Air University Review, January-February 1982
Colonel Harold E. Johnson
With his omnipotent power, God also created man in His own image with the ability to think, to reason, and to learn. But in His human creation, the Good Lord must have included either some of His own shortcomings or purposefully have implanted weaknesses, for man makes many mistakes everyday.
One of the biggest mistakes we in the military make is that either we personally fail to learn from our lessons in combat or we are negligent in passing along those important, often lifesaving observations and discoveries to the following generation. Such a lesson lapse that greatly concerns me relates to the employment problems of the Wild Weasel surface-to-air missile (SAM) killer mission, especially when applied in the potential European theater of operations.
I was a crew member of the F-105F Wild Weasel "3" group that was sent to Southeast Asia in 1966 as a quick-reaction response to the SA-2 SAMs introduced by the communists into North Vietnam. The Wild Weasel project had been created to provide a counterblow against the more sophisticated air defense weapons that threatened our fighter-bombers flying interdiction missions over North Vietnam.
The program was originally named Operation Mongoose, but that was changed when it was discovered a World War II clandestine project had used the Mongoose title. The Weasel portion of the name was then selected because of the mission employment perceived by the original designers. The SAM killer aircraft were supposed to "weasel" their way into enemy territory at low altitude, sniff out electronically the position of the SAM sites, and effectively mark those sites so that accompanying bomb-laden fighter-bombers could visually acquire and destroy them. The Wild portion of the name reflected not only the atmosphere of the type mission being flown but also accurately described the personalities and attitudes of the crew members who volunteered to fly such missions. In fact, the term Bear originated as a result of the observed aggressive behavior of the electronic warfare officers (EWOs) handpicked to fly in the back seat of the specially retrofitted F-105F aircraft.
Major Milt Rickman, of the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron, while attending an F-105 squadron 100-mission party in the USAF officers club at Takhli Air Base, Thailand, in 1966, paid a tongue-in-cheek compliment of recognition to these strange green-electron talking, funny-winged additions to the formerly all-single-seat fighter pilot organizations:
Do you remember the shooting gallery section in the arcades of the amusement parks? If so, you undoubtedly remember the electronic rifle apparatus that had a large bear running back and forth at the end. Every time you hit him, the bear would stop running, rear up on his hind legs, and roar before turning about and continuing on. Well, thats what these EWOs flying against the SAMs up North remind me of. Every time the SAMs fire at them, youll see the EWO put his paws up on the back seat canopy rail and roar defiantly at the missiles as they whiz by his aircraft. So instead of GIBs (guys in back), as weve always called them, I propose to rename our Wild Weasel EWOs "Bears."
A deafening table-banging and shouting din of approval immediately followed his proposal, and use of the term quickly spread. Thereafter, a Wild Weasel pilot was commonly chided with comments about the antics or whereabouts of his "trained bear."
The wing commanders at the F-105 bases of Takhli and Korat, Thailand, where the first Weasel mission aircraft were introduced, had differing views about how such special mission resources should be organized and implemented. Since they had only general guidelines, the theater commanders were free to ad-lib with their use of the limited Wild Weasel resources. The originally intended mission employment of trolling for and killing SAM sites was never implemented. Instead, the Wild Weasel aircraft were thrust into the lead flight of all deep-penetrating fighter-bomber force missions to act as what became known as "Iron Hand" SAM suppression flights. The Weasel four-ship flights were always the first in and last out during all fighter-bomber attacks in the high density SAM, AAA, and MiG defended areas of North Vietnam. It was not unusual for newly arrived Weasel crews to find themselves in the lead aircraft of the lead flight supporting a full 24 aircraft fighter-bomber strike against a prime, heavily defended target close to Hanoi on their very first mission. If the average 18- to 24-minute exposure time over the target area was survived, this was true baptism under fire, but the resulting loss of almost 50 percent of the Weasel aircraft and crews made the stateside training of replacement crews and the retrofitting of replacement aircraft very difficult to keep up with. Those Weasel crews that survived added techniques for further survival and successful attack against the SAMs to their repertoire with each completed mission.
Vital lessons were learned quickly. First, it was discovered that one should never fly against the SAMs either through weather or above a solid cloud layer. The SAM acquisition radar could detect an aircraft clearly and fire at will. Even though the Bear knew what the SAM site was doing, when missiles were fired, the Weasel flight was limited as to what counter actions it could take. It was necessary to see the missiles coming at you as soon as possible to evade them effectively, so flying in or over weather was a definite handicap. Second, it was essential to stay low and fly fast when dueling with a SAM site in the heavy SAM/AAA environment. The aircraft had to be kept moving about rapidly (jinking) to complicate the SAMs intercept; the surrounding terrain had to be utilized appropriately to mask the flight from the SAM radar until the Weasel flight was in a position to kill the SAM site.
