F/EF-111 crews were not prepared for air-to-air engagements, however, their aircraft lacking the manoeuvrability to engage in that sort of combat.
The F-111 was a long-range, all-weather strike aircraft capable of navigating at low level to destroy targets deep in enemy territory. The versatile F-111 Aardvark entered the U.S. Air Force (USAF) inventory in 1967, and the fighter version was retired in 1996 (the electronic warfare EF-111A served until 1998). The aircraft was originally conceived in 1960 to combine the USAF requirement for a fighter-bomber with Navy’s need for an air-superiority fighter, though the Navy eventually cancelled its program.
The F-111F variant was equipped with an all-weather AN/AVQ-26 Pave Tack infra-red targeting designator/reader carried in a pod-mounted turret under the fuselage. It could track and designate ground targets for targets for laser, infra-red and electro-optical bombs. The F-111F was one of the most effective Allied aircraft in Operation Desert Storm (1991).
Jan. 19, 1991 brought unwelcome evidence that the Iraqi fighter force was still active despite eight losses on the first night of the war. As told by Peter E. Davies in his book F-111 & EF-111 Units in Combat, two EF-111As were on station near Al Chaim for an F-15E strike on Scud emplacements near the town when, as they set up their jamming orbit ahead of the 12 Strike Eagles’ arrival, the Ravens came under supersonic attack from a MiG-25PD that had managed to slip through the F-15C fighter screen and fire three R-60 air-to-air missiles. Both EF-111As evaded the missiles by using the standard tactic of a steep descent to low altitude, but they had to leave the F-15E strike unprotected (its two F-4G Wild Weasels were delayed due to confused instructions) and one Strike Eagle fell to an Iraqi SAM.
Two MiG-25s (faster than the F-15C) and two MiG-29s were shot down that day, but another ‘Fulcrum’ fired a missile at an F-111F flown by Capts Mike McKelvey and Mark Chance as the crew waited their turn to bomb Al Habbaniyah airfield. McKelvey and his wingman crew, Capts James McGovern and Will Ward, had earlier been reduced to a two-aircraft attack after their leader abandoned the mission following a minor collision with their tanker. The deputy lead departed a short while later with mechanical problems. The two remaining F-111Fs reached their Baghdad area target before the F-15C CAP was on station, but they pressed on with the attack nevertheless. They successfully used chaff and a vertical break to divert the MiG-29’s missile, which exploded harmlessly in the clouds. The two F-111Fs severely damaged the Iraqi runways and both crewmembers were awarded Silver Stars.
If 48th TFW(P) crews had been forced to engage the enemy MiGs they would have probably been able to use AIM-9Ps effectively, given favourable circumstances. Col Larry Peters tested the weapon at Eglin AFB in 1974; `We fired at the BQM drone. We had three kills from three shots. Two were “splashes” (the drone was actually shot down) and the other was only a few feet off. We determined that the F-111 was a great platform for the AIM-9 Sidewinder because of its low-hanging pylons. We called it “free air”, meaning that there was very little disturbance from the wing or fuselage.’
Although Iraqi fighters were occasionally encountered, F-15Cs had full responsibility for protecting the strike forces. Their mere presence was often more than enough to convince the Iraqi Air Force (IrAF) MiG pilots to withdraw to a safe distance, rather than engage Coalition strike packages. For those that did evade the US air superiority shield, F/EF-111 crews had the defensive options of chaff, flares and flying TFR at lower altitudes — which proved more than enough to defeat IrAF fighters throughout Desert Storm.
F/EF-111 crews were not prepared for air-to-air engagements, however, their aircraft lacking the manoeuvrability to engage in that sort of combat. Several F-111E/F pilots who converted to the F-15E post-Desert Storm found real difficulty in adapting to the air-to-air component of the Strike Eagle training syllabus as there was little emphasis placed on it whilst assigned to the F-111.
After the devastation of Iraq’s fighter capability on the opening night of Desert Storm, the mission planners ordered the AIM-9Ps that were carried by the F-111 Fs as a precaution to be downloaded. With the removal of most fighter, command and control and missile threats completed in the first few nights, it was possible to fly most F-111F missions at altitudes between 12,000 ft and 20,000 ft, launching LGBs from triangular `race-track’ orbits with the aircraft flying in trail and lasing their ordnance against targets such as aircraft shelters.
F-111 & EF-111 Units in Combat is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force