A Strike by Stealth

Sept. 4, 2008

The moon had set. Layers of clouds blanketed much of Saudi Arabia and swirled northward into Iraq. The “execute” order for Operation Desert Storm had gone out to the coalition air forces. H-hour was 3:00 a.m., Baghdad time, January 17, 1991.

Deep in Saudi Arabia, at an air base called Khamis Mushayt, US Air Force Maj. Gregory A. Feest scanned the cockpit displays of his F-117 Stealth fighter. Khamis Mushayt, tucked high in the Saudi mountains between Yemen and the Red Sea, was the operating location for USAF’s 37th Tactical Fighter Wing, which had deployed to the Persian Gulf from its secret base at Tonopah, Nev. It was the only Air Force wing that had the F-117 black jet. Major Feest was in the 415th Tactical Fighter Squadron.

Satisfied all systems were “in the green,” he pushed the throttles on his left console forward to their stops, released the brakes, and felt the airplane lunge forward. As runway lights flashed by on either side of the cockpit, Major Feest pulled back on the control stick and lifted his craft into the air.

He was alone in the night, with only the lights of villages in the mountains and desert visible below him. His radios were switched on but remained soundless.

Major Feest would drop the first bomb on Iraq in Operation Desert Storm. In December 1989, he had dropped the first bomb during the Panama operation, and in August 1990, he flew the lead fighter as the F-117s deployed to Khamis Mushayt.

Behind Major Feest, nine other pilots lifted their F-117s into the air at precisely timed intervals. His wingman would join up and fly with him to their tanker on the F-117 refueling track, which ran most of the length of Saudi Arabia.

After refueling, each would drop off the tanker at the north end of the track, not far from the Iraqi border, and fly to its assigned target. With luck, all the planes would get through unscathed and rejoin as they crossed the border on the way home.

The F-117s were not alone. Also bearing down on Iraq were seven heavy B-52G bombers, which covered the greatest distance of any combat aircraft that night and were the first to launch for the war. They had taken off from Barksdale AFB, La., at 6:35 a.m., Central Standard Time, January 16, nearly twelve hours before H-hour. The planes, part of Strategic Air Command’s 2d Bomb Wing, carried conventionally armed AGM-86C air-launched cruise missiles to be tired at critical communications centers and power facilities deep inside Iraq. The round-trip flight of the B-52s would last more than thirty-five hours, the longest air combat mission in history.

US Navy warships had fired off a salvo of Tomahawk land-attack missiles (TLAMs). The cruiser USS San Jacinto, in the Red Sea, had launched the first of these at 1:30 a.m. Its target was in Baghdad, 700 miles away. Rather than giving the first TLAM an exact time on target, planners assigned it a five-minute “window” in which it was to make impact. The window extended from 3:06 a.m. to 3:11 a.m., Baghdad time.

Once the San Jacinto’s TLAM was on its way, USS Bunker Hill in the Persian Gulf and then the battleships USS Wisconsin and USS Missouri opened fire. In all, the initial attack saw the Navy ships fire fifty-two Tomahawks, all of which were clipping through the sky over the desert as Major Feest headed for Iraq.

Part of the Force

These air weapons were part of a huge strike force. In the runup to H-hour, 668 aircraft from the US Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, the Royal Air Force, France, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia had taken off for targets in Iraq. The attack had been choreographed by Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, commander of US Central Command Air Forces and “air boss” for the coalition; his director of Operations, Maj. Gen. John A. Corder; and Brig. Gen. Buster C. Glosson, director of Campaign Plans.

Major Feest and the other aircrews of the strike force rendezvoused with 160 KC-135 Stratotankers and KC-10 Extenders. The tankers flew stacked down, each tanker 500 feet below the one ahead of it, along carefully defined refueling tracks over Saudi Arabia. Plowing through cloud banks, the strike aircraft alternated on the tanker refueling booms. They topped off their tanks and swung to attack headings.

