“You’ve Gotta Be Shittin’ Me”: that’s the battle cry of the Wild Weasels. Surface-to-Air-Missile (SAM) killers. The ﬁrst pilots sent into a warzone. Men who purposefully provoke ﬁre from enemy missiles and anti-aircraft guns on the ground—then hunt and kill the SAM nests, making the sky safe for all other air- craft and helicopters to follow. I was proud to be one. True, like every F-16 ﬁghter pilot, I’d ﬂy many other types of missions in my career, but I always came back to being a Weasel. Why? It’s where the action is. SAM hunting is the most dangerous mission faced by today’s ﬁghter pilots, a job more hazardous and difﬁcult than shooting down enemy jets. With 151 combat missions, twenty-one hard kills on SAM sites, eleven aircraft destroyed (on the ground, unfortunately), plus many tanks, trucks, artillery, strikes on high- value targets, and other assorted operations, I’ve been called the most lethal F-16CJ Wild Weasel in the U.S. Air Force.
To truly understand what I used to do and how I got there, you need to understand the mission itself. So, before we go any further, here’s a little history lesson.
Since man ﬁrst combined ﬂight with warfare, other men have been trying to shoot aviators down. As early as the American Civil War, when manned balloons were used by Union forces to spot enemy troop movements, Confederate sharpshooters immediately started ﬁring at them. Five years later, during the Franco-Prussian War, the Germans mounted a small cannon on a horse cart for the sole purpose of putting holes in French balloons.
With the advance of tactical aviation during World War I came corresponding advances in anti-aircraft capabilities. By December 1914, the British Royal Air Force had become sufﬁciently concerned about the German bomber threat to London that they developed a 37-mm pom-pom gun. In June 1917, their caution was justiﬁed when fourteen plywood-coated German Gotha V bombers lumbered over London at eighty knots and dropped their bombs. Among the 162 dead were 46 children killed when their kindergarten was destroyed. Within a year, twenty-eight of these “heavy” bombers had been shot down, stopping the raids. These missions, though puny by modern standards, marked the ﬁrst real use of strategic airpower and ushered in the age of air defense.
As aircraft improved, the systems designed to kill them also be- came more lethal. Weapons that could bring down wooden bombers ﬂying straight and level at eighty knots were hopeless against the much faster and more maneuverable planes of World War II. This meant more accurate aiming systems had to be ﬁelded, which could cope with more aggressive targets. Eventually, the British developed the Kerrison Predictor. Though ineffective against ﬁghters (it was designed to track bombers), it was the ﬁrst truly automated Fire Control System.
Weapons improved as well. Ironically, two of the best pieces of anti-aircraft artillery (AAA, or Triple-A) came from neutral countries. Bofors, a Swedish company, manufactured a 40-mm piece which proved lightweight, rapid-ﬁreguns were tactically feasible. Bofors also exempliﬁed the concept of “business neutrality” by selling its weapons to both the Axis and the Allies. Incidentally, the man who transformed Bofors from producing raw steel to manufacturing armaments was Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. He also founded the Nobel Prize—for peace.
Swiss-built Oerlikon 20-mm cannons were used with much success during the war by both the United States Navy and the Royal Navy as short-range anti-aircraft weapons. Interestingly, derivatives of this cannon were standard armament in two of the greatest World War II Axis ﬁghters: the Japanese Mitsubishi Zero and the German Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt 109.
The Germans also developed Fliegerfaust, arguably the ﬁrst surface-to-air missile system. This was a portable system that looked like a Gatling gun and ﬁred manually aimed 20-mm rocket projectiles.
Wasserfall was a derivative of the large V-2 rockets being ﬁred at British cities and factories. It had a radio-controlled aiming sys- tem called Manual Controlled to Line of Sight. This meant the operator had to manually track his target and steer the missile to intercept. Designed to counter the strategic threat posed by over- whelming numbers of American bombers, the system proved an abject failure.
The period between the end of the Korean War and the beginning of Vietnam saw tremendous technical advances in both aircraft and weapons. This resulted in the development of new air-combat missions, including close air-support and high-altitude precision bombing. There was also a reconnaissance aircraft, the U-2, that could operate higher than any gun could shoot or any ﬁghter could ﬂy. Such a capability would also put it beyond the range of surface-to-air missiles.
