‘Out of the black night, a bright, orange, twisting, tumbling fireball flashes forward into our right two-o-clock as Jim keeps the G on. It is an image I will never forget,’ Brent “Brandini” Brandon, EF-111A Raven EWO.
The very first wave attack of the H-Hour strike of Operation Desert Storm (Jan. 17, 1991) included five EF-111 Ravens on two simultaneous low-level penetration escort missions through the thickest concentration of enemy fighters, SAM’s and AAA threats since the Red River Valley and Hanoi in the Vietnam War.
It was a SEAD mission (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) and Electronic Order of Battle for which the EF-111A Raven was specifically designed and ideally suited. The Soviet Early Warning, Acquisition and GCI radars, so pivotal to the Iraqi Integrated Air Defense System (IADS) and control of SAM batteries and fighter intercepts, had been built in the 1970’s and though modified in the 80’s, were right in the sweet spot of the Raven’s ten, high-powered, independently steerable, jamming emitters of the ALQ-99 Tactical Jamming System.
The high-speed, low-altitude flight regime was where the Raven and its crews excelled. The 390th ECS / 366 TFW Gunfighters flew out of Mtn Home AFB, Idaho flying night and VFR low-levels through the valleys of Idaho’s central mountains and then south to the high desert and finally, our electronic combat training range and MOA. The crews and jets from the 42nd ECS that joined us from RAF Upper Heyford sharpened skills in low-levels over Scotland and Europe. With Terrain Following Radar (TFR) and radar navigational updates for the INS, the EF-111A could fly as low as 400’ AGL at night in weather at 580 kts, though peacetime training was usually at 1000’ and 510 kts.
The Raven also employed a Terminal Threat Warning System (TTWS), an electronic suite which interfaces with the ALQ-99 Tactical Jamming System and the massive receiver in the tail, the “football” which gives the EF-111 its distinctive silhouette. The ALQ-99 and the TTWS vastly improved our electronic situational awareness for both air and ground threats. Combined, the Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO or “Raven”) could see the entire 360-degree Electronic Order of Battle around the aircraft displayed symbolically.
As an Electronic Warfare (EW) High Value Asset (HVA) the EF-111 was in high demand at Red Flag and most deployed crews in Taif had multiple deployments to Red Flag and other complex integrated exercises. As a result, we trained with Strike Packages from across the USAF and with NATO and non-NATO allies and learned their tactics and how best to provide SEAD. Planning, briefing and flying with a variety of aircraft types, squadrons, and nationalities was perfect preparation for what was to come in Desert Storm.
Another four months flying low-level in the desert and learning the Electronic Order of Battle along the border in Desert Shield missions, crew coordination and EW Situational Awareness and were honed.
As the Coalition Deadline in January 1991 drew near, our focus sharpened and we prepared for actual combat. Finally, 36 hours before H-Hour, the entire Wing was in-briefed and we received our assigned Crew Mission Packages for our first missions.
The Air Tasking Order called for a three-ship of EF-111 Ravens from the 390th Electronic Combat Squadron / 366th TFW to fly a low-level penetration escort mission into the teeth of the First (Central) Air Defense Sector in support of F-117 Nighthawks over downtown Baghdad precisely at H-Hour 2400 Zulu (GMT) or 0300 hours Local. This mission was led by 390th Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Dennis Hardziej and Captain Tom Mahoney.
Simultaneously, the ATO called for two Ravens, Wedge Flight, to escort a low-level interdiction strike package of 22 F-15E Strike Eagles from the 4th TFW against fixed Scud Tactical Ballistic Missile (TBM) batteries at H-1 / Al Qaim, H-2, and H-3 Iraqi Air Bases in the heavily defended Second (West) Air Defense Sector.
The Ravens’ SEAD mission called for engaging five intense concentrations of SA-2, SA-3, SA-6 and Roland batteries and EW, Acquisition and Ground Control Intercept radars in low-level penetration escort, accompanying the Strike Eagles from ingress to egress.
