The Legacy of Operation Desert Fox

Published in Fall 2018 issue of Hook Magazine. Republished with permission.

(Official U.S. Navy Photograph by Photographer’s Mate Third Class Timothy S. Smith, USN.)//CINCLANTFLT/



Captain Kevin P. Miller USN (ret.)

Carrier aviation is designed as a raiding force, self contained and quick reacting. Throughout the 1980’s and 90’s carriers participated in several limited pulses of national power to include Operations Urgent Fury, El Dorado Canyon, Deliberate Force, and Allied Force. These code names evoke memories of distant times and places — Grenada (1983), Libya (1986), Bosnia (1996), Kosovo (1999)— and ships like USS Independence (CV 62), Coral Sea (CV 43), America (CV 66) and Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71).

Among these historic combat operations is Operation Desert Fox, a series of joint and combined airstrikes into Iraq which took place in December, 1998 involving the carriers Enterprise (CVN 65) and Carl Vinson (CVN 70). Desert Fox was concurrent with Operation Southern Watch, which for twelve years enforced the no-fly zone in southern Iraq. When Iraqi President Saddam Hussein refused to allow UN inspectors into his WMD sites, a coalition of the United States and Great Britain acted to degrade his WMD capability. The operational pace was comparable to Desert Storm seven years earlier, delivering roughly 10% of the weapons tonnage in four nights that Desert Storm expended in forty. However, Desert Fox was a transitional bridge to today’s precision, exacting training standards, and C2 connectivity that were among the lessons learned from Desert Storm.

By late 1998 carriers and carrier air wings had undergone numerous upgrades in materiel and training that made carrier aviation much more lethal and efficient since Desert Storm. During that conflict the United States operated six aircraft carriers in restricted waters, some air wings flying hundreds of miles from the Red Sea while others conducted single-cycle sortie generation from the Northern Arabian Gulf.

For carrier aviation, Desert Storm was characterized by high-dive deliveries of iron bombs and the use of paper. While stand-off precision weapons were employed and to good effect, naval aviation lagged behind the U.S. Air Force in precision guided munitions (PGMs) and sensors to deliver them. The strike-fighter concept was proved early when two VFA-81 Sunliner F/A-18s downed two Iraqi MiGs before delivering their bombs on target moments later. However, shortfalls in positive identification hindered the use and effectiveness of the F-14. Meanwhile, S-3 Vikings from each carrier had to fly daily trips to the beach to pick up and deliver the ponderous Air Tasking Order back aboard ship, where strike leads dissected the tasking. With limited ability to query the sometimes ambiguous tasking, and strike planning with imagery that was not the latest, aviators did the best they could.

Another shortfall was in the area of training. Something as simple as comm-brevity was a challenge, and again USAF and coalition air forces were not only dominant but also aligned on this matter. Almost all of the carrier aviators had experienced a Fallon “Strike University” air wing training detachment, but the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (today’s Naval Air Warfare Training Center) had only been in existence for five years, formed when training deficiencies where identified from Grenada and Lebanon operations in the early 80’s. Carrier aviators performed admirably throughout Desert Storm, but unequal to Air Force weapons, sensors, and training standardization…and naval aviation’s leadership knew it.

Former Tailhook Association Chairman VADM Marty “Streak” Chanik, USN(Ret), was the commanding officer of VF-84 during Desert Storm. A career Tomcat pilot, he was enthusiastic about the air-to-ground capabilities inherent to the F-14 when introduced to the fleet in 1974, capabilities that had atrophied during the Cold War focus on the Outer Air Battle and traditional fighter escort missions. “The fighter community saw this coming, and in the fall of 1990 there was a move afoot to revive the air-to-ground capability of the Tomcat. We loaded up inert Mk-84’s and dropped them on a nearby range as proof of concept. The accuracy of the F-14 was pretty good, but higher-ups precluded us from participating in the strike mission over Iraq.”

Carriers were still returning home from Desert Storm as the fighter community – with remarkable speed – jump-started the F-14 iron-bomb circuitry and aircrew training. By fall 1991, the VF-142 Ghostriders and VF-143 Pukin’ Dogs on board Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) deployed with Tomcats that routinely flew with practice ordnance and aircrews trained in their delivery. When the Navy retired the venerable A-6 Intruder, the F-14 community assumed its precision bomb delivery mission. Martin Marietta, in an unsolicited proposal, demonstrated how a USAF Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting-Infrared for Night (LANTIRN) pod could be rapidly integrated onto the Tomcat. The VF-103 Jolly Rogers deployed with LANTIRN in June 1996.