On April 9, 1960, an American pilot named Bob Ericson seemed to conﬁrm this when he crossed the Pamir Mountains into the Soviet Union. MiG ﬁghters, guns, and thousands of Russian curses failed to bring him down as he calmly ﬂew over four of the most sensitive targets the Soviets possessed, including, somewhat ironically, their surface-to-air missile test center at Saryshagan.
But weeks later, on May 1, another U-2 pilot wasn’t so fortunate, and Francis Gary Powers suddenly became a household name. To the astonishment of the Air Force and CIA, his plane was brought down by several surface-to-air missiles. The Russians called it the S-75. (NATO, to keep everyone confused, named it the SA-2 Goa. There actually was an SA-1 system, but it was deployed around Moscow to stop American B-52 bombers.)
Thirty-ﬁve feet long and more than two feet in diameter, the SA-2 could reach speeds exceeding Mach 3
(three times the speed of sound, or about 2,600 miles per hour) on its way up to 80,000 feet. If this 5,000-pound ﬂying telephone pole hit an aircraft, there wouldn’t be much left of it.
Fortunately for Gary Powers, radar-guided systems, though not new, were a long way from being perfected. This was an age of vacuum tubes and slide rules, not microchips and supercomputers, so ﬁguring aiming solutions on jet aircraft seven miles above the earth was not a simple proposition. However, bombers and reconnaissance aircraft like the U-2, unlike ﬁghters, ﬂy nice, predict- ably straight lines, and this certainly helped three missiles detonate close enough to Powers’s U-2 to knock it down—thankfully, with-out obliterating the aircraft or himself. Powers was captured and humiliated, but he eventually returned home alive.
Another U-2 pilot, Major Rudolph Anderson, wasn’t so lucky.
In October 1962, the South Carolina native was killed over Cuba by the same SA-2 system. During the past two years, the missile’s tracking had greatly improved, and the Cuban-launched weapon shattered Major Anderson’s U-2.
These incidents ﬁnally forced the Pentagon to seriously consider electronic countermeasures. These include radar-warning receivers, which tell a pilot that he’s being targeted; chaff-and-ﬂare dispensers that would confuse tracking solutions; and offensive jamming pods that could deny or defeat enemy radars. It was a new ﬁeld and all of this equipment was either primitive or nonexistent. Despite the U-2 losses, there was time, the Pentagon thought, to develop these capabilities.
In the early 1960s, Vietnam wasn’t really on any American’s “give a shit” list, and by 1963,
President John F. Kennedy had even publicly disengaged the United States from Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, he departed this world before we could ex- tract ourselves from Vietnam, and in August 1964, two American destroyers—the Maddox and the Turner Joy—were “attacked” in the Gulf of Tonkin. President Lyndon Johnson now had his excuse to go to war, and the subsequent Tonkin Resolution permit- ted combat operations without a congressional declaration of war. Despite the rather silly notion that two U.S. destroyers had been attacked by the North Vietnamese riverboat navy, the president could now ﬁght whomever he wished.
And that’s precisely what he did.
As usual, America’s involvement started with air and sea power. Flaming Dart, Rolling Thunder, and Arc Light were air campaigns designed to protect U.S. ground troops and destroy the North Vietnamese capability to ﬁght the war. However, by March 1965, some 3,000 Marines had been deployed into Vietnam, and by December that number reached 200,000.
To counter this, Hanoi began importing huge amounts of Soviet hardware, including the latest surface-to-air missile systems and anti-aircraft artillery. You see, the Vietnamese knew they could win a ground war. They simply had to wear the Americans down and outlast their political willpower, just as they did the French during the 1950s. But the Americans were different. They had air support with advanced capabilities the French had never possessed and stopping them was a serious tactical problem. The Vietnamese needed modern air-defense technology and again turned to the Soviet Union. The Russians, of course, were happy to oblige, since they got to test their equipment and kill Americans.
U.S. pilots ﬂying strike missions were suddenly faced with a very dangerous and unanticipated air-defense threat. On a summer day in 1965, an event tragically highlighted the enemy’s lethal capacity—and
gave birth to the Wild Weasels.