Another lesson was learned soon after introduction of the wing-positioned, self-generating jamming pods. When jamming was introduced close to the F-105F Weasel, or emitted by that aircraft itself, the skills of the Bear to monitor and interpret the SAM activity and enemy electronic environment were rendered completely useless. His electronic radiation receivers, radar homing and warning (RHAW) gear and audio receiver (music signals) were all obliterated. Many arguments were offered in defense of jammers in the Weasel flight primarily because it seemed to offer some sort of magical security-blanket-type support. I am of the opposite opinion, however. From my experience in the Weasel hunter-killer role, if the EWO was an effective, confident operator, the attachment of jammers either in the flight or to the lead two-seat aircraft was, and is, so much excess baggage. The Weasel aircraft should be either a SAM killer or a jammer. I am not convinced that it needs to be both.
The weapons used against the SAM sites by the F- 105F Weasel aircraft evolved rapidly as new ideas were tried or new systems became available. In the beginning, 2.75-inch rockets coupled with a 20 mm Gatling gun strafe on the same pass were used to mark the SAM site position for the accompanying three F-105Ds, each armed with six 750-pound bombs. Later the Shrike missile and cluster bomb units (CBUs) adding lethality to the attack, replaced the 2.75 rocket pods. Follow-on Shrikes and some Standard Arm missiles were implemented as they were made available.
Introduction of the F-4 as a Wild Weasel aircraft involves a complicated story that deserves full coverage in a separate discussion. Basically, the first attempted conversion of the F-4 as Wild Weasel "4" began in 1966 but was soon abandoned for many reasons, e.g., the incompatibility of electronic gear to the F-4 system and the requirement to use pilots in the back seat instead of EWOs. The F-4G was eventually designed and retrofitted to fulfill the role as the primary USAF Wild Weasel aircraft in 1976. Most of the F-105F or two-seat Wild Weasels have since been transferred to the National Guard.
Thus, it is obvious today that Wild Weasel aircraft and crews are a critical, limited resource. Their effective utility in any conflict is an accepted probability. Even standard computerized war games produce a positive probability of success factor for other flight operations when Wild Weasels are simulated to accompany the attacking forces. Therefore, it seems logical that Weasel operations, aircraft, crews, and weapons will be a viable, on-going consideration in future USAF war-fighting plans. Yet I am gravely concerned about the continuing ability of the USAF to employ or support SAM killer missions effectively. There appears to be an increased emphasis on standoff jamming in lieu of the hunter-killer option, but perhaps both alternatives provide balance for opposition to and defeat of the enemy SAM threat.
More Wild Weasel aircraft are needed, but at present the program seems stagnant. I do not intend to discuss classified details, but I perceive that the employment considerations of the F-4G Wild Weasel are reminiscent of our beginning utilization over North Vietnam. In fact, the weapons designated for use on the SAM killer mission appear less flexible now than in those days. I shudder to think of the loss rate that could be experienced by this critical resource in the NATO arena where a five-to-10,000-foot cloud layer plants itself much of the time. The Weasels will have no choice other than to fly their missions in this foul weather. The mortality rate of the Wild Weasel forces escorting interdiction flights across the heavy SAM-ZSU-23/4-infested forward edge of the battle area (FEBA) could be devastating. Unless the Weasels were tasked specific missions to engage and neutralize this standard Soviet/Warsaw Pact FEBA SAM support, they would be free to engage the Weasels and the aircraft being escorted to targets behind enemy lines. The fast-moving Wild Weasels need some help. They need a "ferret"!
Logic leads us to believe this help can be provided by specially equipped modifications of existing aircraft such as the two-seat A-10s or the F-15 Strike Eagle. These advanced aircraft coud be used in the FEBA area SAM and ZSU-23/4 killer role. An EWO in the back seat equipped with up-to-date, state-of-the-art electronic receivers and RHAW gear could help to search out and destroy enemy SAMs and antiaircraft units positioned near and immediately behind the FEBA. As well as adding a positive dimension to the SAM killer force, two-seat A-l0s or Strike Eagle F-15s would bring unique qualities to the mission. A-l0s, designed to fly and fight at a very low altitude, could play a secondary role in destroying tanks. Imagine the versatility of a "Thunderhog Ferret"! F-15s, with engines and design features suited to higher altitudes, would still retain significant air-to-air as well as interdiction capabilities.
The Wild Weasel contribution to the overall mission has been vital since the hottest and darkest days of the air war against Vietnam. In a future conflict the U.S. Air Force may face an enemy with numerical superiority in the air and enough SAMs to achieve air deniability from the ground. To meet these challenges, the Air Force must be flexible and dynamic in its approach to the SAM suppression mission so that our aviators can continue to say, "Yea though I fly through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no enemy; for thou, Wild Weasel, art with me."
MacDill AFB, Florida
Colonel Harold E. Johnson(B.A., University of Louisville; M.A., Auburn University) is Chief, Programs and Policy Branch, J-3 Section, Readiness Command, MacDill AFB, Florida. He served three years as a member of the directing staff at the Royal Air Forces Staff College at Bracknell, England. Colonel Johnson is a graduate of Squadron Officer School, Air Command and Staff College, and Air War College.
DisclaimerThe conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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