|Air Force Wild Weasel|
|Seek, Attack, Destroy|
The quote is stuck to a sheet of steel the size of a TV tray. Few people notice the sign, now on the floor of the squadron’s break room, adorned with its cartoonish-looking Soviet mobile rocket launcher and large, all-capital block letters. But the quote, a relic of the Cold War, is priceless.
Such is the mentality of the F-16CJ pilot. A Scud hunter. A radar killer. A Wild Weasel. He’s an aviator who can intimidate by mere presence, and close the eyes of an enemy nation’s defenses.
In Europe, suppression of enemy air defense — or SEAD — duties fall to the 22nd and 23rd Fighter Squadrons at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. Their roles are virtually interchangeable. For example, when one returned home from Operation Northern Watch, the other was on its way to take over the same mission enforcing the U.N.-mabdated northern no-fly zone over Iraq.
Life as a Wild Weasel means many things. It means flying the world’s most advanced F-16s — Lockheed’s Block 50 models — and carrying the sophisticated high-speed anti- radiation missile. It means history. It means being away from home more than a traveling salesman. And it also could mean making the nightly news once a week, targeting and killing Iraqi radar sites.
“We send a message by our mere presence,” said Capt. Jim Cleet, a pilot with the “Big 22.” “The bad guys know we’re carrying the high-speed anti-radiation missiles. It makes them shut down their radars.”
Life as a Weasel
The Wild Weasel lineage for the suppression of enemy air defenses started in March 1965. Flying modified F-100 Super Sabres, the first Wild Weasels launched against North Vietnam targets on Thanksgiving 1965. The Weasels’ primary mission was negating surface-to-air-missile sites. This role eventually evolved into the suppression mission.
The SEAD mission — with a motto of “first in, last out” — means F-16 drivers have to reach out and touch their foe, even at high altitudes. Pilots like Cleet soar into enemy territory hoping enemy ground patrols turn on their radars and find them.
When the enemy turns on its radar, the Wild Weasels find it. Then it’s a race. Who can fire first? Then, who can avoid the oncoming missiles?
Advantage: Wild Weasel. Cleet and his brethren have a Mach 2 — nearly 1,400 mph — passport out of harm’s way. Radar patrols are nearly immobile.
But there’s more to it than that, according to Cleet.
“There’s a lot of coordination that goes on. You have a lot of assets you need to work with,” he said. “There’s also a tough physical and mental challenge. You never want to minimize a threat. You have to have a healthy respect for it.”
Capt. Jed Hutchison from the 23rd Fighter Squadron agreed. “We’re the only guys who do this,” he said. “It’s a huge mental challenge.”
That challenge became fully evident to members of the 23rd Fighter Squadron — deployed to Operation Allied Force as the 23rd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron — on May 2, 1999. During the campaign’s 15th night over Yugoslavia, Capt. Sonny Blinkinsop earned a Silver Star. He destroyed an SA-3 surface-to-air anti-aircraft short-range system designed for destruction of aircraft like his. Then he helped direct defensive aircraft away from anti-aircraft artillery fire.
Twenty-nine days later, SEAD pilots flew as many as 92 missions a night. They were part of nearly 780 sorties per day. At the operation’s end, Spangdahlem’s Fighting Hawks chocked up 4,600 flying hours, 1,071 sorties and fired 191 HARMs.
Col. Greg Ihde, 52nd Fighter Wing commander, said actions like Blinkinsop’s come with the territory. A fast pace, busy days and action “downtown” are not uncommon to any of his team.
“People are pumped. This is what they came in the Air Force for in the first place,” he said. “If we deploy them and they go somewhere and sit, that’s not a good idea.”
Renewed sense of purpose
Spangdahlem’s air space is admittedly confined, and range time is tightly controlled. The weather in southwestern Germany, with its mountain peaks and rolling hills, can turn nasty in a hurry. Snow, rain, fog and gray skies overpowering operations are common during the peak winter months.
To overcome the air space issues, the squadrons train regularly with the Dutch and Belgian air forces. That includes a recent
emphasis on night flying, wearing night-vision goggles. The deployment schedule keeps them knee- deep in activity for two-thirds of the year in places like Turkey, Italy, Southwest Asia and points beyond.
And weather? The weather flight can only do so much.
While the colors and conditions of winter can dampen spirits, morale has been nothing but up since Sept. 11. Airmen across the flight line supporting the mission are excited again about their roles. Senior Airman Robert Hoag loads HARMs onto the F-16s. He said the renewed sense of mission has everyone on a high.
