Jet-Age Naval Warfare
NOT YOUR GRANDDAD’S SURFACE COMBAT
Not Your Granddad’s Surface Combat
When you think of U.S. Navy (USN) aircraft attacking ships, often the WW II Battle of Midway comes to mind, when Dauntless dive-bombers sank four Japanese aircraft carriers. Most readers may not know, however, that in the modern jet era, U.S. Navy strike aircraft fought several successful anti-ship battles using various types of missiles, guided munitions, and free-fall bombs. The technical term is “anti-surface warfare” (ASUW), which is the suppression and/or destruction of surface ships. These USN ship-strike actions included the 1986 Gulf of Sidra operations versus Libya (Operation Attain Document), the 1988 attacks on Iranian ships (Operation Praying Mantis), and strikes on Iraqi vessels during the 1991 Gulf War.
Anti-Ship Training Continues
For decades, USN attack squadrons have been training for ASUW operations. Capt. Don Watkins, Retired, comments, “In regard to
ASUW tactics, I believe I have a fairly interesting perspective. Very early in my career, I had flown older A-6E aircraft, which were radar-only bombers. I was assigned to VA-85 operating off the USS Forrestal (CV-59) in the late ’70s when we employed ASUW combat tactics that, in some respects, were not much different than those of WW II. However, the defensive capabilities of modern warships had advanced with the advent of highly capable surface-to-air missiles and close-in-weapons systems that throw a literal wall of lead in the sky.”
Watkins continues, “As I arrived at VA-34 for my second A-6 squadron tour in the early ’80s, the A-6 (and A-7) fleet of aircraft had all been upgraded with new inertial navigation systems and equipped with FLIRs [forward-looking infrared cameras] and lasers, and the Harpoon and high-speed anti-radiation missiles (HARM) were being introduced into the fleet. Though still only a senior lieutenant, I was tasked with planning and leading an ASUW strike against a simulated Soviet combatant during one of the day’s cyclic operations. I planned the mission such that the A-6s would ingress at low altitude to get close enough to launch our Harpoon missiles, while the A-7s would stand off at high altitude just outside of surface-to-air missile range and launch their HARM missiles such that they would arrive on target as the Harpoons came over the enemy’s radar horizon. The EA-6B would be used to also jam the enemy’s radars. This would require the enemy to make a lose-lose decision. The mission was quite successful. My commanding officer, Cmdr. Garth Van Sickle, said, ‘You know—this may be the future of ASUW warfare.’ So I at least like to believe that in a very small way, I may have been one of the forerunners of modern naval air ASUW tactics.”
Operation Attain Document III— Battle of Sidra, 1986
The USN sent a series of task forces into the Mediterranean Sea off Libya early in 1986— Operation Attain Document I–III—to reassert freedom of the seas. In March 1986, three carrier battle groups—USS Coral Sea (CV-43), Saratoga (CV-60), and America (CV-66)—deployed to the Mediterranean during these operations.
Watkins comments, “On the night of March
24, 1986, VA-34 launched two A-6E Intruders, each armed with an AGM-84 Harpoon missile and two MK-20 Rockeye cluster bombs off the
USS America, to conduct ASUW missions. About half an hour into the flight, I was vectored toward a surface contact by our E-2C aircraft and tasked with identifying the contact. Using our FLIR, we were able to identify the surface vessel as a La Combattante fast-attack patrol boat and reported its position, heading, and speed back to the E-2C.
“Our instructions were to ‘bird-dog’ (maintain contact) with the ship. After approximately 20 minutes, we received coded orders to attack the ship. I began to maneuver around to the north, which would enable us to fire with a clear shot to the south. As we circled back to the north, our sister aircraft, piloted by Lt. Mike Dowty and his Bombardier/Navigator (BN) Lt. Cmdr. Larry Schofield, attacked from a more northeast to southwest approach and were able to execute the first clear shot. This was the first firing of the Harpoon missile in combat. Their Harpoon clearly struck the La Combattante, and they continued their attack, dropping their Rockeye. As they cleared the target, Lt. Serex and I were then in position to fire. Our Harpoon struck the Libyan craft, which was left totally dead in the water. I decided not to drop our remaining Rockeye in case it might be needed against any other threats in the area. As our fuel began to run low, we then returned to the ship, landed, and underwent extensive debriefing.”
