Vipers of ‘91: Hill’s F-16s at war

Vipers of ‘91: Hill’s F-16s at war

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — When the Gulf War began, the footage of precision weaponry striking Iraqi government buildings, military installations, and tanks impressed the nation. 

Laser-guided bombs and high-speed anti-radiation missiles (HARMs), carried by the new stealthy F-117 Nighthawk and the F-111 Aardvark caught the world’s attention. The tank-busting A-10 Warthog also came in for its share of the Gulf War glory. The F-16 Fighting Falcon, which had arrived at the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing in 1979 played a vital role in the 1991 American air power campaign between the opening strikes in the very early morning of Jan. 17, and the end of the war on Feb. 28. 

Carrying air-to-air missiles, a heavy bomb load, and equipped with the Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night (LANTIRN) pods, 48 of the 388th’s F-16s from the 4th and 421st Tactical Fighter Squadrons flew 3,944 sorties in support of the overall mission of destroying Iraq’s army and liberating Kuwait.

Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. President George H.W. Bush almost immediately received an invitation from King Fahd of Saudi Arabia to station U.S. forces in the kingdom, first for the defense of the Arabian Peninsula and then for the liberation of Kuwait. Soon after, many of the other states in the Gulf followed. By mid-September, 800 U.S. aircraft and their crews had arrived. Among them were the 4th and 421st TFS, which had shipped out of Hill AFB in late August. Both flew nonstop to Al Minhad Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, refueling in flight 10 times over the 16-hour trip. 

In September 1990, the Air Force reorganized its forces in the Gulf. The 388th Tactical Fighter Wing (Provisional) became the operational lead at Al Minhad, and its wing commander, Col. Michael Navarro, took command of his squadrons as well as the 69th TFS, part of the 347th TFW from Moody AFB. The squadrons at Al Minhad provided 72 of the 210 F-16s employed during the war. Meanwhile, the 34 TFS deployed to Torrejon Air Base, Spain, to provide attrition replacements.

On Jan. 8, 1991, as the wing continued to train for the upcoming campaign to liberate Kuwait, 4th TFS pilot Capt. Michael Chinburg crashed and was killed flying his F-16. Chinburg was the only casualty for the 388th TFW during the campaign.

By the time the air campaign commenced, the United States had nearly 1,200 combat aircraft deployed, supported by another 1,200 tankers, tactical and heavy lifters, and other support aircraft. All together, the in-theater aircraft filled 25 bases in five countries. This was over a quarter of all U.S. Air Force assets and included 80 percent of the strategic airlift available, half the tanker force, and nearly all aircraft capable of dropping precision munitions.

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the coalition forces, and his air commanders had extremely high expectations for the aerial campaign that would precede the ground assault on Iraqi troops. The American goal was to reduce Iraqi combat effectiveness by 50 percent, which entailed striking targets in Iraq and Kuwait for 38 days. This was a tremendously difficult task that demanded superior performance on the part of every piece of the air power machine. The 388th TFW flew missions against Iraq from the very moment that the aerial campaign began in the early morning hours of Jan. 17, 1991.

During the campaign, the 421st TFS flew over 1,300 sorties, most of which occurred at night. The 4th TFS flew a similar number of daytime sorties. Along with the 69th TFS, they dropped nearly 3 million pounds of bombs on targets all over Iraq and Kuwait.

The 388th’s missions during the first few days of the war were complicated and sometimes chaotic. Flying from Al Minhad to the top of the gulf was a journey of 530 nautical miles. The multi-ship groups that flew into Iraq during the first days of the war would routinely refuel more than once before the planes assembled, and the F-16s would be flying for up to eight hours, sometimes on very little notice. 

Initial attack

On the first day, the wing sent 24 F-16s, divided into eight-ship flights, to prevent the movement of the Iraqi Republican Guard, the elite corps of the Iraqi Army. They bombed the Republican Guard’s headquarters, command and control centers, and its communications facilities. The next day, the F-16s struck them again, along with the Kuwaiti air bases at Al Jaber and Ali Al Salem.

