THE CONTROVERSIAL KILLS SCORED BY SAUDI F-15s DURING OPERATION DESERT STORM

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The controversial kills scored by Saudi F-15s during Operation Desert Storm
A Royal Saudi Air Force F-15 Eagle fighter aircraft approaches a KC-135 Stratotanker from the 1700th Air Refueling Squadron Provisional for refueling during Operation Desert Shield.

It is almost certain that the two Mirage kills scored by RSAF F-15s were driven by a political directive that was designed to draw an Arab nation into the limelight. Existing reports suggest that the F1s came within minutes of being able to engage their targets before they were downed

The Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) purchased 46 F-15Cs (minus some of the aircraft Tactical Electronic Warfare System elements and various sensitive radar modes) and 16 F-15Ds in 1983 under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme Peace Sun. The purchase followed a concerted effort by the Saudi monarchy to close a gap in capabilities between the RSAF and the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) F-14 Tomcat fighters.

There were serious political considerations resulting from Peace Sun that the U.S. government had to consider, not least of which was the reaction the sale was bound to have elicited from the ever watchful Israelis. In order to minimise those tensions, RSAF Eagles were degraded to make them less capable, particularly against U.S.-manufactured avionics and weapons systems.

Nevertheless an additional 24 jets were rushed to the RSAF from U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) units in late 1990 in response to Operation Desert Shield.

On Jan. 24, 1991, as explained by Steve Davies in his book F-15C Eagle Units In Combat, the RSAF scored its only air-to-air kills during Operation Desert Storm, when Capt. Ayehid Salah al-Shamrani, an F-15 pilot of No 13 Squadron, engaged and destroyed two Iraqi Air Force (IrAF) Mirage F1EQs. Details of the engagement are sketchy, but U.S. sources have told Davies that Salah was vectored towards the Mirages soon after they were detected taking off and heading for coalition naval vessels in the Persian Gulf.

Reports indicate that a USAF AWACS provided the RSAF Eagle with good vectors but, allegedly, Salah struggled to complete the intercept. Running desperately short of time before the Mirages brought the naval vessels within striking distance of their anti-ship Exocet missiles, Salah was talked, step-by-step, into position behind the French-made fighters. He eventually employed two AIM-9P Sidewinders, both of which guided squarely to their targets.

As reported by Donald J. McCarthy, Jr. in his book “The Raptors All F-15 and F-16 aerial combat victories,” after the engagement Salah stated during a media interview: “They started breaking in front of me, but it was too late. It was my day.”An F-15 Eagle aircraft of the Royal Saudi Air Force takes off during Operation Desert Shield.

One former F-15 pilot observed: “There are several very valid questions to ask about these kills. Firstly, why is the pilot of an aircraft designed to kill BVR doing a stern conversion to visual range without firing a shot? Secondly, where was his wingman during all this? Thirdly, he fired both missiles while they were still ‘caged’, if I remember correctly.”

As explained by Davies, ‘uncaging’ the seeker from the radar before firing was standard practice, as it allowed the pilot to validate that the seeker was tracking the target. Failing to ‘uncage’ was considered to be something of a faux pas within the fighter pilot community.

Unsurprisingly, RSAF F-15s were kept well away from the ‘coalface’ during Desert Storm, flying what was termed ‘Goalie CAPs’ for the duration of the war. ‘Goalie CAPs’ were placed some distance behind the Iraq/Saudi border, effectively putting the RSAF Eagles in a position where they could not interfere with the efforts of the rest of the Coalition.

Whilst one USAF pilot who flew an exchange tour with the RSAF in the 1990s told Davies that two particular Saudi F-15 pilots were the best Eagle pilots that he had ever met, the overall level of professionalism, ability and pride amongst the RSAF is reportedly mediocre at best.

It is almost certain that these two Mirage kills were driven by a political directive that was designed to draw an Arab nation into the limelight. There is certainly circumstantial evidence to support this theory, not least of which was the close proximity of U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcats, which were said to have been in an equally good position to engage the Mirages, and could have done so in a more timely and competent manner.

Existing reports suggest that the F1s came within minutes of being able to engage their targets before they were downed.

The controversial kills scored by Saudi F-15s during Operation Desert Storm
An F-15 Eagle aircraft of the Royal Saudi Air Force takes off during Operation Desert Shield.

Photo credit: Tech. Sgt. Hans H. Deffner / U.S. Air Force