Desert Fox: The Third Night

By Major Ross Roberts, USMC

The Enterprise (CVN-65) Battle Group made best speed to the Persian Gulf to relieve the Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) Battle Group in mid-November 1998. Tensions once again were beginning to heat up between Iraq and the U.N. Special Commission on monitoring. We all wondered whether we would actually strike Iraq, or just endure the standard sword-rattling. As we approached the Eastern Mediterranean, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Battle Group was on station in the Gulf nearing the very end of her six-month deployment. It wasn't until we transited the Red Sea that we learned that the United States was much closer to decisive action than we had originally thought.

We settled into the routine of Operation Southern Watch, enforcing the Iraqi no-fly zone and honing our skills, and spent the next two weeks verifying the strike plans passed to us from the Ike 's Carrier Air Wing (CVW)-17. Our strike teams became familiar with administrative procedures for operating in the Persian Gulf and we had numerous opportunities to acquire targets similar to our assigned targets—in some cases the actual target—prior to the commencement of Operation Desert Fox. Most of the pilots were able to standardize update points, familiarize themselves with target areas, and get comfortable with fuel planning. Our Desert Fox success largely can be attributed to this familiarization period. In addition, the pass-down information from CVW-17 included seven years of archived forward-looking infrared (FLIR) video of the targets. We incorporated the video into our strike briefs and target area study, considerably improving our chances for success.

We relied on the Windows-driven Portable Flight Planning System—probably the Navy's best investment for strike planning; it proved far superior to the Tactical Aircrew Mission Planning System (TAMPS). Top Scene, with its worldwide databases that allowed pilots to simulate flying actual missions against postulated threat superimposed over the actual terrain, had poor reliability and resolution, and we could not shape its field of view to match that of the FLIR at a given range—important for predicting aim-points. As a result, it collected dust in the corner because it was difficult to use, consumed lots of time, and often crashed.

Operation Desert Fox was designed to weaken Saddam Hussein's power base, believed to be his Republican Guards and weapons of mass destruction. One hundred targets were assigned to tactical aviation (TacAir); the majority of our assigned targets were large buildings such as Republican Guard barracks, headquarters, and command-and-control sites consisting of radio relay towers and bunkers. The campaign was planned for a concurrent naval TacAir/Tomahawk Land-Attack Missile (TLAM) strikes on the first night, followed up by combined TacAir (U.S./British)/TLAM and Conventional Air-Launched Cruise Missile (CALCM) strikes the following three nights. Tomahawk and cruise missile strikes were planned against targets that were heavily protected by Iraqi air defenses, mostly in and around Baghdad.

Prior to our first port visit in Jebel Ali, United Arab Emirates, in early December, Vice Admiral Charles W. Moore Jr., Commander Fifth Fleet, visited the Enterprise and told us in no uncertain terms to be ready. Adding credence to his statement was his hesitancy to allow us to go into port at all.

Leaving port on 8 December, we picked up where we left off and started to let the junior officers lead missions in support of Southern Watch. General Anthony Zinni, U.S. Marine Corps, Commander-in-Chief, Central Command, visited us on 10 December and gave us the news. He said the window of opportunity was here, and that "All of the slack has been removed from the trigger." Once again we were on the uphill climb of the emotional roller coaster that always accompanies preparations for combat. The decision to implement Desert Fox depended on Richard Butler's report to the United Nations scheduled for release on 15 December. On 14 December, we got the 72-hour warning order and broke out the target folders and strike plans we had been fine-tuning.

As I walked to my Hornet late on the evening of 16 December, I saw the glow of Tomahawk launches from the surface ships to the south. It was 2306. Our first scheduled launch time was 2345, and I thought that we would go. Thirty-three combat-loaded aircraft and bomb carts were crowding the deck. The flight deck was amazingly orderly as hundreds of flight deck and squadron personnel went about their business. I think that everyone was nervous. I knew that we had passed the last hurdle in the execution timeline—and we went.

