In the early morning hours of January 17, 1991, at bases across Saudi Arabia and on board aircraft carriers, hundreds of aircrews got final combat briefings and headed out to their planes. By that time, however, twenty B-52s already had been airborne for hours and were bearing down on Iraqi targets.
One group of thirteen B-52G bombers, flying northward high above the southern Arabian peninsula, refueled from KC-10 tankers for the second time that night. Soon after topping off, the huge planes descended to begin preparation for the B-52’s first-ever low-level combat missions. Meanwhile, a second group of seven B-52s, launched from Barksdale AFB, La., and flying eastward over the Mediterranean, neared the war theater. Crews prepared dozens of AGM-86C conventional cruise missiles.
The crews of the first group of bombers got much busier quickly. At 3:00 a.m., F-117 Stealth fighters struck vital targets in Baghdad. One hour later, two- and three-plane flights of B-52s were racing across southern Iraq en route to their targets. To stay below Iraqi radar coverage on that moonless night, the bombers barreled along at altitudes just a few hundred feet above the desert floor. The lumbering bombers were guided by terrain-avoidance radar. Their pilots peered into the darkness through night vision goggles (NVGs).
On one plane, the pilot watched his two wingmen turn away from each other and depart as the flight split up to attack a key target from different directions. In the offense compartment below the cockpit, the navigator and radar nav–or bombardier–completed their final rundown of items on the checklist.
This done, the offensive team returned to monitor the plane’s altitude closely. Behind the pilots, the electronic warfare officer (EWO) and gunner intently watched their equipment, waiting for any indication of the presence of an unexpected radar threat or a hostile fighter.
The EWO announced, “No radars up.”
Don’t Be Late . . . or Early
The huge bomber turned toward the night’s target: an Iraqi air base with hardened concrete fighter shelters, now only twenty miles distant. The pilot pushed up the speed to make sure that the bomber would arrive at exactly the planned time. To be off by a few seconds, early or late, could mean a collision with another B-52. The night’s targets were among the most important of the war. Hundreds of allied aircraft depended on these bases’ being put out of business on the first night of action.
Four miles ahead, the B-52 crew members saw a spectacular eruption of antiaircraft artillery into the darkness. Then a ground-based spotlight lit up the lead bomber as he released his load of CBU-89 Gator mines across the base’s maintenance areas. Thousands of minelets fell past the curtain of antiaircraft fire. The number two aircraft dropped down to avoid early detection.
“Twenty seconds, climb!” That was the nav’s cue for the pilot to climb another hundred feet so that the falling bombs could nose over enough to stick into the ground instead of bouncing off into the desert.
Tracers and spotlights lit the way. The pilots pushed up their NVGs. “Target in sight,” answered the pilot, making one final steering correction.
The navigation computer opened the bomb bay doors and dropped the weapons into the darkness.
Three dozen 1,000-pound bombs plunged into the taxiways linking the aircraft shelters to the runway. Seconds later, the formation’s third B-52 dropped an identical load on the taxiways at the runway’s far end.
The attack was over in less than a minute. Iraqi troops on the ground had just a few moments to wonder what had happened when the first of seventy-two delayed-action bombs exploded, shattering a taxiway and burying the others with sand and concrete.
Throughout southern Iraq, the explosions of minelets and cratering bombs continued for several hours. The explosions at first paralyzed and then slowly destroyed four airfields and an improvised highway landing strip.
Flying Over Deserts
In August 1990, Strategic Air Command’s 42d Bomb Wing from Loring AFB, Me., was preparing to return home from a Green Flag exercise at Nellis AFB, Nev., when news came of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Our last day of sneaking across Nevada’s deserts to bomb simulated airfields was spent wondering how soon we might be flying over deserts again.
It didn’t take long to find out. With only three days’ notice, the Loring B-52s began deploying, nonstop, to our forward operating location (FOL) at a site near the Middle East. Seven fully armed B-52s took off on August 12, carrying full loads of M117R iron bombs, bullets, chaff, and flares so that they could be turned quickly after their arrival in the theater.
Our route took us across the Atlantic, across the Mediterranean, down the Red Sea, and through Saudi Arabian airspace. Eventually we ended up at the wartime FOL after a twenty-hour flight. We refueled three times from KC-10s on the way, taking on about seventy tons of fuel each time. Everyone was wide awake passing Libya. We didn’t know how Libya would react to seeing all the B-52s drive past.
Over the next three days, the FOL saw the arrival of additional bombers and crews from Loring AFB; Castle AFB, Calif.; Griffiss AFB, N. Y.; and Barksdale AFB, La. KC-135R and KC-10 tankers poured in from several active-duty units and from the Air National Guard. By August 16, two weeks after the Iraqi attack, the 4300th Provisional Bomb Wing had been formed. Twenty fully armed B-52s and their crews were on alert, ready for combat.
We quickly overwhelmed the facilities of our host base. Flooding the premises, virtually overnight, were more than 3,000 maintenance troops, flyers, planners, security police, and the like. The visitors’ quarters filled up instantly, and a huge tent city was erected across the street from the B-52 parking ramp.
