Aviation History

E-3 AWACS crew member explains how a U.S. Navy F-14 nearly shot down a U.S. Navy A-6 during the first night of Operation Desert Storm

“The F-14 pilot came back and said in an excited voice, ‘Target, nose, 12 miles [19.31km] hot, am I cleared to engage?’ and again the E-2 stuttered ‘Sta-Sta-Standby’ just as my Mode 4 sweep came back as friendly! The F-14’s immediate response to the E-2’s transmission was ‘Fox 1’,” Bill Richards, former E-3 “Sentry” Airborne Warning and Control Systems weapons officer with 552nd Air Control Wing

The E-3 Sentry is an airborne warning and control system, or AWACS, aircraft with an integrated command and control battle management, or C2BM, surveillance, target detection, and tracking platform. The aircraft provides an accurate, real-time picture of the battlespace to the Joint Air Operations Center. AWACS provides situational awareness of friendly, neutral and hostile activity, command and control of an area of responsibility, battle management of theater forces, all-altitude and all-weather surveillance of the battle space, and early warning of enemy actions during joint, allied, and coalition operations.

The E-3 proved in Operation Desert Storm, the campaign which took place between Jan. 17, 1991 and Feb. 28, 1991 with the aim to free Kuwait from the Iraqi invasion, to be the world’s premier C2BM aircraft.

Operation Desert Storm, which began on Jan. 17, 1991, involved a total of 17 NATO and USAF E-3As: 11 at Riyadh and three at Incirlik, assisted by the five E-3s of the RSAF also based at Riyadh. The same three orbits that had been flown during Operation Desert Shield were flown on a constant basis, with a fourth reserve aircraft being airborne to act as an immediate airborne replacement should one of the three primaries fall down due to a lack of serviceability or an inability to refuel. The USAF E-3s operated with an Airborne Command Element, a five-person team aboard in case contact with the Tactical Air Control Centre was lost for some reason. An RSAF E-3 was also airborne in the Riyadh area to co-ordinate a last line of air defence of the capital should it be required. An E-3 was also launched from Incirlik to protect Turkish airspace and to monitor the attack packages operating within the Proven Force AOR. Sentry crews also managed the aerial refuelling tow lines, vectoring damaged and fuel-critical aircraft towards the nearest tanker to allow them to get back to base. AWACS crews also coordinated the initial phases of combat search and rescue (CSAR) should a Coalition aircraft be shot down and its crew eject.

Bill Richards, former E-3 “Sentry” Airborne Warning and Control Systems weapons officer with 552nd Air Control Wing, recalled a mission during the first night of the war in Ian Shaw and Sergio Santana Beyond the Horizon The History of AEW&C Aircraft:

“My first mission (one of three I flew in the first 64 hours of the war) was to the western AOR. Several exciting things happened. The first involved the E-2Cs from the Red Sea and two Navy packages that hit the H-2/H-3 complex of airfields. Both were supposed to be controlled by the E-2s with AWACS as backup. The first package generated some MiG activity as they ingressed and two MiG-21s got airborne. The E-2 controllers did not call them out until I initiated unknown tracks on them (E-2 radar over land really sucked). As soon as they saw the tracks they started calling out the bogies and two [McDonnell Douglas] F/A-18s engaged and shot them both down.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-14A Tomcat VF-1 Wolfpack, NE103 / 162603 / Operation Desert Storm, 1991

“Tracking friendlies over the target area was tough as they were attacking from all directions and thus egressing in all directions at high speed. This all set the scenario for the next strike package. As they approached the target area they used the same tactic of attacking from different directions at once; they obviously knew that MiGs had been launched against the previous package. As they ingressed to the target there were no MiGs launched but the friendlies once again began to be difficult to track. An F-14 was capped about 20 miles [32km] south of H-2 and he picked up a radar-only track departing H-2 at high speed and he called it out on the radio. The surprising response from the E-2 was `Sta-Sta-Standby!’ I realised this wasn’t going well so I took a Mode 4 sweep of the radar-only target that was about eight to 10 miles [12.8-16.1km] south of H-2. A second later the F-14 pilot came back and said in an excited voice, ‘Target, nose, 12 miles [19.31km] hot, am I cleared to engage?’ and again the E-2 stuttered ‘Sta-Sta-Standby’ just as my Mode 4 sweep came back as friendly! The F-14’s immediate response to the E-2’s transmission was ‘Fox 1’. I grabbed every frequency I had at my console and screamed ‘Cease Fire South of H-2. Friendlies only that area!’ I have no idea what occurred after that and hoped that if the F-14 really had fired a Sparrow that he heard me and broke the radar lock. I know several Navy aircraft did not make it back from that attack but have never found out if they were lost to ground fire or fratricide.

“The next event from that first mission was as the second package was egressing [and] they had to hit a tanker on the way out. The E-2 was never able to get them to the tanker and four of the A-6s declared emergency fuel. So I picked them up on 243.0 (Guard) and started vectoring them to Arar airfield. I was able to contact a US air traffic controller in the tower on Guard and was able to brief him and the A-6s on the situation. At that point I split the A-6s up and gave them individual vectors to Arar and set up a nice little sequence. Meanwhile all my traffic on Guard attracted a US F-111 with a hydraulic failure and an RAF Jaguar with a generator out. Both requested vectors to Arar. So now I had six emergency aircraft on guard and on vectors to land at Arar. Thankfully they all made it in safely. I did get a little ribbing the next couple of days for hogging Guard that night and playing ATC.”

Photo credit: Kelly White / U.S. Air Force; PH3 Jeffrey Loshaw and Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Nathan Burke / U.S. Navy

Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com

This model is available in multiple sizes from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.
Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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