A hard rain was falling as seven B-52Gs of the 596th Bomb Squadron, 2d Bomb Wing, their last bad fuses replaced and their radios coaxed into operation, lumbered out onto the runway of Barksdale AFB, La. With each plane groaning at a gross weight of 244 tons–the heaviest that most of the pilots had ever flown–they needed more than 9,000 feet of runway to get airborne. Once aloft, the big twenty-eight-year-old bombers, loaded with weapons never before tested in combat, turned toward the gray dawn and began their task. Time to launch point: 14.5 hours. It was the early morning of January 16, 1991, local time, and Operation Desert Storm had begun.
The fifty-seven aviators aboard the seven planes were on a historic though highly secret mission. When it was over, they would have flown more than 14,000 miles and for more than thirty-five hours without landing– the longest combat sortie ever. It would mark the premiere of a new weapon in USAF’s arsenal and redefine the practical reach of US airpower. The BUFFS were carrying a “black” weapon, developed under strict secrecy four years before. The crews called it “Secret Squirrel,” after a cartoon character, but it was officially designated the AGM-86C conventional air-launched cruise missile (CALCM).
Created in the wake of Operation Eldorado Canyon-the April 1986 raid on Libyan military facilities and terrorist training camps–the CALCM was intended to solve problems experienced in that action. The Libya raid had succeeded in retaliating for terrorist attacks on Americans in Europe and deterring further terrorist action for several years. However, it had taken time to mount, involving dozens of planes, aircraft carriers, and air refueling tankers. When it was over, an F-111 and its crew had been lost, and some errant bombs had injured or killed civilians.
Top Pentagon leaders wanted to do better. They directed the Air Force to find a way to hit targets surgically, without endangering the “shooters” and with enough precision to ensure that innocent bystanders wouldn’t be hurt.
As a start, the Air Force chose its only standoff weapon–the AGM-86B nuclear-armed cruise missile–and, within three months of the Libya raid, development of a conventional version was under way. Unprecedented Accuracy Boeing, which originally built the air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), was rehired to alter a number of the missiles for $380,000 apiece. Technicians removed the ALCMs’ W80 nuclear warheads along with the terrain contour matching guidance systems. They were replaced, respectively, with 1 ,000-pound conventional blast fragmentation warheads–with the effect of a 2,000-pound bomb–and Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite receivers, which promised unprecedented accuracy.
Secrecy was vital for several reasons. The Air Force wanted the CALCMs to be a complete surprise if they were ever employed. Also, externally, the AGM-86Cs were almost indistinguishable from their nuclear counterparts and might, if revealed, derail or at least complicate pending arms control agreements with the USSR. Lastly, only a few GPS satellites were in operation in the late 1980s and an enemy, knowing when the satellites would be in position, might also know when to expect the missiles and thus when to prepare for them.
Flight testing began in August 1987, and a year later the CALCM was declared operational. More than three dozen were put into storage igloos at Barksdale, where they waited for three years.
When Iraqi forces rolled into Kuwait on August 2, 1990, US forces in the region were few and certainly not up to the task of repelling an invasion of Saudi Arabia.
The CALCMs were unsheathed. “We stood them up on alert because we were trying to give the national command authorities some options,” recalled Lt. Gen. Buster C. Glosson, one of the Persian Gulf air war’s chief architects and targeters.
Air Force leaders advised the National Security Council that CALCMs were available to send against Iraq’s command, control, and communications nodes, its electrical grid, and other high-value targets, all within a day’s flying time.
“We wanted to give them a capability, even though admittedly it was limited,” General Glosson said, “because at that point in time there weren’t that many other options available for any action the President might have wanted to take.”
Because of the limited number of CALCMs, and the inability to follow through immediately with a wider air campaign, the weapon chiefly offered a chance to make “a political statement” rather than deal a crippling blow, General Glosson said.
Lt. Col. Jay Beard, commander of the 596th Bomb Squadron, was ordered to get ready. Access to the CALCM had been kept “to an absolute minimum,” Colonel Beard said. Only one crew–which had flight-tested the weapon–was available to operate it. More would be needed to carry out the kind of strike Strategic Air Command had offered the White House.
