A first-hand account of F-14 aircrew operations during a critical special ops mission in western Iraq
All three Tomcat units in the NAG (VF-154 having arrived with CVW-5, embarked aboard USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63), in late February 2003) participated heavily in a series of precision strikes on known targets in the “Box” in the final days before OIF began. Republican Guard barracks, HQ and command and control structures, mobile missile launchers, and AAA sites in and around Basra were all struck by CVW-5, the authorized CAS air wing.
Assets from CVW (1-2, -5, and -14, as well as USAF and RAF jets, supported a very essential long-range mission to the H2 and H3 airfields in western Iraq on the night of March 19. The mission also included SOF elements on the ground. The following is a description of the sortie provided by one of the VP-2 RI Os participated in this mission:
‘I was in one of two F-14Ds that launched off CV-64 to support a preplanned operation sent against an airfield in the extreme west of Iraq. By the time it was over, my pilot and I had logged 8.6 hours from launch to crap. Assigned to the mission was a SOF ground element, various TACIR assets, including sections of A-10s rotating throughout the evening, F-15Es, F-14/Ds, AWACS, and dedicated tankers.
‘Our task was to show up after the initial ingress into the area and take over TACAIR asset control in support of the ground element as it headed toward its objective. We started to gain situational awareness of which phase the operation was in as soon as we could get radio contact a few hundred miles out. Having Link-16 JTIDS (Joint Tactical Information Distribution System) was invaluable, as we were receiving datalink to all the other assets in our package without having to use our radio or radar. It sounded like things were going according to plan, and that the assets were getting into position.
‘As we got closer, we heard a VF-154 F-14A divert for unknown reasons. We weren’t certain if the crew had been engaged by ground fire and been hit, or had some other type of failure, but they had an immediate divert problem and left their wingman on station to wait for our relief. We quickly arrived on-station and relieved the lone Tomcat as the FAC(A)s for the operation. He passed a turnover brief as he departed, and we started getting a check in from the other assets in the area.
‘Our plan was to have at least one Tomcat on station to quarterback the operation, while the other one was headed to or from the ranker – located over the border – to refuel. If required, we would pass control to one of the F-15Es if we had both Tomcats off-station. JTIDS was once again invaluable when it came to deconflicting all the assets in our package that were flowing in and out of our Area of Responsibility (AOR) as required, and holding in the same relative area with their lights out. It also allowed us to release the sections on-station when we saw their relief headed inbound without having to constantly query the AWACS as to the status of our support assets. JTIDS provided deconfliction with attacking assets while prosecuting targets on the ground, and most importantly, it let us accurately find the ranker when gas became critical so that we could drive him to us if required.
‘Initially, things went pretty smooth for what seemed to be the first 20 minutes, so we headed to the ranker to top off and left our wingman on station to run the show. The tanker was its own unique type of pain this evening. It was WARP (wing aerial refueling pod) configured, with a boom in the center. That way it could refuel the USAF assets with the boom or stream the baskets from the wingtips for the Navy jets, which probe refueled. As we got to the ranker, we joined up on the left side after it streamed the basket. We had to stay pretty well topped off on gas because we would need a significant amount to get to a divert field should we be hit, suffer mechanical difficulties, or have a problem refueling.
‘Three things soon became readily apparent as we closed on the tanker: 1) we were stuck with manual (unboosted) throttles, so it was like driving a Mack truck without power steering, and therefore very fatiguing on the pilot who was trying to make the minor throttle correction to get in the basket; 2) our probe light, which illuminates the otherwise pitch black basket and lees the pilot sec where he’s putting the refueling probe in the endgame, was not working; and 3) there was a lot of turbulence at the canker’s altitude which was causing the wing rips to bounce up and down like a big lumbering bird. This caused the basket to move up and clown sporadically about four feet at a shot.
‘I stayed on NVGs in the back seat and tried to help talk the pilot into the basket, which was difficult to see without a probe light. Tanking on NVGs was also difficult, as it can seriously distort your depth perception. My pilot got in on the third try, which made us very happy, as the closest divert field was nowhere as close as we wanted it to be.
‘As we headed back to the AOR and switched back to the working frequency, things had obviously moved along to the next phase of operations. Our wingman was controlling the engagement of a AAA piece that had started opening up, and we had A-10s and F-15Es attacking vehicles that were moving in the general direction of the SOF units on the ground. We quickly arrived on-station and received control from our wingman as he headed toward the tanker. We were able to cake out one of the targets pointed out by the ground element ourselves with an LGB before the dust settled a little bit.
