Part II — executing the plan.
MISSION COMMANDER’S NARRATIVE
In early 1984 I was a fighter division lead in VF-14, one of two F-14 squadrons embarked in USS Independence. We had just cycled out of operations off Beirut and were looking forward to an expected liberty period at the end of the month, but all of that was cancelled when we got the call for Libya. I was on the first CAP to intercept a Libyan Fitter on that cruise — the pictures that my RIO took got published in Jane’s later that year.
I was surprised to hear that I was going to lead the carrier’s first strike into Libya. This was about ten years before the F-14 community got “strike religion,” and at the time, no F-14 squadrons had any real attack training. We were pure air-to-air; “moving mud” was left to the bubbas in the A-6 and A-7 squadrons. But CAG Ops (an old buddy from VF-1) told me that I was the most experienced available pilot, and by Vice Admiral Verssen’s directive that made me the strike lead. “The magic number is 8,” he told me after handing over the mission folder. “You need 8 hits. Ten Mavericks, no less.”
I chose “Farmboy” and his RIO to accompany me in the escort element. The A-6 squadron assigned three crews led by “Bug”, “Dingo”, and “Extra.” Everybody had an average amount of experience, except for me (a skilled lieutenant commander) and Extra, who was on his first tour and still green. Maintenance managed to get enough working jets on short notice and the ordies got everything loaded.
CAMELOT 104 (Kermit): F-14A, 4 x AIM-9, 1 x AIM-54
CAMELOT 103 (Farmboy): F-14A, 2 x AIM-7, 2 x AIM-9, 1 x AIM-54
THUNDER 502 (Bug): A-6E, 4 x AGM-65 Maverick, 1 x ECM pod
THUNDER 510 (Dingo): A-6E, 4 x AGM-65 Maverick, 1 x ECM pod
THUNDER 506 (Extra): A-6E, 4 x AGM-65 Maverick, 1 x ECM pod
The launch and form-up went smoothly and we headed south toward the Libyan coast. On the inbound leg we ran into BAD WEATHER, which forced us to dog-leg around the storm area. As a result, we all were stressed going in (+1) and would be approaching the SA-11 from the west instead of the south.
Worse, the poor weather conditions degraded our bombing accuracy from high altitude (-2), making it harder to get 8 hits with 10 Mavericks. Bug asked if we still wanted to shoot two of his Mavericks at the SAM site, or put all of them on the primary target to make up for the degraded conditions. Being a fighter guy, I had no clue — but as the nominal strike leader I had to make an executive decision, which in retrospect was really a weaselly compromise: we’d shoot only one Maverick at the SA-11, allocate the remaining 11 Mavericks to the primary target, and hope for the best. Already the thin margins on this raid were causing our underwear to show.
There wasn’t a lot of time to dwell on that, as the Libyan Arab Air force had come up to play. The fighter controllers called a total of four bandits: a Mirage III and a MiG-25 directly ahead of us in the western approaches, a MiG-21 in the north, and a MiG-23 in the south. There wasn’t anything overhead the target at the moment. This was back in my comfort zone, and I began to feel better about the way the mission was going — my escort section could handle four bandits.
As we crossed into the standoff approach zone, the controllers called PRE-STRIKE, and informed us that a “friendly mission” (they didn’t say what) had just hit one of the air defense sites in the central target area. My RIO asked which one — there were two sites in the center, an SA-6 and an SA-10. At our flight profile, only the SA-10 posed a danger to us. They told us to wait one. The large raindrops pelting the canopy almost sounded like dice rolling on a car roof.
“SA-6,” came back the reply. Of course.
Time began to accelerate. It was time to shoot the Phoenix missiles at long range. Farmboy and I sorted the bandits; I decided to take the highest threat, the MiG-25 in the west, while he would loft his big missile at the MiG-23 in the south. Thirty seconds later there were two sparkles on the horizon as both bandits came apart under the heavy warheads.
Into the over-target phase. Horizon scan — I’m the only fast pilot but dammit I took only AIM-9s and all of the bandits are out of range, pass the lead to Farmboy, who has two AIM-7s and some situational awareness, and he shoots both Sparrow missiles at the Mirage on the nose — first goes wild, but the second kills, unload and extend, here we go…
And then the SA-11 in the western approach comes up on the RWR and locks on to Bug — it will shoot first, before Bug can loose the single Maverick that we agreed upon. Fast warble, it’s locked on…Bug switches on his ECM pod and elects not to evade, in order to conserve stress for the attack run…and a jagged Soviet-made projectile arcs up…cuts through the pod jamming like it was nothing…and tears off Bug’s left wing…
Chutes and beepers, as Bug and his BN get out of the jet and the wreck of THUNDER 502 falls to earth, with its precious unused load of 4 Maverick missiles.
