Defense Media Network

Gulf War 20th: Desert Storm Was an Heroic Moment for A-7E Corsair II

When the United States began its intervention in the Persian Gulf region following Iraq’s Aug. 2, 1990 invasion and seizure of Kuwait, Navy pilots of the A-7E Corsair II were told at first that there would be no role for them. The Navy’s last two light attack squadrons, VA-46 “Clansmen” and VA-72 “Blue Hawks,” had begun planning to retire their high-wing, subsonic Vought warplane. The units already had a schedule for transforming themselves into strike fighter squadrons and transitioning to the F/A-18A/B Hornet.

A-7s tanking

On a Desert Storm mission in 1991, A-7E Corsair IIs refuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker. U.S. Navy photo by John Leenhouts

No one is quite sure who had a change of mind, but when USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67) embarked in Operation Desert Shield – soon to become Desert Storm – the Corsair IIs were on deck.

“We could see the field in the bright moonlight,” Wise wrote, “but 8 LUU-2 parachute flares (2 million candlepower each, 4 minute descent time) turned night into day over the runways. Lt. Cmdr. Bud Warfield and his wingman rolled in, each of their Rockeyes filled with 247 armor-piercing bomblets. When they hit, it looked like popcorn bursting off all around several MiGs in the open. As my wingman and I approached roll-in, my worst nightmare turned to reality. Some of that popcorn was muzzle flashes! Within seconds, the entire airfield erupted with AAA [anti-aircraft artillery]. Mixed in with the AAA were numerous SAMs that flew past us and fizzled out several thousand feet above. We dumped chaff continuously until the containers were empty. It was as if we were suspended in the middle of the grand finale of a 4th of July fireworks display.”

The plane pilots called the SLUF – for “short little ugly fellow,” although a different F-word was often used – was powered by the Allison TF41-A-2 turbofan engine officially rated at 14,500 pounds static thrust. Pilots believed the A-7E had a better head-up display and computer system than the F/A-18A/B Hornet that would replace it, but they were less enthusiastic about its powerplant. “We all considered the A-7E to be somewhat under-powered,” said Cmdr. (later, Adm.) Mark P. “Lobster” Fitzgerald, skipper of VA-46. “But we also believed it was the first true precision weapon and it could deliver ordnance with remarkable accuracy.”

 

Night of War

On the night of Jan. 17, 1991 – the first night of the war – two of the Navy’s four carriers in the region, including Kennedy, were in the Red Sea close to Baghdad and the North of Iraq. “We were assigned to go in immediately after the F-117s and take out air defense radar stations,” said Fitzgerald. Deck crews removed two of the six weapons stations on the A-7E and fitted the others with three AGM-88 High-speed Anti- Radiation Missile (HARM) missiles and a fuel tank. Air defense suppression, the mission the Navy called Iron Hand, would involve striking sites associated with surface-to-air missile batteries with the HARM, which could be lobbed to high altitude before boring straight down on its target.

A-7s Rockeyes

A-7E Corsair IIs of VA-72 on a Desert Storm mission carrying Mark 20 Rockeye cluster bombs and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. U.S. Navy photo by John Leenhouts

The entire A-7E Corsair II community was in on that first strike: VA-46 with Fitzgerald in command and J.R. Stevenson as executive officer, and VA-72 with J.R. Sanders in command and John “Lites” Leenhouts as XO. It may have been the only time in naval history that two squadrons went into combat with two people named J.R. occupying key slots.

Fitzgerald recalled that one or more Iraqi MiG-25s were in the air ahead of his strike force, including the one that shot down an F/A-18C piloted by Lt. Scott Speicher. By the time the A-7s arrived, there was no enemy air close by. The A-7Es began by attacking radar sites whose locations were already known. In subsequent missions, the Corsair IIs struck mobile missile sites that were harder to find.

Although the Corsair II offered relatively long range for an aircraft in its class, JFK’s four- to four and one half hour sorties required as many as four air refuelings traveling to and from the target. Fitzgerald said the job would have been impossible without support from U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotankers. “We got the water wagons out of Cairo” – KC-135A models with water injected J57 turbojet engines – “and they had a limited offload so we refueled a lot.”

 

Breathtaking Mission

Lt. Dan Wise described a mission to H-2 airfield in western Iraq led by Leenhout’s 14 Corsair IIs, twelve SLUFS carrying 7 Mark 20 Rockeye cluster bombs and two aircraft carrying 12 Mark 82 500-pound bombs:

“We could see the field in the bright moonlight,” Wise wrote, “but 8 LUU-2 parachute flares (2 million candlepower each, 4 minute descent time) turned night into day over the runways. Lt. Cmdr. Bud Warfield and his wingman rolled in, each of their Rockeyes filled with 247 armor-piercing bomblets. When they hit, it looked like popcorn bursting off all around several MiGs in the open. As my wingman and I approached roll-in, my worst nightmare turned to reality. Some of that popcorn was muzzle flashes! Within seconds, the entire airfield erupted with AAA [anti-aircraft artillery]. Mixed in with the AAA were numerous SAMs that flew past us and fizzled out several thousand feet above. We dumped chaff continuously until the containers were empty. It was as if we were suspended in the middle of the grand finale of a 4th of July fireworks display.”

A-7 DS warpaint

Squadron VA-72 “Blue Hawks” painted an A-7E Corsair II with a distinctive color scheme to mark the 1991 Persian Gulf War. U.S. Navy photo by John Leenhouts

The Kennedy launched A-7Es day and night to attack a variety of well defended deep interdiction targets in Iraq as well as “kill boxes” – geographically defined kill zones – within Kuwait, using precision-guided munitions (PGMs) like the television-guided AGM-62 Walleye glide bomb, Mark 82, 83 and 84 gravity bombs, and HARMs. The A-7E was also used as an air refueling tanker to support other naval aircraft.

Although A-7E pilots had been cautioned to expect three to five percent casualties, not a single Corsair II was destroyed or seriously damaged during the conflict.

Veterans of the A-7E community said that by war’s end they had proven they could reach targets that were out of range of the F/A-18 Hornet. According to a Navy history, A-7Es flew 722 missions and logged 3,000 hours. They fired 152 HARMs against missile-related radar sites and dropped 1,033 tons of iron bombs on bridges, airfields and industrial targets. They delivered 20 percent of all Rockeyes dropped by coalition aircraft.

The Navy retired its last A-7E Corsair II in May 1991.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

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    this is apart of my life i will never forget GO BLUEHAWKS