Timing was absolutely critical. The Strike Eagles were to drop their first bombs at 0305 hours and would be especially vulnerable to SAM’s from 0300 to 0308 during IP to target runs.
Because this was the opening mission of the war, it was tactically planned as a classic first strike “surprise” attack: night, low-level on Hard Ride TFR, min comm, lights off, terrain masking behind hills and in wadis (dry river bed valleys), no jamming until abeam Mudaysis, and no combat air patrol (CAP) help from the F-15C’s until after H-hour and TOT. To avoid detection from the long-range Tall King Early Warning (EW) radars, a four-ship and eight-ship of F-15Cs from the 33rd TFW were in 25 nm low-level holding patterns 60-85 nm south of the Iraqi border.
Note: In Desert Storm, USAF ATO calls signs were by aircraft type. EF-111’s were tools: Wedge, Wrench, Drill, Socket, Ratchet. F-15E’s were American cars: Dodge, Chevy, Firebird, Pontiac. F-15Cs – for tactical deception – switched calls signs and used those of tankers, gas stations: Citgo, Penzoil, Texaco, Shell, while the KC-135 and KC-10 tankers took on the F-15C calls signs for fish: Chinook, Tuna, Salmon. (F-4G Wild Weasels, though not tasked on this Frag of the ATO, were American beers: Budweiser, Schlitz, Coors, Lone Star.)
Border Crossing: The War Begins
After brutal night refueling operations without comm or lights, in a turbulent descent over the desert towards the border to remain under EW coverage, Wedge Flight let down to 1000’ TFR 25 nm from the border, checked systems, updated navigation, and then let down to 400’ AGL TFR Hard Ride.
At 0248 hrs on Jan. 17, 1991, twelve minutes before H-Hour at 0300 and 17 minutes before the Strike Package TOT of 0305, EF-111 Raven Wedge Flight fenced the Iraqi border at 400 feet and hit their first in-country checkpoint on time at 23:49:50 Z / 0250 L near a burning radar installation and AAA site north of their previous turn point of Arar and 55 nm southwest of Mudaysis Air Field.
The site had been destroyed ten minutes earlier, when four AH-64 Apaches and a USAF MH-53 Pave Low of the famed 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagles” Aviation Regiment had unleashed 32 Hellfire missiles in four minutes, utterly destroying the Flat Face radar and AAA site by 0240 hours, clearing a ten kilometer breach in the interlocking Integrated Air Defense System (IADS) fence that spanned Iraq’s southern border every 30 nm with Early Warning radar outposts that were tied to the Sector Operations Center (SOC) at H-2.
Mission Commander Capt. Yogi Alred and Lead WSO Maj. Bill Polowitzer in Dodge 11 crossed first, leading a three-ship of F-15E’s to the notoriously defended H-1 / Al Qaim target area north on the Euphrates River.
In Wedge 51, Captains Rick “LA” Laws and John “Nigel” Mosco led the two-ship of EF-111 Ravens, followed in one-minute off-set trail by Captains Jim Denton and me [Brent “Brandini” Brandon] in Wedge 52.
Our planned Jam On time was eight minutes later at 0256 L – precisely abeam Mudaysis FOL Alert Base heading north. Mudaysis was a Forward Operation Location airfield used by forward-deployed Iraqi Air Force (IrAF) assets with an alert component of Mirage F1EQs. Satellite photos show 12 shelters with four Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) shelters at each end of the NW/SE runways.
Our northern most Turn Point was +14 minutes past Mudaysis near the H-1 pumping station at 0308 hrs. This critical turn point and jamming profile (“Danger Corner” in pre-brief) – was directly in the middle of a Quadrangle of four major threats: Mudaysis Alert Base, Al Asad Air Base, Al Qaim IOC, H-2 Air Base / IOC. The Turn Point also required crossing two major supply roads at low altitude that were lined with mobile AAA guns.
