The ‘Package Q Airstrike’ took place on Jan. 19, 1991 and it was the largest combined strike of Operation Desert Storm and employed the largest numbers of F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jets ever in such an operation.
The ‘Package Q Airstrike’ took place on Jan. 19, 1991 and it was the largest combined strike of Operation Desert Storm and employed the largest numbers of F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jets ever in such an operation. As told by Bertie Simmonds in his book F-16 Fighting Falcon, it was also the operation that made the coalition realize that big unwieldy formations weren’t as good as stealthy, precision strikes.
The large force sent against Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center near Baghdad was aimed is dealing a knockout blow to the Iraqi defenses, but a series of problems instead led to an unsuccessful outcome and two aircraft being lost. A total of 56 F-16s were used in the raid, coming from the 388th TFW and 401st TFW along with McDonnell at Douglas F-4G ‘Wild Weasel’ aircraft and top cover provided by F-15C Eagles.
The issues began with some orders for the strike coming to late, the day before the strike, while overnight on the 18th/19th other targets— this time in downtown Baghdad — were added. This meant that after hitting Al Thwaitha and the Osirak nuclear reactor, the whole force had to fly through concentrated (and by now very alert) SAM belts and triple-A units. Adding to these issues were the fact that the F-16s were heavily laden — bombs, two fuel tanks and two AIM-9 Sidewinders, while the F-4Gs were only carrying two High Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles and fuel tanks.
Even before the mission, things were getting complicated, thanks to bad weather and issues with the air-to-air refuelling — tankers were throttling back to avoid having to turn back early and this meant a number of F-16s were so far behind the main force after they tanked, they had to be sent back to base.
On the way in to the target all aircraft were subjected to triple-A and SAMs and under this barrage communication between the various groups in the strike package began to suffer. The Wild Weasel F-4Gs did engage some of the threats, but not all of them were over the target nor did they shoot all their HARMs and — to make matters worse — they had to leave before all of the F-16 strikers were over the target area itself.
Cloud cover also obscured the target, making things yet worse.
This was F-16 pilot Keith Rosenkranz’s mission from hell’. In his book Vipers in the Storm: Diary of a Gulf War Fighter Pilot he recalls: “The flak is thicker than soup. Within seconds my RWR (Radar Warning Receiver) scope fills up again. Iraqi gunners know exactly where I am and they have me locked. The launch indications are continuous: it finally reaches a point where I can no longer hear them. My mind is task saturated. I do hear radio calls and tones from my RWR but I don’t have time to discern their meaning: nor could I — not with all my energy focused on hitting the target. If I get shot down, then so be it. I am not going to miss this time.” Despite the Facility being obscured by smoke, Rosenkranz hit the target and made it back to base, two others would not be so lucky.
Other problems saw the strike package get strung out — differences in the performance of the various F-16s and the different engines saw to that. By the time the F-4G Wild Weasels had egressed, the F-16s were on their own and — while previously many missiles had been launched ‘unguided’ – these were now slaved to their targets for them to choose from…
Many F-16s hit their targets, either primary of secondary ones, but many others were forced to jettison bombs and tanks before hitting the target itself. It was foolish to do anything else with the number of SAMs in the air.
Some pilots said as many as 20 to 30 SAMs had been fired, as they tried to hit the target and then get the hell out of there. Many aircraft were hit and two were lost – both pilots surviving the war as prisoners of war. And still the pain went on… this time the Iraqi Air Force began to shadow the strike force as it left the target area. Eight MiG-29s closed on the rear of the F-16 formation as they struggled to get heck out of dodge. To add insult to injury, the F-15C top-cover had already left with the F-4Gs…
Safe in the knowledge that they could best anyone in air-combat, some of the F-16s turned around to face their attackers and the MiG-29s turned tail and fled. This meant that — by the time they crossed the border — some of the F-16s were perilously low on fuel. It’s said more than one tanker crew disobeyed orders and crossed the border to top up the tanks of a few thirsty Vipers.
These difficulties led to the US adopting different tactics — and swiftly. It’s to their credit that they didn’t blindly send another large strike package into a heavily defended area. Instead high-risk targets in heavily-defended areas like Baghdad and Al Tuwaitha would receive the attentions of the F-1 17A Nighthawk stealth attack aircraft.
F-16 Fighting Falcon is published by Mortons Books and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Lee F. Corkran / U.S. Air Force