It was to be Captain Ross Fobair’s ﬁfty-ﬁfth and ﬁnal combat mission before going home. Once more across the line for Fobair, an F-4C Phantom pilot from the 45th Tactical Fighter Squadron, it was now almost routine. The twenty-nine-year-old captain had packed up the night before, and he planned on departing Vietnam after landing from his afternoon mission. The Freedom Bird, a transport aircraft back to the States, was leaving that very night. He was going home to California and a well-deserved rest, a re- union with his wife, Anita, his sister, Betty, and his young nephew, Bruce. It was July 24, 1965.
It was Ross Fobair’s last day.
With him on the mission was Captain Richard “Pops” Keirn, who was ﬂying in the front seat of the Phantom. (Keirn was a retread on his ﬁfth mission in Vietnam. A former bomber pilot from World War II, he’d been shot down over Germany and spent nine months in Stalag Luft 1, courtesy of the Third Reich.) The mission was fairly straightforward. It was a Combat Air Patrol, called a MiGCAP, to protect a strike force of F-105 Thunder- chiefs from stray North Vietnamese ﬁghters. The F-105s—or Thuds, as they were known—were hitting a munitions factory at Kang Chi some forty miles west of Hanoi. MiG sweeps were what ﬁghter pilots lived for—essentially, roaming around and looking for trouble. The idea was to force enemy ﬁghters into engaging the Phantoms and thus leaving the Thuds free to drop their bombs. So, the F-105s would smack their target and the F-4s would get to dogﬁght.
A perfect day.
But it didn’t quite work out that way. Forty miles northeast of Hanoi, over the Vinh Phu Province, a SAM shot up through a soggy cloud deck and hit the Phantom. There hadn’t been time to react, and the F-4C didn’t carry the threat-detection gear that became standard equipment on later jets. Unfortunately for
Keirn and Fobair, the previous shoot-downs involved spy planes, so the CIA and the Air Force hadn’t released much useful threat information. Nothing was really known about this new type of threat, and so the pilots hadn’t been trained to defeat it. The missile was the same radar-guided SA-2 that had knocked down Gary Powers and killed Major Anderson. It left little margin for error.
The spine-jarring impact immediately put the Phantom out of control. In the front seat, Pops Keirn struggled to assess the ﬂashing lights, aural warnings, and acrid smoke ﬁlling the cockpit. He got no response from the back cockpit. Twisting around against the mounting G-forces, he saw Ross Fobair slumped in his seat, blood streaming from his nose. As the F-4 spun into the clouds, Keirn ejected and would spend the next seven and a half years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, a POW for the second time.
But Ross Fobair disappeared. Thirty-two years later, his nephew, Bruce Gifﬁn, returned to Vietnam and discovered his uncle’s fate. Near a remote village on the slope of a 4,000-foot mountain, Ross Fobair’s remains were found and ﬁnally returned home for a full military funeral.
Answers to a combat death are rarely clear, and ﬁnding a meaning, especially in any modern war, is difﬁcult. But this combat loss has a legacy that endures today: Fobair’s death was the ﬁnal link in the chain that created the Wild Weasels. Many, many lives have been saved over the years because the USAF dedicated men and machines to hunting and killing SAMs. If a meaning can be found in Ross Fobair’s fate, then perhaps this is it.
Less than two weeks after Fobair and Keirn went down, Air Force ofﬁcials conducted a secret meeting to arrive at a solution for the new threat. Navy and Marine aircraft were also being lost to the SAMs, and the U.S. military, not just the Air Force, needed aircraft that could kill such a threat. To torment, track, and follow prey into its hiding place just like a ﬁerce and relentless wild weasel.
Project Weasel, also called Wild Weasel One, was born.
But there were problems. First, how do you ﬁnd a SAM site? Especially when it’s camouﬂaged or hidden in a jungle? So, Applied Technologies Corporation built the AN/APR-25 radar homing and warning receiver (RHAW) that could locate an SA-2 by the emissions of its own radar. For this to work, the enemy radar, called a Fan Song, had to be operating. The RHAW receiver could see the enemy emissions and would then provide a rough bearing to the site for the attacking aircraft. In theory, anyway.
