Day of the Killer Scouts

Sept. 3, 2008

Late in the afternoon of February 3, 1991, a group of tired and frustrated F-16 fighter pilots landed at the Saudi air base they had called home for five months. They were members of the 388th Fighter Wing from Hill AFB, Utah, and they were returning to base after carrying out attacks on units of Iraq’s Republican Guard.

Though these pilots would later congratulate each other on weathering yet another combat sortie and tell the obligatory SAM or AAA story to those who weren’t on the mission, each knew this had not been a good day. They had missed targets and felt certain they had mistakenly bombed some empty revetments. It was not the first time the pilots had this feeling. It was, however. the last time.

At about the same moment, another group of fighter pilots gathered at Central Command Air Forces (CENTAF) Headquarters, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. This was Brig. Gen. Buster Glosson’s special tactical planning cell, a group of instructors from the USAF Fighter Weapons School at Nellis AFB, Nev. Led by Col. Clyde “Joe Bob”Phillips, these experts were deeply involved in piecing together the air campaign.

General Glosson was worried. The war was seventeen days old, and the focus of the Desert Storm air campaign had shifted to destruction of the Republican Guard. Intelligence reports showed that attrition of Republican Guard units was less than expected. Because the F-16 wings under his command were flying the bulk of the sorties against the Guard, General Glosson concluded he had to improve the force’s overall effectiveness.

The F- 16 pilots knew that, on each anti-Republican Guard mission, they had been plagued by a common set of problems. Thick cloud decks kept pilots from seeing the target area until they actually rolled down the chute. Primary targets looked exactly like numerous other armored formations surrounding them. The sheer volume of sorties sent to the area meant F-16 pilots could not loiter and positively identify their targets.

Compounding the problems was the impossibility of accurate bomb-damage assessment (BDA). By the time smoke from the bombing had cleared sufficiently to permit pilots to see the targets, they were back above the clouds or busy evading enemy surface defenses. Not only were they unsure they had found the “right” group of armored vehicles but they also did not know if they had hit their targets.

General Glosson understood that the simplest way to reduce or eliminate this problem would be to lift the minimum altitude restriction established before the war began. Such a move would permit the pilots to get closer to their targets, but it inevitably would produce higher losses. General Glosson was not prepared to pay this price. Searching for an alternative, he turned the problem over to Colonel Phillips.

Looking to History

Colonel Phillips looked to recent history for solutions. He recalled that Pacific Air Forces units had run into similar problems during the Vietnam War and that in 1966 PACAF had begun to use high-performance aircraft in the forward air controller (FAC) role. These aircraft, called “Fast FACs,” provided aerial surveillance and controlled air strikes in areas of North Vietnam where significant surface-to-air defenses might be encountered.

The Fast FACs solved many of the same types of problems bedeviling the F- 16s twenty-five years later in the Persian Gulf War. Colonel Phillips argued that the same general concept might work even better in the desert. He suggested to General Glosson that specific fighters be used to locate targets and control attacks on Republican Guard units in the Kuwait theater of operations (KTO). He noted that the fighters could also provide accurate BDA following attacks by the strike aircraft.

The group had to face an immediate question: Which fighter would assume the Fast FAC role? The need to operate deep in enemy airspace for long stretches led Colonel Phillips’s group to recommend testing the concept with the fast, maneuverable F-16. The F- 16’s self-defense capability, navigation system, and multipurpose radar all weighed heavily in their recommendation.

General Glosson liked the idea. He asked Colonel Phillips and his Nellis group to develop a tactical concept of operations. The General then turned his attention to determining which F-16 unit in the Gulf region to select for the job.

Almost immediately, a series of fortuitous events helped shape the project and determine its success. Shortly after he met with Colonel Phillips, General Glosson received a message from the 388th Fighter Wing. That message was the end product of the mission debriefing after the frustrating F-16 raids of February 3. Officers of the 388th FW suggested that “an airborne platform be stationed in the second echelon area to validate Air Tasking Order [ATO] targets and find new targets if required.”

In other words, they wanted some Fast FACs.

General Glosson was well aware that the 388th’s Block 40 F-16Cs carried Global Positioning System equipment, the most accurate navigational system found on any F-16s in-theater. He called the wing to see if it had any seasoned pilots with prior experience in the close air support mission.

The selection came through a process of elimination. Two of the wing’s three fighter squadrons–the 421st FS and the 69th FS–expected to be heavily tasked for night operations and were not available. The question was referred to the 4th FS. The squadron, it turned out, had sixteen pilots with FAC experience, A-10 close air support experience, or both.

Identical Concepts

General Glosson asked the 388th FW’s officers how the mission should be executed. The wing’s proposal, developed independently, proved almost identical to the concept developed by Colonel Phillips’s tacticians.