Making Turn Point 11 (33 45.3 N / 40 58.1) at 08:00:00 Zulu / 0308 Local was central to our Electronic Combat Plan. The return route from the 0308 would put us next to Mudaysis AB + 14 minutes later at 0322.
We flew north at 400’ AGL in pitch black on TFR Hard Ride (which gives maximum negative and positive G to hug the terrain) until 0255 L when we were directly between H-2 and Mudaysis — literally off Mudaysis runway NW heading 25 nm to the west, since their GCI was one of our targets — where we popped to 4000 feet MSL (2200’ AGL) at our Mission Jam On Time of 23:55:43 Z / 0256 L in support of Dodge, Chevy and Firebird flights of 19 Strike Eagles. We accelerate to 540 kts to keep pacing alignment with Dodge Flight.
The precision in speeds, times and locations were necessary in employing the EF-111 Raven as a tactical jammer. Our mission was to maximize protection for each flight of the Strike package in three phases: 1) their Ingress – Border Crossing to Target area 2) Initial Point to Target and 3) Egress to Fence-out check point.
To do so required a flight path geometry that put the EF-111’s ten high-powered electronic jammers in the best possible alignment and proximity based on the flight paths and altitudes of the strike aircraft, especially during their most vulnerable phase of flight; Initial Point to Weapons Delivery when each of the Strike Eagles penetrated known SAM threat rings to target fixed Scud sites.
By H-HOUR DESERT STORM 0300 Local, the two EF-111’s Ravens were at 4,000’ MSL feet in a deadly quadrangle of Iraqi Integrated Air Defenses: between Mirage F1’s based at Mudaysis Alert Base, Mig-29’s at Al Asad Air Base and the fighters and the SAM batteries of Al Qaim and H-2 Air Base and IOC. The Ravens had swung their electronic jammers north to Al Qaim in support of Dodge Flight and west in support of Chevy Flight at H-2 and were jamming SAM sites and radar guided AAA enroute to the H-1 Pumping Station.
Then the threat out of Al Asad appeared: two ALR-62 RWR indications of MiG-29 Fulcrums’ as we approached our 0304 turn point flying north at 5000’ MSL, TP 10 – Hill 1287’ located 38 nm west southwest of the runway departure end of Al Asad Air Base. About four minutes flight time in a Fulcrum.
We chaff, make the 0304 turn, turn left to 274 degrees and a minute later AWACs makes a bandit call referencing Manny (Sector reference point) putting the bandits near Al Asad AB. The call comes right at 0305 TOT for Dodge Flight and elicits an early push by the F-15C Eagles holding south of the border in Saudi Arabia.
At Strike Package TOT 0305, as Dodge 11 rolled off the northern most target of the package at Al Qaim on the Euphrates, Wedge 51 and 52 in the Ravens were on their northern penetration jamming run in precise alignment with their electronic combat targets off both wings. Their twenty combined high-powered jammers were blinding the three SA-2, four SA-3’s and Roland batteries ringing Al Qaim 30 nm off their right wing and an equally lethal combination 30 nm off their left wing at H-2 for Chevy Flight. In addition to six Rolands and two SA-6’s, 390th ECS Intelligence placed 119 AAA guns around Al Qaim and plotted 136 guns around the H-2 airfield / IOC alone.
I recall that the amount of triple A coming up from all around us was staggering. Interlocking rings around H-2 off the left wing and Al Qaim off the right and a linear sheet in front of us along the road to H-2. It just came up in orange sheets and weird aimed fire that swung back and forth like tracers arcing from a powerful hose. Some would go wild and corkscrew off. It was surreal: beautiful and lethal at the same time.
To the north at Al Qaim, I could see white flashes. Dodge Flight ordinance detonating. We could see H-2 explosions clearly to the left as Chevy Flight rolled off target.
We’d been briefed not to look at the white flashes. It’s tough on night vision, but I couldn’t help it.
