Join Vincent “Jell-O” Aiello as he re-lives an air strike in the Iraqi no-fly zone at the turn of the millennium.
Between the end of Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the United States and its allies fought a limited air war over Iraq. As part of a post-war containment strategy of Saddam Hussein’s regime, two no-fly zones were established to limit Baghdad’s military activities against its own people as the country endured instability. Operation Provide Comfort, which became Northern Watch in 1997, provided an air power umbrella to the Kurdish minority in the north, while Southern Watch provided the same for the Shia Muslim religious majority in the south, encompassing Iraqi territory south of the 32nd parallel (line of latitude).
Akin to a police officer walking a “beat,” violence wasn’t routine, but it flared up on occasion. Iraq walked the tightrope, testing enforcement of the no-fly zones by either flying warplanes into restricted airspace or attacking patrolling U.S. and allied aircraft. Many of these violations were answered with force, coming in the form of air strikes against Iraqi air defenses.
One such retaliatory strike took place on Dec. 5, 1999. In addition to the ground-based aircraft under the authority of Central Command Air Forces (CENTAF), an aircraft carrier battle group was also deployed in-theater to provide offshore options. At the time, Mayport, Florida-based carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) had the watch.
On Dec. 5, a four-ship flight of McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) F/A-18C Hornets launched from Kennedy for a routine mission inside the southern no-fly zone. The flight was comprised of two Hornets each from Strike Fighter Squadrons (VFA) 82 (“Marauders”) and 86 (“Sidewinders”). The flight lead was VFA-82’s Executive Officer (XO), while the “Dash-Four” Hornet (BuNo 163487) was flown by LT Vincent “Jell-O” Aiello of VFA-86, then on the second operational deployment of his career.
As explained by Aiello, Southern Watch missions at the time consisted primarily of armed reconnaissance. Using their AN/AAS-38 “Nite Hawk” forward-looking infrared (FLIR) targeting pods, U.S./allied aircrews would observe Iraqi military activity inside the no-fly zones and report this information to the higher-ups, who would process it as intelligence and decide whether or not action needed to be taken.
While scrutinizing revetments in the desert below, Aiello and his flight noticed anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) pieces, one of which began to “flash.” The fire was not accurate and, at an altitude above 20,000 feet, there was no imminent threat posed to the Hornets. In the interest of caution, however, the flight took evasive action, reporting the incident to their controlling agency, which then relayed the information to the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC), at the time located at Prince Sultan Air Base in Al-Kharj, Saudi Arabia.
As explained by Michael Knights in Cradle of Conflict, the Clinton administration had effectively handed Central Command (CENTCOM) a “blank check” of sorts by this stage of Southern Watch. The rules of engagement (ROE) had expanded the range of Iraqi-instigated scenarios that could trigger a U.S/Coalition military response. Since CENTCOM was not authorized to go on the offensive, however, commanders were reluctant to vigorously apply permissions granted by the new ROEs for fear of military escalation and losing aircrew. Therefore, a sense of risk-aversion carried the day.
But the incident on Dec. 5 apparently met the necessary criteria to execute a pre-established response option. Thus, the CAOC authorized the flight of F/A-18s to strike the AAA site in response to the provocation. The order was passed to the controlling agency, who then relayed it to the flight. Under their wings were AGM-65E Maverick air-to-ground missiles and GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bombs (LGBs).
“Our first run on the target ran from north to south,” Aiello recalled to the author in an interview. “The flight lead, VFA-82’s XO, split us into two elements, saying, ‘You two guys attack this one, we’ll attack this one.’ Being ‘Dash-Four,’ I followed my element lead, ‘Dash-Three.’”
“‘Three was to strike first, but his FLIR was degraded, preventing him from targeting the AAA. As a result, he requested I designate and ‘lase’ the target and guide his LGB. This wasn’t as straightforward as it sounds, because each LGB is set to a particular code during pre-flight that tells the bomb’s seeker to follow a specific beam emitted by a targeting pod programmed with the same code and not any other lasers that may be painting the same or nearby targets.”
“To facilitate the bomb drop, I entered my lead’s code into my FLIR,” Aiello continued. With the target acquired, I commenced weapons delivery procedures. As the cue appeared on my FLIR display, I counted down for my lead over the radio… three, two, one… and called for him to release his GBU-12. The bomb separated from his plane and fell towards the target.”
There was one more challenge to overcome, however. “Ten seconds prior to impact, the FLIR will automatically illuminate the target with the laser to guide the bomb the rest of the way. But since I hadn’t released any weaponry myself, my FLIR wasn’t displaying a countdown timer to impact and wouldn’t automatically fire the laser. Therefore, I had to manually ‘lase’ the target until the bomb finally struck.”
Which it did. The AAA gun went up in an explosion as seen on the FLIR display, but there was no time to revel. After passing over the target, Aiello’s flight lead turned the Hornets around to attack the second AAA emplacement. Owing perhaps to momentary disorientation or too much excitement, he proceeded to make a mistake he can only look back upon humorously.
“On the first attack heading south, we attacked the leftmost of three AAA guns. After we made the 180-degree turn for our second attack now heading north, I thought it would be beneficial to change it up and go for the rightmost AAA gun. Of course, that ended up being the exact same gun as before but that did not occur to me in the heat of the moment. I dropped a GBU-12 and struck the target a second time.”
“With fuel and ordnance remaining, I asked my lead, ‘Are we cleared to fire everything we got?’ I still had the laser-guided Mavericks and sought to use them if so permitted. But, shortly after the second bomb drop, our entire flight was ordered back to Kennedy. Between our four Hornets, a total of three bombs were dropped during the mission.”
Upon recovering aboard the carrier, Aiello was finally able to process everything that had transpired. “I felt invigorated,” he remembers. “We did what we’d been trained to do. We were congratulated by squadron-mates and others, since employing weapons in anger was fairly rare.” The events of Dec. 5, 1999 were certainly a defining moment of a journey that began in 1993, when his flight training began. But there was also a humble realization of reality of the line of work Aiello had committed himself to.
“We’re warfighters, but nobody wants to kill or be killed,” he related. “Intelligence at the time indicated that Iraqi AAA guns were largely unmanned; their operators would run out from bunkers, man the guns, fire a few bursts, then run back for the safety of their bunkers. I took solace in the likelihood the AAA we hit wasn’t manned when the bombs struck. And if they were, well, they shot first.”
The events of Dec. 5 were not the only reason the 1999-2000 deployment aboard Kennedy was so memorable for Aiello. Prior to the deployment, he had been selected to attend the Navy Fighter Weapons School, better-known as TOPGUN. In January of the new year, Aiello started his millennium by departing Kennedy to attend his TOPGUN class, by then firmly entrenched at its new home, Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada. After several weeks of intense, rigorous training, Aiello earned the privilege of proudly wearing the coveted patch and remained on the TOPGUN staff as an instructor.
As fate would have it, however, he returned to Iraq three years later, this time aboard USS Nimitz (CVN-68) and assigned to West Coast-based VFA-94 “Mighty Shrikes.” Only now, it would not be to police the skies over Iraq – Aiello would take part in the effort that ousted Saddam Hussein from power and ushered in a new chapter of Iraqi history.
The author would like to thank Vincent “Jell-O” Aiello for sharing his memories for the purposes of writing this article. “Jell-O” hosts the highly acclaimed “The Fighter Pilot Podcast,” which can be followed here.
Top Image: Vincent Aiello