At ten seconds before 2:38 in a moonless sky over Iraq, eight US AH-64 Apache helicopters zeroed in on their targets. On their forward-looking infrared screens appeared the images of two Iraqi radar sites just north of Saudi Arabia, placed there to detect intruding fighters. They were linked to four Iraqi fighter bases and to the Intelligence Operations Center in Baghdad.
The unseen Apaches hovered low, four miles south of the radars. At the controls of Number 976, 1st Lt. Tom Drew broke radio silence. “Party in ten,” he said. On cue, ten seconds later, the helicopters unleashed a salvo of laser-guided Hellfire missiles. “This one’s for you, Saddam ,” muttered CW03 Dave Jones, the pilot of another Apache.
The shots, fired in the predawn hours of January 17, 1991, marked the start of Operation Desert Storm and were among the most critical of the war, blinding Iraq’s early warning net at a key moment. US Central Command relied entirely on the Apaches and USAF special operations helicopters to do the job. “If something had happened and we didn’t do 100 percent [destruction],” said one gunner, CW04 Lou Hall, “a lot of people were going to get hurt.”
The Apaches did achieve 100 percent destruction, or close to it. Eyewitnesses report that, when the Hellfires hit the targets, the radar bases evaporated in clouds of smoke and flame. In the four and a half minutes it took to complete the task, the Apaches had, in the words of Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, “plucked out the eyes” of Iraq’s Soviet-supplied air defenses.
Nearly 100 allied planes, arriving twenty-two minutes after the raid, roared through the gaping hole in Iraq’s network and raced north to strike critical, first-night targets. Air Force F-117s, relying on their stealthiness, already had penetrated Iraqi airspace and were nearing Baghdad by the time the Apaches fired, but destruction of the early warning sites greatly eased the task of nonstealthy allied planes sent into action that night.
Task Force Normandy
Such was the contribution of Task Force Normandy, handpicked crews of Army Apaches and Air Force MH-53J Pave Low electronic warfare helicopters. The story of how Task Force Normandy planned and executed the raid has been one of the war’s closely guarded secrets. On-the-record interviews with Col. Dick Cody, the leader of Task Force Normandy, produce a portrait of a meticulously planned, unusually error-free use of helicopters in defense suppression.
The eight Apaches swooped on their targets like stealth fighters, using tactics and techniques honed in several months of intensive classified training. Contrary to reports that the raid was a last-minute, seat-of- the-pants caper dreamed up by General Schwarzkopf and his top commanders, planning and training began within weeks of Iraq’s August 2, 1990, invasion of Kuwait.
Colonel Cody commanded the 1 st Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, based at Fort Campbell, Ky. The battalion landed in Saudi Arabia on August 17, 1990, as the lead element of the division. It took seven C-5Bs and seventeen C-141 s to carry its troops and equipment to Dhahran. Three days later, the battalion moved to a new site, loaded out its aircraft, and began its patrols of the Saudi-Iraqi border.
When it came to readiness, Colonel Cody and his men stood out, earning a reputation for being the best prepared of fourteen Apache units deployed to the Gulf. During its first month in the desert, Colonel Cody’s unit turned in a startling fully mission capable rate of ninety-four percent. When CENTCOM began to look for a high-quality unit, the 1st Battalion was a natural choice.
“At that time,” reports Colonel Cody, “they [CENTCOM planners] had been doing some studies on [Iraq’s] early warning and ground-control intercept sites that overlapped and covered the entire Kuwaiti and Iraqi border. They were studying and making analyses of where to create a corridor.”
The planners developed three major options for the defense suppression task. One called for using special operations forces (SOFs) to hit the radar sites with missiles. The second envisioned SOFs near the sites using handheld laser designators to direct Apaches to the targets. The third option centered on using Air Force fighter aircraft to destroy the targets.
At least two of the alternatives–the ones involving SOF units–raised grave danger that the operation might be detected and compromised before the allies could fire a shot.
The planners knew that conventional aircraft or cruise missiles would do the job. Yet without a pair of human eyes on the scene to assess the extent of the damage, the allies would have no way of knowing whether the targets were truly dead.
Helicopter pilots, however, would be able to see for themselves how much damage had been done to these facilities. They could engage the targets repeatedly until they were sure of complete success. “This place was out in the middle of the desert, and we were working on intelligence that was four days old,” says Colonel Cody. “They could have sneaked another van in there or moved things around.”