General Horner’s strike force was controlled by three flying command posts, E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft. Orbiting near the Iraqi border, the AWACS sent radar beams hundreds of miles into Iraqi airspace. Two Navy E-2C Hawkeyes, one over the Persian Gulf and the other above western Saudi Arabia, provided additional radar coverage. An RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft eavesdropped electronically, pinpointing any Iraqi communicators or radar operators who were transmitting. Some 60,000 feet up, U-2/TR-1 reconnaissance aircraft employed a variety of sensors to track the battle.

The opening attack took place not in Baghdad but far to the southwest of the city. There, Army and Air Force helicopters and F-117s combined to slash open a gap in western Iraqi air defenses [see “Apache Attack,” October 1991, p. 54]. At H minus twenty-one minutes–2:39 a.m.–helicopter Task Force Normandy, comprising Army AH-64 Apaches and USAF MH-53 Pave Lows, knocked out two Iraqi radar sites just inside the border. The Apaches employed Hellfire missiles.

Minutes later, Major Feest would drop the first bomb, destroying an Iraqi Air Force interceptor operations center (IOC), about 150 miles inside Iraq. That IOC was a key link between border radar sites and the air defense headquarters in Baghdad.

“We had practiced a lot, and we had become very good at finding a target and hitting it exactly on time, within one second,” Major Feest said. “This was a little different than practice, though, because I knew they were going to be shooting back at me. So, as I came to my first IP [initial point], I was kind of apprehensive.

“It was a very difficult target, well hidden and camouflaged. The most difficult part of the mission was finding the IOC, which was housed in a hardened bunker at a town named Nukhayb.”

Before takeoff, Major Feest had entered the exact latitude and longitude of each checkpoint along his route, as well as the position of the target, in the F-117’s inertial navigational system (INS).

The “Fence Check”

Flying across the border, Major Feest performed a “fence check”– a last detailed check of the aircraft. From then on, things would happen rapidly. He made sure all external lights were switched off. Sometimes, under the stress of combat, the most obvious things are left undone. A single wingtip light, visible to enemy gunners, could mean disaster

Inside the cockpit, the only light came from the dimly glowing multi-function displays (MFDs) arrayed before him. Using switches on the throttles and pushing actuator buttons near the video displays, he could call up target information on one MFD while keeping aircraft status information, such as airspeed, attitude, and altitude, on another. Another display gave Major Fees the data his sensors were gathering on the enemy’s radar system. He could call up almost any combination of data he wanted.

He selected the next checkpoint on the INS and checked the latitude and longitude readout. The auto pilot turned the aircraft.

Major Feest changed his heading frequently, as all F-117 pilots do, to complicate target tracking by an enemy radar that might get some slight return from the stealthy aircraft. On-board sensors told Major Feest where the probing radars were, and he flew a course to avoid them.

To complete the fence check, he compared the amount of fuel remaining with the level that a precomputation said he should have. He again made sure his warning and caution lights were out.

Major Feest now concentrated on his displays, hearing only the hum of the cockpit as he sped through the night. He prepared to drop the first of two laser-guided, hardened, improved, 2000-pound bombs, designed to penetrate deep into enemy bunkers before detonating. These bombs, called GBU-27s, were carried in the Gulf War only by F-117s.

Major Feest punched up the armament display on an MFD. It told him that both bombs were operative and that the release system was ready. He armed his weapons and switched the armament system to “weapons armed, off safe” to prevent accidental release.

As his F-117 neared Nukhayb, Major Feest switched his computer system from “nav” mode to “weapons delivery” mode. He turned to a new heading over the pre-initial point, then passed over the IP.

He then called up the target position on the INS and watched as aiming cross hairs positioned themselves over the computed position of the target. He was now scrutinizing the infrared picture on one of the MFDs. The F-117’s infrared sensors gather heat emanations from the ground, and an MFD displays their image, which closely resembles a black-and-white television picture.

As he approached the release point, Major Feest’s pulse rate quickened, and he breathed fast and heavily. He set the autopilot to keep the F-117 steady on the target run. He checked the MFDs to ensure that his altitude, heading, and airspeed were correct for this delivery, checked his armament system one more time, and then flipped the master arm switch to “arm.”