It worked like this. As a missile gets closer to its target, much more accurate tracking updates are required for the SAM to hit the aircraft. The APR-26 was supposed to detect this shift in guidance beams and trigger a ﬂashing red warning signal light in the cockpit to warn the pilot that a missile was close. An additional receiver, the IR-133, would permit an Electronic Warfare Ofﬁcer (EWO) to identify speciﬁc threats by analyzing the signal. This became more important as more types of SAMs were created, because different threats were defeated by different methods. If you knew what was after you, then you’d know how to beat it—again, theoretically. None of this equipment was really battle-worthy, and everyone, from the scientists down to the aircrews, was feeling their way. The pressure was on, though, since Americans were dying every day.
Another problem was being aware a SAM was tracking you. Threat reactions had always been done visually, but the loss of Fobair and Keirn changed all that. They’d never seen the missile coming and had no warning they were being targeted. Even if they’d spotted it, no one knew how to defeat such a missile and it was obvious that a more sophisticated solution was needed. This new equipment would have to be placed in an aircraft that could survive against a SAM and also employ weapons to kill the things. The Air Force’s answer was to retroﬁt the AN/APR-26 warning receiver onto a ﬁghter.
But which ﬁghter? You’d need a jet that was very fast and could maneuver well enough to give the pilot or aircrew a chance at survival. Bombers and reconnaissance aircraft could try to rely on jamming and countermeasures, but that wouldn’t cut it for a ﬁghter working right on top of the threat. Especially a jet that was trying to get shot at so the SAM would give away its position.
Pressed for an answer, the Air Force chose the F-100F Super Sabre to accommodate the two-man crew of a pilot and Electronic Warfare Ofﬁcer. Made by North American Aviation, the Super Sabre was about ten years old when Project Weasel was conceived.
Originally a training aircraft, the Super Sabre was only equipped with two 20-mm cannons. In retrospect, it wasn’t an ideal choice, but Project Weasel was making a heroic effort to counter the growing losses in Vietnam, and time was short.
The last problem was, who to ﬂy it? Fighter pilots, as anyone who has ever been involved with them can attest, are a breed apart. The uninitiated or envious often call them arrogant, but that’s not really it. It is an absolute belief in their own invincibility, aggressiveness, and skill. Without this mentality, no sane man would go near a supersonic cofﬁn that ﬂings pieces of high explosive at the ground and other jets.
Fighter pilots regard combat as a challenge, so Project Weasel got to choose from the top aviators already ﬂying the F-100F— but the EWO was another matter. The Air Force had never put EWOs into ﬁghters before, and initially turned to the B-52 bomber community for radar experts. Training started in October 1965, at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, barely three months following Ross Fobair’s shoot-down.
They were trained to ﬁght the SA-2. Everything that was known or suspected was thrown at them, along with best guesses at defensive tactics. Practice missions were ﬂown against simulated SAM sites, and, eventually, one of the EWOs understandably asked what the point of all this was.
They were told that they would lead the strike packages into North Vietnam and would hunt and kill the SAMs. A properly puzzled pilot then asked how that was to be done, given the equipment limitations, intelligence uncertainties, and the thickness of the jungle. How do you ﬁnd a SAM site? There was really no other way to locate a SAM with absolute certainty except to allow the SAM to shoot at its target—then, as long as the Weasel survived, he’d know the location. As long as the Weasel survived.
In the immortal words of EWO Captain Jack Donovan, “You want me to ﬂy in the back of a tiny little jet with a crazy ﬁghter pilot who thinks he’s invincible, home in on a SAM site in North Vietnam, and shoot it before it shoots me? You’ve gotta be shittin’ me!”
You’ve Gotta Be Shittin’ Me. YGBSM. It instantly and irrevocably deﬁned the Wild Weasel mission. It remains so to this day.
In November 1965, the ﬁrst ﬁve Wild Weasel Super Sabre jets arrived at Korat Air Base in Thailand to begin combat operations. Right from the beginning, the Weasels knew that the only way to deal with a SAM was to kill it. You could temporarily suppress a radar by lobbing anti-radiation missiles at it, but that wouldn’t solve the problem, and it would still be alive tomorrow. No, you had to kill it with bombs or cannons. So they teamed up with F-105Ds—a supersonic bomber known as the Thunderchief—and went to work.
Called Iron Hand missions, they would hunt the SAM by ﬂying down into its engagement zone, or envelope.