It was a persuasive argument. By September 25, 1990, with CENTCOM planners having adopted, narrowed, and refined the plan, Colonel Cody was summoned to an office at King Fahd International Airport, headquarters for Commander of US Special Operations Command Central Col. Jessie Johnson.
Colonel Johnson outlined a joint force of Army and Air Force helicopters–Apaches and Pave Lows–that would sneak into Iraq to knock out radar and ground-control interception sites. “If we can get it conceptually approved,” Colonel Johnson asked, “do you think you can do that?”
“Yeah,” said the Apache pilot.
One Hundred Percent
Colonel Johnson came to the point. “If we get the go-ahead even to train for this,” said he, “it will be based on you saying you can take it out 100 percent.” It would not be the last time Colonel Cody would be asked to make that guarantee. “That’s not a problem,” he said.
Colonel Cody was ordered to start training for the operation. He would work with Col. Rich Comer, commander of USAF’s 20th Special Operations Squadron, part of the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Fla.
Colonel Cody recalls that the age of the men chosen for the mission averaged twenty-six years. He had twenty-four crews in the battalion. “I picked eight to go,” he says, “but any one of the twenty-four could have done the mission.”
In order to preserve the covert nature of the Normandy training and not raise suspicions, Colonel Cody kept command of the rest of his battalion. “I never relinquished my division mission with the 101st or the covering forces.”
Not even the chosen crew members knew why, or for what mission, they were training. They knew they were practicing for a helicopter-borne, special operations raid, but they did not know that it would start the war. They did not know it would be in Iraq. They did not know the precise targets or the timing.
Colonel Cody goes on, “I selected crews. I did not select individuals. I took guys who had been flying together as combat crews the whole time. I did not select my most experienced individuals and pool them all together. I actually had some twenty-two-year-olds and twenty-three-year-olds in the front seats out there.”
Joining forces with the Pave Lows was not a problem, says Colonel Cody. Flying night after night, the units practiced infiltrating denied airspace and attacking simulated radar sites simultaneously. They did six live-fire exercises, evaluating the Apaches’ weapon systems, which include not only the Hellfires but also 2.75 inch rockets and a 30- mm chain gun.
Timing was everything. “It would do no good to hit one radar site and, two minutes later, to hit another one,” says Colonel Cody. “We had to do it in such a way that we took down critical elements of those radar sites simultaneously so that Baghdad was not alerted to get [its] MiG-29s and ground-control intercept systems up.”
The crews trained 700 miles away from the attack area. “All our training was done in a sandbox, so to speak, where we were located,” says Colonel Cody. “We never practiced the route because of the sensitivity of the mission. “All their systems were up during this time. All their intelligence-gathering networks were up–and everything else. So this was all done under the umbrella of joint training, just going out and practicing things.”
They learned some valuable lessons. “We practiced such things as what type of formation flights we wanted to fly,” says the commander. “How low we wanted to fly. How fast we wanted to fly. All of this was done with no [voice communications]. What light signals [would emanate] from the Pave Lows. What techniques to indicate we’re turning, we’re not going to turn.”
No Detailed Maps
One big problem was the dearth of maps. The ones that were available did not have much fine detail and were useless for pinpointing location. Enter the Pave Lows, equipped with the state-of-the-art Global Positioning System (GPS) for precise navigation. Flying as escorts to a predetermined point, the Pave Lows could fix the position within eight grid points–about ten meters. The Apache systems could fix only within 100 meters.
“That was the main reason we had the Pave Lows with us, so they could use the GPS to mark our actual spot at the release point prior to reaching the target area,” said Colonel Cody. “They [the SOF helicopters] would drop chem lights on the desert floor to mark the position. We then plugged that into our fire-control computers on each of the Apaches. We were updating over that point. That eliminated any built-up error in the Apaches’ Doppler system and fire-control system.
“It gave our target acquisition designation system extreme accuracy so we could lock onto the targets at twelve to fifteen kilometers away. That was very important as we moved forward because we knew that, from about twenty and fifteen clicks, . . . they would pick us up.” The attackers, he added, wanted to make sure they had their acquisition systems “already locked on to the targets as we got inside and they started picking us up.”
In practice sessions, the Pave Lows would position the Apaches and break off to return to the prearranged site. Meanwhile, said Colonel Cody, “we would go on in and practice our attack tactics, how we would sequentially dismember and destroy these sites by sectoring our fire, how we would lay for each other if we had to, how we would fight if one guy got shot down, all the permutations and combinations of ‘what if?’