It was also during this time the WTI program was birthed. Exchange tour cross-pollination that put junior tactical aviators from the three American air arms in squadron environments led to training standardization and a framework for qualifications – today’s Air Combat Training Continuum – was also established. Fleet Weapons Schools embraced this concept, and the first SFWTI aviators were selected and designated as such in 1994.

Carriers also received upgrades. Challenge Athena was outfitted aboard USS George Washington in time for her 1994 maiden deployment which allowed for broad satellite bandwidth to facilitate data download, plus a boost in crew morale with the ability to “call home” from the ship. Carrier Intel Centers received banks of workstation computers for strike planning and videotape players for Bomb Hit Assessment. Indeed, if an aircrew could not produce an image of their bomb hit, it didn’t happen, and squadron Intelligence Officers held their aviators to high standards. More and more JOs learned and made improvements to the Tactical Automated Mission Planning System (TAMPS). During Desert Storm, aircrews entered waypoints once strapped inside their cockpits before taxiing to the cat. Later in the decade the practice of “loading bricks” full of required navigation information became the norm. By the time of Desert Fox, computers printed color strip charts with equivalent quality to Tactical Pilotage Charts and Operational Navigational Charts produced by the Defense Mapping Agency.

Such was the state of carrier aviation as Enterprise, with CVW-3 embarked, operated in the Arabian Gulf. Arriving in late November 1998, CVW-3 spent the three weeks prior to Desert Fox flying double-cycle OSW patrols and “strike fams” into Iraq. The situation at the time was tense; earlier in November Dwight D. Eisenhower had loaded jets taxiing to the catapults when word was passed to cancel what would have been Operation Desert Thunder. VADM Cutler Dawson, USN(Ret), who today is the CEO of Navy Federal Credit Union, was then Commander, Enterprise Battle Group, and knew offensive action was possible. “We deployed from Norfolk in early November and made a high-speed transit to the Arabian Gulf, relieving Eisenhower as we did. En route, CNO (ADM) Jay Johnson called me and said to be ready on arrival.”

We Own The Night                               

The night operations showcased the improvements made in this arena of air warfare. CDR Guy “Beav” Varland, USN(Ret) fought in Desert Storm and was the commanding officer of the VFA-37 Ragin’ Bulls during Desert Fox. “Night vision goggles were the biggest difference between my two combat experiences.” Too late for Desert Storm combat, early-90s deliveries of Lot 12 and subsequent “Night Strike” Hornets and the first generation “Cats-Eyes” Night Vision Goggles transformed naval tac air. With the increased situational awareness NVGs provided and the upgraded AN/AAS-38A laser targeting forward-looking infrared (TFLIR) pod and improvements in the inertial navigational system and color displays, the Hornet now had true all-weather precision night strike capability, and laser-guided training rounds were introduced and allocated. At the same time the A-6 and F-14 communities provided NVGs for their aircrews.

In Desert Fox, all the strike aircraft had laser targeting capability, and the weapon of choice was the laser-guided bomb (LGB). Using self-escort tactics, the weapons were delivered from altitude. Single-seat pilots released and controlled their weapons until impact, recorded the hits, and egressed, all while maintaining formation with NVGs affixed. Indeed, Desert Fox weapon deliveries were conducted at night, and “we own the night,” a slogan heard in the 1980’s, was validated.

Not all the deliveries of Desert Fox were of the level LGB variety. Some aimpoints were weaponeered for high-dive deliveries of iron bombs…with unsatisfactory results similar to the majority of Desert Storm visual deliveries. However, recorded LGB hits had a success rate of over 80%, unheard of seven years earlier. Even the F/A-18 autopilot relief modes added to the tactical effectiveness of these deliveries, as pilots could “couple” the jet and concentrate on their TFLIR designation. The “Bombcat” came of age as VF-32 Swordsmen F-14s with LANTIRN delivered their LGBs on challenging aimpoints.

The 1998 threat environment was permissive, with aviators seeing nothing more than high-caliber anti-aircraft artillery. CAPT Eric Rasmussen, USN(Ret), then in the VFA-105 Gunslingers, was also a nugget Hornet pilot in 1991 aboard America. “In Desert Storm, we didn’t know what to expect. There was apprehension at the Iraqi threat, and the fear of Chem/Bio attack. However, that abated after several days. We would sometimes dive with a peel off roll-in like Pappy Boyington. Delivering LGBs in Desert Fox on goggles was easier, and JDAMs in the last decade easier still.”