When the bombs exploded, the tracers in the sky intensified and the sky turned orange. Iraqi gunners were in full cyclical barrage fire. The color and movement and shapes defy description. It was hellish. I spoke into my mask to Jim — my first non-tactical comment since crossing the border 21 minutes earlier: “There’s no way they’re all going to make it.”
Capt. Jay “K-9” Kreighbaum, in Dodge 12 describes the AAA to our right at Al Qaim in William L. Smallwood’s book Strike Eagle: Flying the F-15E in the Gulf War:
“Just then I see Yogi and Polo’s (Dodge 11) bombs go off, and seconds later the triple-A starts coming up. We’re still about eight miles from the target-at nine miles a minute, we were fifty to fifty-five seconds out.
“The triple-A, when it opened up, scared the shit out of both of us. I was watching it, mesmerized, an orange and red cascade of triple-A going over and under us.
“And I’m totally mesmerized by the triple-A-like a fascination with a cobra. I’m padlocked on it-I can’t believe there is so much of it. It was orange and red and I’m watching it, trying to see how close it is. Then I see it moving away and I grab the sissy bar and twist in my seat, looking for Dodge One-Three, but I was really expecting to see a fireball back there.”
Inside our Raven, the ALQ-99 TJS was literally humming. The jet cackled with electricity. Displays showed the entire SAM threat spectrum was active. I target an uncovered SA-6 Gainful on the ALQ-99 at H-2 and drive it out of acquisition mode. It launches at someone in Chevy flight without acquisition, looking to pick up the target tracking radar TTR in flight and intercept. Without F-4G Wild Weasels on this mission to slam HARMs down the TTR beam, it’s up to the men in the Strike Eagles, God help them, to dodge those missiles.
The anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) was intense, not only in target areas off both wings, but along the major pipeline roads the Ravens had to overfly in their planned route to be in position Dodge and Chevy Flights. There were three known batteries of ZSU-23 and S-60s plotted directly under the flight path on our Tactical Pilotage Chart on the pipeline road just prior to the turn at 0308. The -23s can put out 2000 rounds per minute cyclical fire (400 sustained) up to 5000’ feet AGL.
As Wedge Flight approached the H-1 Pumping Station and Pipeline Road at 0306, Wedge Flight Lead “LA” Laws and right-seater John Mosco first encountered the fire. First one, then three AAA batteries opened up along the road where Wedge 51 crossed at 2600 AGL’ — right in the middle of the ZSU’s effective range. In the 90 seconds the flight took to overfly the road, the Iraqi batteries put up bursts and sustained aimed fire towards the two-ship — at effective range — estimated at 4000 rounds from the ZSU-23’s alone and a lethal 6-lb high velocity shell (1000 m/s) every second from the S-60 Twin 57 mm towed batteries on the pipeline road.
As Jim and I approached the road at 2600’ I see tracers coming in at right 2 o’clock low that passed beneath the cockpit. They had been shooting high. I can’t explain the sensation of having orange tracers aiming at you personally and streaking right above and below your canopy. It was surreal. I didn’t think about dying. Time changed. I was an observer.
The pipeline road was a timing marker to our northwestern and most critical jamming turn point. We were flying a westerly heading of 274 degrees and the turn was exactly 2 minutes or 18 nm past the road at 0308 hrs in support of Dodge 13 Tail End Charlie. We would then execute a 140-degree left turn and cross the road again 10 nm closer to H-2 on a heading of 129 towards the Al Asad – Mudaysis corridor.
Wedge Flight pushed through the fire and at precisely 0308 hrs at coordinates 31 49.8 N / 41 05.9 E, Wedge 52 rolled left and sliced back in a hard left turn to face the inferno along the H-2 road once again.
We picked up RWR hits from behind us before the turn, so we chaffed and kept G on in the turn. As we began to roll out, we could see tracer fire to the right — if we tighten up, we can pull inside it. Jim keeps the G on and we pull left past our intended rollout another 30 degrees and rollout flying east heading 100 degrees back towards the Al Asad departure pattern.