“We practiced those battle drills in the engagement area and then we practiced coming out, linking up with the Pave Lows at the predetermined point and crossing a simulated border and then moving on to our other mission.” These maneuvers were carried out not just at low level but at nap-of-the-Earth altitude.
From the first, the Pave Low’s high technology helped dramatically. “We do it well in the Army,” Colonel Cody says, “but the Pave Lows have a [precision with] which they are able to hit their checkpoints right on the money. Their terrain-following radar helped us quite a bit [in] anticipating when we had to come up and when we had to go down and still maintain our airspeed. The desert-flying experience they had with their systems, telling us how they were doing it and then our trying to duplicate that with our system, was the biggest thing in training.”
In late October, Colonel Johnson took a training videotape to Riyadh to show General Schwarzkopf how the Apaches performed in live-fire exercises. The CINC was impressed.
The Final Go-Ahead
By the week before Christmas, war was a distinct possibility. Gen. Colin Powell, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Dick Cheney, the Secretary of Defense, flew to Riyadh to review the war plans personally. They met in the underground war room from which General Schwarzkopf would run Desert Storm. When General Schwarzkopf came to the Apache-Pave Low mission, he called on Colonel Johnson and Col. George Gray, commander of the 1st SOW. Aides were ordered to leave the room.
Neither colonel had doubts, though both knew they were “on the blame line” if the plan miscarried. Colonel Johnson cited the Apache’s ability to fly low at night, its low infrared signature, and its reduced radar signature. He also mentioned the accuracy of its standoff weapons.
This time, General Schwarzkopf himself popped the question. “Can you guarantee 100 percent success?” “Yes sir,”. answered Colonels Johnson and Gray.
That was enough for Schwarzkopf. If Saddam Hussein didn’t back down and leave Kuwait, the helicopters would start the war.
On January 14, 1991, Colonel Johnson ordered Task Force Normandy to deploy to Al Jouf, a desolate outpost close to the Iraqi border. “I think this thing’s going down,” he remarked to Colonel Cody. “We don’t have an accurate H-Hour, but I need to have you in position no later than dark on the fourteenth.”
On internal fuel, the Apache can fly fully combat-loaded (eight Hellfires, thirty-eight rockets, and 1,200 chain-gun rounds) for only a little more than two hours. To get around this limitation, the units adopted a suggestion first put forward by Lt. Tim De Vito, another Apache pilot. He recommended that the crews attach 1,700-pound, 230-gallon external fuel tanks to the Apaches’ left inboard weapons storage area. The planners did not want to set up a refueling point like the Desert One base used in the abortive 1980 hostage rescue in Iran. To make room for fuel, each aircraft reduced its number of rockets to nineteen.
“It initially appeared that I would have to use a Desert One type of refueling point,” says Colonel Cody. “But because of the complexity of the mission, because of the problems that could have been incurred by putting refueling systems that close to the border or actually inside the border, tipping the hand of what we were doing, we came up with the wing tank concept. It had never been done before. It raised the gross weight of the aircraft some 1,500 pounds past its combat weight. But it gave us a strike capability in excess of 400 miles.”
Getting to Al Jouf itself was a problem. “We even had to do that stealthily, without creating a signature,” says Colonel Cody. “We rolled into King Khalid Military City–no radio calls or anything–refueled there and took right off. There were already a large number of other helicopters operating out of KKMC so we would have looked just like any training exercise.”
Heading west, flying over flat terrain, they dropped low. “We got down where nobody would be able to pick us up along the border, even if they were looking for us,” Colonel Cody recounts. “I think we got into Al Jouf pretty much undetected.”
That night, he briefed his crews for the first time on the mission, giving them maps and photos. “Lo and behold,” said one crew member, “it looks like everything we’ve been practicing.”
As he sat in his helicopter talking with his gunner, Colonel Cody saw a dusty rental car speeding over the tarmac. The sedan pulled to a stop. Col. Ben Orrell, Colonel Gray’s deputy, yelled from the driver’s seat of the car, “I need to talk to you.”
Colonel Cody climbed down and ran to the vehicle.
“We have just received H-Hour from the CINC,” said Colonel Orrell. “It’s 17, 0300. Your mission is a go.”
At 1:00 a.m. on January 17 (local time), Colonel Cody’s White Team of four Apaches and two Pave Lows, each weighing more than 18,900 pounds, pulled out of Al Jouf into a jet-black sky, all lights off, and headed north. Six minutes later, the Red Team followed.