All that remained was to give the mission a name. General Glosson, eager to prevent confusion with the mission of the A-10 (and OA-10) FACs, suggested the term “Scout.” Colonel Phillips noted that the F-16s had no rockets and would have to mark targets with 500-pound bombs; thus, he observed, “killer scout”might be a more appropriate description. The name was not poetic, but it stuck, and the Killer Scouts were born.

Late on February 3, Lt. Gen. Charles A. Homer, the CENTAF commander, gave the project his go-ahead. General Glosson told the 388th FW and the 4th FS that their training would begin the next morning over southern Iraq.

The tactical concept was simple. The Killer Scouts would validate targets in the ATO that had been assigned to the F- 16s and then find other lucrative targets in the area. They would provide indirect control, target area deconfliction, threat information, and updated target coordinates and descriptions to inbound fighters. If the ATO target was a good one, the Killer Scouts would clear the assigned fighters to attack under flight lead control. If it was not valid, the Killer Scouts would direct fighters to one of the backup targets.

Killer Scouts were responsible for target identification and for coordination with E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and EC-130 Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center aircraft. They had direct communication with and control of all fighters tasked into their assigned area.

Target areas were assigned according to the AT0 and in harmony with the Central Command kill box grid. Each kill box had an area of 900 square nautical miles. These kill boxes were overlaid on a map of Kuwait and southern Iraq. The system greatly simplified fighter deconfliction and allowed planners to focus firepower where it was needed most.

In this regard, A-10 FACs handled all normal close air support operations behind the Army’s fire support coordination line (FSCL). The F-16 Killer Scouts would control all F-16 strikes beyond the FSCL, an area whose targets usually are struck by planes flying on uncontrolled battlefield air interdiction missions. In the new concept, AWACS aircraft would provide threat advisories and direct inbound fighters to Killer Scout frequencies. They would also provide information on any tanker, Wild Weasel, or air-superiority aircraft that might be needed during the mission.

Call Sign “Pointer”

Wing officers selected eight F-16 pilots to fly first-day Killer Scout missions. They walked out the door with a boatload of maps, a list of all the fighters and targets assigned to them, and some significant doubts about orbiting over the Republican Guard for an hour at a time. Their new call sign-“Pointer’-reflected their primary task: pointing ground-attack fighters to the best targets.

The first two-ship Killer Scout formation arrived in the target area at sunrise on February 4. For the next eight hours, the four Killer Scout elements rotated between their kill boxes and a dedicated refueling track over the Persian Gulf.

The F-16 pilots were astounded to see how much Iraqi weaponry was burrowed into the desert. They discovered that some units targeted by that day’s ATO had been moved, leaving only empty revetments like those the pilots were sure they had bombed the previous day. The Killer Scouts found new targets–assembly areas, ammunition storage bunkers, trans-shipment points, artillery, and communication sites–and logged them all.

When the fighters started checking in, things got busy in a hurry. In one two-hour period, 120 coalition fighters hit targets under Killer Scout control. During breaks in the fighter flow, the Killer Scouts returned to targets that had been hit to assess damage and determine whether more attacks were warranted. For the first time, accurate, large-scale BDA was possible. Mission reports from virtually every unit that worked with the Killer Scouts that day suggested expanding the operation.

The success on day one was repeated on days two and three. Updates from the 388th Fighter Wing helped General Glosson’s staff make minor adjustments to the communications plan, kill box assignments, and fighter flow into the area.

F-16 Killer Scouts began to work four to six kill boxes at a time, covering an area of 5,400 square nautical miles. They used overlapping coverage of two-ship formations to man those target areas from sunrise to sunset. The original concept required only eight pilots to serve as Killer Scouts. The initial sorties were so successful, however, that CENTAF eventually tasked the 4th Fighter Squadron to cover three of these target areas simultaneously, a job that required thirty-two Killer Scout sorties per day.

All of the pilots of the 4th FS were checked out by flying a mission on the wing of a previously “qualified” flight lead. By the last three weeks of the war, ninety-nine percent of the squadron’s sorties were dedicated to the Killer Scout mission.

Hours Over Target

The typical Killer Scout mission lasted five and a half hours. It included three one-hour time-on-target blocks and four in-flight refuelings, which consumed the other two and a half hours. After prestrike refueling, a Killer Scout flight proceeded to an assigned kill box and established communication with the Killer Scout flight already on the scene. After receiving target and threat updates, the oncoming Killer Scouts assumed control of the area, and the others departed. Outgoing Killer Scout flight leads passed an in-flight report and BDA data to airborne command-and-control aircraft and any follow-on Killer Scouts.

Tactics matured along with the mission. As Killer Scout flight leads searched for targets and controlled strike aircraft, wingmen flew a fluid tactical formation, searched for threats, and backed up the flight lead on the radio. Wingmen routinely directed defensive maneuvers against previously unseen threats, called out conflicting friendly traffic, and pointed out new targets the flight leads had overlooked. Most flight leads are quick to note instances in which a wingman was all that stood between them and death or capture.