At 0310 hrs, Capt Jon Kelk of the 33rd TFW, having pushed early with Penzoil Flight F-15C’s CAP at the AWACS bandit call, had fired an AIM-7 and downed a MiG-29 out of Al Asad AB, the first air kill of the war.
“Once I was in parameters,” he said in Mike Guardia’s book Wings of Fire: A Combat History of the F-15 (p. 40). Magnum Books, “I fired a single AIM-7.” As soon as Kelk depressed the trigger, he closed his eyes, not wanting the white flash of the missile to rob him of his night vision. “We had flown a lot of nights during the pre-war time in Saudi and were very good at flying nights in the pre-NVG [night vision goggles] era, and I didn’t want to risk it.” After deploying his missile, however, Kelk was unsure of whether the AIM-7 had met its target. “I look out the front and I see a purple-blueish light on the horizon”—not the telltale orange fireball he had been expecting.
Back at the Tabuk airbase, and still unsure of his aerial victory, Kelk reported it as a “probable” kill. A few hours later, however, the AWACS that had been aloft with Pennzoil sent its report to Kelk’s squadron commander. Not only had Kelk destroyed the bandit, the kill had been confirmed as a MiG-29.
Captain “Cheese” Graeter led the F-15C Citgo flight tasked to provide CAP to the strike package.
“We had been holding south of the border so they would not see us on their radars. Our push time [time for crossing the border] was 0308 – then we were going to come across and sweep the area that included Mudaysis, an Iraqi air base.
“While we waited, we had a real eye-watering experience – I mean I was the most scared I have ever been in an airplane. We were IMC, bouncing around in clouds, and we had to refuel with tankers that had no lights. Looking back, I wonder how we did it,” as he recalls in William Smallwood’s book: Strike Eagle: Flying the F-15E in the Gulf War.
With ‘Pennzoil’ flight approximately 100 miles ahead to the northeast of Baghdad, and committed to intercepting the two groups of ‘bogeys’ called out by AWACS, `Citgo’ flight pushes north towards Mudaysis AB.
The Ravens are headed southeast toward Mudaysis.
As told in Wings of Fire, Graeter in Penzoil 61 notices a blip on his own radar screen — “about 22 to 25 miles off my nose heading northwest.” He was certain that this was the same bandit that the AWACS had detected. Suddenly, his radar detects a second bandit in the air. Moments later, his wingman, calls out a third bandit. The Iraqis now have three planes in the air out Mudaysis Alert Base.
As I explained back then to Guardia for his book Wings of Fire: “We’ve flying south on egress jamming leg. Wedge 51 is now over two minutes ahead of us jamming 20 nm north of Mudaysis heading to the exit point. We’ll pass Mudaysis to the south, but have one more highway to cross first: the south east-west artery to H-3.”
Flying south now on their egress jamming leg, EF-111 Raven Wedge 52 had split from Wedge 51 and is now 20 nm west of Mudaysis heading southeast +14 minutes after TOT of 0308 at 0322 hours local.
As Jim and I approach Mudaysis at 0322 we begin receiving received multiple hits on the “Raw Gear” (RWR) off our nose indicating enemy fighter acquisition radars in search mode.
The RWR Wing Forms continue as we jam abeam the airfield off our left wing and then resolve in the middle Lethality Ring as a Wing Form 2. The ALQ-99 TTWS confirms the exact electronic signature of the radar that’s acquired us and the fighter that houses it: it’s a Mirage F1EQ.
Then the F1 Wing Form swings to our six o’clock in a left turn. It moves in one ring to center. No aural tone for radar lock. Gotta watch for a heater. “Take it DOWN. 2200 Hard Deck. You’ve got the Rocks, I’ve got the Bandit.”
I twist in the cockpit and visually scan right five o clock, squinting and waiting for my eyes to adjust. Pick up faint bobbing lights…. then what looks like a cigarette being lit! Can see the missile snaking at me. “Break Right! Last Ditch! Missile Off!” Jim rolls right and pulls 5-G’s in a low-level defensive maneuver. I punch out flares and chaff and try to keep on top of the G so I won’t grey out and can keep eyes on the bandit. I’m twisted to the right straining against the G-suit and now weigh half a ton, but the adrenaline is way up.
