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The F-100F (USAF)

Counterpunch

Flying Wild Weasel missions involved a variety of airframes but just one philosophy: Do unto SAMS before they do unto you.

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However, such advantages were sometimes short-lived. "I've been asked to describe electronic warfare to new guys coming on board in the industry, and I tell them that you've got to look at it as a giant circle," former ATI technician Bill Hickey says. "You make changes because you want to improve your equipment. Well, the instant you do that, and the guy on the ground finds out, he's going to make a change."

Often it didn't matter if the air crews knew where the SAMs were coming from--there were too many to effectively track. "Somewhere along the way, someone convinced the NVA to fire the SAMs in threes, and that is what they would do," Wilson says. "So, here comes three from one side, three from another, three from behind, and they are all pointed at you. It made for tough decisions." Some air crews witnessed a further step taken in the electronic gamesmanship: simulated SAM launches. "We used to joke about the Russian technician teaching the NVA and saying, "See that big formation right there on the scope? Well, watch this,' " says Bill Sparks, a former F-105 pilot. "He would hit the button, and the formation would look like the world's biggest bomb burst as everyone jettisoned their loads and went crazy looking for a launch. Kinda funny, really."

As the air crews gained experience monitoring the signals coming from Fan Song radars, the abilities, tendencies, and personalities of certain ground operators began to emerge, sometimes evoking grudging admiration from pilots and EWOs. One such site was located at Vinh, North Vietnam. "In my day, that guy was famous," says former F-105 Weasel pilot Jerry Hoblit. "He was isolated from everybody else. He was the cagiest guy in the world. You talk to anybody who flew when I was there and they say, "I want to meet the guy that ran that [site] and buy him a drink.' "

Hoblit vividly remembers being trumped by the Vinh operator during a night mission. "I had a preplanned strike launch all figured out coming off the water, where I used the radar and got a good range on him," Hoblit says. "So I was doing this trick and it was a pretty high angle. I think I was launching [a lofted delivery of the missile] around 30 degrees. And right after I launched that Shrike, I'm still kind of floating and up comes the Fan Song [transmitting a launch signal]. I'm all out of airspeed and about everything and it's night, and I'm over an undercast everything went from good to bad in an instant. And Tom [Wilson, Hoblit's EWO] is yelling at me, calling me a very bad name." Hoblit doesn't think the operator actually fired a missile at him, but knows his own attack against the Vinh operator failed miserably. "That was typical. I wasn't so dumb. He was just smart," Hoblit says.

Despite the heavy toll on Wild Weasel crews in Vietnam, losses of all types of aircraft to SAMs began to decrease in 1967. In addition, by late 1966 components from the original Wild Weasel equipment were being installed in many aircraft types, which provided the pilots of non-Weasel aircraft some measure of radar detection and enhanced their existing ECM equipment. The F-105 and the technology developed for its use had finally begun to pay off and turn the tables somewhat against the dreaded Fan Song and SAM.

Missile technology improved also. In 1968 the USAF introduced the 15-foot-long AGM-78 Standard ARM, which was designed around a Navy shipboard surface-to-air missile. Later improvements to the missile enabled it to lock on to a radar signal up to 60 miles from the source. The Standard ARM was used in combat most extensively by the F-105G, which came with better electronics and built-in ECM equipment that eliminated the need for external jammer pods.

Under development in the closing stages of the Vietnam War, the ultimate Weasel, the F-4G, would offer an all-new McDonnell-designed system built around a Texas Instruments computer board. Target and threat information was projected on a head-up display on the pilot's gunsight. The F-4G could carry both Sparrow and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, plus all air-to-ground missiles, including the new High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile, or HARM.

The F-4G, a product of lessons learned during Vietnam, operated in the Gulf War and served until 1996. The overwhelming success of allied air operations provided a fitting end to the Wild Weasel--Desert Storm represented everything that Vietnam, with its mix of politics and warfare, wasn't. No Wild Weasel aircraft were lost, and today F-16s have assumed the Air Force's radar supression role--they use bolted-on targeting pods housing radar acquisition equipment in a compact package that works in concert with the AGM-88 HARM. A variety of Navy and Marine Corps aircraft also carry the HARM. The F-16 will be followed by the Air Force's newest fighter, the F-22 Raptor, which will likely have an integrated anti-radar capability. It may take another war, one more like Vietnam than Desert Storm, to prove whether a targeting pod slung under a wing can match a dedicated Wild Weasel air crew. When tomorrow's pilots test the wisdom of the decision, they'll carry with them the heritage of a courageously executed mission, equal parts planning and improvisation.

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