Slightly more than half a century ago, a new U. S. Air Force mission – that of a high importance – was assigned to a handful of pilots and electronic warfare officers. Their mission was to offer a solution to the critical task of defeating the newest and very lethal Soviet Bloc SA-2 anti-aircraft missiles that had recently become a threat to aircraft involved in the Vietnam War. Looking back upon fifty-two years of defeating anti-aircraft missiles and other air defense weapons, the Wild Weasel mission successes have shaped air warfare tactics and weapons systems worldwide.
During the early stages of the Vietnam War, American aviators met a new threat not encountered in previous conflicts. Radar-guided surface to air anti-aircraft missiles (SAMs) became a menace to aircraft as they flew missions against targets in North Vietnam. Missile sites had been detected earlier in the year, but on July 24, 1965, a Soviet-built SA-2 Guideline (NATO codename) missile shot down an Air Force F-4C Phantom II; the following day an unmanned aircraft was also lost.
Losses began to mount as the missiles became a commonly-deployed defense; additionally, the sites were effectively defended by dense anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), often leading to additional aircraft losses as the strikes brought attackers below effective missile ranges, but into lethal AAA fire range. The rapidly growing menace drew increasing concerns from aircrew and planners.
A few months later, in October, 1965, a group of ten Air Force pilots and Electronic Warfare Officers (EWOs), under the leadership of Major Gary Willard, gathered at Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base to create a plan to combat the missiles and their air defense radars. They would fly twin-seat F-100F Super Sabres (known as the Wild Weasel I), hurriedly equipped with specialized sensors, whose sole use was to find and destroy AAA and SAM sites that hampered bombing missions. Fitted with radar detection and launch warning receivers, and armed with rockets, bombs and cannons, the EWO operated the sensors that found the camouflaged missile sites, while the pilot visually directed the weapons at those sites.
The secret program was called Project Weasel; crews developed tactics and were deployed to Southeast Asia in less than two months. The so-called Wild Weasels soon proved their tactics were sound, as the first recorded destruction of a SAM site occurred on December 22, 1965 by Captains Allen Lamb and Jack Donovan in an F-100F. Initial tactics provided a Wild Weasel jet flying ahead of a strike group; it would try to draw the attention of the missile operators on the ground, and would (hopefully) trigger radar activation. The Weasel would home in on the radars, and accomplish the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) mission with weapons directed at the sites. The attack would either destroy the equipment, or at least cause the operators to shut it off to avoid further detection and Weasel attacks.
Weasels remained over the missile sites while the strike group completed their bombing mission, and did not leave the area until the last of the strikers had withdrawn. It was a long time to be in harm’s way, and earned them their motto of “First In and Last Out” as well as the admiration from the other flight crews they protected. When a missile was launched at a Weasel, most times the only defense was to visually track the missile and allow it to close to a “minimum” range of the jet, then aggressively maneuver away from it so that the missile couldn’t follow the high-G turn of the jet’s rapidly changing flight path. The now-famous unofficial motto of the Wild Weasels began with these first missions… as attributed to Captain Jack Donovan… an initial EWO put it, YGBSM – “You’ve Got to Be Shitting Me” as the crews tangled with the lethal SA-2s.
Another style mission involved an F-100F leading a group of fully armed F-105 Thunderchief bombers that dealt a missile site (hopefully) heavier damage than the one Weasel could do. Between the high attrition of the first two groups of F-100F jets and their crews, and the operational difficulties of the slower Super Sabre had keeping up with bombers (plus different air refueling equipment needed – the Sabre was one of only a few fighters of the Air Force that used the hose and drogue method), an interim change to the Wild Weasel platform was made with F-4C Phantom II (Wild Weasel II) airframes.
By late 1966, Republic F-105F Thunderchiefs – the two seat trainer version of the fast jet bomber – were introduced as Wild Weasels, now packed with specialized equipment. The “Thud” offered longer range and higher speed than the F-100s, and more space for electronics. Known as the Wild Weasel III, the Thunderchiefs were further modified into F-105Gs, with more capable equipment and for the first time, radar jammers. The –Gs could also use a purposely-built anti-radar missile, the AGM-45 Shrike, which homed in on an SA-2 radar beam. Although the missile was relatively short-ranged and had to have a radar target radiating constantly for it to be accurate, it was a new way to counter the threat.
