The world’s conflicts in recent years have frequently demonstrated the continued adaptability and effectiveness of a number of US designs that originated in the 1950s or even earlier. The Boeing B-52, Lockheed U-2, C-130 Hercules and KC-135 Stratotanker are all examples of this, but the F-4 Phantom has a particularly outstanding and varied record of success. After its first flight as a naval interceptor in 1958, it became a fighter, tactical reconnaissance platform and ground attack aircraft for all four US services and eleven other air forces world-wide (four of which were still operating it as a front-line combat type in 2021). During the 1991 Gulf War, the USAF flew reconnaissance missions with RF-4C Phantoms, but it was the highly specialised anti-radar F-4G Wild Weasel variants which really came into their own.
Adapted from a batch of 1970-production Block 42/45 F-4Es, some of which had served in the Vietnam War, the F-4Gs performed a vital, unique role in defeating Iraq’s elaborate air defence systems from Day One of Operation Desert Storm. Their AN/APR-47 weapons system provided a capability against enemy threat radars that some pilots still consider unequalled by current SEAD (suppression of enemy air defences) equipment. Combined with the Texas Instruments AGM-88A high-speed anti-radiation missile (HARM), the system enabled the Wild Weasel units to take down the majority of Iraq’s radars and ground-to-air missiles within hours.
The F-4 Phantom’s successes in Desert Storm were built upon SEAD experience and wisdom accumulated since World War II – most notably in Vietnam. After Soviet SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missiles (or SAM) destroyed several U-2 ‘spyplanes’ over Russia, China and Cuba, SEAD technology was rapidly developed to overcome this unexpected threat to high-flying aircraft. Extremely hazardous combat operations by USN Skyhawk crews and USAF F-100Fs pioneered the techniques and Shrike missiles needed to neutralise hostile radars (destruction of enemy air defences, or DEAD). More capable modified Wild Weasel F-105F Thunderchiefs took up the challenge in 1966 and the mission developed into two roles: Iron Hand to suppress enemy radars and Wild Weasel to destroy them. These missions became some of the most dangerous of the war as pilots taunted enemy radar operators into using their missile guidance radars so that the Weasels could use their missiles to home onto those radar emissions.
After an extended development period, the first of 37 F-4C Phantoms entered service as Wild Weasel IV-Cs in 1968. Some of these F-4Cwws were transferred to Korat RTAFB, Thailand, for Operation Linebacker, during which they worked with F-105Gs against North Vietnam’s extensive air defences. However, they lacked the ability to carry the larger and more effective Standard ARM missile used by F-105Gs. Continued production and wide use within the USAF made the F-4 an ideal candidate for further development as a SAM buster. Fitting the anti-radiation missiles’ detection and fire-control systems into the earlier Phantom’s crowded internal structure had been a severe problem, but the gun-armed F-4E offered additional space, albeit at the expense of its internal 20mm gun.
Wild Weasel V, the converted F-4E with an IBM AN/APR-38 weapons system, was rolled out in April 1978 and 134 similar conversions followed, gradually re-equipped with the far more powerful AN/APR-47 system. The loss of its internal gun was compensated by provision for under-wing gun pods, although this facility was not used operationally. A range of ordnance could be uploaded; the AGM-78D-2 Standard and AGM-65 Maverick missiles were initially favoured, but the US Navy-sponsored AGM-88 HARM became the principal anti-radar weapon from 1983. Training on the new systems began at George AFB, California, in 1978 and crew soon began to fly missions with the 3rd TFW in the Philippines, where they flew protective SEAD sorties for SR-71 Blackbirds near North Korea. Others joined the 52nd TFW at Spangdahlem AB, Germany, from 1983 and this became a crucial centre for Weasel operations until 1994 when the final operational unit, the 561st TFS, transferred to Nellis AFB and continued to provide SEAD support in the Middle East until January 1996.
The Weasel crews flew spectacularly successful missions over Kuwait and Iraq during the 1991 war, operating from bases in Bahrain, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. They soon proved so vital that USAF strike missions would not proceed without their support. On Night One of the campaign they cleared the way through enemy defences for large formations of F-16C strikers, firing HARMs at SA-6 SAM radars from up to 40 miles’ range. Their operations, including missions in support of B-52s and F-111s, often attracted prodigious amounts of antiaircraft opposition but there was only one loss – from fuel starvation in bad weather. Iraqi radar operators quickly learned that the Weasels’ radio call – ‘Magnum’ – signified a HARM launch, prompting them to shut down their radars or be destroyed within seconds.
In one of the book’s combat accounts, Col William Redmond recalls: “[My] longest-range shot was at 52 miles on an SA-8 acquisition radar that seemed to be the main such system in southeast Baghdad. I co-ordinated with [561st TFS commander] Lt Col ‘John Boy’ Walton and let the HARM rip. After about four minutes, we went into a pretty good hornets’ nest, with the SAMs on the east side. I checked during the missile’s time of flight and the SA-8 went off the air. My post-analysis for the next five days showed that it never came up again, so I logged it as a probable kill. We [a four-ship flight] expended all our HARMS in about a minute-and-a-half when we got within about 12 miles of the target and they started firing SA-6s at us, but our jamming and manoeuvres defeated them”.
In researching this new book it was the author’s privilege to discuss those missions with a number of F-4G flyers and hear their inspiring descriptions of this under-publicized but vital aspect of the Gulf conflicts. Expert artist Jim Laurier was able to depict a wide range of the colourful ‘battle’ markings worn by Gulf F-4Gs and other aircraft during their USAFE and Far Eastern service. These would be of interest to anyone building the two recently released 1/48 scale model kits of the F-4G. There is also a wealth of colour photographs showing exterior colours throughout the Weasel Phantoms’ various stages of development and combat use, together with internal details.
The F-4G may well have been the USAF’s last dedicated SEAD/DEAD platform but, as a USAF historian noted, the Gulf conflict’s “SEAD effort was so successful that only ten Coalition aircraft were shot down by SAMs, although the Iraqi defenders fired thousands of the missiles.” The 81st TFS alone was credited with 142 SAM-site kills and it suppressed many others during its 4,000 combat hours. Above all, the F-4G units could legitimately claim that no Coalition aircraft were shot down while Weasels were present in their area.
If you enjoyed today's blog post you can find out more about F-4 Phantom II Wild Weasel Units in Combat here.