Since we were among the first bomber-attack assets in the theater, we were given some unexpected taskings in case of an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia. For example, alert crews were tasked, in the event of an attack, to rush across the invaded area at low altitude, seeking out and bombing enemy forces before egressing over the Persian Gulf. After three weeks, enough A-10s and F-16s had arrived to take over that duty. We were given more traditional fixed targets within Iraq against which we were to plan our attacks.
Elements of the new provisional bomb squadron pulled together and conducted intensive studies of Iraqi air defenses and our taskings. The planners standardized the procedures for aircrews sent from different bases. Flyers with little exposure to the latest B-52 modifications were brought up to speed.
The wing formed a Consolidated Aircraft Maintenance Squadron (CAMS), which integrated all maintenance and munitions functions into one giant organization. The CAMS had to conduct its own training program, since it was getting technicians from many bomber bases and many of them had never dealt with B-52G systems or conventional weapons.
The Nuclear Stigma
When the immediate threat of war seemed to recede in the early fall of 1990, the aircrews began to fly training missions to stay proficient. We removed the bombs from some of the planes and began to plan low-level training sorties over Saudi Arabia. These sorties mirrored some of our actual mission profiles.
The B-52s, which for thirty-eight years had been principally in the business of strategic attack, carried a kind of nuclear stigma. It was one reason that the squadron was based at a secluded naval base where the bombers would not offend local sensitivities. Even though we were there with a conventional mission, the Saudi Arabian government was hesitant to allow us to train over their deserts.
The Saudis eventually agreed, and when the low-level training sorties started, the kingdom’s deserts provided much more realistic training than is available in peacetime. In some cases, we would fly over terrain so dark that our NVGs and the plane’s low-light camera proved nearly useless. The pilots gained confidence using the terrain-avoidance radar display while flying only a few hundred feet above the sand.
Downstairs, the navigator and radar navigator would watch the radar altimeter as the hot desert rocks zipped past in the forward-looking infrared display. With four sets of eyes watching the terrain, the B-52s were able to train safely at low altitude in almost any visibility.
Gunners practiced their duties against US and British fighters, which would pursue us as we flew at low levels. The gunners would “shoot” at opponents while directing maneuvers designed to spoil their intercepts. While flying over our own base, the EWOs could practice jamming a “threat” emitter shipped out especially for that use.
Back within the local SAC operations building, the operations planning team (OPT) was in session for up to twenty-four hours a day. The OPT integrated mission planners, intelligence staff, and targeteers into a single team that constantly trained to produce mission packages. Before the war started, hundreds of missions were built in response to various defensive taskings. Eventually, an offensive Air Tasking Order began to take shape. The OPT began work on targets for the first nights.
One spirited debate among mission planners was whether to begin the B-52s’ war by bombing from high or low altitude. Those arguing for high level wanted to avoid the intense AAA fire that we would encounter low, while those voting for low-level bombing wanted to avoid the surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and enemy fighters that might survive the coalition’s first attack. In the end, the planners decided to sneak in below radar cover for the first few nights and then go to high bombing when it was safer.
In mid-December, the crews were briefed on first-night targets. We spent the next month memorizing the targets, routes, and mission timing. Crews discussed coordination with wingmen, had “chair-fly” sessions to discuss what could go wrong, and worked to personalize their charts.
Annotations such as “IFF on here!” were common. The capability of the coalition’s own air defenses was one of our biggest fears.
In one study session, an OPT chief laid out thirty-one cards, representing the thirty-one bombers and tankers our base was to launch on night one. Each card bore a tail number and load information. Crew members began to laugh watching the team chief try to move around this huge mass of symbolic airplanes. We thought that, if we could get through taxi, takeoff, and refueling without crashing into each other, the mission would be a snap.
Two Hours Before Bus Time
We had no idea when the war would start. The arrival one day of six additional KC-10s and the loading of certain weapons on the planes indicated that the war could begin soon, but crews did not find out when until only two hours before our bus time.
Most of us had been up all day, so adrenaline was powering the crowd as we arrived at SAC Ops that evening. We picked up our helmets, guns, nerve gas antidote kits, and vests. We already knew the mission, so the OPT briefing covered last-minute changes in the radio schedule and a quick review of how rescue forces would identify us if we were downed behind enemy lines. Then it was out to the ramp to conduct preflight inspections of weapons, start engines, and launch.
At 8:09 p.m. Baghdad time, January 16, about the same time that those seven Barksdale B-52s were overflying the Strait of Gibraltar and starting the long trip over the Mediterranean, the first B-52s from our base taxied out and began to take off. As we did so, hundreds of maintenance troops and spectators lined the taxiways, giving us a rousing send-off.
Eighteen bombers and thirteen tankers became airborne without a single late takeoff or abort. Soon the “air spares” peeled off and returned to base, leaving thirteen B-52s to go on toward the Iraqi targets. Twelve of the thirteen B-52s were able to reach their targets successfully. (A malfunction turned one around at the Iraqi border.)
Within hours of the opening blows, B-52s were operating out of two more bases. Bombers from Barksdale AFB and from the 801st Provisional Bomb Wing flew out of Moron AB, Spain. B-52s from Wurtsmith AFB, Mich., Castle AFB, Calif., and the 1708th PBW deployed to an allied airfield on the Arabian peninsula.
