Flying low to avoid detection, Apache attack helicopters launched missiles and rockets against Iraqi early warning sites deep in enemy territory. This intrepid night raid by U.S. Army and Air Force aircrews annihilated two separate enemy radar stations, signaling the beginning of Desert Storm. Minutes later, fixed-wing aircraft flying through this corridor headed for targets in Baghdad.
Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Richard A. Cody led that tricky, low-altitude Apache assault. At 2:36 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1991, he was the commanding officer, 1st Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment. Within four minutes, the Apaches’ deadly weapons destroyed all of the radars and associated equipment, providing a 10-kilometer-wide path through which allied fighters and bombers could approach Iraqi targets undetected.
This intrepid night raid by U.S. Army and Air Force aircrews annihilated two separate enemy radar stations, signaling the beginning of Desert Storm.
Soon after Iraq seized Kuwait, the 101st Airborne’s ready brigade was alerted to begin the process of deploying. The mission quickly changed from an infantry brigade with some Apache helicopters, to a full helicopter battalion for rapid build up of combat power, Gen. Cody said. Twelve Apaches with their aircrews from his battalion were split between two Air Force C-5 cargo aircraft as they took off for Saudi Arabia.
Initially assigned to King Faud Air Base as a covering force, Gen. Cody, then a lieutenant colonel, was told to see Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf’s Special Operations commander. He was given a top-secret briefing using high-resolution satellite imagery. “I was asked whether Apaches could take out certain types of ground control early warning facilities,” Gen. Cody explained. After looking at the photographs, the general determined that each early warning station was equipped with Soviet-built Flat Eye, Squat Eye and Spoon Rest intercept radars, along with tropospheric scatter, command and control vans and associated equipment.
“Apaches are designed to kill tanks and other armored vehicle targets with Hellfire missiles, but I responded that we could use the missiles, rockets, and 30mm chain guns against the targets. The question was asked again to determine whether mission success was probable. The Iraqi early warning sites were arranged like a picket fence between Kuwait and Jordan. The particular sites we were to go after were due north of a Saudi town called Arar, some 300 miles northwest of King Khalid Military City, and just under the tri-border area near Wadi Al-Batin,” the general said.
Soon after the special operations meeting, Gen. Cody’s Apache battalion was placed under operational control of Central Command’s Special Operations and began training with MH-53 Pave Low helicopters from the Air Force 20th Special Operations Squadron. Low-level, long-range infiltration tactics, techniques and procedures were flown during the training missions. Aircraft would fly to a known point, move into battle formation and practice engaging targets. By early November, targets were fabricated at a rear-area Saudi Arabia bombing range that resembled Iraqi early warning sites. “We flew there and practiced a complete mission rehearsal, replicating distances and flying conditions. We went in and ‘took down’ those practice targets, using onboard video recorders in the Apaches during the live fire training, Gen. Cody said.”
The videos were shown to Gen. Schwarzkopf, and by December it looked like Saddam Hussein would not withdraw his forces from Kuwait. Gen. Cody still had not revealed the nature of the mission to his aircrews. The Apache pilots were told the training was for a special mission, working with Air Force MH-53 Pave Lows, which were combat search and rescue helicopters. It was anticipated by early January that the Apaches would attack the radar sites. Destroying two of the sites would provide a sufficient gap “for F-15s and other ‘fast movers’ to go through undetected, without alerting Iraqi air force interceptor aircraft and other air defense weapons systems,” he said.
On January 14, Gen. Cody’s unit was ordered to deploy with nine Apaches and a Blackhawk support helicopter. The attacking unit flew from King Fahd Airbase to King Khalid Military City. After refueling, the raiders resumed their flight northwest at low altitude to a town called Al-Jawf, Arabic for “starting point.” This small airfield was approximately an hour’s flying time south of Arar. Each Apache was armed with eight Hellfire missiles, 19 Hydra 2.75-inch rockets and 800 to 1,000 rounds of 30-millimeter ammunition.
The Army aviators were briefed “that we were going into Iraq to start the war.”
“On January 15, we went through what we call an air mission rehearsal, and this was the first time the target folders were laid out for the aircrews.” The Army aviators were briefed “that we were going into Iraq to start the war,” the general said. A complete weapons check of each aircraft was completed, and the raiders prepared for the mission.
The air war was scheduled to begin at 3:00 a.m., and destruction of the early warning sites had to be completed before that time. After an intelligence briefing and communications checks, the Apache and Pave Low aircraft lifted off at midnight from Al-Jawf. A group attacking each of the two early warning sites consisted of four Apaches and two Pave Lows. These sections flew nearly parallel routes at an altitude of 50 feet at a 120-knot airspeed. They split off to follow separate wadis to their targets.
At a distance from the targets of 12 to 14 kilometers, depending on the early warning sites, the Pave Low helicopters came to hover and deployed infrared chemical lights. The lights, which could not be seen with the naked eye, were only visible using night vision equipment. “The lights were used to mark Global Positioning System (GPS) inertial navigation system data points already programmed in the aircraft Doppler navigation systems. Because Pave Lows have extremely accurate navigation systems, this provided great accuracy by allowing us to fly right over the chemical lights, determine error rates from low-level flying, and correct them. The Pave Lows peeled off south to a holding area, and we pressed forward as soon as we popped up out of the wadi,” Gen. Cody recalled.
The entire Iraqi target area was visible through Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) sensors from a distance of about 12 kilometers. “We moved to within 5 kilometers in an echelon right formation, and the four Apaches at each site simultaneously began launching Hellfire missiles. The first missiles took out communications and tropospheric scatter systems, shutting off the possibility of sounding a warning to the Iraqi intelligence operations center in Baghdad, which links all of that country’s radar sites,” Gen. Cody said. “Then, we systematically began taking out the vans that controlled the Spoon Rest, Squat Eye and Flat Face radar systems.”
Hydra 70 flechette rockets and the 30-millimeter chain guns were used against anti-aircraft gun positions guarding the radar sites, as the Apaches moved to within 4,000 meters of the positions. The Apaches destroyed every piece of radar equipment at each site, shattering buildings and vans. Gen. Cody’s wingman took enemy fire, and with three bullet holes through the rotor blades continued to fly the aircraft.
Iraqi air defense forces also fired at least two heat-seeking missiles at the joint Army-Air Force helicopter formation, but the missiles were avoided through electronic countermeasures and evasive action. There were no aircrew casualties. As the Apaches headed south away from the havoc, they heard more than a hundred jet aircraft overhead, passing through the gap in the radar, bound for Baghdad.
As the air campaign against Iraq was mounted, Special Operations Forces emplaced radar beacons along the northern Saudi border. Coalition pilots used the beacons to confirm their position when entering and leaving Iraq and they aided in command and control of allied aircraft.
The raid on early warning sites “was a great coming out party for the Apache.”
Soon after the raid, Gen. Cody’s battalion rejoined their parent 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) as it prepared for the coming large-scale ground war. His unit took part in air assaults into several forward-operating bases deep inside Iraq. The Apache battalion was soon engaging Iraqi SA-6s, other air defense missiles, and enemy armored vehicles, as it protected a brigade of infantry projected more than a hundred miles into enemy territory. No other Army in the world could have moved that rapidly in a deep vertical envelopment, Gen. Cody concluded. He added that the raid on early warning sites “was a great coming out party for the Apache.”
This article was first published in Desert Shield/Desert Storm: The 10th Anniversary of the Gulf War.