It was late January or early February almost ten years ago when my wingman and I rattled down the cats, each of us carrying one of the then brand-new Joint Stand-Off Weapons (JSOW). In the best traditions of the strike fighter service, we were also carrying an AIM-120 AMRAAM mounted on a cheek station, with a forward looking infrared (FLIR) pod on its opposite. Each of us also had a pair of AIM-9M Sidewinders on our wingtips and of course a full drum of 20mm in the nose. We were ready to strut down main street.
Or we would have been that is, if mainstreet hadn’t got so darn crowded. In the fall of 1998, right when a number of interesting revelations were hitting the airwaves back home – summat to do with White House interns and cigars, if I properly recollect – the national command authority watched Saddam kick a bunch of UN weapons inspectors unceremoniously to the door and decided: This shall not stand, and so forth.
The Big E was already in the Gulf when word turned to deed, with the ship I had the honor to serve on racing to join the fray. We got there in time for the final spasm of a four-day campaign of airstrikes and Tomahawk launches intended by President Clinton to “degrade” Iraq’s capability to manufacture weapons of mass destruction.
I know: Jolly St. Bill thought there were WMD there too. Sometimes it’s hard to get your head around.
Anyway, we got there just as Ramadan was kicking off and having launched one alpha strike in celebration of the holiday spirit, we summarily took a break from further bombing for a lunar month. For his part, Saddam took a break from kite flying competitions and running political opponents through the plastic shredder to pack the UN-sanctioned southern no-fly zone with enough anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missile systems to make walking the airspace over the south easier than flying through it.
Now the southern no-fly zone had become a kind of home away from home for Naval Aviation, at least since 1991. Enraged by his ejection from Kuwait and fearful of a Shi’a rebellion in the unstable south and the ever-restive Kurds in the north, Saddam put tens of thousands of his own citizens to the gun. Bad form, said we, and don’t you use no airplanes to do it with or we shall shoot them down, and so it went for many a desultory year.
We’d become accustomed to sharing the defensive counter-air (DCA) “lanes” south of the 32nd parallel with USAF F-15′s and F-16′s, and mostly nothing much happened, although one day in 1992 a Viper did bag a MiG-25 who got caught playing the fool on the wrong side of the line, to the communal shame of Ego jocks around the world, who thought that MiG killing was very much more in their line of work.
When we weren’t running our DCA lanes – nothing duller in the world when no one comes out to play, by the way – the strike fighters among us (as opposed to those simple fighters who hadn’t gotten their cool on quite yet) were doing target “fams,” familiarizing ourselves with potential targets, just for the practice that was in it. We didn’t drop anything of course, and he never much shot at us, so it was pretty good training so long as you didn’t pooch it by clacking into one another at night or suffering some class of catastrophic malfunction that might begin with a Martin-Baker penetration and end with you on deck with dirty boots on the wrong side of the line. Everyone conceded that of all possible suck scenarios, that would have been pretty much the suckiest.
History, I think, has borne out the truth of that conviction.
But everything was changed, changed utterly after Ramadan in 1998 – a terrible beauty was born. The wide lanes of safety we’d been used to strolling through had become narrow, winding and constricted alleyways, with fixed SAM sites encroaching on the left and right. There were mobile SAMS scattered about too – tracked buggers that could have been almost anywhere, and you had to always honor the threat.
Arty tubes too, as I have already mentioned, and while we were ever-prepared to cram an anti-radiation missile down the throat of anyone who dared to light us up and usually flew well above the effective range of even the large caliber AAA, it was possible to shoot both SAMS and AAA in an unguided mode, and eventually even a poor gunner will get lucky – especially with the airspace so full of aluminum. The “Golden BB” we used to call it, knowing that even at lottery odds, it was only a matter of time.
So anyway, he started to shoot at us rather petulantly, and petulantly we shot back, with him almost always missing and us usually hitting and that was more or less the state of affairs until the 20th of March 2003. Five years of going flying knowing that there was a million dollar reward on your head does great things for your focus in the air, and I can tell you from personal experience that a man can get a lot of job satisfaction from secondary explosions off his hits, so long as he doesn’t think too hard on it.
So there we were, my wingie and I – and a damned good man he was too, intelligent, perceptive and attentive to his wingmanlike duties – and on that particular day the bad guy had done a bad thing, so we were fairly confident that the Boss Man would cry a little havoc and let the dogs of war slip a bit, that having been the general trend over the course of the last several, even as it added a bit to our breathing space.
Prepared for just such an eventuality, we were fragged, briefed and loaded to thump a couple of SAM sites with our JSOWs before setting up a barrier CAP north of the target while a second four-ship of strike fighters – which, by this time included the “venerable” Tomcat – did the laser guided bomb thing on another predetermined target in close proximity to our own.
(to be continued…)