“After Sept. 11, we knew we were fighting and bombing things for a purpose. Deploying and the high operations tempo actually pumps people up,” he said.
There’s also a responsibility that comes with the mission. Outfitting and maintaining $20 million airplanes fitted with $200,000 HARMs isn’t something Airman 1st Class James Gilliam, an F-16 crew chief, takes lightly.
“There’s a lot of responsibility. If you jack it up, it’s not going to be your supervisor getting in trouble. It will be you,” he said. “It’s all about attitude. You know you’ll be gone a lot. You know about the weather here. We all learn to get along and do our jobs.”
The wing’s top enlisted person knows the wing’s NATO-ordered workload is demanding. Command Chief Master Sgt. Ken McQuiston said he sees the strain on some airmen’s faces. Deploying them seemingly nonstop to Operations Deliberate Forge, Enduring Freedom, Northern Watch and Provide Comfort takes its toll, especially on families.
“Since Sept. 11, we’ve been on full afterburner,” he said. “When we signed up, we asked to have a target on our chests and backs. But our families didn’t. With every challenge, the wing has performed superbly. It has really responded at a level that puts me in awe.”
McQuiston is one of the people preparing Spangdahlem for a new airlift mission, where as many as 13 C-17s may be parked on the ramp. Keeping his troops aware of their value to the Air Force, NATO and the world is one of his primary concerns.
“Most people here are fighter folks. The sorties will be their first priority. Each person at Spangdahlem is an integral piece of the puzzle,” he said.
Hoag said he understands teamwork and believes his flying counterparts do, too.
“We put the stuff on the jets that goes boom,” the munitions loader said. “They’d have a hard time blowing things up without us.”
With morale and teamwork at an all-time high, one question lurks for the Wild Weasels: How long will they continue to have jobs?
The not-so-wild Weasel
With the inherent dangers of pilots volunteering as surface-to-air missile targets, the Defense Department is looking at other ways to gouge an enemy’s eyes. One of them could yank the pilot out of the cockpit completely.
It’s called the uninhabited combat aerial vehicle. Recently, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Air Force chose Boeing to build it. Command and control systems are being built in Seattle while the airframe takes shape in St. Louis.
Entering its second phase, the four-year, $131 million program will demonstrate the feasibility for an unmanned system to “effectively and affordably prosecute 21st century suppression of enemy air defenses and strike missions,” according to the agency. The unmanned system is primarily designed to conduct pre-emptive and reactive suppression of enemy air defense missions effectively and affordably against the anticipated 2010 threats, according to the agency’s program manager Larry Birckelbaw.
“[It] is the next step on the path to a revolutionary new weapon system,” Birckelbaw said. “[The unmanned system] exploits real-time, on-board and off-board sensors to quickly detect, identify and locate both fixed and mobile targets. Overcoming the technical challenges to conduct these demanding and dangerous missions with an unmanned system will provide the war fighter with a revolutionary capability that saves lives.”
Where does that leave Wild Weasel flyers in outposts across the globe? Suppression is one of many missions flown by F-16 jocks at the only composite fighter wing north of the Alps. They’ll find other work. But most of the air-breathing Wild Weasels feel like they’ll be around for the foreseeable future.
“We’re a growth business. We provide trained, well-equipped forces for NATO,” Ihde said. “We’ve got the capability, we know all the rules, and we have a lethal and capable force package.”
For pilots like Cleet, there’s more to his duty than capability. There’s heritage, pride and honor.
“Our guys were dodging surface-to-air missiles in Vietnam. We were integral in Desert Storm and Allied Force. There may have been different systems, but it’s the same vital mission,” he said. “Being a part of that day-to-day history is important. It’s important to know where you came from.
“There will always be F-16 HARM shooters,” he added.
Hutchison said the capability is a must-have item on a theater commander’s checklist.
“People have gained a lot of respect for us over the past few years. You don’t go anywhere without us,” he said.
Today’s Wild Weasels give enemy surface-to-air missile operators the same “maximum opportunity” offered by their Cold War counterparts two decades before.
According to Ihde, a 26-year Air Force veteran, giving them this opportunity is Air Force fun like no other.
“It’s not like we’re crazy, but it takes someone with a lot of guts to want to waltz in and have a bad guy ‘light you up,’ ” he said, smiling. “You drive in and hope somebody wants to shoot at your airplane. Then we go to work.
Article byTech. Sgt. Jason Tudor, Published in Airman's Magazine