In just a few weeks, fifteen crews were introduced to the “Secret Squirrel,” a moniker picked because “we couldn’t say the real code name [“Senior Surprise”] out loud, and it had the same initials,” noted Maj. Steve Hess, chief weapon system officer for the unit.
On a Short String
The B-52Gs were loaded with CALCMs and fully fueled, and their crews were kept “on a very short string,” Colonel Beard said. New mission planning “tapes” with updated targets arrived from SAC headquarters at Offutt AFB, Neb., sometimes as often as three times a week.
Colonel Beard began to get calls about oddly loaded bombers on the alert pad. B-52s configured for the SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan, or nuclear war) usually carried a full load of ALCMs–six under each wing–but the CALCMs were loaded asymmetrically: three under one wing, four under the other. “I told them we were practicing [sortie] generation,” he said, but the curious kept calling. His crews were being taxed to their limits. For months, they continued to stand “Alpha,” or SIOP alert, in addition to being ready for a strike on Iraq, which Colonel Beard dubbed “Sierra” alert. “They were pulling double duty,” he said, and it was wearing them down.
Time passed, and Iraq did not press on into Saudi Arabia. Plans changed, and theater aircraft became available. “Very quickly after the beginning of Desert Shield, we had force in place” that could stop “any further Iraqi move down the road toward Riyadh,” said Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, the Air Force Chief of Staff. “In fact, by about the middle of September, in six weeks or so,” the Air Force was ready to take the offensive, he asserted. President Bush had decided to “more or less double the size of the ground component . . . so we had to wait until January” for an orchestrated ground, naval, and air attack.
Since a broad spectrum of airpower was now in the theater, the need to use the CALCMs for a first strike had subsided.
“There was some early exposure,” General McPeak admitted. “If Saddam Hussein had continued immediately in the direction of Riyadh, we could have had a problem on our hands. But . . after about the first week, our vulnerability was closed.” Any further advance on Saudi Arabia would have been stopped, and “we wouldn’t have needed the long-range kind of strike” the CALCMs offered.
The 596th remained on alert. It was getting tougher, because many of the B-52 crews were moving to forward bases in Spain and Diego Garcia, whence they would mount a heavy bombing campaign.
“We were stretched very, very thin,” Colonel Beard observed.
Filling the Gap
As General Glosson planned the air campaign, he was determined to “keep the intensity level of attacks fairly high” in the opening hours, to keep the pressure on Iraqi defenses, but a gap began to emerge in that part of the plan following the initial strikes, during which Iraq might gain a respite while coalition aircraft recovered at their bases. It was a gap that the CALCM could fill “quite nicely,” General McPeak said.
Launched at precisely the right moment, the CALCMs could avoid aircraft leaving Iraq and arrive over their targets at midmorning, destroying or damaging infrastructure targets and further degrading air defenses.
Eight targets, including powerplants at Mosul and a telephone exchange in Basra, were picked for CALCM attack. Iraq’s electrical grid and communications nodes were “soft targets,” General Glosson explained– ones not needing special penetrating bombs–and so CALCMs were ideal to use against them. Colonel Beard had received the “go” order at midnight on January 16. By 3:00 a.m. he had called all members of his hand-picked crews. For many arriving in the “vault” for their final brief, it hit home for the first time that they were really going to war, “that those planes out there were cocked and loaded with real live bombs,” Colonel Beard said.
Colonel Beard was asked for a last-minute favor: help with making out wills, which a few of the men had, for some reason, neglected to prepare.
“I had to get the base JAG [Judge Advocate General] out of bed,” he recalled. “I had a lieutenant colonel in the alert facility. . . doing wills at 3:00 in the morning.”
Colonel Beard didn’t mind, though; there were few other favors he could do for his men. To maintain a “low operational signature . . . I couldn’t bring them into the chow hall and give them a warm meal” or even extra box lunches because it would tip off the kitchen.
He had prepositioned some “meals, fit-for-flight”–low-residue, low-gas cousins of the infamous meal, ready-to-eat–aboard the aircraft, as well as five-gallon jugs of water and some “jugs of tepid coffee.” In addition, he had instructor seats removed and put in air mattresses and sleeping bags–one “upstairs” and one “downstairs.”
The normal crew of six men was augmented with one extra pilot and one extra radar navigator so some could rest en route.
