Jet-Age Naval War­fare


Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - By Lon Nordeen

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)

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