‘Now that the initial exchanges had subsided, we gave ourselves about a ten-minute break. The next target that the ground element wanted us to address was located in a revetment about a kilometer away from their present position but between them and their objective. We had soon located and verified the target with the LTS, and were also able to see the ground unit with our NVGs, but we could not see die target visually with the goggles.
‘The release cues from the LTS showed an aim point after we were past the ground element position. The SOF team wanted us to illuminate the target with an infrared (IR) pointer to confirm its position before we dropped our LGB on it since it was close to their position. We told them that we couldn’t visually put the IR pointer on it because we could not see it through NVGs, but that the LTS indicated that it was clear of their position. After making two passes, and asking for clearance to release, which we did not get because the SOF unit did not acquire us until we were past our release solution, we brought in an F-15E which was fitted with a new Litening II pod. We talked the crew onto the target and verified the ground position with them as well.
‘The Litening II-equipped F- 15E has an internal IR pointer (unlike our handheld version, which required us to see the target with NVGs), and they illuminated the target that they had located with their FUR. We saw that the F-15 had the target about 800 meters away from the friendly position, and we passed terminal weapon release control back to the ground element, which in turn authorized the F-15E crew to drop their LGB on their first pass, scoring a direct hit as verified by our LTS. We now headed back to the tanker for round two, as our wingman was on his way back to station.
‘The next duel with the tanker took additional tries to get in the basket and left my pilot with a good cramp in his throttle (left) arm. ‘As we arrived back at the fight to join our wingman, the ground unit had reached its objective and was ready to egress the area, which involved moving across a major “enemy line of communication” – a road. We were tasked with sanitizing the area where the crossing was to occur, searching out any possible resistance. There were a few vehicles moving along the road, but none were presenting a direct threat to the ground element. We then caught sight of a real fast mover on NVGs doing about 80 mph – easily three times the speed of any other traffic observed and headed directly for the ground unit. We passed the information to the ground controller, who instructed us to rake the vehicle out.
‘We rolled in the same direction that the target was heading and tried to lead it with an LGB, but he was seriously moving. The LGB hit about two vehicle lengths short, but the blast forced the driver off the road. We observed four individuals get out of the vehicle once it had stopped, and they ran into a ditch next to the road. The final person leaving the vehicle had a pretty good heat signature on the PLIR, and he appeared to be severely injured based on the way he rolled into a ditch on the roadside. We watched as the group continued to head away from the damaged vehicle and toward the ground unit. Before we could come back around to see how close the group was getting to the crossing site, an F-15E crew “cleaned up” the scene with their own LGB, and this group was no longer a factor. We covered the rest of the egress by the ground unit, directing other fires as required until we proceeded off-station.
‘There was one more trip to the ranker left, and if we topped off, we could make it all the way back to the boa[ at high altitude on a conservative profile. By the time we got back to the tanker, my pilot was dragging. It was early in the morning hours and still pitch black all around. We had been pumped up during the action, and the flight had been fairly fatiguing. The basket was really bouncing and we were low on gas. We made the decision to take the Tomcat down to the lowest possible Fuel state before heading off to the divert airfield (where we could be stuck for days).
‘After many attempts. and a severe forearm cramp from running the manual throttles all night, my pilot just steadied about ten feet behind the basket for about a minute. I asked, “Hey, you know we’ve only got about 400 lbs of gas to play with here before we gotta go?” He replied, ”Yeah, I know, but I’ve got to give it a little break or I’m not gonna make it in”. ‘With 200 lbs to go (enough for another ten seconds of trying to get in), my pilot made one more attempt and successfully plugged into the basket. The fuel gauge touched the bingo number just as it reversed and started showing good flow from the ranker into our ranks!
‘Now we still had the long ride home to end in a Navy-specific event, the night trap. En route, we consumed two mocha flavor power bars and a bag of spicy teriyaki beef jerky—a meal that would not be repeated during the war! Once we were feet wet, my pilot leveled with me and said that he was pretty tired—something that a RIO never wants to hear, but I appreciated the honesty.
‘I implicitly trusted him with my life, and had a little worry about his ability to get aboard, It just may have taken us a few tries. I passed him two Red Bulls to see if they would help. He had one right away, and saved the other for closer-to-die boat – it really did the trick. I don’t remember if it was an OK 3 wire, but we were aboard safely on the first pass.’
The next time VF-2 would launch jets in anger, they would lead the initial assaults on Baghdad at the opening of “Shock and Awe.”
The book US Navy F-14 Tomcat Units of Operation Iraqi Freedom is available to purchase here.