After the flight briefing, Lt. Gen. Ellie G. “Buck” Shuler, Jr., 8th Air Force commander, addressed the crews, likening their mission to that of the Doolittle Raiders nearly fifty years before. “After that, we were really pumped up,” Colonel Beard said.
Over the Atlantic, the seven bombers headed toward their first aerial refueling rendezvous, somewhere near the Azores. Colonel Beard, in the lead plane, “Doom 31,” called the aircraft commanders on secure frequencies to check in. He quickly got an audio thumbs-up from five of the six other planes but not from “Doom 34.”
Silence From Doom 34
“We’re working something right now, and we’ll get back to you,”Capt. Bernie Morgan and copilot Lt. Mike Branch radioed. Patiently, Colonel Beard waited as an hour passed; still nothing. Finally, past the point where any planes could turn back, Doom 34 called to say they had shut down an engine on takeoff due to fluctuating oil pressure. Normally, this would have been an air abort, but the crew refused to be left behind.
“That’s OK,” Colonel Beard said. “They did exactly what I would have done. . . . I expected nothing less. I wanted them to be gung ho.” It had been determined beforehand that a B-52 could manage the job with just six of its eight engines.
They made their first aerial refueling with KC-135s out of Lajes Field, Azores. The next gas-up was over the Mediterranean, with KC-10s out of Moron AB, Spain.
Timing was crucial. The CALCM mission had been set back a couple of hours because General Glosson didn’t want Libya to spot the B-52s and warn Iraq. They were not to pass Libya until F-117s had hit their first targets in Baghdad.
Flying lights-out and in radio silence, the raiders crossed the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the featureless Arabian desert. Then they began to arm the missiles and started their run to the launch point.
“We thought somebody might have come up to look us over,” Major Hess said, since there were some “inconclusive” radar contacts. Though they had on-board jamming, “the opportunity to use it was very limited,” Colonel Beard reported, because it would have announced the presence of the bombers.
Efforts had been made to “deconflict” the B-52s with other allied combat and commercial air traffic. They were on the Air Tasking Order, the single plan that described what each aircraft in the theater was to do, though their ordnance was listed as “XLRBs” (extra-long-range bombs) to obscure the nature of their errand. As they reached the area of the launch coordinates-“in the far western part of Saudi Arabia, about 100 miles south of the border,” General Glosson said-it was apparent that four missiles were having software problems and could not be used. Strict orders had been given not to launch missiles unless they were completely “healthy,” so there wouldn’t be any avoidable collateral damage.
In a sequenced launch over ten minutes, spread out so the missiles wouldn’t hit each other or their launching craft, the CALCMs dropped off their rails, extended their wings, lit their engines, and headed north. The thirty-five “good” missiles of the thirty-nine they carried fanned out and headed toward targets “across Iraq,” General Glosson said, though the main objectives were in the central and southern areas. Some took a direct course to their targets, others more meandering routes, so they would all arrive simultaneously.
When the last missile was away, the bombers turned west. Nearly fifteen hours had passed since takeoff, but the mission was far from over.
Weather Snarls Everything
Heading back toward the Mediterranean, the seven bombers hit severe weather. Visibility dipped below two miles, the minimum required for a desperately needed aerial refueling. With only thirty minutes of fuel left, conditions improved enough to carry out the refueling with KC-10s out of Spain. Had the weather stayed bad, the bombers would have had to go to a divert field.
Fuel consumption kept Colonel Beard nervous. Two aircraft were flying with a pair of seized engines, sharply increasing drag, and two other planes were seeing fluctuating oil pressure readings. In addition, four of the aircraft were carrying 2,500-pound hung missiles.
As they headed for the Atlantic, some of the men tried to sleep; most had been up long before the mission even started. “It wasn’t really sleeping,” Major Hess observed. “It was more like lying down and dehydrating for two hours.” On the lower deck, cramped quarters forced an unfortunate choice: One could lie down with either one’s head or boots in the urinal.
The weather turned ugly again, this time slamming them with 130- to 140-knot headwinds, when they had planned on a worst-case headwind of ninety knots.
“I kept searching for a way to get out of the wind,” Colonel Beard said. “First, we went high, . . . then we tried low,” but there was no relief. More bad news: The wind at Lajes was so harsh that the KC-135s which were to give them their last fill-up, were grounded.