By night three, I was on my third mission, but this one was different: I was leading it. The target was in south central Iraq. It was also the longest range of all the strikes during the operation, 420 nautical miles one way, and required aerial refueling. Most of the strike leads had flown in their assigned target vicinity during Operation Southern Watch and were familiar with the target area, inertial navigation system update points, targets, and key terrain features. I was hoping to get a chance to rehearse my strike during Southern Watch, but it was not to be.

The day prior to execution (day two of Desert Fox) I gave my final concept of operations brief to the battle group and air wing commanders. With the plan approved, I set to work on finishing the details with my strike team. A month earlier, we had planned a westerly attack heading because the prevailing winds were light at altitude. The latest forecast winds at our altitude averaged 80-120 knots from the west. This changed our plan and reduced the fuel margin, but it was still manageable. All I had to do now was fill in the knee board cards and fine tune the overall brief. The success of the aerial refueling plan was critical to mission success and it concerned me.

Most of the missions into southern Iraq during Southern Watch were single cycle, autonomous day strikes that did not require aerial refueling; missions that required tanker support were in the daytime. Desert Fox, on the other hand, was conducted at night.

The first Desert Fox night strikes were all single cycle, designed that way to keep the element of surprise on our side. We hoped that by not alerting host bases of land-based tankers and combat search-and-rescue we could maintain the element of surprise. We took every precaution to maintain secrecy. For this reason, the first night of the campaign was to be a naval show, demonstrating the one of the greatest capabilities of sea-based air power, surprise.

Without the assistance of Air Force tankers, we were limited to targets in southeastern Iraq. Organic aerial refueling was available to assist the recovery of aircraft low on fuel only. Beginning with night two, we had several long-range strikes planned, all of which required extensive tanking. U.S. Air Force and Royal Air Force aircraft were involved now, making the campaign a coalition effort. We refueled from Air Force KC-10s.

My strike brief was uneventful. I spent extra time explaining the tanker plan, and "what if'd" the alternate plans thoroughly in the event a tanker did not show. This paid off, as we discovered on the premission tanker rendezvous. The tankers were not in the briefed formation, nor did they have the briefed fuel off-load, because they were doing their best to cover all of our strikes with a limited number of aircraft.

During Southern Watch, the tankers were in visual formation, monitoring the same frequency, and receivers were assigned off-loads by tanker call sign. It was easy to spot your assigned tanker—you either had the lead or the trail—and they were only one nautical mile apart. This night, it wouldnit be so easy. The tankers were not in visual formation, and they were using separate frequencies. I locked my radar on to what I perceived was my tanker, but, as I lined up on the drogue, something obviously was wrong. This tanker had a center-line drogue, while my assigned tanker—the one I was talking to on the radio—was supposed to have wing-mounted drogues. Turned out that I had the right radio frequency but the wrong tanker; mine was 20 nautical miles away on the opposite end of the tanker track. To make matter worse, my tanker had only enough gas to give each receiver 2,500 pounds of fuel—instead of the 4,000 pounds we had planned on.

As luck would have it, 8 of the 14 aircraft made the same mistake I did. At this point, I was pretty busy trying to figure out who was on what tanker on what frequency. I could already see the "Rolex" coming (a term used to cover the unexpected and delay the time on target in increments, allowing for unforeseen circumstances). After much consternation over the radio, I finally reassigned aircraft to the planned tankers, but this lengthened the time I had allotted for refueling. I used our two S-3 Vikings (sea-control aircraft, with a secondary mission of aerial refueling), which I had planned to use as hose multipliers, to top off my wingman and me (who had been short-changed on the initial off-load in an effort to get all the aircraft refueled more quickly).

I completed the aerial refueling five minutes prior to the push time. I looked at the mass of circling aircraft through my night vision goggles thinking, "How the hell am I going to get this mess joined and pushed on time?" It was time for the Rolex word, and I broadcast "Rolex five" on the strike common frequency; all acknowledged. Three minutes into the Rolex, we were still not joined. I finally had the strike package roll out on the ingress heading. I thought it would be easier to sort the formation out if we were straight and level heading in the same direction.