Despite their relative ease, LGB deliveries require pre-strike study and active control by the aircrew. Breaking out the aimpoint seconds prior to release was the norm with TFLIRs of the day, and during the time-of-fall, formation position-keeping competed for time “sweetening” the aiming diamond on the DMPI. Some strikes were assigned multiple DMPIs separated by tens of miles. Giving each target the commensurate pre-strike planning and briefing attention before pickling the weapons proved to be a challenge. In post-9/11 combats, widespread use of the GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) mitigates this challenge. Far from denigrating today’s aircrew professionalism, JDAMs may be released “in the basket” (Ed. Note: The region that the aircraft must be in to launch the weapon and hit the target.) which is much easier, more accurate, and serves to enhance survivability. Precision results evidenced during Desert Fox became the new normal, and soon Pentagon requirements officers and planners spoke of, “one bomb, one aimpoint.” Alas, US air power today finds itself victim of its own precision success, as “one bomb, one aimpoint” is the perfect expectation every time, with anything off-aimpoint a political failure.

To an extent not seen in Desert Storm, surface ships and submarines participated. The Tomahawk Land Attack Missile was used to great effect in Desert Storm, but mission planning was a challenge. With planning software improvements and strike leader training to incorporate the cruise missile as part of their strikes, the TLAM was employed against targets sets directed by Washington and individual strike leaders from a carrier. During Desert Fox, aviators observed TLAM impacts in and around the targets they were prosecuting. The “finality” of the Tomahawk – no ability to recall – made an impression on all who saw them launch from combatants near Enterprise.

CDR Kendra “Yukon” Bowers (nee Williams), USN(Ret), was a nugget in VFA-105. Knowing how Ike had stood down at the last minute, she was overhead Enterprise with a load of bombs when she witnessed bright TLAM launches from Battle Group ships. Only then was she convinced that Desert Fox was a go. She formed up with her division and attacked an Iraqi surface-to-air missile site, a portable system that she was able to find with her TFLIR, one partially hidden in a tree line. She released her weapons and destroyed the system, which was key for follow-on strikes. She then checked into marshal and recovered. Unknown to her at the time, she had just become the first female U.S. fighter pilot to expend weapons in combat.

Before she could remove her flight gear in the squadron paraloft, Bowers became the sought-after media “get” of the operation, with outlets from US News and World Report to People Magazine vying for her time. With professional grace and humility she touted the teamwork of carrier aviation and that she was just doing her job. After several days she declined any more interviews. When the Secretary of the Navy called Cutler Dawson to ask if his lieutenant could be made available, Dawson respectfully declined. The Secretary withdrew the request, and “Yukon’s” proverbial 15 minutes ended.

Combat assignments opened to female aviators in 1993, and by 1998 both fleets fielded one “integrated” air wing. Today, virtually the entire Navy is integrated, and approximately 15% of fleet personnel are female. However, a quarter of a century later, fewer than 5% of Navy tactical aviators are female; the number is approximately 10% for all Navy aviators. The daughter of a Vietnam War F-8 Crusader pilot, CDR Bowers is philosophical about these numbers. “There’s no need to force quotas. In my case aviation was available, and I was privileged to serve and do my job.”

All-Navy Show

To preclude tippers and remain as covert as possible, the first night of Desert Fox consisted of air strikes and cruise missiles launched from the Enterprise Battle Group. U.S. air power in the region was and remains today extensive, but in the span of little more than seven hours Enterprise launched four strikes, each with 12-14 strikers and self-contained airborne early warning (AEW), signals intelligence (SIGINT), tanking, and electronic attack. Touted as an “All Navy” show, it was actually a Navy and Marine Corps show with the VMFA-312 Checkerboards embarked with CVW-3.

The big-wing tanking of carrier-based aircraft was the new normal in Desert Storm joint power projection. However, the “iron maiden” basket attached to KC-135 Stratotanker booms in order to refuel carrier aircraft was sub-optimum for both USAF providers and USN receivers. With NATO allies and carrier aviation as regular customers, a method to flow more aircraft across a hose was needed. Operational flexibility also drove the development of the Wing Aerial Refueling Pod (WARP). KC-135’s with WARP systems could tank two probe-equipped aircraft simultaneously and still refuel USAF aircraft on the same sortie. This system was used with great success in Desert Fox.

