Military Aviation

Operation Secret Squirrel: the story of the top-secret ultra-long range B-52 Stratofortress mission that opened strikes of Operation Desert Storm

Secret Squirrel paved the way for American forces to defeat Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whose troops had invaded neighboring Kuwait

In the early morning of Jan. 16, 1991, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) deployed seven B-52G Stratofortresses crews from 2nd Bomb Wing (BW) to Iraq in a single, secret mission that would mark the beginning of Operation Desert Storm.

This opening salvo, launched by the 596th Bomb Squadron (BS), paved the way for American forces to defeat Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whose troops had invaded neighboring Kuwait. The then Strategic Air
Command (SAC) called the classified mission Operation Senior Surprise.

“Secret Squirrel” mission patch created by the men who took part in the historic mission. The mission marked the first combat launch of the AGM-86C, Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missile, a GPS guided munition.

Operation Senior Surprise was a mission orchestrated by SAC during Operation Desert Shield. The term Senior Surprise was the official name of the mission, but aircrew and maintainers creatively came up with the name Secret Squirrel so they could track schedules and discuss the mission in unclassified areas.

At the start of Desert Shield, a select group of aircrew and maintainers from the 596th Bomb Squadron (BS) were briefed about the use in combat of a new type of weapon, the Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missile (CALCM).

“I was first informed of the mission in August 1990 and then had six months to train on the new weapon. We couldn’t tell anybody anything,” explained Warren Ward, Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) deputy chief of programming division and 596th BS B-52G Stratofortress co-pilot, during Operation Senior Surprise. “The 62nd BS and part of the 596th BS were largely deploying forward yet a large portion of the 596th stayed at Barksdale. We were watching our brothers in arms going forward, yet we were staying back. We had to work under a veil of secrecy.”

A B-52G Stratofortress aircraft is serviced on the flight line prior to flying a bombing mission against Iraqi forces during Operation Desert Storm. The aircraft is armed with M-117 750-pound bombs.

Once briefed, the groups began extensive training to ensure that the aircraft could fly long-range missions safely and flawlessly.

The morning of Jan. 16, 1991, seven B-52G Stratofortresses from Barksdale Air Force Base (AFB) took off heading toward Iraqi targets, launched 35 of the then new AGM-86C CALCMs annihilating Saddam’s forces and striking key point of communication infrastructure, and returned in secret.

This marked also the first time GPS had ever been used to guide a missile toward a target.

A Boeing AGM-86B (ALCM) at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. The AGM-86C CALCM differs from the AGM-86B air launched cruise missile in that it carries a conventional blast/fragmentation payload rather than a nuclear payload and employs a GPS aided INS. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Col. Trey Morriss, 307th BW vice commander, was a new captain when he served as a B-52G electronic warfare officer during the Secret Squirrel mission.

“The Secret Squirrel mission was used to blind Iraq by eliminating certain power and communication nodes throughout the country. This severely hampered their response in the initial phase of the war,” Morriss pointed out. “We proved to U.S. citizens, our allies, coalition partners, and even to our enemies that we will do what we say we’re going to do. In doing so, we solidified the B-52 in the realm of long-range strike capability.”

“The B-52 provides a great first-strike capability in any conventional war,” Morriss said. “It gives us the ability to degrade the enemy with the first attack and press in with other capabilities. We also proved to the world that we were on the threshold of a new type of modern warfare with GPS-guided weapons. The results speak for themselves.”

A KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft boom operator refuels a B-52 Stratofortress aircraft during air operations for Operation Desert Storm over Southwest Asia Feb. 1, 1991. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Chris Putnam / Released)

Noteworthy during “Secret Squirrel” the BUFF (Big Ugly Fat Fucker, as the B-52 is nicknamed) aircrews faced unpredictable risks when flying to the Middle East, but maintained confidence in their training. Those risks included potential enemy action, landing into friendly territory that may not have been prepared to accommodate U.S. military aircraft or any number of system failures within the aircraft.

“The risks were the unknown,” explains Russell Mathers. who took part to Secret Squirrel as B-52 copilot “We didn’t know if anyone was going to take a shot at us.”

Secret Squirrel marked the longest combat sortie flight totaling 14,000 miles in 35 hours and 24 minutes. Moreover the clandestine operation set the standard for long-range strike.

A B-52G Stratofortress aircraft is serviced on the flight line prior to flying a bombing mission against Iraqi forces during Operation Desert Storm. The aircraft is armed with M-117 750-pound bombs.

In fact as told by Mathers, after Desert Storm SAC learned valuable lessons about long-range combat missions. “What we learned as a bomber community is that the bomber is still a huge viable weapons system. We also learned how difficult it is physiologically, to fly these missions and prepare the human body to fly 30 or 40 hour missions.”

Once “Secret Squirrel” kicked off Desert Storm operations, the B-52 continued playing a critical role throughout the campaign. In fact nearly 70 B-52G crews flew 1,741 missions totaling 15,269 combat hours during which 27,000 tons of munitions were dropped.

Staff Sgt. Brian D. Land checks a .50-caliber tail turret gun on a B-52G Stratofortress aircraft during Operation Desert Shield

Jim Bowles, an AFGSC program analyst, served as a B-52 instructor pilot and aircraft commander during Desert Storm. Bowles said he was fortunate to fly with a copilot, radar navigator electronic warfare officer, and gunner, all of whom were instructors in their respective duties. “We knew our aircraft, and we knew our training. While there was some apprehension about going into combat and the potential for not coming home, there was also a confidence because we knew we could do our mission. When I look back on Desert Storm, it feels like yesterday. It’s a memory deep within myself and my family. It’s a defining moment that shaped me for the rest of my Air Force career.”

Secret Squirrel remained classified until Jan. 16, 1992, when the aircrew members and maintainers who made the mission possible were presented with air, achievement and commendation medals for their efforts.

Twenty-five years after Operation Senior Surprise, aka “Secret Squirrel”, the aircrew members that kicked off Operation Desert Storm reunited on Barksdale Air Force Base, La. on Jan. 15, 2016. One of the B-52 Stratofortress bombers stationed at Barksdale is displaying the “Secret Squirrel” patch to commemorate the anniversary. This 35 hour mission was the first combat use of the Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missile (CALCM). (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Dachelle Melville/Released)

Soource: Senior Airman Benjamin Raughton, 2nd Bomb Wing Public Affairs and U.S. Air Force; Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

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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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