Outside, only a few lights from the town were visible. The F-117’s infrared sensors, however, picked out buildings, dry watercourses, and an unpaved road. Major Feest could see these clearly on his MFD.

Over the Target

He had studied his target intently beforehand, so he knew exactly where the bunker was in relation to the sparse terrain features. He compared what he saw on the MFD with an aerial photo strapped to his legboard. As he flew closer, he could see the outline of the bunker and some of its support structures for positive target identification.

Major Feest moved the fingertip target designator (TD) button on one of the throttles, slewing the cross hairs until they were precisely over the aimpoint, which is called the “designated mean point of impact” (DMPI). Depending on size, hardness, and other considerations, a target may have more than one DMPI. In this case, the single aim-point was the center of the top of the bunker.

By depressing and then releasing the TD button, Major Feest told the computer exactly where he wanted to aim. Immediately the F-117’s laser designator began to shoot a continuous, invisible, pinpoint laser beam at the DMPI. The laser energy, reflecting from the target to the aircraft, provided guidance for the bomb.

Symbology on the MFD and on the head-up display in the wind-screen cued Major Feest to fly left or right to correct for crosswinds. More symbology told him when he was in range of the target. Once he had passed the “max range” point, the bomb would have enough energy, imparted by the forward motion of the F-117, to arc into the target. F-117 pilots refer to such a shot as “putting it into the basket.”

Major Feest saw the “in range” symbology, checked his position in relation to the target, decided he agreed with the computer, and depressed the red button on the top of his control stick. The weapons bay doors snapped open. He heard a “clunk” as the huge bomb was released from its shackles in the weapons bay. The doors snapped closed.

As the weapon dropped away, its nose sensor homed on the reflected laser beam and sent signals to the guidance system, which moved vanes on the side of the bomb to control the arc of flight. Major Feest watched the IR display intently. The plunging bomb appeared at the bottom of the display just before it hit.

“The Doors Blew Off”

“I saw the bomb go in,” he said. “I saw it penetrate. Then the explosion came out the hole the bomb had made, and then the doors blew off the bunker. I knew I had knocked out the target.”

Then, Major Feest said, the reality of war hit home.

“I turned toward my next target,” he said. “I looked back, and that was the first time I had ever seen anyone shooting at me. They had started shooting as soon as my bomb went off. I thought, ‘Boy, I’m glad I am through there and don’t have to fly through that.”‘

For Major Feest, the mission wasn’t over. The airspace over western Iraq was swarming with flak. “I looked out in front of me and I was heading out to western Iraq now, and I saw what everybody at home saw on television,” he said. “It was the same as downtown Baghdad. Tracers, flashes, flak all over the place, and that was scary. I knew I had to go into that to drop my second bomb.

“It was, apparently, all barrage fire. It was probably twenty minutes later that I was going to hit my next target, a couple of hundred miles away. Looking out and seeing what was in the target area was scary. I had to go into that stuff.”

Major Feest wondered about his chances of surviving the mission. “I didn’t think I was going to make it through there because the barrage fire was so intense,” he said. “I saw SAMs in front of me and behind me. They flew right through my altitude. Luckily, they didn’t track me.

“I just concentrated on finding my target. I found it and tracked it, just like the first time. I hit it, came off, and turned back south toward Saudi Arabia. Stuff was going off above me and below me.

“Flying that first night, after seeing what we had to fly through, we all thought we would probably never make it home. Even though it was barrage fire, there was so much of it, ” just knew I’d get the ‘Golden BB,’ the one with my name on it. My wingman, flying about a minute behind me, had to hit another target. I knew he had to fly through the same sort of stuff. I didn’t think he could make it. For both of us to make it would require too much luck, I was sure, but we made it home okay. “

The opening attack by the helicopters and F-117s blew a gap in the Iraqi defenses. Nonstealthy F-15E fighters, equipped with Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night (LANTIRN) pods, streaked through the breach into western Iraq at near-supersonic speed to hit Scud missile sites.