Electronic warfare was another area that had changed since Desert Storm. By the time of Desert Fox both the EF-111 Raven and the F-4G Wild Weasel had been retired from USAF service. The USN/USMC EA-6B Prowler provided the only U.S. Airborne Electronic Attack capability, along with Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18s fitted with HARMs and crews trained in their delivery. During the operation, Air Force F-16s, RAF Tornados, and notably the B-1B bomber enjoyed the benefits – coordinated by embarked strike leads – of carrier-based EW suppression.

The B-1 participation is noteworthy as Desert Fox was the first time the strategic bomber was used in combat. With Cold War alert requirements loosened, the Bone was now available for these types of conventional operations. In Desert Fox, B-1s dropped impressive stiks of iron bombs on point targets. Since Desert Fox, Air Force bombers have been tasked in all manner of routine combat operations to include close air support.

Several intra-service stovepipes that hindered tactical efficiency were removed. Tailhook Vice President CAPT R.W. “Brick” Nelson USN (Ret.) was then CVW-3 Deputy CAG. “The Warfare Commander construct was a big plus. The CO of the Aegis cruiser had a better air picture and it made sense for him to task our fighters in that role. The Wing Commander was responsible for Strike, and we could task combatants for TLAM employment and more.”

Desert Fox reinforced the “ready-on-arrival” ethos of naval forces. RDML Dave Crocker, USN(Ret) sprinted his carrier USS Carl Vinson at a flank bell to join in the operation on the last night. With coordination between Battle Group Commander VADM Al Harms, USN(Ret), and Air Wing Commander, CAPT James “Gyro” Knight, USN(Ret), and their Enterprise counterparts, CVW-11 launched a long-range strike from the bottom of the Arabian Gulf into southern Iraq, demonstrating the long arm and self-sufficiency of naval aviation.

The changes to carrier aviation that occurred in the seven years from 1991 to 1998 were indeed remarkable, all the more so when compared to previous eras. For example, in 1965 A-4 Skyhawks and F-4 Phantoms launched from Yankee Station were rolling in on targets with iron bombs in dive deliveries. Seven years later, Skyhawks and Phantoms (albeit later model) launched from Yankee Station were rolling in on targets with iron bombs in dive deliveries. Carrier Air Wing Three is another prime example; the only difference in the aircraft make-up of 1971 aboard Saratoga (CV 60) and the air wing of 1991 aboard John F. Kennedy (CV 67) was that F-14s had replaced F-4s, plus the addition of the S-3. To be sure, many improvements to carrier aviation occurred in the ~20 year span between Vietnam and the First Gulf War, notably in training and readiness, but they were not game-changers like NVGs and precision laser-guidance in every strike cockpit, Joint C2 coordination at the embarked strike-lead level, reliable encrypted communications and digital mission planning.

One constant during this period is the adaptability of the aircraft carrier itself. Five of the six carriers that participated in Desert Storm combat had the Vietnam Service Ribbon displayed on their bridge wings. Remarkably, four Vietnam veteran carriers brought the fight to the enemy over Afghanistan and Iraq early this century. Built tough, with inherent flexibility and sustainment of operations and programmed to serve for five decades, these indispensible ships remain the asymmetric warfare game-changers they were 75 years ago. The aircraft, weapons, and human beings that make it all happen come and go, but the ability of a carrier to deliver sustained combat power on arrival – like Enterprise and especially Carl Vinson proved 20 years ago – and to deliver it precisely hundreds and hundreds of miles inland, is an ability we too often take for granted.

Today, it is routine for carrier aviators to fly 1,000 miles to deliver their weapons with an accuracy that battle group commanders of 1991 would never expect, and they do it the next night and the night after that, with digital displays and instant communications. And with highly trained aviators, “strategic” lieutenants and lieutenant commanders, captains and majors, who make real time decisions when called for involving tremendous national import. VADM Mike Shoemaker, USN(Ret), recently retired as naval aviation’s “Air Boss,” was the executive officer of VFA-105 and led strikes during Desert Fox. “Bulk precision and Night Strike improvements characterized Desert Fox, but we also saw the early benefits of a highly structured training regimen for our aviators. Today, all from wing commanders to nugget wingmen must progress through qualification wickets that squeeze the most from each training sortie and produce professional aviation warriors of a quality far superior to my cohort of the 1980’s and 90’s.”

Modern Strike Group Commanders expect that when, say, 32 weapons are sent over the beach on fighter weapons pylons, 32 separate aimpoints will be serviced with 100% accuracy, and this expectation is largely met. Incomprehensible 50 years ago, the foundation of today’s high standards of kinetic effectiveness and aircrew training has its foundation in the missions flown over southern Iraq in Operation Desert Fox.

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