ‘Desert Storm’, flying 7,700 combat hours in around 2,400 sorties. In addition to flying deep interdiction to hit’Scuds; it had also flown close air support and, on the third night of the war, been tasked against highly active air defense sites. It had enjoyed great success in destroying Iraqi armor, artillery, troops and aircraft on the ground, and had expanded its repertoire by working with special forces controllers on the ground, E-8 Joint STARS in the air, and other pod-equipped Strike Eagles in order to execute buddy lasing tactics. It was a performance that set the bar for future generations of F-15E pilots and WSOs.