Military Aviation

The “Secret Squirrel Seven’s” Senior Surprise: The B-52 Stratofortress Top Secret mission that launched the first strike of Operation Desert Storm

Operation Secret Squirrel

On Jan.16, 1991, at 0636 local time, mission commander Lt Col John “Jay” Beard, aircraft commander Capt Michael G. Wilson, co-pilot 1Lt Kent R. Beck, and Crew S-91 lifted their massive eight-engine Boeing B-52G Stratofortress SN 58-0177 Petie 3rd, call-sign Doom 31, off the runway at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. Climbing smokily into rainy skies, six more thundering Buffs of the USAF Strategic Air Command’s 596th Bomb Squadron, 2nd Bomb Wing, 8th Air Force followed them aloft.


Thus began Operation Senior Surprise, a highly classified mission its aircrew dubbed “Secret Squirrel,” after a cartoon crime-fighter. As explained by Richard P. Hallion in his book Desert Storm 1991, The most shattering air campaign in history, the bombers were off to destroy portions of Iraq’s electrical grid and communications infrastructure by attacking eight key targets with 39 long-range precision cruise missiles.

Beneath each airplane’s inner wings were pylons mounting streamlined gray shapes looking like slab-sided fuel tanks. They were, instead, Boeing AGM-86C Conventional Air-Launched Cruise Missiles. The CALCM was a top-secret special access codeword-shielded weapon. Boeing had developed a short-range subsonic cruise missile, the AGM-86A, in the late 1970s, and then had stretched it, producing the long-range nuclear-armed AGM-86B. In turn, it spawned a non-nuclear derivative, the AGM-86C CALCM, with a 1,000lb special-purpose warhead. Powered by a Williams F107-WR-10 turbofan producing 600lb (2.67kN) of thrust, the CALCM had an effective range up to 1,000 miles, flying at low altitude, relying on both terrain-masking and its small visible and radar signatures to shield it from enemy fire. Unlike terrain-matching cruise missiles, it found its way using an onboard Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite navigation system.

Seven B-52 bombers

Aboard the bombers were 57 aircrew. Six of the B-52Gs carried eight, the regular six-person pilot, co-pilot, radar navigator, navigator, electronic warfare officer, and tail gunner being augmented by another pilot and another navigator. The seventh B-52G, with a second augmentee pilot, had nine crew aboard.

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After takeoff, the B-52Gs crossed the southern US, passed over the Atlantic, southern Europe, the Mediterranean, then down to the Red Sea and into western Saudi Arabia. They refueled multiple times, supported by 38 KC-135 tanker sorties out of Lajes Air Base, Azores, and 19 KC-10 tanker sorties from Morón Air Base, Spain. Early on Jan. 17, the Buffs arrived over two launch areas 60 miles south of the Iraqi border between Al Jouf and Ar’ar. Pre-launch checks failed four missiles, but the other 35 were healthy, and so each aircraft launched its load. Last to strike was B-52G SN 58-0185 El Lobo II, Doom 37, flown by Capt Stephen D. Sicking and Crew S-93.

While one CALCM descended and crashed into the Saudi desert, the others continued onwards at low altitude, and of these, 28 hit their targets including the al-Musayyib Thermal Power Plant. SAC intelligence analysts concluded six targets ceased operation, one other was damaged, and one remained untouched.

The “Secret Squirrel Seven”

As for the bombers, the “Secret Squirrel Seven” turned back to the US, where, after facing dauntingly stiff headwinds and bad weather, they all safely returned between 33.9 hours and 35.4hrs after take-off, having completed (what was at that time) the longest strategic attack mission in aviation history.

Senior Surprise/Secret Squirrel blended all the qualities of modern air power: speed, range, flexibility, precision, and lethality. It thus constituted a fitting demonstration of the Air Force’s new Global Reach–Global Power strategic planning concept issued in June 1990.

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

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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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