I had planned the ingress route to avoid probable Iraqi antiaircraft artillery (AAA) and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). The strong head winds complicated the suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) package (one EA-6B and two FA-18s carrying two High Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles [HARMs]). I pushed the SEAD package three minutes ahead, planning to catch up with them as we turned the corner from west to east in the final attack from the initial point.

I had not updated my inertial navigation system (INS) at Fahlaka Island (off the coast of Kuwait) as planned because of the mess at the push/rendezvous point. We usually planned at least two and sometimes three update points along the route to correct for the inaccurate ship's inertial navigation system. We found this step was the most critical in successful target location. I hoped my INS would be accurate enough to at least find my second update point (a road intersection) with the FLIR. It took some searching, but I found it and was able to tighten up my INS. This was fortunate because my system was three-quarters of a mile off and would have made target location very difficult if not impossible. At the initial point all of the strikers checked their lasers and FLIRs and I was surprised to hear everyone check in with operational systems. We always planned and briefed detailed back-up buddy-laser plans to enable a wingman to guide the bombs of an aircraft with a malfunctioning laser or FLIR.

The strike package was composed of four strike F/A-18s, each loaded with two GBU-16s (1,000-pound laser guided bombs); two F-14s, each with two GBU-10s (2,000-pound laser guided bombs); two F-14s as fighter escorts; two F/A-18s doubling as HARM shooters and escorts for the EA-6B.

The target was a Republican Guard base. The aim-points were a headquarters building and three barracks. One of the barracks was long, similar in design to those on U.S. bases. All of the buildings were concrete two-story structures. The three small buildings were assigned one F/A-18 per building with the remaining Hornet and two F-14s on the long (about 100 meters) barracks.

With all of our inertial systems updated, I had confidence we would be able to find the target. At the initial point, we turned right 120 degrees to place the target on the nose. As we began our turn my wingman called over the strike common frequency: "SAM launch nine o'clock!" I immediately responded, "Those are the HARMs!" They were on the way to their target just as planned, searching for the SA-2 and SA-6 postulated to be in the target area. It felt good to see them arc over us and into the target area looking for Iraqi surface-to-air radar emissions to guide on, giving us a short window of protection.

The base was a small complex in a large expanse of desert. We were hoping the roads on the base would still be hot enough to provide a thermal contrast, which could be transformed by the FLIR into a green-and-white television picture in the cockpit. As we came nose on to the target, the road complex that I had burned into my memory over the last couple of days was visible on my cockpit display. I picked the road where I had predicted my aim point would be and waited for the FLIR picture to build (as the range to target decreases, the FLIR picture gets better). I positively identified my target, the headquarters building just to the east side of a road intersection. We always tried to limit collateral damage and this target was isolated, which lessened my concerns.

I made one last check of my weapon systems as my wingman found his aim-point. I talked myself through my air-to-ground checklist, "Air-to-ground master mode, GBU-16 selected, quantity two, fuse delay one, laser armed, master arm on, tapes on (if its not on tape it didnit happen), sweeten the laser aim-point, finger on the pickle, everythingis looking good." Precisely at the planned distance from the target, the aircraft rocked as the 1,000-pound bombs were ejected from the bomb racks two-thirds of a second apart.

The next 30 seconds is always the longest. As the bombs fall ballistically toward the target, all you can do is continue to refine the FLIR aim-point to ensure the laser will fire precisely where desired; things are intense in the cockpit. Looking outside just shows you whatis being sent back at you. Ten seconds to go, all right! The laser starts its automatic firing sequence. The laser-guided bombs (LGBs) fall ballistically until the last ten seconds and then guide on the reflected laser energy to the target. Five seconds . . . three . . . I could see the bombs fly to the target on the FLIR . . . one second . . . Direct hit. "Shack!!!" I shouted over the radio. (That's one term we picked up from our Air Force friends.) My wingman achieved the same results.

As I pulled off target and looked over my shoulder, I saw the AAA I was oblivious to during my delivery while I was concentrating on my FLIR display. It was all bursting below our altitude just as on the previous two nights. Two more impacts, both Shacks.

