Cold War Era

The weird story of the USAF F-117A that flew close to the left wingtip of an Iraqi Airways Boeing 747 during Operation Desert Shield (and a quick look at pre-Desert Storm Intelligence gathering)

As far as is known, this was the first-ever encounter between an Iraqi pilot and the shadowy stealth fighter of the US Air Force.

Early in the morning of Aug. 2, 1990, aircraft of the Iraqi Air Force (IrAF) bombed Kuwaiti air bases, and then the Iraqi Republican Guards stormed into the country. Although encountering some problems, the Iraqi forces occupied Kuwait in a matter of a few days.

Alarmed by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the USA and Saudi Arabia scrambled to react. Negotiations quickly revealed the obvious: despite all the investment of the proceeding decades, the desert kingdom was unable to protect itself. Therefore, the decision was taken to rush several carrier battle groups, dozens of combat aircraft, and entire units of the US Army and the US Marine Corps to the scene. As US allies from Europe and abroad followed in fashion, the biggest military build-up in the last two decades of the 20th Century came into being. Meanwhile, along the borders between Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, each side observed the other closely, and anxiously, took counsel of its fears and prepared for what Saddam eventually declared ‘The Mother of All Battles’ (Umm al-Ma’arik).

The Americans were the first to respond and on Aug.7  General Powell, Chairman of the JCS, ordered the ready brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, Maritime Prepositioning Squadrons (MPS) from Guam and Diego Garcia, the CVBG with USS Dwight D Eisenhower (CVN-69) and the battleship USS Wisconsin (BB-64) — that carried BGM-109 Tomahawk land-attack missiles — 12 squadrons of combat aircraft, and three equipped with E-3 Sentry AWACS and tankers to the Arabian Peninsula and surrounding waters. The code-name of this operation, formally introduced on Aug. 8, 1990, became Desert Shield; this was initiated with the landing of Colonel Ron Rokosz’s 2nd Brigade of the 82nd ‘All-American’ Airborne Division at Dhahran AB.

For political and diplomatic reasons, CENTCOM would not have headquarters in its area of responsibility, but at MacDill Air Force Base (AFB) in Florida. This made it difficult for its commanders to establish relations with the local forces but this was neither immediately necessary nor possible: until early 1990 its primary focus was on thwarting ‘a Soviet invasion of Iran.’

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-117A Nighthawk (Stealth) 49th OG, 8th FS “The Black Sheep Squadron”, HO/88-843, Holoman AFB, NM – 2008

As explained by E.R. Hooton & Tom Cooper in their book Desert Storm Volume 1: the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait and Operation Desert Shield 1990-1991, in addition to receiving satellite imagery, CENTCOM also benefitted from a wide variety of platforms to probe behind the enemy lines. The first USAF aircraft used were SAC’s Boeing RC-135 Rivet Joint, which began Burning Wind SIGINT missions infantry on Aug. 9 and within two days were providing 24-hour coverage.

On Aug. 29, SAC’s Lockheed U-2 very high altitude photo-reconnaissance aircraft and Lockheed TR-1 tactical reconnaissance with side-looking radar began operations as imagery was clearly the vital, and on  Sep. 8 the first medium-altitude photographic reconnaissance missions were flown by McDonnell-Douglas RF-4Cs. By Dec. 2 Gen. Charles Horner’s (Commander of US and allied air operations for Operation Desert Shield (and later Desert Storm) reconnaissance arm had flown 469 tactical, 421 strategic and 2,800 ELINT sorties, while AWACS— which both supported the shield and monitored IrAF activity had flown 253 sorties. One reconnaissance system which was late to the table was the Joint Surveillance Target Acquisition System (J-STARS) — an airborne battlefield surveillance radar system with a range of 150 kilometres, installed into a modified Boeing 707, re-designated as the E-8A. Schwarzkopf requested its deployment as early as of Aug. 10 but in early September the Joint Chiefs rejected the request arguing, ‘Desert Shield is not suitable in time or place for introduction J-STARS’. Only at the last minute did the Pentagon change its mind: the two available aircraft arrived on Jan. 12, 1991, together with six ground stations and four support vehicles that provided 44 remote terminals.

Conventional reconnaissance aircraft seem to have been not the only ones deployed by the US-led Coalition to monitor developments inside Iraq and Kuwait. Late during the evening of Dec. 16 1990, the crew of an Iraqi Airways Boeing 747 led by Captain Remzi (former fighter pilot with a long career of flying Sukhoi Su-7BMKs and Su-20s during the war with Iran) reported sighting an F-117A fighter close to the left wingtip of their aircraft – and that while underway over Najaf. As far as is known, this was the first-ever encounter between an Iraqi pilot and the shadowy stealth fighter of the US Air Force. Although it remains unknown to this day what exactly the latter was doing only 200 kilometres southwest of Baghdad at that point in time, we can assume the F-117A served the purpose pf testing IrAF’s air defences. However, the F-117A sighted by Remzi startled the commanders of the IrAF, forcing them into the conclusion that they lacked the means to effectively combat the most advanced US combat aircraft.

Desert Storm Volume 1: the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait and Operation Desert Shield 1990-1991 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.

Iraqi Airways Boeing 747

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Steve Fitzgerald via Wikipedia

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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