The Bandit pulls inside of us, sinking lower in the vertical and I lose sight for an instant. Think I’m blacking out. Then flash! Out of the black night, a bright, orange, twisting, tumbling fireball flashes forward into our right two-o-clock as Jim keeps the G on. It is an image I will never forget.
Seconds before, Penzoil 61 had shot down the Mirage F1’s lead aircraft with an AIM-7 missile. Former Aggressor pilot and F-15C Flight Lead Graeter saw the first explosion of his target and then as told in Wings of Fire: A Combat History of the F-15,
“Moments later, Graeter witnessed a secondary explosion on the ground in the vicinity of the Mirage wreckage. Just as before, this explosion illuminated the ground below and the cloud cover above.
“Looking at the explosion, Graeter could tell that it was the wreckage of another Mirage F1. Graeter was confused. Neither he nor his wingman had shot down the second Mirage. How then, had the enemy bandit crashed?”
After the F1EQ crashed, we continued our hard right turn to a southerly heading and kept our SA at maximum for other interceptors out of Mudaysis.
At 0328 hrs Wedge 52 Jammed Off and began to Fence In; “Squawking, Talking, Lights” finally turning our IFF Mode IV to a mode which enabled AWACS and the F-15s CAP to identify us by squawk for the first time in 33 minutes. The two HVA (High Value Asset) EF-111 Ravens in the package had been essentially ‘invisible’ to IFF air-interrogations from AWACs or the F-15 CAP throughout the penetration and at 400’ TFR terrain masking were hard to paint on radar.
We contacted AWACs on Ruby, and cleared in as friendlies, we entered the Missile Safe egress corridor on the Saudi border at 0337 hrs.
Like the other Raven crews, we’d go on to fly another 25 combat missions over Iraq, including the first nine night missions in a row. A mission log typical of those of my squadron-mates in the 390th with SEAD missions in support of different Interdiction Strike packages: 19 x F-15Es; 20 x F-111Fs; 8 x GR-1s + 4 CF-18s; 16 x F-16’s; 8 A-10’s, 11 x B-52Gs and 10 x F-117s. In addition to 2 x EF-111As, each of these packages would be typically be supported by 2 to 4 x F-4Gs and 4 to 8 x F-15Cs.
It was a privilege, if often a heart-pounding one, to take part in this mission with some of the finest fighter pilots in the world. The Chiefs and the Rockets of the famed 4th Tactical Fighter Wing “Fourth but First” led the way through the breach opened by Task Force Normandy of the 101st Airborne Aviation Regiment “Wings of the Eagle” with two Desert Ravens from the 390th ECS “Wild Boars” off the Strike Eagles’ wings, battling SAM batteries all the way to the Euphrates in AAA so intense that it defies description.
When the enemy fighters launched, F-15s Eagles from the 33rd TFW swept in and knocked a Mig-29 and a Mirage F1EQ out of the sky within 19 minutes. A second F1EQ was scraped off by a 390th ECS aircrew flying a 42nd ECS Raven seconds later.
It would prove to be the kickoff of a tough, grueling campaign. Six Coalition strike aircraft were shot down in the first 24 hours alone of Desert Storm, including a Strike Eagle from the 4th TFW lost to AAA south of Basra later that day. Another 11 received battle damage.
But on that first intense mission, all five target areas were hit and all 38 men in the 19 Strike Eagles – and all of the 46 men in the 25 USAF fighters that shared the western skies that night over Mudaysis — came home. And none had a SAM strike.
And that is why the Ravens were there.
Toss a nickel on the grass.
“Brandini” / Wedge 52
Photo credit: Brent “Brandini” Brandon and Staff Sgt. Samuel Rogers / U.S. Air Force