The third section (two F-14s) approached the target area last, searching for their aim points. All of the targets were smoking holes only half of the long barracks was still standing. Some quick work by the Tomcat crews flattened it. So far, everyone had hit and destroyed his assigned aim point; for the sixth and final bomber, there was nothing left but the alternate target, similar in size to the headquarters building I had just pulverized. He expertly guided the two GBU-10s into the building and completely removed it from the desert floor. We always briefed an alternate target to limit collateral damage if the primary targets already were destroyed.

Quick fuel checks off target confirmed that the detailed fuel planning had worked out so far. As planned, we climbed to altitude to maximize fuel efficiency (120 knots of wind at our back) and to avoid being targeted by the dreaded, unlocated SA-6. Some members of the flight had 800 pounds less fuel than planned, but this was manageable as long as the tankers arrived on schedule. Ten minutes away from tanker rendezvous I called the tankers to let them know we were inbound. The strike package cycled through the single KC-10 (two-hose) tanker remaining without incident. Two S-3s provide the much-needed postmission fuel as briefed. Everyone took only what he needed and pressed home for the ship. The landing was dark and scary as usual, but uneventful. After the debrief, we went to the various ready rooms to review the FLIR videos. It was amazing to see the amount of destruction we caused that night. Morale was high. Electro-optical imagery taken the following day confirmed the destruction we witnessed on our FLIRs. Five aim points destroyed, one heavily damaged and unusable—and all this with just six bombers.

We continued our sea-stories while downing cheeseburgers and ice cream—sliders and auto dog. My third and most successful night of the campaign, no time to reflect. We were working up the next day's schedule.

The four-day campaign resulted in an unprecedented number of assigned targets either damaged or destroyed. Navy TacAir alone chalked up 72% of assigned targets damaged or destroyed. This can be attributed to an environment extremely conducive to the use of FLIRs and LGBs and air crew familiarity of the target areas and terrain. The Tomahawks damaged or destroyed a very high percentage of their assigned targets. Most of their targets were deep within Iraq and heavily protected by SAMs and AAA. The Tomahawks appeared to be more effective and efficient at bombing large fixed targets than TacAir. Manned aviation was extremely effective at destroying hardened bunkers.

Many of us felt Saddam's true center of gravity was the Republican Guard forces, not their buildings. The strategy of sending the Iraqi leadership a message was not on our scopes; we dealt with the tactical realities of bombing defended targets.

If naval aviation is going to capitalize on the success of Desert Fox, future employment of strike aircraft should focus on missions requiring surprise and flexibility. Manned aircraft are optimized for rapidly changing scenarios and proper planning enables them to change their missions once airborne. As described, however, our strikes required detailed planning well in advance of execution. There was little flexibility because target assignments and times-on-target (TOT) were controlled centrally. During Desert Fox, Tomahawk planners worked in the space next to our strike planners, yet we were not able to integrate them into our plans, even though the majority of targets assigned to aircraft were perfect Tomahawk targets. We were simply handed a target folder with a desired probability of destruction, a TOT, and the rest of the plan was up to us. In a lot of ways we were manned missiles.

Fixed targets are vulnerable to Tomahawk and Conventional Air-Launched Cruise Missile attacks, and potential foes may counter our strength here with mobility. Shifting TacAir to mobile targets should counter this gambit. Tomahawks and TacAir are complementary; defending against both is a true dilemma.

Further improvements to Tomahawks and CALCMs will render TacAir strike warfare against heavily defended fixed targets obsolete, if current versions haven't already. If national policy requires risking lives, then the targets assigned to manned aircraft should promise high payoffs.

Major Roberts, a naval aviator and former artillery officer, is the operations officer for VMFA-312, a Marine F/A-18C squadron attached to CVW-3, deployed on board the USS Enterprise (CVN-65).


Major Roberts, a naval aviator and former artillery officer, is the operations officer for VMFA-312, a Marine F/A-18C squadron attached to CVW-3, deployed on board the USS Enterprise (CVN-65).

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