On the leading edge, flying far ahead of the main strike force, the ten F-117s from Khamis Mushayt knocked out Saddam’s command-and- control centers and key air defense points. Most of these targets were in and around Baghdad. Flying single-ship missions, the F-117s caught the Iraqis by surprise. Minutes earlier, when Major Feest and the helicopters knocked out air defenses to the southwest, the batteries in Baghdad had filled the night sky with hot metal. Soon, however, they fell quiet again, evidence that the incoming F-117s had not been tracked.

The Blind Barrage

At H-hour, 3:00 a.m., another stealth pilot positioned his cross hairs on a telecommunications center in downtown Baghdad. This was the building that General Horner’s chief planner, General Glosson, had dubbed the “AT&T Building.” As soon as the first bomb fell in Baghdad, the Iraqi air defenses opened up, full bore. Millions of viewers around the world later saw the awesome display on television. Streams of deadly red tracers and hundreds of SAMs rose up in a blind barrage.

F-117 pilots still refuse to give specifics on targets they bombed in Baghdad. However, one F-117 pilot (who did not fly over Baghdad on the first night but who later attacked targets in the city) described a typical attack.

“Your weapons are armed and ready to go,” said Maj. Robert D. Eskridge. “You make sure your system is in the weapons delivery mode. You check it, and, thirty seconds later, you check it again.

“When you’re still several miles out, the city is an indistinct collection of infrared splotches. With a fingertip you slew your cross hairs over the general location of your target, which might be the northeast quadrant of the city. As you approach the IP, you can see the city much more distinctly on your MFD, just like a black-and-white photograph.

“Getting closer, you can see major boulevards and the river on the MFD. You know your target–let’s say it’s a command bunker–is east of the river and north of a main boulevard. You refine the cross hairs’ positioning.”

The aiming process becomes very precise, Major Eskridge said. “You are fixated on the MFD. You know stuff is coming up indiscriminately, bursting around you, but you have to ignore it and concentrate on that target. Your flight path takes you closer and closer.

“The image is now larger and very distinct. Now you can see cross streets. You check the photo strapped on your legboard. You know the bunker is, say, four streets to the north of the last major boulevard. You also know it’s three blocks east of the river. You refine the cross hairs’ position some more.

“Closer. Now you can see separate buildings. You know the bunker is in the backyard of the third building from the corner, on the north side of the street. You can see the building. You can see the backyard. You can see the bunker. You can see the bunker air shaft.

“You make one final adjustment to the cross hairs, and you depress the TD button. The laser designator starts to do its thing, which is pin-point the exact spot you want the bomb to hit.

“You fly the aircraft and follow the symbology to correct for drift. You wait for the indicators to tell you that you’re inside ‘max range.’ “Then, when you’re sure you’re within the parameters to drop the bomb in the basket, you depress the pickle button on the stick. The bomb releases. As it plunges toward the target, you make sure those cross hairs stay centered on the aimpoint, the DMIP.

“After what seems like a long time, but is really just seconds, you see the bomb flash into view, homing on that laser reflection. It penetrates exactly where you aimed it. You see smoke billow out of the hole. Probably the doors fly off the bunker.

“Then you roll into your pre-planned turn and get out of there as fast as you can. One thing is certain. Nobody has ever been able to egress a target fast enough. Nobody. Ever.”

On that first night, as the F-117s banked steeply away from their targets, Air Force F-15 Eagles and Navy F-14 Tomcats sped toward their combat air patrol positions over Iraq. There they orbited, ready to destroy Iraqi interceptors. Unseen and undetected, the lead F-117s flew swiftly beneath them, headed back to their mountaintop base in Saudi Arabia.

James P. Coyne is a veteran fighter pilot who, after his retirement from the Air Force in 1984 as a colonel, served AIR FORCE Magazine as Senior Editor and Signal Magazine as Editor in Chief This article is adapted from his forthcoming Air Force Association book, Airpower in the Gulf, which will be published by the Aerospace Education Foundation. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine was “Bombology” in the June 1990 issue.