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Wild Weasels: First In, Last Out

U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons with the 35th Fighter Wing fly a training mission over Misawa Air Base, Japan, Feb. 14, 2013. The F-16 is the sixth generation aircraft of the Wild Weasels whose mission is the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, or SEAD. (Photo by Jake Melampy)

U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons with the 35th Fighter Wing fly a training mission over Misawa Air Base, Japan, Feb. 14, 2013. The F-16 is the sixth generation aircraft of the Wild Weasels whose mission is the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, or SEAD. (Photo by Jake Melampy)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- The roaring sound of an F-16 Fighting Falcon ripping through the sky leaves adversaries on the ground frozen in their tracks, bracing themselves as one of the most lethal machines on the planet nears their location. It's a helpless feeling opposing forces have endured for nearly 50 years as Wild Weasels have set the unmatchable standard of aerial supremacy worldwide.

Pilots from the 35th Fighter Wing execute the Suppression of Enemy Air Defense mission, and take pride carrying on the lineage of Wild Weasel units that date back to the Vietnam War. Their motto is "First In, Last Out", highlighting their willingness and confidence to lay their lives on the line and apply a relentless attack to defeat integrated air defense systems and see each mission through.

The 35 FW includes the 35th Operations Group, where both the 13th and 14th Fighter Squadrons operate and make up the wing's flying force. A rich history precedes both squadrons as both are instrumental in establishing and maintaining the status of the U.S. as the world's greatest air power.

Today, the SEAD mission is primarily carried out by F-16CM Block 50 Fighting Falcons, typically equipped with a state of the art HARM Targeting System pod, two High speed Anti-Radiation Missiles and a self-protection jammer. The jets are able to support numerous weapons variations, but Capt. Ryan Worrell, 35th Operations Support Squadron weapons and tactics flight commander and F-16 instructor pilot, said this configuration is the basic starting point for most SEAD missions.

Worrell said the fundamental origin of the Wild Weasel mission was created to protect strike aircraft from enemy surface-to-air missile sites in Vietnam that fired missiles from the ground in an effort to destroy aircraft or other airborne missiles. The Weasels would enter enemy territory to search for SAM sites and when the SAMs turned on they would shoot them before the site shot back.

This idea created the unofficial motto of the Wild Weasels -- an acronym known as "YGBSM." It was derived from the response of former B-52 Stratofortress Electronic warfare officer, Jack Donovan, upon hearing about the plan of the mission:

"You want me to fly in the back of a little tiny fighter aircraft with a crazy fighter pilot who thinks he's invincible, hone in on a SAM site in North Vietnam, and shoot it before it shoots me, you gotta be shittin' me!"

This approach gained momentum in 1967 at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base in Northern Thailand, where the Black Panthers of the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron flew combat missions over the jungles of Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, the emersion of enemy SA-2 surface-to-air missile sites were a thorn in the side of American forces, downing handfuls of bomber aircraft early on in combat.

The SEAD mission originated when the Air Force devised a plan to use F-100 Super Sabres, and shortly thereafter F-105 Thunderchiefs, to cripple the presence of SAM sites across the country. By definition, SEAD was defensive and reactive in nature, but with the addition of specialized detection equipment to the jets, the F-105 models became a lethal system with an offensive approach.

AGM-45 Shrike missiles were added to the aircraft's arsenal, which were rocket-powered air-to-ground missiles designed to destroy radiating enemy radar transmitters. The Shrikes were equipped with radar energy sensors at the tip of the missile, capable of guiding on enemy locations and taking them out of the fight by kinetic strike.

During the tail end of Linebacker II, an 11-day air campaign over North Vietnam in 1972, the first all-out SEAD campaign was brought to the battlefield. The aircraft's mere presence over Vietnamese SAM sites was psychologically dominating, as operators on the ground preferred to remove themselves from the fight by turning their radars off rather than become a willing target.

"That's the baseline goal," Worrell said. "Once the radar is turned off, the enemy's missile loses connection with the site and is removed from the fight."

The diversity of Wild Weasels grew over time, and proved instrumental in opening air spaces for other aircraft as well as providing support for an array of missions. Five F-105 Wild Weasels were used in the famous Son Tay camp raid in 1970 to rescue prisoners of war.

