THE UNKNOWN STORY OF THE F-16 MISSION THAT MARKED THE FIRST COMBAT USE OF GBU-38 JDAM AND THE BEGINNING OF THE BATTLE FOR FALLUJA

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The unknown story of the F-16 mission that marked the first combat use of GBU-38 JDAM and the beginning of the battle for Falluja

“The two guys on the wanted list step out from the overhang of the building and you could see them in the FLIR picture. One guy took a drag off of a cigarette and you could see the heat from it. As he took it out of his mouth the GBU-38 impacted and the war ended for him. We went home to got chow,” Maj Brian Wolf, 160th EFS / 187th FW F-16 driver

The F-16, called Viper by her pilots, has been the most prolific fighter in U.S. and Coalition operation in the Middle East for over a decade. Since the 1991 Gulf War, it has been the workhorse of the U.N.-sanctioned operations in the region, working in ‘Wild Weasel’, ground attack and air-superiority roles.

Operations Southern Watch and Northern Watch required daily and continuous combat patrols over Iraqi territory for over a decade – a task that was made simpler by the bountiful supply of F-16s in U.S. Air Force (USAF) service, and the fact that the jet has always been able to assume multiple roles and uses. When U.S. President George W. Bush ordered his forces into Iraq in March 2003, the F-16CJ was the second aircraft to enter enemy airspace (the first was the F-117A), sweeping the skies for electrons in a bid to find, identify and kill Iraq’s comprehensive air defence system. With the mission fulfilled, hordes of other Coalition fighters followed, including F-16CGs, which were used with great success to strike numerous targets.

F-16 Print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-16CM Fighting Falcon 20th Fighter Wing, 77th Fighter Squadron “Gamblers”, SW/94-0044 – Shaw AFB, SC

However, as told by Steve Davies and Doug Dildy in their book F-16 Fighting Falcon Units of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Viper played an important role during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) also after the shooting war ended.

As explained by Maj Brian Wolf, an F-16 driver with then 160th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron (EFS) / 187th Fighter Wing (FW) in September 2004 there had been some speculation that the newest version of JDAM, the GBU-38, might soon arrive in-theatre. The GBU-38 had been hastily developed from the Mk 82 500-lb dumb bomb as a weapon eminently suited to the Urban Close Air Support (CAS) mission. It used similar strap-on guidance and control kits as the 2000-lb GBU-31, but was far safer to use in the close confines of Iraqi cities and villages – the home of the insurgent.

It is perhaps more than a little ironic that Wolf’s story forms the beginning of what was to become the battle for Falluja – a major drive to free city from insurgents hiding within – and was also the first-ever GBU-38 drop in combat, in an environment for which it was specifically designed.

The unknown story of the F-16 mission that marked the first combat use of GBU-38 JDAM and the beginning of the battle for Falluja
USAF F-16C block 30 #87-0336 at Al Udeid AB, Qatar during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Wolf recalls: “We got in-country and the loadout we were carrying was GBU-38 and slant loads of GBU-12s. We also had two AMRAAMs, 500 rounds of 20mm and the AT Litening II pod. We were running oil pipeline routes looking for sabotage or leaks, and running ‘Crown Jewels’, which were the power lines that people were wrecking to steal and sell the copper contacts.”

‘Crown Jewels’ and the pipeline patrols were ongoing at that time, and Wolf recalled that there was a constant flow of saboteurs: “That night my wingman and I were on a three-hour vul, and late into the sortie. At about daybreak we got a call to contact the controlling agency, which we did. They asked us to go to secure radios and they then passed us coordinates, telling us, ‘we’re going to need a TOT, run in heading and read back of coordinates’. We put the coordinates into the jet and determined a good run-in heading based on winds. We were looking at the target complex with our Litening II pods – the FLIR was really good, and we could see the target from more than 20 miles away. We didn’t want them to know we were inbound, so we stayed north of the target, which was in Falluja.”

The softening up of the city was just beginning, and a major drive to kill insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, was underway: “By whatever means (I truly don’t know), the troops on the ground had determined that there were Zarqawi operatives in this particular section of Falluja. In our targeting packs there were these DMPIs (Desired Mean Point of Impacts) with commensurate coordinates on all of the safe houses and buildings in the area. They asked us if we had this specific DMPI in our packs, and we replied that we had because our Intel brief had covered them. They told us ‘look at the following DMPIs because they are potentially very high-value targets’, and they verified the coordinates. That was the critical thing to do with JDAM, even though we had DMPIs in our racks.

The unknown story of the F-16 mission that marked the first combat use of GBU-38 JDAM and the beginning of the battle for Falluja
GBU-38 explosions in Iraq in 2008.

“When you’re dropping JDAM we call it ‘O6 bombing’, because even the colonels can hit the target. There are a few things to do before we drop – I have to cursor-zero my system to make sure there are no slews or errors in the navigation system, and I make sure I’ve got a GPS ‘High-High’ guidance system because all that data is going to the JDAM.”

Wolf and his wingman held north of the target until they were satisfied with their plan, then they called their controlling agency and advised them they were inbound to the target: “By now they had taken their Predator UAV and moved it away from the immediate area, but not too far away because they wanted to film and get BDA in real time back to the CAOC. We rolled in on-airspeed, on-heading and on-attack axis, and we reached the release parameters and hit the pickle button. There was a little dip in the wing as cartridges fired, and I was now 500 lbs lighter on station 7 on the right wing. I checked left and put the pod in a good position to film some BDA, waiting the approximate 35 seconds until the bomb impacts. The building just shacked – two bombs put onto the same DMPI where they had assessed that there were Zarqawi operatives. At this point the sun was just starting to come up, and I put away the NVGs. It was a distinct and exact impact, and the bombs had hit within a second of each other.”

Wolf and his wingman, ‘Rocky’, went off-target and circled around for BDA. “We picked up in our orbit in case they need more help, and as we were spinning, I got the distinct impression that it was ‘Shark Week’ on The Discovery Channel! There was an F/A-18 circling above us, two more were below us and not too far away were a pair of F-16s. Word had obviously gotten out, because it was like sharks converging for the kill.”

The unknown story of the F-16 mission that marked the first combat use of GBU-38 JDAM and the beginning of the battle for Falluja

Still unaware that they were the first to drop the GBU-38 in combat, Wolf and his wingman were cleared to return to Al Udeid Air Base: “When we got home, the most surreal thing was debriefing – watching our tapes on huge black and white screens versus our small MFD. The GBU-38 had only taken out the target building, leaving the walls of the building on either side completely untouched.”

Moving to the chow hall at Al Udeid, the two sat down to omelette, hash browns and bacon in front of one of the giant TV screens: “We heard Fox News talking about Coalition forces attacking Falluja early in the morning, and they showed the building reduced to rubble. We look at each other and smiled. ‘Hey dude, that was us!’.

“We watched our tapes one more time on the big screen, and you could see just seconds before impact the two guys on the wanted list step out from the overhang of the building. They came walking out and you could see them in the FLIR picture. One guy took a drag off of a cigarette and you could see the heat from it. As he took it out of his mouth the bomb impacted and the war ended for him. We went home to got chow.”

The unknown story of the F-16 mission that marked the first combat use of GBU-38 JDAM and the beginning of the battle for Falluja

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army

Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com

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