F-14 Tomcat

F-14 pilot who took part in cave busting mission the first night of Operation Enduring Freedom explains why Tomcat crews hated dropping the 2,000-lb GBU-24 Paveway III LGB

The F-14 Tomcat and the GBU-24 Paveway III penetrator LGB

At the forefront of the Global War on Terror from the very start, the venerable F-14 Tomcat led the first manned air strikes on Afghanistan in October 2001.

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VF-41 Black Aces’ target on the opening night of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) was the entrance to a suspected al-Qaeda terrorist training camp in a mountain range southeast of Kandahar. A section of ‘Black Aces” jets would be involved, with the lead machine crewed by squadron executive officer Cdr Pat Cleary and Lt Cdr Ed Meyle. The specialist GBU-24 Paveway III penetrator LGB was chosen as the best weapon to ensure destruction of this challenging target, the 2000-lb bunker-buster boasting a hardened front casing that allowed the bomb to bore through five feet of concrete prior to detonating.

As explained by Tony Holmes in the book F-14 Tomcat Units of Operation Enduring Freedom, just nine GBU-24s would he dropped by F-14s during OEF — four by VF-213, three by VF-14 and two by VF-41. The latter two units had used GBU-24s with limited success in Operation Allied Force, where the weapon’s precise, and lengthy, flightpath, which ensured its steep, almost vertical, descent to the target, had proven difficult to achieve in hostile Balkan skies. With a conventional, more flexible, LGB such as the GBU-12, the RIO would typically lase the target for less than 30 seconds. However, in order to attain maximum penetration speed, the GBU-24 had to be released earlier and the target lased for 60 seconds.

GBU-24 poor reputation within the F-14 community

The GBU-24 had a poor reputation within the Tomcat community, being dubbed ‘pretty unreliable and a non-user-friendly weapon that doesn’t have a high hit percentage’ by VF-14 Operation Allied Force and OEF veteran Lt Cdr Van Kizer—he would get to drop a GBU-24 on a fuel/ammunition storage dump in Kabul on Oct. 17, 2001. VF-41’s Lt Cdr Scott Butler remembered that crews assigned GBU-24 missions had to spend ‘hours weaponeering and target planning in order to ensure the accurate delivery of the bunker-buster. It’s a labour-intensive weapon tailored exclusively for use against hardened targets, and fortunately for us, there weren’t too many of those in Afghanistan’.

VF-41 had its bunker-busting ‘A team’ leading the Oct. 8 strike, with squadron CO Cdr Brian Gawne identifying Lt Cdr Ed Meyle as ‘our GBU-24 expert’. Cdr Cleary described the mission to Holmes;

‘As the strike lead, I had to plan all the fuel for the jets involved, the tanker rendezvous points, the attack profiles for the target and the tactics we were to employ. Each of the VF-41 aircraft allocated to the mission was armed with just a single GBU-24 apiece, although the Tomcat was cleared to carry two. However, the pilot would have had to jettison one in order to get the aircraft down to landing weight should no bombs have been dropped during the course of the sortie. GBU-24s were simply too expensive to waste in this way.

‘Relying exclusively on S-3 tanker support, we met a section of VS-31 jets that had launched ahead of us over Pakistan in order to top off our tanks, before pressing on into southern Afghanistan. With the target – a limestone cave dug into a mountain ravine – being some 40 miles to the southeast of Kandahar, we were out of SA-2 range.

Terrorist camp was literally in the middle of nowhere

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‘Unlike the SAM sites, which were defending key military bases in Kandahar, the terrorist camp was literally in the middle of nowhere. There were no lights to be seen anywhere on the ground, so we were dropping exclusively using the imagery generated by the LTS. When looked out of the cockpit off NVGs, all around me was a sea of inky blackness. Although our GBU-24 guided well, we never saw it explode – this was the first bomb I had dropped in anger in 18 years of frontline flying. This was almost certainly because it had worked as advertised, penetrating deep into the side of the mountain before detonating.

‘Having climbed up and away to the right in order to clear the target area to allow my wingman to make his attack run, I levelled off to see if anybody was shooting at us. Literally the whole mountainside was lit up with small-arms fire!

‘During the return leg of the mission we again refuelled from two S-3s this was the only organic strike flown by CVW-8 throughout OE’, with the USAF’s sole input being its E-3 AWACS control.’

F-14 Tomcat Units of Operation Enduring Freedom is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

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Photo credit: U.S. Navy

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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