The new Republic F-105F Thunderchiefs and their crews faced a significant challenge, as over 100 North Vietnamese SAM sites were operational by August of 1966. By that time the Weasels carried the new AGM-45 Shrike missile, which homed in on the radar antenna itself. Although the Shrike presented more of a threat than the weaponry previously used, it suffered from limited range—roughly half that of the SA-2s they were intended to defeat. Tactics were soon developed to enhance the lethality of the Shrike, but ultimately a new missile was needed to combat the growing number of SAM sites. The follow-on AGM-78 Standard Anti-Radiation Missile (ARM) featured a larger warhead and increased range. This enhanced the Weasels’ effectiveness, but the missions no less treacherous.
By the end of Vietnam, the Wild Weasels had lost dozens of aircraft and forty-two aircrew had been killed, declared missing, or became Prisoners Of War (POWs). Not surprising given the incredible menace they faced with every mission while they acted, as retired USAF Lieutenant Colonel Allen Lamb calls it, “flypaper for SAMs.” It is estimated the group destroyed (or helped to destroy) over 40 SAM sites; however, numbers certainly belie the true effect. The threat of Weasels prowling the airspace caused untold numbers of SAM operators to shut down their radars, allowing U.S. aircraft to operate in an environment relatively sanitized from ground-based threats. Any estimation as to the number of lives saved is guesswork; the presence of Wild Weasels was a Godsend to the strike packages they protected.
The audacity, courage, bravery, and dedication these men showed in Vietnam was not lost on USAF leadership. This was a turning point in history; prior to and during Vietnam, the Air Force took a largely reactive stance to the SAM threat, offering only haphazard tactics in response. The first Weasels were effective in validating SEAD capability, boosting morale, and revealing the unquestionable need for this mission set to have a place in overall U.S. air power strategy. As a reflection of SEAD’s importance, a Wild Weasel course was established at the United States Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.
In 1978, a new and improved Wild Weasel airframe entered service, the McDonnell Douglas F-4G. It was a reconfiguration of the F-4E; instead of the 20mm cannon in the nose, it carried the AN/APR-47 electronic warfare suite. When mated to the AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM), it formed a lethal, SAM-killing combination. This was the most advanced Wild Weasel designed to date, and it provided the USAF with the tools required to suppress and destroy sophisticated air defense systems in hostile countries around the world, should the need arise.
The F-4G proved largely successful in carrying out its mission, serving with distinction during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, much to the detriment of Iraqi SAM operators. In genuine Weasel form, the F-4Gs were the first in and last out, allowing other U.S. assets to prosecute their missions in what was one of the most lop-sided air campaigns in the history of contemporary warfare. But the accomplishment wasn’t limited to the airframe; the SEAD construct had taken hold as an air power enabler—a mission set critical to the success of any aerial campaign.
While the U.S. has established and maintained a veritable dominance in the realm of air superiority since the Vietnam era, by no means has the threat to U.S. assets diminished. Few countries around the world have the ability to match the U.S. and its vastly capable forces in strictly air-to-air combat, but there remains a credible threat from the ground in the form of the Integrated Air Defense Systems, or IADS. While the last U.S. air-to-air combat loss was a sole F-18 Hornet during Desert Storm, many more losses have occurred due to SAM systems and other anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). The ground-based threat to aircraft is becoming increasingly relevant to modern air combat, especially given the advances in technology and the cost effectiveness of employing such systems.
Colonel David “Oscar” Meyer, commander of the 169th Operations Group, South Carolina Air National Guard (ANG), recently spoke to the nature of the threat from this economic standpoint.
With two decades of involvement with the SEAD mission and better than 4000 flying hours, Meyer brings this familiarity to the table for the benefit of the “Swamp Fox”—the name by which the SC ANG refers to itself. They draw upon an abundance of knowledge with many more highly experienced pilots and maintainers.
“It’s a lot cheaper to buy a SAM system than it is to maintain a fleet of air defense fighters, so from an economic standpoint…it’s a lot easier to buy six SAM systems and put them in various places and protect their homeland with those rather than fifty fighters.” And it’s the Weasels who have the responsibility to knock down that web of defenses, should the need arise.
The proliferation of advanced SAMs and other anti-aircraft technology means the Weasels have their work cut out for them, and as Colonel Meyer says, “We have to put in a requisite amount of effort towards minimizing that threat….we’re focused towards the suppression and destruction of enemy air defenses…we spend most of our time studying and training towards it.”
The authors would like to thank: Lieutenant Colonel Allen Lamb, USAF (Retired); Colonel David “Oscar” Meyer, 169 OG/CC; Colonel Boris “Robo” Armstrong, 169 FW/CV, Major Ryan “Rider” Corrigan, 157 FS; Captain Justin “Razor” Puro, 157 FS; Major Jim Roth, Senior Master Sergeant Ed Snyder, and Tech Sergeant Caycee Watson,169 FW/PA.
In Part Three, we take a look at the rise of the modern-day “Super Weasel” as the Block 50/52 F-16CJ “Fighting Falcon” assumes the primary responsibility of SEAD/DEAD in today’s United States Air Force.