Killer Scouts normally worked at altitudes of 15,000 to 30,000 feet, descending only to investigate potential targets or pinpoint threat locations. They attacked targets in a shooter-cover formation: One aircraft rolled in from high altitude and dropped bombs from a dive-bomb pass of twenty to forty-five degrees, while the second aircraft stayed high and looked for threats during the attack and recovery. Generally, flight leads carried six 500-pound bombs and wingmen a cluster munition. This mix gave Killer Scout flights the ability to suppress threats, mark targets, or destroy targets.

The Killer Scouts learned quickly that they could not both do their job avoid Iraqi surface-to-air defense envelopes. Their “avoid-the-threat” concept rapidly evolved into a “pound-the-threat” approach. Any surface-to-air threat system operating in a Killer Scout area automatically became the primary target.

Maj. (now Lt. Col.) J. D. Collins demonstrated a typical Killer Scout response one day after he observed an Iraqi SA-2 SAM launched unsuccessfully at B-52s flying over his area. Reaching the SAM site moments later, Major Collins saw a single launcher being pushed back into a large tin shed and a radar van parked nearby. He and his wingman bombed the site. The next three flights of fighters to check in got his instructions to hit the same target, just to drive home the point.

The tactic seemed to work. After the first three days of Killer Scout operations, Iraq’s daytime SAM launches in the KTO virtually ceased. There was a marked decline in AAA fire. When enemy SAM radars were extremely active in a particular kill box, Killer Scouts would call AWACS and ask to make contact with an F-4G Wild Weasel flight. After briefing the responding F-4G flight, the Killer Scouts would move on.

Every Killer Scout pilot learned that the Iraqis were adept at disguising targets and using decoys. Sun angles made it difficult to tell what was parked inside a partially shaded revetment. As the air campaign moved into its latter stages, the Republican Guard units buried themselves deeper and deeper into the desert sand. It was not always possible to identify and assess targets with the naked eye. At this point, the most critical piece of Killer Scout equipment became the binoculars carried on every sortie. Only by using them could the Scouts tell which revetments contained actual targets and which contained decoys.

Bombing By Radar

When bad weather forced the F-16 Killer Scouts to operate above a low cloud deck, they used the radar’s ground moving target mode to locate groups of moving vehicles. Inbound fighters with similar radar capability could identify the targets at the coordinates provided by the Killer Scouts and deliver radar bombs from medium altitude. The same tactic was used in the ground war, when retreating Iraqi forces attempted to hide under dense smoke blowing in from Kuwait.

With the kickoff of the ground campaign, the Killer Scouts helped ensure deconfliction between Army and Air Force assets. The Army’s speed of movement during the ground assault meant that forward units could move up to twenty miles in a single hour. Fighters launched from their bases an hour earlier could be in danger of bombing friendly units now occupying their assigned target areas. The Killer Scouts, along with the A-10 FACs and AWACS, had to stay aware of the location of friendly maneuver units. If there was any doubt, fighters could not drop their bombs. Direct radio communications with ground units made the job much easier and allowed the Killer Scouts to mass aerial firepower where the ground commander needed it most. It also gave the ground commander a readily available source of real-time intelligence along his line of advance.

With the ground campaign came more bad weather. Because allied ground troops were now at risk, Killer Scouts were forced to operate below low- to medium-altitude clouds. For the first time, the threat of Iraqi low-altitude SAMs and AAA became unavoidable. SAM launches increased dramatically, and Killer Scout pilots paid more and more attention to suppressing AAA sites before they cleared fighters into the area.

The Killer Scout operation was a small piece of a very large and complex campaign. Perhaps the greatest Killer Scout contribution was that their operations made it impossible for Republican Guard units to move during daylight hours. When they tried to move at night, allied night fighters, bombers, and special operations aircraft detected them easily and attacked relentlessly.

General Glosson asserted that the Killer Scouts “increased the effectiveness of the F- 16 force . . three- or fourfold.” Gen. John Michael Loh directed the staff of Tactical Air Command (now Air Combat Command) to formalize the mission and document the tactics that made it successful. Now all F- 16 squadrons have six fully trained Killer Scout flight leads, and every squadron wingman sees the mission during initial mission-qualification training.

Lt. Col. Mark A. Welsh, an F- 16 pilot, was one of the first Killer Scouts, flying twenty-seven missions in the Persian Gulf War. He is a student at the National Defense University in Washington, D. C. Portions of this article were adapted from a briefing paper prepared by the author and Capt. Philip A. Oppenheimer, who served as a flight commander in the 4th Fighter Squadron during Operation Desert Storm and was also one of the original Killer Scouts.