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Gulf War 20th: Navy Suppression Missions

Aircraft flying at night from the decks of four U.S. Navy carriers in the Persian Gulf attacked and helped destroy air defense radars, communications nodes, infrastructure targets, and Saddam Hussein’s military headquarters. Electronic countermeasures aircraft from the carrier battle group were crucial to combat sortie success through jamming and defense suppression.

Carrier-based aircraft benefited from early attacks and fragmentation of Iraqi air defenses, which enabled destruction of individual nodes. The suppression of enemy air defense was instrumental in limiting friendly aircraft loses during the Gulf War. Navy EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft jammed enemy radars and attacked them with High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARMs).

During the first 24 hours of the air war more than 1,300 combat sorties were flown by fixed-wing aircraft of U.S. and coalition forces, including 812 strike sorties. Rear Adm. (Ret.) Jay Campbell, then a commander, was in the cockpit of an F-14 Tomcat fighter, leading the first 16-aircraft pre-dawn strike over Iraq from the USS Ranger. It was January 17, 1991 aboard the USS Ranger, and he was Commander of Air Wing Two.

Operation Desert Storm

An A-6E Intruder aircraft flies over the desert as it prepares for refueling during Operation Desert Storm. DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Rose Reynolds.

Targets for the first Navy mission of the war were concentrated in the Al Basrah area at the nexus of Iraq and Iran. Prepared to engage Soviet-built Mig fighters, if they ventured into the wing’s attack area, the admiral observed from altitude as his wing’s A-6s headed for their targets at extremely low level and high speed. Numerous Iraqi surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) were fired as the strike force entered the target area.

None of the other pilots in the strike force had previously seen combat, according to Adm. Campbell. He added that he had not seen anything like Iraq’s use of as many SAMs since flying over North Vietnam during the U.S. prisoner rescue attempt at Son Tay. At least eight Iraqi SAMs were fired at the Ranger’s attacking aircraft. However. EA-6Bs with jammers and S-3 aircraft equipped with decoy drones helped overcome the SAM threat. The admiral also believed that the Iraqi air defense sites were not properly tracking their targets, or the SAM fuses were improperly set for higher altitude engagements.

There were also pockets of Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) using barrage tactics to fire at the Ranger’s aircraft. Adm. Campbell is convinced the enemy was trying to cover aerial routes to and from the target area. The Iraqi air defense tactics proved to be ineffective, with none of the Ranger’s aircraft sustaining damage during this initial attack. Cockpit video recorded the A-6 strikes, showing low-lying patches of fog near some pier-side targets. The video also recorded SAMs streaking up above the Navy’s low-level attack aircraft, then attempting to turn and track targets at lower altitude before unsuccessfully detonating.

The admiral, who was also qualified to fly the A-6 Intruder, participated in a number of strike missions using that aircraft.

On the third night of the air war, one of the Ranger’s A-6s was lost while over Iraq, probably to AAA, Adm. Campbell said. “There was no ‘May Day’ call; the aircraft just failed to return to the carrier flight deck.” The admiral was again in an F-14, refueling from aerial tankers to extend the search for the missing A-6 crew. The wreckage and the air crew’s remains were not discovered until later. He is convinced that AAA destroyed the aircraft before the fliers could use the radio.

Operation Desert Storm

An underside view of a F-14A Tomcat aircraft on a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) during Operation Desert Storm. The aircraft is carrying four AIM-7 Sparrow missiles under its fuselage and two AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles on each wing pylon. DoD photo.

As combat missions continued, the air wing developed its own tactics, including medium-altitude armor attacks. A-6s were armed with mixed ordnance loads, including Cluster Bomb Units (CBUs), which were generally dropped from an 18,000 foot altitude. CBU fuses were set for a long delay and dispersion of bomblets against armor targets. The fuse delay enabled controlling, to some extent, the pattern of dispersion. A-6 pilots looked for a tube (gun) on each Iraqi ground-based platform before engaging a target, with smart guided munitions, Adm. Campbell explained.

“We kept our Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) sensors on all the way, looking for armored vehicle targets throughout formations. When we found a tube, we locked on to that target for a missile attack,” Adm. Campbell related. “Unless there was a tube, we didn’t expend the ordnance.” When locating convoys or other enemy concentrations, wing pilots often engaged with the CBUs. “We had good success with this tactic, mostly north of Iraq’s Tallil air base. The wing’s EA-6Bs, armed with HARMs, were used anytime missions were north into Iraq,” he added.

Before the war ended, Ranger’s air wing pilots went on the fly more than 4,300 combat sorties. As the wing commander, Adm. Campbell flew 23 sorties over Iraq and Kuwait, in both A-6 s and F-14s. Air Wing Two’s composition of only F-14s and A-6s provided long-range and all-weather capabilities. Three squadrons of A-6s in the wing provided the all-weather attack punch against ground targets.

Tactics developed by the wing during Desert Storm have been polished and integrated in Navy airborne training. Aerial maneuvers at Fallon, Nev. often involve integrated fighter-strike aircraft missions, along with tactics that emphasize prioritizing targets.

This article was first published Desert Shield/Desert Storm: The 10th Anniversary of the Gulf War.

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