Following the strides made in Vietnam, the 13 and 14 TFS remained at Udorn until 1975, when the 13 FS relocated to MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., before settling at Misawa Air Base, Japan, in 1985. The 14 FS followed suit to Misawa in 1987, where both fell under the 432nd Tactical Fighter Wing until 1994.

Wild Weasels then effectively wreaked havoc during the Persian Gulf War in Operation Desert Storm. By this time, the Air Force moved to F-4 Phantoms with significant technological upgrades that included an internal gun for dog fighting, upgraded Radar Warning Receivers and radar jamming capabilities. It was the only aircraft in the Department of Defense that was designed to identify, locate and destroy specific radar emitters coupled with the ability to fire sophisticated anti-radiation missiles.

According to the official history of the war, Wild Weasels flew nearly 4,000 sorties, fired 1,000 air-to-ground missiles, and destroyed roughly 200 Iraqi missile sites. The war was a success, ending swiftly in a matter of months while aggressively disassembling Saddam Hussein's regime. Pilots worked as teams; while one aircraft attracted a SAM site or enemy aircraft, others would soar in from other angles and eliminate threats ranging from MiG-29s to the same SA-2 missiles faced in Vietnam.

SEAD has evolved from protecting a two-ship fleet in its early years, to destroying the entire fabric of the Iraqi nation's ability to defend itself during Desert Storm.

The progress has never slowed, and the current set of Wild Weasels is now powered by F-16 Fighting Falcons with the some of the most dangerous technology available in combat. The cockpits have transitioned from hosting two pilots to one, with computer systems replacing the work - listening, identifying and targeting -- of the backseat flyer. Instead of flying the original two-ship set, Weasels typically fly four-ship sets. They've also moved from low altitude navigation and targeting infrared for night pods to the HTS pods that are able to identify, geo-locate, and display multiple targets within the area of responsibility to the pilot. This targeting system is the cornerstone of the SEAD mission, providing substantial situational awareness to pilots on the types and locations of surface-to-air defense radars, as well as passing ranging solutions to the HARM missile when launched.

"Over time, range detection and response time advancements have created a technologically superior force," Worrell said. "Previously, we were only able to detect a radar in a certain direction, but now we can range it in very specifically for targeting our HARM missiles."

While the mission set is primarily SEAD, Wild Weasels have also implemented various areas of Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses, or DEAD. Flying the four-ship formations, mixed load outs of both HARMs and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions are employed. With the aid of Advanced Targeting Pods, the JDAMS are dropped on the enemy's radar systems, inflicting more permanent damage than only suppression. This method is used to clear larger lanes of radar sites to facilitate the follow-on of larger forces.

Additional technology upgrades have come in the form of the Link 16 datalink system that allows pilots split-second communication to and from other F-16s while simultaneously computing and sharing tactical pictures in near-real time. On top of the Link 16, the Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System also allows pilots the freedom to obtain situational awareness and cue weapon systems in the direction their head is pointed, instead of relying on the Heads Up Display.

These changes have drastically improved the situational awareness and capabilities of Wild Weasel pilots, and have allowed them to better prioritize targets and approach them from six to nine times the distances employed in Vietnam. These changes have molded the SEAD mission from one-on-one concepts of operation to integrated force application involving hundreds of aircraft, cruise missiles and artillery systems attacking an enemy IADS at once.

"The Wild Weasel mission supports the complete dismantling of the enemy's air defense," Worrell said. "By striking certain command centers and suppressing remaining radars, we're able to shut down a nation's entire IADS and ensure air superiority."

The Samurai of the 14 FS used these tactics over the skies of Iraq while supporting Operations Northern Watch, Southern Watch, and later during Operation Iraqi Freedom, where they executed "shock and awe" and employed massive air strikes that killed Iraq's comprehensive IADS. With the mission fulfilled, coalition forces followed on the ground and seized valuable territory throughout the country.

Most recently, F-16s applied the full SEAD mission by dismantling and destroying Libya's IADS during Operation Odyssey Dawn. Wild Weasels have also deployed to Southwest Asia in support of Enduring Freedom and other overseas contingency operations.

Credit to the modern-day success belongs to the original Wild Weasels who paved the way for today's aerial domination. They began as locaters and defenders, and have evolved into a sophisticated team force with a lethal approach to air superiority.
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