DESERT STORM: The Strike Eagle's opening act

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Ben Kolmer
  • 4th Fighter Wing
Twenty five years ago, Saddam Hussein's forces rolled south through Kuwait and began massing on the Saudi Arabian border. While most of the world watched the news, the Airmen of the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing sprang into action, employing a brand new weapon system, and ultimately playing a critical role in the events of Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM.

Though in the middle of transitioning from the F-4 Phantom II to the F-15E Strike Eagle, the 4th TFW was one of the first units called to the Middle East following Iraq's invasion. At this time, the 336th Tactical Fighter Squadron Rocketeers were the only fully converted squadron flying the Strike Eagle. They, with select crews from the 335th Tactical Fighter Squadron Chiefs, deployed on short notice to Seeb Air Base, Oman in August 1990. Here they trained and prepared to defend against what was, at that time, thought to be an inevitable push into Saudi Arabia by Saddam's forces.

As the world held its breath, the momentum the Iraqi forces enjoyed as they swept across Kuwait dissipated, and in December 1990, the squadrons moved to Al Kharj Air Base, Saudi Arabia, to be closer to the Iraqi border.

The Iraq of 1990-1991 was not the Iraq of today. In 1990, Iraq possessed one of the premier air defense networks in the world, and its' Republican Guard and armored divisions were widely respected, even feared. Defeating this military power would be no easy task, but the men and machines of the 4th TFW soon showed why they were the tip of the spear.

DESERT STORM began the evening of January 17, 1991. In the initial assault, or strike package, was 24 F-15Es, followed by another force of 21 Strike Eagles. Their targets were heavily defended Scud missile sites.

Before even reaching their targets, or having to evade and defeat enemy anti-aircraft artillery, or triple A, surface-to-air missiles, and aircraft, the crews accomplished what was described as equally dangerous as the mission itself - refueling at night and in bad weather with no lights.

Operating in radio silence, with no external lights and a minimum of electronic emissions, the strike package had the task of first finding the tankers and then successfully taking on the fuel needed to complete their mission. The tanker crews, afraid of being engaged by Iraqi warplanes, were operating without the indicator lights on the bottom of the aircraft that help receiving aircraft line up properly.

Capt. Jay Kreighbaum, a WSO with the 336th TFS said, "It took all of our concentration - it was totally black, no lights of any kind on the [darned] tanker. . . It was totally idiotic. They were surrounded by all these jets armed to the teeth and they were worried about being attacked by enemy fighters."

The strike package refueled without incident and pressed on to their objectives. As the first Strike Eagle reduced its target to small pieces, the sky went from night to day instantly.

Maj. Bill Polowitzer explained, "It's triple-A, and it's unbelievable! It looks like a waterfall, or like a wave of surf over our head. We're like inside a black tunnel with the stuff arcing over us. I can't believe the amount of fireworks. . . It looks like everything coming up is coming at you, and it's so lit up by the triple-A I'm visual on [my wingman] at seven o'clock, coming off the target."

In addition to destroying the Scud launchers and defending against AAA, Strike Eagle crews were also engaged by a total of three MiG 29s. One MiG 29 escaped, one was destroyed by a missile of unknown origin, and one flew into the ground during a low-level engagement. No Strike Eagles were lost. This hugely successful first night kicked off the campaign in a stunning fashion, but the crews' luck would not hold.

The next day, the 4th TFW's crew chiefs marshalled jets off for what the aviators described as the most difficult and dangerous mission of the war.

The target was a petrol, oil, and lubricant plant near Basrah, Iraq- a mission bearing uncanny resemblance to the ill-fated Ploesti raid in World War II. Heavily defended by a barrage of artillery, the Iraqi forces at Basrah claimed their first F-15E, killing Majs. Donnie Holland and Tom Koritz.

Shaken, angry, and determined, the war now felt personal for the crews.

Two nights later, another F-15E was downed, this time by an Iraqi SA-2 anti-aircraft missile. The crew, Col. Dave Eberly and Maj. Tom Griffith ejected and evaded capture for several days as they made their way across the desert toward the Syrian border. Desperate for water, they approached what they thought to be an abandoned house, but what turned out to be an Iraqi guard shack. The crew were taken and held as POWs until the war's end. This was the last Strike Eagle shot down in DESERT STORM.

Despite these losses, the 4th TFW, spearheaded by the Rocketeers and an increasing number of Chiefs, following full conversion from the F-4, continued to excel and conduct feats that exemplified the Fourth But First motto.

The Chiefs, despite their initial small numbers, flew 1,097 combat sorties, employing over 4.8 million pounds of ordnance. The Rocketeers flew 1,088 combat sorties, dropping more than 6 million pounds of bombs, and like the Chiefs, flew mostly at night.

The Chiefs hold the DESERT STORM distinctions of not only employing the first laser-guided bomb used in combat by the F-15E, but also claiming the first air-to-air victory in the Strike Eagle. For the first time ever, people back home could watch as a precision-guided weapon screamed down an airshaft, hit a precise window on a building, or flew through the front door of a hardened shelter. This level of accuracy and consistency harkened a new age of air to ground warfare, and proved that advanced technologies have a place on the modern battlefield. What once took an entire squadron of WWII bombers could now be accomplished by a single flight of F-15Es.

On Valentine's Day 1991, Capt. Tim Bennett and Maj. Dan Bakke, aviators from the (squadron) were tasked to aid a special forces team in trouble. Under AAA fire, the pair managed to put a GBU-10 laser-guided bomb onto a moving Iraqi Mi-24 Hind helicopter. The special forces team egressed successfully, and later estimated the Hind to be an elevation of 800 feet when the bomb impacted. To date, this is the only F-15E to score any air-to-air kills.

A ceasefire was signed March 1, 1991, and all Iraqi forces withdrew from Kuwait. The 42 days of intense and unrelenting combat fought by the 4th TFW during DESERT STORM was just another example of a tradition of excellence. Today, the Airmen of the 4th Fighter Wing continue the "Fourth But First" motto and take pride in a heritage that began with the Royal Air Force Eagle Squadrons of WWII and extends today through involvement in conflicts around the globe.