Cold War Era

Iraqi MiG-25 Foxbat Pilot explains how he was able to shoot down Lt Cdr Speicher’s F/A-18 Hornet the first night of Operation Desert Storm

“I locked a target 38km [20.5 miles] from me and at 29km [15.6 miles] I fired [the] R-40RD missile from under my right wing. I kept the target locked with my radar [un]till I witnessed a huge explosion in front of me,” Lt Zuhair Dawoud, IrAF MiG-25 pilot.

The opening round of Operation Desert Storm began at 0300hrs on the night of Jan. 17, 1991. On that night there were three US Navy’s strike packages — two SEAD (suppression of enemy air defenses) groups and an “alpha strike” against Tammuz AB. Crossing the Saudi border between 25,000 and 29,000ft, the “alpha strike” was led by ten F/A-18C Hornets from VFA-81 and VFA-83, From USS Saratoga (CV-60), arrayed in a wide “wall” (actually a wide right echelon), with two to five miles between aircraft and each “stacked” 1,000ft above the one ahead to avoid mid-air collisions.

As explained by Douglas C. Dildy & Tom Cooper in their book F-15C Eagle vs MiG-23/25, the F/A-18s were sweeping the airspace ahead of the strikers and would provide SEAD support for them. Five from VFA-83 “Rampagers” formed the left/west half of the “wall,” with five jets from VFA-81 “Sunliners” comprising the east/right half. The Hornets fanned out to arrive at individual HARM launch points that formed a semi-circle around the western side of Tammuz.

The strikers were eight Grumman A-6E Intruders, four (Saratoga’s VA-35) dive-bombing from 25,000ft at 0400-0403hrs, each dropping four Mk 84 2,000lb bombs on two large hangars, followed by four (from VA-75, embarked on USS John E Kennedy (CV-67)) hitting the two hardened MiG-29 assembly facilities with 2,000lb GBU-10 LGBs at 0404-0407hrs. They were supported by three EA-6Bs (VAQ-130) escorted by two pairs (“sections”) of F-14As (VF-32), all from Kennedy. Due to the Tomcats lacking onboard electronic identification (EID) capability, to eliminate the risk of fratricide (also known as “blue on blue” or “friendly fire”) to USAF F-15Cs and F-15Es exiting the area, the F-14s were not allowed to sweep ahead of the US Navy strike packages (except for in the far west H3 area). Instead, they were relegated to close escort of the slower and relatively defenseless carrier-based attack and support aircraft.

VFA-81 F/A-18 Hornet during Operation Desert Storm

Because the remaining Iraqi radars had greater range at higher altitudes, the large US Navy strike formation was detected before it had crossed the border, headed northbound. By this time (approximately 0330hrs), the only Iraqi Air Force (IrAF) fighters still airborne were a pair of MiG-29s attempting to intercept B-52s hitting Talha. Once the Tammuz IOC determined that the largest group of attackers was apparently headed north towards Qadessiya AB (Al Asad), No. 96 Sqn was ordered to scramble a MiG-25PD to intercept the approaching “alpha strike.”

Taking the call was Lt Zuhair Dawoud, one of four “Foxbat” pilots “on standby alert in the main aircraft shelter” at Qadessiya. Dawoud later recounted, “At 0238hrs [“Baghdad time”/0338hrs “Riyadh time”] the Air Defense telephone rang and I answered. There was a guy screaming at the other end of the line `MiG-25 IMMEDIATE TAKEOFF!’ So I hurried to the aircraft. In fact, the technicians were ready for this moment, as was the jet, so the takeoff was exceptionally fast — I was airborne just three minutes after I had received the call. After takeoff I switched to safe [secure] frequency and established contact with GCI of the Air Defence Sector. The sky was clear, with very good visibility. The GCI started to give me directions to a group of aircraft that had penetrated Iraqi air space to the south of the base.”