The F-105s were effective at their tasks, but attrition was still high among the Weasels. Their mission successfully allowed many bomber, fighter and reconnaissance crews badly needed protection while they performed their tasks in heavily defended airspace. By 1972, new F-4C Wild Weasel IVs were fielded, to help replace the depleted F-105F/G stocks. Another anti-radiation missile was fielded, the Navy-developed AGM-78 Standard ARM, which was an improvement over the Shrike… it could be fired from beyond the range of an SA-2 (which the Shrike couldn’t); launch parameters offered improved flexibility for the Weasel crews to attack from off angles, and some versions had a memory feature allowed for the missile to strike effectively even after a radar was shut off.
Wild Weasel tactics and weapons had improved so much that by the 1972 Linebacker and Linebacker II raids, Weasel and bomber losses from SA-2s were said to be at a rate of around eighty SA-2s fired for each Air Force aircraft lost to the SAMs, down from approximately fifteen for each aircraft lost in 1965 when the SA-2s were first encountered.
During the final stages of the Vietnam War, a new version of the Phantom II, a modified F-4E known as the F-4G, was introduced. Radar homing equipment was housed where the –E’s nose cannon was removed, and electronics were updated to detect and even defeat various radar systems fielded by a bevy of newer surface to air missile systems. Jamming equipment could also be carried, but the SEAD mission was still a top priority for this new Wild Weasel V. A decade and a half later, the F-4Gs were used heavily against Iraqi targets in Operation Desert Storm. This time, a newer and more lethal anti-radiation missile, the AGM-88 HARM (High Speed Anti Radiation Missile) was fielded. The F-4G version was the last operational Phantom II variant fielded by the Air Force, and after the Desert Storm action, it was replaced by the newest version of the Wild Weasel, the F-16C Block 50/52 series.
Today’s F-16C Wild Weasel VI (sometimes referred to as the F-16CJ) benefits from the rapid advancement in the miniaturization of electronic components and the additional capabilities of computers. For the first time, a single pilot employed the Wild Weasel. Weapons such as the HARM, Maverick missile, and GPS-guided bombs allow for successfully destroying anti-aircraft radar and weapons from a further distance, thus avoiding associated AAA fire. The Harm Targeting System (HTS) is a fuselage mounted pod that receives various electronic signals and sends data to the F-16’s on-board computers for processing and display in the cockpit. Data link communications equipment allows for sharing of targeting data between aircraft too.
A great book to read about the capabilities of the Wild Weasel VI, weapons, missions, and a pilot’s memoirs is retired Lieutenant Colonel Dan Hampton’s VIPER PILOT, A Memoir of Air Combat (William Morrow/HarperCollinsPublishers).
Looking ahead to the next Wild Weasel platform, the new Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II has been identified as the F-16’s successor. Filled with sensors and computers that have the same or improved capabilities of the F-16C Block 50/52, the possibility of internal carriage of weapons could add stealth capabilities to the Wild Weasel arsenal. Since there are no planned external modifications expected – like the HTS – any F-35 airframe will contain the necessary hardware and software, and could act as a Wild Weasel as long as pilots are trained to perform the SEAD mission.
A big difference in the workload for the pilot of an F-35 acting in the SEAD role will be the onboard computer that’ll collect information from other sources – aircraft and ground stations – and fusing the information together for the pilot, instead of him/her having to look at multiple sources of data to arrive at the same situational awareness. Although the F-35 may not possess a larger weapons load or better maneuverability than the aircraft it will replace, it will hold a huge advantage in data collection and distribution – a very important capability to have on the world’s newest electronic battlefields.
While the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) has always been a major part of the Wild Weasel mission, it has remained a role for a few select pilots and their aircraft. Beginning with a new style of fighting over Vietnam against specialized SA-2 radars and their deadly guided missiles, and continuing through the Iraq wars against many different types of military hardware, Wild Weasels have helped to facilitate airpower as a decisive force on the battlefield for half a century. Future aircraft like the F-35 will contain purposely-built internal systems to counter enemy air defenses, not add-ons. The specialized role of a specific Wild Weasel airframe and pilot may be coming to an end soon, as new aircraft will carry the necessary tools to do the mission without any modifications or even specialized training – things that got the ball rolling over fifty years ago for the Vietnam War.