According to the official history of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, F-4G Advanced Wild Weasels from the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing at George Air Force Base, Calif., and the 52nd TFW at Spangdahlem, Germany, flew 3,942 combat sorties, fired 1,000 air-to-ground missiles, and destroyed 200 Iraqi missile sites. Operation Desert Storm was the only combat appearance of the F-4G, developed from the famous Phantom II fighter and used to suppress enemy radar and surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites.
“I had my 40th birthday over Baghdad with fireworks and everything.”
“I had my 40th birthday over Baghdad with fireworks and everything,” said retired Lt. Col. Robert “Muskrat” McNeese, an F-4G pilot, who was a major at the time of that personal milestone on Jan. 30, 1991. McNeese and others in the 35th TFW had arrived at Shaikh Isa Air Base, Bahrain, on August 12, 1990 – among the first combat units in theater. Flying with back-seat electronic warfare officer Capt. Robert “Peaches” Pietras, McNeese missed the first Desert Storm mission mounted just after midnight on Jan. 17, 1991, but flew the following morning.
“On most missions up to Baghdad, we used ‘beer’ callsigns, PABST, BUDWEISER, MILLER for each four-ship flight. One of our early targets was the airfield at al Taqaddum near Fallujah. That airfield had MiG-29s. It had SA-2 and SA-3 missiles. We were called missile killers but we could also attack their long-range search radars.”
If coalition airpower was to wear down Saddam Hussein’s ability to fight, the first step was to neutralize Iraq’s air defenses, to enable strike aircraft to engage industrial and military targets. The F-4G was meant for exactly this mission.
McNeese’s aircraft looked much like every other Phantom II, but its skin was covered with 52 flush-mounted interferometers that detected incoming radar signals.
McNeese’s aircraft looked much like every other Phantom II, but its skin was covered with 52 flush-mounted interferometers that detected incoming radar signals. The F-4G carried a centerline and two under-wing external fuel tanks. It carried an AN/APR-47 RHAW (radar homing and warning) system in a chin pod beneath its nose instead of the usual M61 Vulcan 20 mm rotary cannon, an AN/ALQ-119 jamming pod in the left forward missile well, an empty right missile well, and a pair of AIM-7 Sparrow radar missiles in the rear wells. It carried chaff and flares and its principal warload was two AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARMs) hanging from outboard weapons stations.
The F-4G was powered by two 11,870-pound static thrust General Electric J79-GE-17 turbojet engines with afterburners. A typical F-4G went into battle weighing 58,000 pounds. In “clean” condition the aircraft was capable of flying twice the speed of sound, but combat missions were usually flown at high subsonic speed.
“We were fighting the Iraqis and the weather,” said McNeese. “The weather was terrible. It was IMC [instrument meteorological conditions] a lot of the time. There were missions when we took off zero-zero in fog, taxied out very slowly, got airplanes lined up on the runway in almost zero visibility.
“From Bahrain to Baghdad was two air refuelings. That mission was probably four to five hours. Baghdad is pretty far inside Iraq. We would approach at tactical air speed using up a lot of fuel. Heading in, we were using up a lot of fuel and as soon as we got close to Saudi Arabia we were pretty thirsty. Fortunately for us, there was always a tanker crew within reach.”
“We were taking down their air defense system so their SAM sites were on ‘autonomous’ mode, which meant they were, in effect, looking through a soda straw searching for us.
The mission of the F-4G was to do a “SEAD rollback” (suppression of enemy air defenses) east of a line that was defined by a road from Kuwait to Baghdad. The U.S. Navy had the same mission – which the Navy termed Iron Hand – using F/A-18 Hornets west of that line.
The Weasels started out by targeting Iraq’s longest-range missile, the SA-2. “After we rolled them back we would go after the SA-6s,” McNeese said. “We were taking down their air defense system so their SAM sites were on ‘autonomous’ mode, which meant they were, in effect, looking through a soda straw searching for us.
As the war progressed, F-4G Wild Weasel crews gained greater confidence and began to feel they were winning the day. Capt. James “Augie” Kuxhaus of the 35th TFW described the role of the back seater:
“More than most aircraft, the F-4G was built around the fellow in the back seat, who often pushed the pickle button for the missiles,” said Kuxhaus. “I was busy not so much looking for SAM sites as using the radar to look for enemy aircraft or for friendlies that might cause fratricide. I was mostly head-down in the cockpit.”
F-4G Advanced Wild Weasels flew many hundreds of other combat missions without suffering losses – taking out 74 percent of the enemy missile radars destroyed during the war. Just one F-4G Phantom was lost.
The F-4G, said Kuxhaus, had “one of the busiest cockpits in the U.S. Air Force. The F-4 was a hog on fuel so some of the hairiest experiences involved getting to the tanker. On one mission, we had to make three tries on two tankers before we could get our receptacle to work and take on fuel.”
F-4G Advanced Wild Weasels flew many hundreds of other combat missions without suffering losses – taking out 74 percent of the enemy missile radars destroyed during the war. Just one F-4G Phantom was lost. It happened on Jan. 18, 1991 when enemy fire pierced the aircraft’s fuel tank. The puncture caused a loss of fuel pressure. Returning from the mission running on empty, the Wild Weasel sought aerial refueling, but a dense fog foiled a tanker crew and the F-4G was directed toward a friendly Saudi airstrip. Four landing attempts were unsuccessful. During the fifth, the aircraft ran out of fuel. Both engines seized. Both crew members ejected safely.
Desert Storm was a curtain call for the F-4G. The final unit to operate the Advanced Wild Weasel, the 190th Fighter Squadron, Idaho Air National Guard, began retiring its F-4Gs in October 1995.