Lt. j.g. Ben Loyola comments, “On 25 March 1986, I was on the USS Saratoga with VA-85 right out of training. My pilot, Lt. Keith “Rat” Retterer
and I were on the flight schedule for a very early launch with a SUCAP [Surface Combat Air Patrol] lead, which included a Harpoon, several 500-lb. LGBs [laser-guided bombs], Rockeye, and a fuel tank. While we were on the catapult, we got a call from tactical and were told, once you come off, go into action. I asked Rat, ‘Is this usual?’ And he said, ‘No way!’ So, we launched and pressed on to the coordinates, and I picked up the (Libyan) ship on radar. There was another A-6 out there, I think from the USS Coral Sea, and he was senior, so he took the lead. They attacked with Rockeye, but the ship kept going.
“We had looked at the ship on the FLIR and ID’d it as a Nanuchka corvette, which has four ASMs [anti-ship missiles], a SAM [surface-to-air missile], and multiple guns. Now it was daylight. We called our ship, and they replied ‘weapons free,’ so we set up for a Harpoon shot. As we came toward the ship, he lit us up with his fire-control radar for the SAM and guns. Our radar warning was going crazy with visual and audio indications, and that got our attention! We dropped down, popped chaff and flares and started jinking back and forth but still headed in. We wanted to get the radar on the Harpoon to see the target, so we popped up and when we got that indication, we launched. The Harpoon is a seaskimming missile, so we followed it down. The missile bored in and hit the ship just behind the stack and caused a big explosion. I had a couple cameras with me, and we flew around the ship. One of these was on the cover of Time or Newsweek soon after.”
Operation Praying Mantis, 1988
Most people are not aware that during the Iran-Iraq War (1980– 88), Iraqi and Iranian forces made more than 600 attacks on oil and cargo ships, and some 80 were destroyed. U.S. and coalition warships faced attack by both Iraqi and Iranian forces while escorting oil tankers. The USS Stark was hit by two Exocet ASMs fired by
an Iraqi jet on May 17, 1987, which led to the death of 37 sailors. Also, the destroyer USS Samuel B. Roberts was badly damaged by an Iranian mine on April 14, 1988. After the mine attack, USN ships and aircraft initiated Operation Praying Mantis and fought with Iranian forces.
A-6 Intruders flew cover for American ships.
Rear Adm. Bud Langston, Retired, says, “I was serving as Deputy Commander Air Group (CAG) of CVW-11 on the USS Enterprise (CV-65) in 1988. We got a warning order to target and sink the Iranian Vosper-class frigate Sabalan. Around 1:00 p.m., 18 April 1988, we detected an Iranian frigate coming out of Bandar Abbas, which was thought to be our target. I launched and flew one of the fully armed A-6Es prepared for the ASUW mission. We took off with two F-14s and one EA-6B, and we had E-2C support. I was flying with Lt. Bob Papadakis as my bombardier/navigator. The surface action group led by Capt. Dyer on the USS Joseph Strauss was also deploying to engage the contact; we were in the air and following our orders.
“I flew over the Gulf at around 15,000 feet and we saw the ship’s wake, and my BN looked with the FLIR and it looked like the Sabalan. However, at this time of year, the visibility is mixed with sand and haze, and I also knew that the Royal Navy was also operating in the region with ships that looked similar. So I decided we needed to take a closer look and made sure we had the right ship. We dove down, and I passed behind and alongside the ship at 500+ knots and less than 50 feet, so low I was looking up at the mast of the ship. I could clearly see the Iranian sailors on the ship and the blinking of antiaircraft gunfire and tracers of the shells passing by. The ship’s crew also launched several SAM at us!