With gas running low, they radioed Moron AB for help. A flight of KC-10s dashed out and found them, and Colonel Beard asked them to “give us everything you can.” The tankers stayed with the bombers as long as they could but finally had to pull away “or they wouldn’t have made it back to Spain,” Colonel Beard said.
The heavy drag and wind continued to eat up gas. The planes with hung missiles and seized engines would need another fill-up to get back to Barksdale. Colonel Beard was determined that they would not resort to a divert field. B-52s showing up unannounced at an East Coast base, carrying what looked for all the world like unexpended nuclear missiles, would mean big trouble.
Finally, he raised the 8th Air Force command post on a secure frequency, and two “strip tankers”–kept ready for just such emergencies–were launched from Robins AFB, Ga. The BUFFS met the tankers just over the coast.
Murphy’s Law kicked in again, however, as one of the bombers developed a faulty radio, unable to communicate with the tanker. Colonel Beard, through a special plane-to- plane communication system, could talk to the other pilot and relayed messages to the tanker. At last, the two limping bombers had enough fuel to complete the trip.
It was nearly dark when they arrived. They wasted no time getting down and, once on the ground, taxied directly into their shelters, exposing their hung missiles to as few unauthorized eyes as possible. After a perfunctory debrief, they headed home for a much-needed rest.
One Year of Silence
The crews were under strict orders not to discuss the mission, which would not be officially acknowledged until exactly a year later. Only then could they discuss the mission and show off the Air Medals awarded for their historic and “unprecedented demonstration of Global Reach, Global Power.”
The raid had consumed “not all, but most” of the CALCMs on hand at the beginning of Desert Storm, Colonel Beard said. A second strike was deemed unnecessary because air superiority had been nearly achieved in Iraq and theater aircraft could attack targets with far less risk and cost.
Bomb-damage assessment was a problem throughout the war, and at first it was hard to tell if the CALCMs, scheduled to hit around 11:00 a.m., struck their targets. But “the next night, when the sunset,” the lights didn’t come on in Iraq, General Glosson said. “Either [the B-52] were very successful” at destroying powerplants, “or [the Iraqis] turned off a lot of power. . . . As we found out later, it was a combination of both.”
Later reconnaissance showed that CALCMs had hit a number of targets dead-on. One CALCM had snapped its aimpoint, a telephone pole, in half.
The raid was ultimately pegged as having achieved between eighty-five and ninety-one percent of its objectives, well above an expected eighty percent, since CALCMs had never before been volley-launched or operated under real-world conditions with GPS. One missile fell unexploded in the launch area, later to be found and destroyed. Another was never accounted for and might have been shot down.
Nearly all of the seven B-52Gs in the operation have been retired to the boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., but the CALCMs used during the war were replaced under war stock replenishment legislation. Congress has since directed the Air Force to look at upgrades to the weapon, which is expected to remain in service even beyond full phaseout of the B-52H.
General Glosson bristles at the idea, advanced by some critics, that the CALCM raid was a stunt mounted to advertise the notion of a long-range strike from the American heartland. “It’s incredible what people say in hindsight,” General Glosson said. “Had my interest been to just demonstrate a new capability, I would have done it two or three times” and not kept the program secret afterward.
“We used those weapons because . . it seemed the logical thing to do. Plain and simple, . . . it saved lives. If we had lost a half dozen A-6 [Intruders] attacking those targets, it would have been unforgivable.”
But the raid did demonstrate that US airpower is in “a period of historic change,” General McPeak observed. The Air Force is shifting from ” ‘forward presence’ of our combat forces, deployed and stationed overseas, to an era characterized by Stateside basing of our combat forces, configured for expeditionary action.”
Reflecting on the mission, he noted, “The 2d Bomb Wing is ‘present’ at Barksdale. . . and it is also ‘present,’ twenty hours later, at any spot on the globe. And everybody now knows that.” In the future, enemies will have to consider that USAF is “present everywhere at all times. . . People will have to think about presence in an entirely different way.”
John Tirpak is the senior military editor of Aerospace Daily, a Washington, D. C., defense and commercial aviation periodical. This is his first article for AIR FORCE Magazine.