Two weeks later, aircraft from Eaker AFB, Ark., formed the 806th PBW and flew missions out of RAF Fairford, UK. Bombers and crew members from every B-52G base participated in the war, flying more than seventy aircraft, and B-52H crews were soon sent into the theater to supplement the G-model crews.
Night Missions, Brute Force
B-52 interdiction targets included ammunition factories, storage areas, fuel depots, industrial sites, and air bases, among others. Most of the missions were flown at night, with the B-52s dropping bombs from 32,000 to 37,000 feet. The most common weapon for this was the M117, a 750-pound iron bomb. Depending on aircraft configuration, a B-52 can carry either forty-five or fifty-one of these weapons.
About half of all the bombs dropped by B-52s were M117s. From high altitude, our bombs usually hit within a few hundred feet of the target. That, of course, was no match for the accuracy of a laser-guided bomb, but it was ideal for the large area targets we were sent to destroy.
B-52s were active in the campaign to suppress Iraq’s defenses. Because the bomber’s arsenal does not include antiradar missiles, we used the brute-force approach. During one night early in the war, nine B-52s conducted near-simultaneous cluster-bomb attacks against three major Iraqi radar facilities defending the western approaches to Baghdad. The explosions from 88,000 orange-sized bomblets shredded and silenced each site.
On another occasion, a dozen B-52s hit a major ammunition factory twenty miles south of Baghdad. My crew was fifth in a group of six bombers and could see the clouds below and the icy vapor trails of the other planes. The contrails and clouds all flickered brightly for three seconds each time another sixteen-ton load of bombs hit the target. Photos later showed the plant had been replaced by a large black smear in the desert.
The B-52s enjoyed great success directing their firepower against the Iraqi Republican Guard and Iraqi Army in the field. These missions were flown around the clock to deny enemy troops any rest. When a flight of two or three B-52s was still an hour or so distant, reconnaissance would locate a suitable target in Kuwait or Iraq and transmit its coordinates to an E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft. The AWACS plane would forward the information to the bomber via coded message.
When we got such data, we entered them into our navigation computer and headed toward the target. When we were a few minutes out, we would refine the aim with either high-resolution ground-mapping radar or an infrared camera.
The B-52s’ battlefield air interdiction (BAI) targets were usually armor or artillery units, but we often bombed supply facilities and troop concentrations. B-52s also joined the “great Scud hunt,” working alongside the F-15E to track down the missile launchers and destroy them with CBU-87 antitank cluster bombs.
The weapons used most often against tanks and artillery were the M117, its smaller cousin the 500-pound Mk. 82, and the CBU-87. For softer targets, we used the CBU-58 and CBU-52 cluster bombs–some of the B-52’s deadliest conventional weapons. As the ground war approached, these were used with devastating effect to thin out Iraqi troop strength.
Maintenance and munitions troops who kept the planes flying and the bombs flowing worked under extreme weather conditions, sometimes sixteen hours a day, for seven months. Their hard work paid off with a mission capable rate far above peacetime rates.
For the B-52s flying deep into Iraq, the F-4G Wild Weasel was a great teammate. By scaring the Iraqi radars into silence with their antiradiation missiles, they rendered the B-52 nearly invisible, vastly increasing the areas in which we could operate.
Also required was massive air refueling support. The KC-10s and KC-135Rs provided immense offloads. The 4300th PBW’s tankers alone provided more than 27,000 tons of fuel to our bombers.
Most of the B-52s had been modified with the Global Positioning System. Its superaccurate navigation data kept our systems reliable as we crossed Iraq with our radars off, and the final radar aiming on our bomb runs needed little or no adjustment by the bombardier.
Staying in Formation
Night vision goggles were useful. The desert landscape was often too dark even for the NVGs, so our pilots found other uses for them. We could stay in formation at night by the faint glow of our wingman’s engines, and pilots could see AAA sites or their tracers early enough to steer clear of them.
No B-52s were lost in combat, although there were some close calls. One bomber was struck at low altitude by an unidentified missile. It landed safely despite serious damage to its tail and empennage. One other bomber was hit from below during a high bomb run and returned to base safely, despite damage to some systems. AAA damage was surprisingly light, given the intense fire that B-52s flew through in the first three nights of low-level bombing.
The 4300th PBW flew 248 bombing missions against 141 BAI targets during the war. Theater-wide, B-52s hit 440 Iraqi Army and Republican Guard units with more than a thousand loads of bombs, each averaging sixteen to eighteen tons. Groups of three B-52s, dropping their loads from high altitude, could strike with total surprise in any weather, day or night. Iron bombs would shake the earth and light the sky for miles around.
The psychological impact was confirmed by many of the Iraqi soldiers who deserted during the air campaign. When the ground war began, Iraqi soldiers began to surrender en masse. They had seen enough of us.
Capt. Doug Fries is a B-52G radar navigator based at Loring AFB, Me. During the Persian Gulf War, he deployed overseas for seven months, logging 158 combat hours during ten missions.