“We set up for a Harpoon attack with the AGM84C missile we carried. We fired it from around 2,000 feet altitude in a dive at a range of about eight miles from the ship. The missile worked as planned and hit just aft of the bridge; the warhead caused a serious explosion. The ship went dead in the water, and we saw fire behind the bridge. After the Harpoon strike, we followed up with two AGM-123 Skipper LGBs. One of the Skippers hit,
causing additional damage and smoke. After this, we called the Enterprise via the E-2C and passed the ship location for the rest of the alert ASUW force.”
Cmdr. Tad Chamberlain, Retired, commanding officer of VA-94, remarks, “I was the CO [commanding officer] of VA-94 on the Enterprise. This was during the tanker escort operations, and the primary threat we were worried about were Iranian Silkworm missiles. There were a number of sites south of Bandar Abbas, and these were a threat to tankers and warships. We worked out tactics to deliver Walleye IIs and hard-nose bombs into the tunnels the Iranians used to shelter the Silkworm missiles. I had Walleye on my mind for a long time.”
Chamberlain adds, “One night, the CAG came down and asked, ‘Do you want to lead a strike tomorrow?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure,’ thinking it was another practice mission. He added, ‘No, this is real! We are going to sink an Iranian ship under orders from the president!’
“The CAG had various teams within the air wing develop tactics. We got tapped to hit this frigate, and we decided to use Walleye IIs, which had a lot of explosives and also precision guidance with the data link. The glide weapon had a 2,000-pound Mk 87 shaped-charge warhead. We were assigned six A-7s—three from my squadron and three from VA-22. The first group of aircraft carried Walleye and data-link pods, plus Mk 83 1,000-pound bombs, and the others just Mk 83s. We had the ASUW mission to follow up after the A-6s attacked. Our flight formation was like a ladder, flying line abreast, so we had time to evaluate the target and attack sequentially. We knew the ship would be damaged by the time we got there, so there was not much of a threat.
“The guy ahead of me was Cmdr. Rich Roberson, skipper of VA-22, as first in line, and then
The missile worked as planned and hit just aft of the bridge; the warhead caused a serious explosion. The ship went dead in the water.
there was another VA-22 jet with Walleye IIs and a data-link pod. When we flew in, they carried the weapon and I had the data-link pod. As we came in to attack, I had the cursor locked right on the bridge area of the radar TV display in my cockpit, and I kept tweaking the seeker with the controller as it flew to the target. The Walleye hit the bow and caused a big explosion. After the Walleye strike, all of the aircraft came in and bombed one at a time in a shallow dive with Mk-83s.”
Chamberlain continues, “In the A-7 light attack community, both land targets and war at sea missions were our bread and butter. However, this is the first and, to my knowledge, only time the A-7 ever performed a real strike mission against a ship with the Walleye II.”
Gulf War, 1991
During the 1990–91 conflict, the Iraqi Navy and Air Force posed a serious threat to coalition naval
forces. The Iraqi Air Force had proven its antiship skills by hitting 100+ ships, including the USS Stark, and the Iraqi Navy included 13 missile boats armed with a mix of Styx and Exocet ASMs. Iraq also had 50 land-based Chinese-made Silkworm ASMs with a range of 68 miles.
USN A-6 Intruders, F/A-18 Hornets, Royal Air Force Jaguars, and armed helicopters worked together to knock out the Iraqi Navy. Cmdr. Richard Cassara, Retired, who flew as a BN with VA-145, comments, “We had two A-6 squadrons on the USS Ranger (CV-61), and we were assigned the night-strike role. I recall a mission to strike a Silkworm site at Umm Qasbah, a quay area south of Kuwait City on the evening of 29 January 1991. We had two airplanes, a VA155 A-6E and our VA-145 jet, and we each had four 500-pound LGBs. Our job was to expend a few bombs on the Silkworm site and then to go look for Iraqi ships along the coast.