This made the Weasel an attractive target, and the SA-2 target acquisition radar would try to lock the Super Sabre. Once the radar was on air and trying to lock the Weasel, then it could be tracked in turn and located. You could locate it by radar homing or, if the SAM launched, you might see the smoke trail. Sabres and the Thunderchiefs would then bomb and strafe the site to ﬁnish it off.
Over time, several essential aspects of this process have not changed. First, the SAM has to stay “on air” long enough to track the target and be seen in turn. Second, the Weasel has to live long enough to ﬁnd it and successfully attack. Lastly, you couldn’t miss when you attacked, or the SAM—and all the guns around it— would kill you.
Sounds simple enough, right?
Three days before Christmas, not quite ﬁve months since Ross Fobair’s death, Captains Al Lamb and Jack Donovan engaged and killed an SA-2 in North Vietnam. The Weasels had proven their worth and would remain in Vietnam for the duration of the war.
But the F-100F Super Sabres would not.
After nine conﬁrmed SAM kills and a staggering 50 percent Weasel casualty rate, it became apparent that changes had to be made. As far as a new aircraft went, the choice was obvious. The F-105 Thunderchief—called the “Thud,” because of the noise it made while landing—had been involved with the Hunter Killer mission from the beginning, playing the role of the Killer. Why not modify the formidable single-seat ﬁghter bomber into a two-seat variant and make it the new Weasel? Weasels could then do their own killing.
The Thud was deﬁnitely a man’s ﬁghter jet, and it outperformed the Sabre in every respect. Much faster—
twice the speed of sound at altitude—it was twenty feet longer and some 20,000 pounds heavier. Even so, the F-105 could travel twice as far into enemy territory as the F-100F. Most important, the Thud had ﬁve underwing hard points capable of a 6,000-pound weapons payload with a further 8,000 pounds of bombs carried internally. Lots of choices to make SAMs go away.
The U.S. Air Force had Republic Aviation modify the F-105F to incorporate the lessons learned from Southeast Asia. A tandem cockpit was added for the APR-25 RHAW receiver and the EWO. Radar altimeters, better ejection seats, armor plating, and an up- dated weapons delivery system were also included.
By June 1966, less than a year after Ross Fobair’s shoot-down, the Wild Weasel 3 Program was in combat in Southeast Asia. In all, eighty-six F-105Fs were modiﬁed as Weasels, evidence of the
seriousness of the Air Force program. The next month, the earlier-generation F-100Fs ﬂew their last combat missions; meanwhile, Operation Rolling Thunder successfully continued turning big trees into toothpicks, and the war dragged on.
It was Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s notion that slowly increasing the pressure on North Vietnam would make Ho Chi Minh realize the utter futility of opposing the world’s greatest military. The idea, dreamed up by the Beltway theorists who were somehow permitted to run the war, was called “graduated escalation.”
And it didn’t work.
A true politician, McNamara didn’t understand the application of military power, nor did he accurately assess his enemy. Rolling Thunder simply committed American forces in a piecemeal fashion, and gave the North Vietnamese time to repair damage, shift resources, and study our equipment and tactics. The amateurs in Washington never fully grasped that time was on Hanoi’s side. As the war moved farther north, the Johnson administration gave the enemy every opportunity to learn how to counter American air-power by improving Soviet SAMs.
Five of the ﬁrst eleven F-105Fs were lost by the end of August 1966, and it was again evident that further improvements to the Weasel were necessary. So along came the F-105G. The G model was a true Weasel, designed and equipped for the sole purpose of hunting and killing SAMs. The APR-25/26 RHAW was replaced with the upgraded APR-35/37 series. Its increased ﬁdelity and sensitivity would allow greater targeting accuracy and, hopefully, better survivability for the crew.
The G model also carried Westinghouse AN/ALQ-105 electronic jamming pods in a pair of blisters under the fuselage. This permitted a much more powerful countermeasure response and
freed up two more underwing hard points for additional weapons.
The more capable ALR-31 system necessitated a redesign of the wingtips to give the warning sensors greater coverage of the surrounding sky.
All of these improvements represented lessons learned the hard way and, in many cases, from lives lost. With the APR-35/37 passive detection system to ﬁnd the SAM radars, the ALR-31 to warn of a missile launch, and the ALQ-105 jammer to confuse enemy radars, the F-105G was ready to ﬁght.