Immediately after takeoff, Dawoud turned south, climbing in full afterburner to 8,000m (26,247ft) and accelerating to Mach 1.4, with his Smerch-A2 radar in “standby” mode, still warming up. Ahead of him, in the darkness, he was pointed at the center of the phalanx of Hornets, almost directly at the “Sunliners” boss, Cdr Michael T. “Spock” Anderson.

An IrAF MiG-25 Foxbat found buried beneath the sands during Operation Iraqi Freedom

About 70 miles south of Qadessiya, at 25,000ft, Anderson, flying aircraft “AA401,” saw the MiG-25 on his radar. “I got an immediate, radar contact on an airborne target climbing out of an airfield [ahead us],” Anderson subsequently recalled. “I immediately knew it was an enemy airplane because we have some [EID] technology on board the F/A-18. I could see the afterburner flame, and it was an extremely long yellow flame that I had seen before on a MiG-25. There is no question about what you have when you see that. As soon as I took a radar lock on him, he turned right, and at that point he started to go around me in a counter-clockwise direction. I did a couple of circles with him.”

Dawoud confirmed the initial intercept and maneuvering geometry, stating, “My radar was still warming and I was 90km [48.6 miles] from the target formation when an enemy aircraft locked [onto] me with radar. So I performed a hard maneuver and the lock broke.”

Despite his positive EID and visual identification (VID), Anderson held his fire while awaiting a confirmation from AWACS (callsign “Cougar”). However, the quick-reacting, fast-climbing “Foxbat” had just appeared at the far edge of the Sentry’s radar scopes and. without an electronic signature (Dawoud’s radar was not transmitting) to correlate with the radar contact, “Cougar” could not confirm the target was hostile. The Hornet and “Foxbat” both turned towards each other, making a complete circle in the darkness —afterburners burning brightly — until passing each other “180-out,” then Dawoud rolled out and came out of afterburner, causing Anderson to lose sight of him, and “bugged out” headed almost directly east, roaring over Anderson’s wingman, flying “AA406.”

An IrAF MiG-25 Foxbat found buried beneath the sands during Operation Iraqi Freedom

Flying “tail end Charlie” in the long, wide echelon was Lt Cdr Scott “Spike” Speicher in “AA403” (BuNo 163484). Approaching his launch point at 364 knots and 28,160ft, he disengaged the autopilot at 03:49:43hrs, selected “burner” and “bunted” over slightly to accelerate for his first HARM launch — recovery of “AA403’s” digital storage unit during the 1995 examination of the crash site provided a detailed account of the jet’s flight parameters. In 17 seconds Speicher accelerated to 540 knots and descended to 27,872ft.

Dawoud continued his story. “I reported what happened to the GCI and he told me to return to my original intercept course as I had ‘targets at 38km [20.5 miles]. ‘ Meanwhile, my radar became ready. I locked a target 38km [20.5 miles] from me and at 29km [15.6 miles] I fired [the] R-40RD missile from under my right wing. I kept the target locked with my radar [un]till I witnessed a huge explosion in front of me. I kept looking for the aircraft going down spirally to the ground with fire engulfing it.’

At 0350hrs an AWACS controller saw two contacts “merge.” The R-40RD detonated, from the left side, beneath the Hornet’s cockpit. The explosion of the 154lb high-explosive (HE) blast-fragmentation warhead instantly slewed the aircraft  50-60 degrees right, causing 6G side-forces that sheared off the external fuel tanks and their pylons, as well as one HARM. Speicher ejected, but died later. ‘AA403″ crashed 48 miles due south of Qadessiya.

A US Navy F/A-18 “Hornet” on display at NAS Pensacola, FL. The Hornet was painted in the markings of the squadron VFA-81 “Sunliners” and dedicated to the family of CAPT Scott Speicher.

F-15C Eagle vs MiG-23/25 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, Mikejapp and Dmitriy Pichugin via Wikimedia Commons

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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  • Notice that on the Hornet in Pensacola, that Speicher's rank is Captain due to his MIA status after ejecting. His remains were found by the US military in 2009 but he had been promoted twice since the shootdown.

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