On the third day of the war, the Air Force organized the largest mission of the campaign known as “Package Q.” This strike at Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, was designed to be larger and more comprehensive than the previous strikes by F-117s using single “smart” bombs. Fifty-six of the 388th’s F-16s, along with F-15s, F-111s and various support aircraft, would converge on Baghdad and attack the centers of the Iraqi government. Each F-16 was heavily loaded with extra fuel, air-to-air missiles, and two Mark-84 2,000 pound bombs. 

Iraqi air defenses over Baghdad had been severely compromised by F-117 attacks, but individual surface-to-air missile emplacements were still operational, as were the hundreds of anti-aircraft guns surrounding the city. U.S. forces were heavily engaged by these defenses, and the F-16s diverted rather than jettison their ordnance. The 388th’s F-16s struck the research center at Tuwaitha, the center of the Iraqi nuclear program, a target it would revisit more than once over the course of the next month.

Scud hunting and kill-boxes

In the following weeks, the 388th TFW expanded its mission set. When the air campaign began, the Iraqis swiftly responded by attempting to complicate the coalition’s political stability. It did so by launching its Scud ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia and Israel. The missiles did not carry large warheads and they were not very accurate. But in order to remove the threat of indiscriminate strikes on Israel’s cities by a desperate Iraq, the wing added “Scud-hunting” to its list of tasks. 

Fixed launch sites were easy to find, but the Iraqis had a number of mobile launchers as well. They attempted to move supplies and equipment during the night, because moving their forces during the day was dangerous with American jets flying constantly. This made the wing’s LANTIRN capability extremely valuable. Striking day and night, the TFW hit Al Jaber and Ali Al Salem repeatedly to destroy the shelters where the Iraqis stored Scud parts. Large formations of F-16s also attacked Scud production facilities and hunted for mobile launch sites.

As the ground attack by U.S. and coalition forces drew closer, the 388th’s missions expanded even further, and became more specialized and innovative. Weather and oil fires started by the Iraqis significantly degraded any aircraft’s ability to accurately target its objectives from medium altitudes. 

Navarro and his commanders, including Lt. Col. Mark Welsh, then commander of the 4 TFS, were tasked to hunt for Iraqi formations in what became known as “kill-boxes,” 20-mile grids in southern Iraq and Kuwait. Initially bombing from over 25,000 feet with limited effectiveness, the wing’s pilots quickly became frustrated. They redesigned a Vietnam-era tactic for the modern battlefield, and operated as “Killer Scouts,” with a two-plane formation going over the same kill-box every sortie, one flying high, ready to strike, and the other flying low, marking targets. 

Pilots became familiar with the terrain and with the environment of their kill-box, and so, as one put it, “The Iraqis couldn’t make a move without the Killer Scouts knowing about it.”

Supporting the ground attack

On Feb. 24, 1991, the ground campaign began, and up to the moment it rolled into action, the fog of war prevented planners from knowing just how effective the air campaign had been. However, due to the air war, the Iraqi Army had become disorganized and their resistance was half-hearted. Thanks to tactics like those employed by the Killer Scouts, the Iraqis avoided using or moving much of their heavy equipment, which were great targets for U.S. planes.

The result was an uncoordinated response to U.S. attacks, with many units surrendering without attempting to man their tanks or artillery. Even where the attacking American planes had failed to destroy their targets, surrendering Iraqi soldiers complained about the continual presence of air raids and how U.S. interdiction efforts had prevented any kind of coordinated defense. The result was a 100-hour offensive that routed the Iraqis in only four days.

When the 388th’s warfighters returned to Hill AFB at the end of the war, they returned as combat veterans who had operated the F-16 in every mission the aircraft had been designed for under harsh desert conditions. The wing suffered only two damaged aircraft in 44 days of combat with no losses. 

With this experience, and with the technological advances that followed from the use of the LANTIRN and precision munitions, the 388th was set up for continued success in the battlespace of the 21st century.

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