The SA-10 in the center engages Dingo, who remarkably chooses not to evade, but the missile goes ballistic. And then, before we can do much more than to call the SAR forces to launch a rescue mission for the crew of 502, we press into the western pre-approach zone. The controllers call the single surviving MiG-21 moving toward us, and this time he’s inside Sidewinder range — I unload everything on him and he goes down in a blossom of flame. But then the SA-11 is back on the air and shoots at Farmboy; I see a flash out to the starboard quarter and see my wingman’s jet showered in fragments, damaged. But airworthy.
And now we’re in the firing envelope, and the two remaining A-6s ripple-fire their eight Mavericks at the tank column, half-hidden in the misty clag. Dingo’s four missiles arc up and score 3 hits, while Extra’s weapons only manage a single hit. 3 + 1 is 4. 4 hits. 4 is less than 8. We don’t have 8. We came all this way, lost an airplane and maybe a crew, and we didn’t make 8…
And then I remembered time returning to normal. We egressed back to the west at best speed and ended the over-the-target phase early. On the way out we drew SAM VEHICLES, and it was my turn to get shot at for +1 stress (Dingo had the same experience).
The only good news of the day was that the combat search-and-rescue studs managed to grab Bug and his bombardier-navigator while the Libyan army closed in (although there was an SH-3 with a number of 7.62mm holes in it that night on the hangar deck). The A-6 crew was ok but, understandably, very shaken by the experience.
The debrief was grim.
PRIMARY TARGET HITS: 4 (FAIL, -1 PENALTY)
AIR-TO-AIR KILLS: 4
AIRCRAFT LOST: 1
AIRCRAFT DAMAGED: 1
Kermit: Shaken (5)
Farmboy: Shaken (7)
Bug: Shaken (9)
Dingo: OK (3)
Extra: Shaken (4)
LESSONS LEARNED/ADMIRAL’S FINDINGS
- A major contributing factor to the failure of the mission was the distance to the target, which required the A-6s to surrender a total of 9 weight points to external fuel tanks rather than additional Maverick missiles. However, there were ample special option points available to assign priority tanking, eliminating the need for drop tanks and by extension the weight penalty. The net effect of this action would have been to add the firepower equivalent of one more bomber.
- The unexpected bad weather was an unfortunate turn of events. The strike leader had a choice to continue with the high-altitude approach, go in at low altitude to negate the effects of cloud/haze on weapon accuracy, or abort the whole mission. His decision to continue was justifiable, and in particular he was probably right not to change to a low-altitude approach at the last minute while already en route. However, having decided to continue, he should have been aware that he was now operating at the barest minimum margin of error — a 20% reduction in weapons effectiveness essentially meant that all three A-6s had to deliver their ordnance on target.
- The failure by Bug and Dingo to evade against the missile threat was foolhardy, and in the former case was the proximate cause for mission failure (not to mention the loss of a very expensive aircraft). It is true that the chances of a SAM hit are generally low, and even lower when an ECM pod is in operation (as was the case here). But the bad weather allowed absolutely no margin for error. Every measure should have been taken to avoid the loss of any A-6s — the stress cost was clearly worth it.
- At the moment that THUNDER 502 was lost, failure of the mission became probable. Strike leader had the choice to abort at this point, which would have spared the strike package further exposure to SAM fire. However, given that the A-6s would arrive in range on the next turn and that they still carried 8 Mavericks, his decision to continue was justifiable.
- CAG Ops notes that a contributing cause of the mission failure can be traced back to the absence of multirole jets in the air wing. A-6s are not air-to-air capable, while F-14s are not air-to-ground capable. Yet there was still a robust air threat and a significant primary target that needed more bombs than could be reasonably carried by only 3 A-6s. The need to assign dedicated aircraft for both missions while having only 5 sorties available made this impossible. This calls into question the wisdom of Navair’s historical commitment to single-role specialized aircraft in the air wing.
- Admiral directs CAG Ops to either (a) identify the message traffic where CAG Ops was requested to provide his personal opinion on Navair procurement practices in the middle of a shooting war, or (b) close his O-4 mouth.
- Admiral’s conference at 1845; CAG, CAG Ops, and VA and VF squadron COs and OPSOs required to attend. Given the dismal outcome of this morning’s Navy strike there is talk of giving all deep interdiction missions to Italy-based USAFE forces. Stand by for a beating.
Wargame: Hornet Leader: Carrier Air Operations, designed by Dan Verssen (DVG Games, 2010).