In the early hours of Jan. 17, 1991, a dozen Air Force Sikorsky MH-53J Pave Low III and Army McDonnell-Douglas AH-64A Apache helicopters raced low across the Iraqi border north of Ar’ar, Saudi Arabia. It was dangerous, low-level flying on a dark, moonless night, the crews at risk both from any Iraqi military forces they might encounter as well as from simply flying into the ground.
As explained by Richard P. Hallion in his book Desert Storm 1991, The most shattering air campaign in history, the mission (codenamed Operation Eager Anvil) was to blast a hole in Iraq’s air defenses by destroying two radar sites before they could detect incoming coalition strike aircraft entering western Iraq. The two radar sites, separated by a dozen miles, had a mix of P-12 Spoon Rest, P-15 Flat Face, and P-15M Squat Eye early warning radars, plus command and communications vans and systems. Time-on-target was set for precisely 0238L, so pin-point navigation and timing was a must. That necessitated having Pave Low pathfinders, with terrain-following/terrain avoidance (TF/TA) radar, forward-looking infrared vision (FLIR) and Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite navigation leading the Apaches to a predetermined geographical reference point near each site.
The helicopters were divided into two teams: Red Team attacked the westernmost site, designated Nevada, and White Team attacked the easternmost site, California. Each team paired two Pave Low pathfinders from the Air Force’s 20th Special Operations Squadron (commanded by Lt Col Richard L. Comer), with four Apache gunships from the Army’s 1st Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment (commanded by Lt Col Richard A. “Dick” Cody). Both were “lead-from-the-front” commanders, and they each flew that night.
Thanks to intensive pre-war preparation and rigorous joint training, the attack came off smoothly. In order to reach their targets simultaneously, the two teams crossed the Saudi–Iraq border at slightly different times, the first entering Iraqi airspace at 0212L. White team proceeded due north, Red Team north-northwest.
Crews saw some tracers even as they maneuvered around known observation posts. The Pave Lows led the teams to the predetermined reference point, door gunners and flight engineers dropped chem light markers, and the big tan-and-brown helicopters turned south to a holding area. The Apache crews updated their inertial navigation systems, then moved into firing position, 90 seconds earlier than planned.
Perhaps hearing the distant rotors, Iraqi air defenders began turning off the lights at the two sites, but it was too late. The Apache gunners turned on their targeting lasers. At 0237:50L Apache pilot Lt Tom Drew radioed “Party in ten,” and at precisely 0238L, a dozen miles apart, the two Apache teams unleashed a welter of carefully aimed Hellfire missiles, then, after moving closer, followed up with ripples of Hydra-70 flechette rockets, and bursts of 30mm chain gun fire. In three minutes the sites were obliterated, at the price of one Apache having its rotor blades holed by bullets, and at least two SA-7s fired at a Red Team egressing Pave Low, which evaded them.
Signals intelligence picked up a frantic call to the an-Nukhayb intercept operations center. Though it ended abruptly, the Intercept Operaion Center (IOC) clearly passed it on, for gunners in Baghdad began firing wildly, continuing for several minutes until their barrels overheated or they exhausted their available ammunition.
“It went exactly as planned,” Comer recalled on the twentieth anniversary of Desert Storm; “The mission was a perfect success. The Iraqis now had no eyes to see with over a large portion of their border and a coalition air armada streamed into the country above our two helicopter formations.”
Desert Storm 1991, The most shattering air campaign in history, is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Scene Camera Operator SGT. Brian Cumper / U.S. Army
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