As the White Team approached the border shortly before 2:00 a.m., Colonel Cody saw a flash below. Evidently hearing the sounds of the helicopters but unable to see them, an Iraqi on the front line had fired off a missile. It missed.
As they pushed north, flying at 120 mph about fifty feet above ground, the pilots created their own “stealthiness” with a combination of high speed, low altitude, total blackout on navigation lights, and total radio silence.
Neither the Pave Lows nor we had ever flown in that area,” recalled Colonel Cody. “We were seeing stuff for the first time. Most of our training was done on the east coast of Saudi Arabia where it’s very, very flat and you have sand dunes. This was some 700 miles northwest, and it was entirely different. You had mesas and a little bit more terrain, which made it more dangerous.
“The Pave Lows had terrain-following radar, which helped them out quite a bit. We didn’t have that, but our FLIR, coupled with our night-vision goggles, was just working great. So you had two different systems backing each other up. We were backing them up, and they were primary. The lead Apache in each one of those teams had a primary mission of navigation. We didn’t leave anything to chance.”
At the GPS points nine miles south of the radar bases, Pave Lows dropped chemical lights on the desert. As the Apaches used that position to update their navigational and targeting systems, the Pave Lows peeled off and went back to the rendezvous point.
The Apaches then flew for almost five more miles, fixing the targets in their sights.
Without doubt, they got the drop on the Iraqis, who were looking skyward for fast movers, not for helicopters. It is believed they noticed something resembling “ground clutter” on their screens about two minutes before they were hit but were still trying to figure it out when the Hellfires arrived.
“OK, I’ve got the target area,” CW02 Thomas “Tip” O’Neal told his pilot, CW03 Jones, when their Apache was still seven miles from the radar sites.
“Slowing back,” said Jones, asking the range.
“I’m showing 12.2 [kilometers].”
“I’ll keep moving.”
“I’ve got one of the big ‘uns all the way on the right.”
Moving the FLIR lens, CW03 Jones closed in on the first building they must hit. “There’s the generator right there.”
“Party in ten!” said Lieutenant Drew from the lead AH-64. The FLIR screen flashed “LAUNCH.” A clock counted down the missile’s flight time. An Iraqi technician, seeing flashes in the distance as he emerged from a building, ran back inside. A dozen figures ran out other doors.
Then chaos engulfed the radar station. “Just incessant fire,” recalls Colonel Cody. “Missile after missile, rocket after rocket, 30-mm after 30-mm coming from four aircraft that they [couldn’t] even see. From the first shot, they were just running for cover. When we closed in to 4,000 meters, we engaged their ZPUs [Soviet antiaircraft machine guns] and antiaircraft artillery and put them out.”
Colonel Cody’s Apache was not far from that of his wingman, Lieutenant Drew, when they started to attack. The chaos intensified, says Colonel Cody, “when he [the wingman] puts out two or three rockets and everything lights up. You’re sitting there looking at your FLIR and then your naked eye picks up these flashes. You had to be very, very careful not to mistake that [for] ground fire coming at you.
“We took those things down in three and a half to four and a half minutes, four aircraft flying in pretty close proximity to each other.”
They got close to the targets, too. “Some of us got closer than 800 meters when we finished. We used 2,000 meters as a breakpoint, but, depending on what our targets looked like, as we were breaking and as we were being engaged, some of us moved in a little closer and then broke.” After shutting down the sites, they moved to other phases of the attack. “If all we did was hit [the generator], they could go to secondary power,” explained Colonel Cody. “We had a follow-on mission statement of putting [the base] down for a couple of days so the Air Force wouldn’t have to go in and retarget it. Then our follow-on was to totally destroy it. . . . We did all of the above. “
As the Apaches broke and headed back, they had to stay low. Air Force lighters were coming in over their heads. They took some small-arms fire but no damage. “Then we had to link up all these attacking forces at night at a new rendezvous point ,” said Colonel Cody, “and then charge back across the Saudi border-coming the wrong way! We were a little nervous.”
Apache team leaders passed the good news to the Pave Lows’ crews, who passed it to Central Command headquarters. The code words– “California AAA” and “Nebraska AAA”–meant the primary targets had been destroyed, the entire bases had been destroyed, and there had been no US casualties.
In the CENTCOM war room, General Schwarzkopf heard the news, took a breath, clenched his jaw and muttered, “Thank God.”
Richard Mackenzie is a free-lance writer in Washington, D. C. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine, “A Conversation With Chuck Horner,” appeared in the June 1991 issue.