And ﬁght it did.
From the latter half of 1967, Weasels ﬂew from their Royal Thai Air Force bases to hunt and kill the rapidly proliferating SAMs. All told, the F-105s ﬂew more than 20,000 combat sorties. Over
300 Thuds were lost in the ﬁghting, 126 in 1966 alone, though not all were Weasels. Of those, 103 were brought down by SAMs and Triple-A. It was an enormously dangerous and costly mission.
The enemy’s Tet Offensive of 1968 had shown that the North Vietnamese were in no way defeated and Robert McNamara’s amateurish meddling in tactics had failed completely. His Rolling Thunder plan had cost hundreds of aircraft and the loss of more than a thousand highly talented aviators. McNamara himself had resigned his position in late 1967 and ﬂed to become president of the World Bank. He never lived down his culpability nor justiﬁed his God complex. Lyndon Johnson, also personally and politically ﬁnished, announced in March 1968 that he would not be seeking reelection. Johnson would die on his ranch in January 1973; McNamara lingered on until 2009. I like to imagine that the ghosts of the 58,178 Americans both men sent to early graves were waiting for them on the other side.
With LBJ and McNamara gone, the air war over North Vietnam slid to a halt. Rolling Thunder was ofﬁcially and conveniently ended in November just prior to the 1968 presidential elections.
By 1970, the F-105 was no longer in production and still-mounting combat losses necessitated a revised Wild Weasel.
Enter the F-4 Phantom II.
Made by McDonnell Douglas, the Phantom began its military career as a Navy ﬁghter attack jet in 1961. In 1962, a USAF version, the F-4C, was approved and made its ﬁrst ﬂight in May 1963. It was stubbier and heavier than the Thud but carried an improved ﬁre control system. F-4Ds and Es followed, each with improvements that increased weapon accuracy, maneuverability, and range. Thirty six F-4Cs were re-designated as EF-4Cs and called the Wild Weasel IV. But it was a Band-Aid solution to the worsening situation in Vietnam and a SAM threat that continued to evolve.
In early 1971, the Vietnam lull began to come apart. Air activity over the north increased, and a new enemy offensive kicked off in March 1972. Operation Linebacker was unleashed against Hanoi to drive the enemy back and to win the war. By the middle of April, almost everything in North Vietnam was fair game, and President Nixon, acting on his promise to end the war, turned loose the U.S. Air Force.
The Weasels were once again thrown into the fray, sometimes ﬂying four sorties a day, as rail yards, airﬁelds, and storage facilities were attacked. Infrastructure that had kept the enemy functioning for the past seven years was ﬁnally on the target list and being hit hard. The success of this campaign led to the Paris Peace Talks, and on October 23, 1972, air operations above the 20th Parallel were temporarily halted. Linebacker II, the ﬁnal push, began on December 18, with the Weasels paving the way for massive B-52 strikes that ﬁnally brought Hanoi to its knees. But, in true American political fashion, whatever is paid for in blood is usually given away by Washington, and in early 1973, the U.S. began a massive pullout of forces. By January 1975, the North Vietnamese army captured Phuoc Long Province, only eighty miles from Saigon, and on April 30, the Republic of South Vietnam ceased to exist.
So the Weasels came home. Some of them, anyway. Twenty-six Phantoms had been lost and forty-two more ofﬁcers killed, missing, or captured. Two Weasels, Leo Thorsness and Merlyn Dethlefsen, had been awarded the Medal of Honor.
The advancement of the surface-to-air missile had ushered in a new and revolutionary form of warfare. It would eventually grow and morph into the Integrated Air Defense System, the deadliest technology to ever threaten aircraft. Countertactics had progressed, in turn, from Weasel I through Weasel IV. These techniques would continue to evolve, sometimes forgetting the fundamentals learned in Vietnam and sometimes remembering. Equipment and weapons were proposed, improved, or discarded, but one thing, as we shall see, didn’t change. Never again would American airpower attack in force without the Wild Weasel.
Excerpted from Viper Pilot: A Memoir of Air Combat by Dan Hampton.
Copyright 2012 by Ascalon LLC.
Reprinted with permission from William Morrow.