“We flew up to the northern Gulf, and I saw a big radar return. When we got closer, the return turned into four smaller targets. We called it into the Alpha Sierra ASUW lead. Usually we would be above 15,000 feet to stay above antiaircraft and SA-7–type SAMs, but we knew we would have to go down and take a look. We made a few high-speed passes over the four ships and even videotaped the images with the FLIR. They were running lights out in a line-astern formation evenly spaced, but they did not shoot at us.”
Cassara continues, “My primary concern was that they were coalition or U.S. Navy warships on a mission we were not aware of, so we were worried about a blue-on-blue situation. Using the FLIR, we identified the trailing vessel as an Iraqi fast patrol boat. We made a pass on the last ship in line and got a good hit with a 500-pound LGB, and the ship immediately went dead in the water. Then the other three ships separated, and we followed and got a good hit on the next ship in line. Now we were out of
bombs, and we called our wingmen and had them come over and attack. Canadian Hornets were directed in by an E-2 and strafed a ship, but I think he got away. Later, we heard that three Iraqi patrol boats—identified as FPB-57, FPB-70, and TNC-45—were knocked out.
“In terms of our missions, land strike, and ASUW, we usually carried a mix of LGBs and Rockeye. I think we never carried Harpoon
ASM as we figured we did not need that much standoff range against Iraqi ships with their lim- ited AAA [antiaircraft artillery] and SA-7–type SAMs. Also, do we really need to use expensive Harpoons against these threats? There were a lot of potential targets in the water—oil tankers, oil platforms, friendly ships, etc.—and we were concerned that when the Harpoon seeker turned on it, it might see the wrong target. We did carry Skippers, which had about a seven-mile standoff range. In fact, one of my squadron mates nailed a small ship that was hiding under an oil platform. He used a Skipper, which came in low over the water, whereas a regular LGB flew a much steeper flight profile and would have hit the oil platform.
“A week later, we flew a SUCAP mission with two aircraft and an EA-6B escort. Again, our wingman as a VA-155 jet. I got a call from the battle-group staff officer who said, ‘Let’s meet up.’ He handed me a recent TARPS [Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod System] photo of an Osa attack craft that was sitting in port in Kuwait near where we were planning to fly this patrol. The photo was a few hours old, and I was told by the captain, ‘If you see this, go hit it.’ We flew up and found it still there. We set up a racetrack pattern and dropped an LGB, but for some reason, my bomb missed 100 yards from the ship. On my second run, my LGB hit the target, and soon after, there was a secondary explosion. So we had done some good work!”
One of my squadron mates nailed a small ship that was hiding under an oil platform. He used a Skipper, which came in low over the water, whereas a regular LGB flew a much steeper flight profile and would have hit the oil platform.
F/A-18A Hornet of VFA-113. The Hornet replaced the venerable A-6 and A-7 in the light and medium strike roles, 1985–2000, and became the primary ship, land strike, and air combat fighter of the U.S. Navy aircraft-carrier air wings. (Photo by Check Six/TRT)
Note the interesting sideby-side seating for the pilot on the left and bombardier/ navigator on the right in the A-6E Intruder medium attack aircraft. (Photo by Check Six/TRT)
The A-7E served as the primary U.S. Navy light attack strike aircraft from the 1960s to the 1990s, when it was replaced by the F/A-18 Hornet. This A-7E served with VA-72 on the USS America (CV-66) in 1986. A-7E pilots from VA-22 and VA-94 flew anti-ship strikes from USS Enterprise (CV-65) on April 18, 1988, using the Walleye II glide bomb and Mk 83 bombs to sink the Iranian frigate Sahand off Bandar Abbas. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy)
A Strike Weapons Test Center, NAS China Lake Hornet fires 0.5-inch Zini rockets on a test mission. U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aircraft and weapons are developed and tested at ranges to ensure that upgrades are successful and weapons will perform as designed. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy)