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Amidst the news of classified intelligence leaks, it’s a great time to look back at the US Air Force (USAF) Security Service – the USAF’s own intelligence agency that gathered critical intelligence throughout the Cold War. From using surveillance aircraft to spy on potential threats to helping fighter pilots shoot down MiGs over the skies of Vietnam, Philip Shackelford takes us through the story of this mysterious organization, as he details in his new book: Rise of the Mavericks from Naval Institute Press.
Philip C. Shackelford is the library director at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado, Arkansas. He has served as President of the Arkansas Library Association and was named an Emerging Leader by the American Library Association in 2019. Shackelford’s academic focus is on communications intelligence in the U.S. Air Force. He is also interested in national security, strategy, intelligence, and organizational culture.
Header image: A Boeing RB-29 of the 31st Reconnaissance Squadron, somewhere over Korea, c. 1952. (Source: Wikimedia).
In January 1991, a US-led coalition launched Operation DESERT STORM to evict Iraq from Kuwait, which the former had invaded six months earlier. DESERT STORM was a combined operation involving a major air campaign. At the time, Iraq had one of the world’s most sophisticated air defence systems. The radars and communications necessary to spot hostile aircraft and coordinate their engagement were integral to this. As a result, the coalition correctly determined that the air campaign would only succeed by establishing air superiority and supremacy. This would be achieved through an Offensive Counter Air (OCA) campaign against the Iraqi Air Force (IQAF). A crucial part of this was an electronic war waged against Iraqi air defence radars and communications. This article explains the extent to which Iraq’s air defences threatened coalition air power, how the electronic war against these air defences was fought and why they were not able to overcome the coalition’s electromagnetic supremacy.
When Operation DESERT STORM began on the morning of 17 January 1991, Iraq possessed one of the world’s most fearsome Integrated Air Defence Systems (IADS). At 02:38, its demise began. Task Force Normandy, an armada of US Army AH-64A Apache gunships and US Air Force (USAF) MH-53J Pave Low helicopters attacked a group of IQAF radars. These were positioned a few miles behind the midpoint of the Saudi-Iraqi border within the Iraqi 1st Air Defence Sector’s area of responsibility. The radars consisted of P-18 Very High Frequency (VHF), P-15 Ultra High Frequency (UHF) and P-15M2 UHF ground-based air surveillance radars. This attack left a large swathe of Iraq’s southwest airspace without radar coverage. As a result, Iraq’s IADS failed to detect waves of incoming aircraft tasked with hitting strategic targets. These planes followed USAF F-117A Nighthawk ground-attack aircraft which had slipped through Iraqi radar coverage earlier to hit targets in Baghdad.
…The Story so Far: From Vietnam to DESERT STORM
The United States had learned about well-operated air defences the hard way during the Vietnam War. Vietnam’s air war saw the United States lose over 3,300 fixed-wing aircraft across all services. Rotary-wing and uninhabited aerial vehicle losses pushed this figure to over 10,000. In addition, the North Vietnamese IADS, consisting of Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) and SA-2 high-altitude Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs), reaped a grim toll on American aircraft. The experience led to the development of the USAF’s Wild Weasel concept.
First seeing service in the summer of 1965, customised F-105F Thunderchief fighters outfitted with radar detectors, listened for transmissions from an SA-2’s accompanying radar. The purpose of locating the accompanying radar was that it helped locate the associated SAM battery. The aircraft would then attack the radar, initially with gunfire and rockets and later with specialist Anti-Radar Missiles (ARMs). These attacks destroyed the radar site and blinded the SAM site, thus reducing the threat to incoming attack aircraft. These aircraft were eventually upgraded to F-105G standard. The Wild Weasel concept was progressively honed during and after the Vietnam War with ever-more capable radar sensors, ordnance, and platforms. When the USAF deployed to Saudi Arabia in 1990, the Wild Weasels used F-4G Phantom-II jets with sophisticated radar-hunting equipment and AGM-88 high-speed anti-radar missiles.
The skies over Southeast Asia gave the US armed forces, and their North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies a taste of the potency of Soviet and Warsaw Pact air defences as they had for the Israeli Air Force during the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. No sooner had the last US units left Vietnam than the so-called ‘New Cold War’ began to unfold. Both NATO and the Warsaw Pact prepared for a confrontation that might engulf East and West Germany. Part of the Warsaw Pact’s role was to ensure that air approaches into the European USSR were heavily defended. This required robust IADSs of fighter defences and an umbrella of short-range/low-altitude, medium-range/medium-altitude SAM systems covering the altitudes NATO aircraft were likely to use. This SAM umbrella protected everything from dismounted troops on the front line pushing through the Fulda Gap on the Inner German Border to strategic politico-military leadership targets in the Soviet Union.
The Wild Weasel units were not the only assets involved in degrading Soviet air defences. Also important were SIGINT (signals intelligence) platforms, such as the USAF’s RC-135U Combat Sent ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) gathering aircraft. These aircraft allowed NATO to develop an understanding of where the radars supporting Soviet and Warsaw Pact air defences were situated. Understanding where the radars were located allowed NATO to build up an electronic order of battle of the ground-based air surveillance radars and Fire Control/Ground-Controlled Interception (FC/GCI) radars the air defences depended upon to detect and engage targets with SAMs or fighters. Many aircraft configured to collect SIGINT and prosecute Soviet/Warsaw Pact air defences were the same that deployed to the Persian Gulf. After arriving, they soon discovered similar defences to those on the eastern side of the Inner German Border.
KARI: Defending Iraqi Airspace
The US Department of Defence’s official report on DESERT STORM did not mince its words regarding the potential ferocity of Iraq’s IADS:
The multi-layered, redundant, computer-controlled air defence network around Baghdad was denser than that surrounding most Eastern European cities during the Cold War, and several orders of magnitude greater than that which had defended Hanoi during the later stages of the Vietnam War.
The components of Iraq’s air defence system were sourced from the USSR and France. In the wake of the 17 July Revolution in 1968, which brought the Iraqi affiliate of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party to power, France steadily deepened its relationship with Iraq. As a result, France sold some of its finest materiel to Iraq during the 1970s and 1980s. For Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein, who had seized power in July 1979, this was ideal.
With tensions growing between Iraq and Iran, the Iraqi armed forces needed as much support as the regime could muster. They were not disappointed. Paris supplied Roland Short-Range Air Defence (SHORAD) SAM batteries. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, furnished Iraq with SA-2 batteries, SA-3 medium-range/medium-altitude, SA-6A low/medium-altitude/medium-range, SA-8, and SA-9 SHORAD SAM batteries. Additional SHORAD coverage was provided by a plethora of ZSU-23-4 and ZSU-57-2 AAA systems and SA-13 Man-Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS). The SAMs were mainly to protect Iraqi strategic targets. Divisions of the elite Republican Guard also had some organic SA-6 and Roland units. AAA was used for corps and division air defence, along with the point defence of strategic targets. These units would also have MANPADS coverage, some SA-8s and Rolands. These provided air defence coverage over the manoeuvre force.
These air defences received targeting information from Chinese-supplied Type-408C VHF ground-based air surveillance radars with a range of 324 nautical miles/nm (600 kilometres/km). Iraq received five of these radars between 1986 and 1988. France also supplied six TRS-2215/2230 S-band ground-based air surveillance radars between 1984 and 1985. These had a range of 335nm (620km). Iraq supplemented these with five French TRS-2206 Volex ground-based air surveillance radars transmitting on an unknown waveband with a range of 145nm (268.5km). The Soviet Union also supplied several ground-based air surveillance and height-finding radars for use with Iraq’s SAM batteries and independently. These included six P-12 and five P-14 VHF ground-based air surveillance radars with ranges of 135nm (250km) and 216nm (400km), respectively, plus ten P-40 radars with a 200nm (370km) range and five PRV-9 height-finding radars with a 162nm (300km) range.
The IQAF’s radars, fighters, airbases, SAM batteries and supporting infrastructure that provided operational/strategic level air defence were networked using the French-supplied KARI Command and Control system. The nerve centre of the IADS was the Air Defence Operations Centre in downtown Baghdad. This was responsible for Iraq’s operational/strategic air defence, particularly industrial and political installations.
Iraq’s airspace was segmented into four sectors (see figure 1). Each was commanded from a Sector Operations Centre. Subordinate to the Sector Operations Centres were the Intercept Operations Centres. The Intercept Operations Centres would control a segment of airspace in a specific sector using organic radars. Their radar pictures would be sent to the Sector Operations Centre. There they would be fused together creating a Recognised Air Picture (RAP) of the sector and its air approaches. The recognised air picture was sent up the chain of command to the Air Defence Operations Centre using standard radio, telephone, and fibre optic links. A ‘Super RAP’ of Iraq’s airspace and approaches was created at the Air Defence Operations Centre. KARI used several means of communication to provide redundancy. If radio communications were jammed, communications with the Air Defence Operations Centre could be preserved using telephone and fibre optic lines. If telephone exchanges and fibre optic nodes were hit, radio communications could be used.
Cooking up a Storm
Coalition air planners had two critical Iraqi threats to contest in the bid to achieve air superiority and air supremacy; the Iraqi IADS and deployed Ground-Based Air Defences (GBAD) protecting the Iraqi Army and Republican Guard units. The IADS/GBAD had to be degraded to the point where they would effectively be useless if coalition aircraft enjoyed relative freedom in the skies above the Kuwait Theatre of Operations. Electronic Warfare (EW) was intrinsic to this effort. The IADS and GBAD relied on air surveillance, battle management and weapons control. Air surveillance was dependent on radar, battle management was dependent on communications, and both depended on the electromagnetic spectrum.
The concept of operations for coalition electronic warfare to support the air campaign was to attack the two electronic elements of the IADS/GBAD, namely radar and radio communications, without which situational awareness and command and control would be badly degraded if not neutralised altogether. Alongside electronic warfare, kinetic attacks on radars were made using anti-radiation missiles and against key nodes and targets in the IADS using conventional ordnance. Following Kuwait’s occupation, the coalition’s immediate task was to build an electronic order of battle of the radars and communications intrinsic to the IADS and GBAD. Space and airborne assets were instrumental to this effort. Although much information regarding the specifics of the US Central Intelligence Agency/National Reconnaissance Office Magnum SIGINT satellite constellation remains classified, they were almost certainly employed to collect raw signals intelligence germane to the IADS/GBAD. This would have been analysed at facilities in the US before being disseminated to allies.
SIGINT collection followed a hierarchical approach. The Magnum satellites made a ‘broad brush’ collection of Iraqi electromagnetic emissions, discerning potential signals of interest from radars or communications from the prevailing electromagnetic noise generated by the country. Further investigation of these signals of interest would be done using airborne SIGINT assets. For example, the USAF based two RC-135Us at King Khalid International Airport, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. These jets flew close to Iraq’s borders to ‘hoover up’ as much ELINT as possible. This served two purposes. First, the collection of ELINT allowed the coalition to determine which radars were used by Iraq’s IADS/GBAD and where they were located. This allowed potential gaps or more weakly defended areas in Iraqi air defence coverage to be identified. Second, regular ELINT collection allowed SIGINT experts to determine the pattern of electromagnetic life. This would have helped answer pertinent questions about whether Iraqi SA-2 batteries switched their radars off every evening or every weekend. By identifying geographical or temporal gaps in radar coverage, coalition planners could take advantage of weak coverage.
American SIGINT aircraft were joined by Royal Air Force Nimrod RMk.1s flying from Seeb airbase in Oman, and Armée de l’Air (French Air Force) C-160G Gabriel and DC-8F Sarigue SIGINT planes based at King Khalid International Airport. However, the Iraqis knew they were being watched. Iraqi air defenders had correctly deduced that coalition SIGINT efforts would extract as much usable SIGINT as possible. As a result, they tried to keep their radar and radio use to a minimum while coalition warplanes relentlessly probed Iraqi air defences to tempt radar activation and communications traffic for collection by SIGINT aircraft hanging back from the fighters.
Support was also provided by the US Navy’s Operational Intelligence Centre’s Strike Projection Evaluation and Anti-Air Research team, better known as SPEAR. This unit helped build a comprehensive order-of-battle of the Iraqi IADS/GBAD. In cooperation with the USAF and national US intelligence agencies, SPEAR identified key nodes in the Iraqi IADS that would badly degrade its efficacy if destroyed. In addition, the process helped draft simulation programmes that built an increasingly detailed model of the Iraqi IADS/GBAD system. These programmes were continually updated as new intelligence arrived, allowing analysts to perform ever-more detailed replications of the expected potency of Iraqi air defences.
Alongside the RC-135Us discussed above, USAF RC-135V/W Rivet Joint and US Navy EP-3E Aries planes primarily collected Communications Intelligence (COMINT) on Iraq’s IADS/GBAD. Although the Rivet Joints were primarily configured to collect COMINT from radios and telecommunications transmitting on V/UHF wavebands of 30 megahertz to three gigahertz, these frequencies were also used by several Iraqi early warning and ground-based air surveillance radars. This allowed the Rivet Joints to assist their Combat Sent counterparts in gathering ELINT.
Determining Iraq’s electronic order of battle allowed the radars to be attacked kinetically by USAF F-4G Wild Weasels using the AGM-88B/C missiles. Radars were also engaged electronically by USAF EF-111A Raven EW aircraft. Likewise, radio communications were attacked electronically with USAF EC-130H Compass Call planes. However, the USAF was not the only custodian of the suppression of enemy air defence mission. The US Navy was an avid user of the AGM-88 and, together with the US Marine Corps (USMC), flew EA-6B Prowlers. These jets could electronically and kinetically target hostile radars and gather ELINT.
Now in the streets, there is violence
‘The attack on the Iraqi electronic order of battle affected every aspect of the air supremacy operation,’ noted the official record of Operation DESERT STORM. The initial focus of the electronic warfare battle was to destroy critical radars and communications nodes in the Iraqi IADS to paralyse the air defence network at strategic and operational levels. At the tactical level, deployed SAM systems were then attacked with anti-radiation missiles when they illuminated coalition aircraft. This was done by patrolling F-4Gs and EA-6Bs, waiting for these radars to be activated or having the same aircraft and other anti-radiation missile-armed warplanes, such as the Royal Air Force’s Tornado GR.1 ground attack aircraft with their ALARMs (Air-Launched Anti-Radiation Missiles) accompany strike packages of aircraft. This had the dual purpose of helping keep these aircraft safe and continually attritting the kinetic elements of Iraq’s air defence.
As noted earlier in this article, plans for attacking Iraq’s IADS/GBAD system became a reality in the early morning of 17 January. While Task Force Normandy laid waste to Iraqi radars, F-117As hit the Sector Operations Centres and Intercept Operations Centres in the 1st and 2nd Air Defence Sectors. The actions of the Nighthawks and Task Force Normandy opened gaps in southern and western Iraqi radar coverage and air defence command and control network, which was then exploited. Stealthy and non-stealth aircraft alike ingressed into Iraqi airspace to reach their strategic targets with electronic attack assistance provided by EF-111As and EA-6Bs. These platforms effectively jammed Iraqi early warning/ground-based air surveillance radars transmitting on V/UHF frequencies and FC/GCI radars transmitting in higher wavebands. Typically, the EF-111As and EA-6Bs flew jamming orbits to protect air operations in a particular segment of the Kuwait Theatre of Operations. For example, USAF EF-111As flew orbits in western Iraq, providing jamming support to strikes in that part of the country, performing similar missions in the vicinity of Baghdad. The EF-111As and EA-6Bs also relayed near-real-time updates on the Iraqi Electronic Order of Battle in their locale using radio and tactical datalink networks. Air campaign planners then adjust the air campaign’s electronic dimension accordingly.
With one part of its radars destroyed and jamming afflicting the others, coalition aircraft headed into Iraq, clearing a path through the IADS, and hitting IADS targets with anti-radiation missiles and air-to-ground ordnance. As well as hitting these targets, BGM-109 cruise missiles hit transformer yards dispersing carbon fibre filaments. This caused short circuits in the power supply. Air defence facilities without backup power went offline. Even those with generators would still see their systems shut down before being reactivated, costing valuable time.
Influenced by Israeli Air Force operations over the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon close to that country’s border with Syria in June 1982, another tactic used by the coalition was the use of USAF launched BQM-74C Chukar drones to mimic coalition combat aircraft ingressing Iraq’s 1st Air Defence Sector. The intention was for Iraqi air defenders to illuminate the drones and engage them. This allowed anti-radiation missile-equipped aircraft to determine the position of SAM batteries engaging the drones and attack their radars. The US Navy performed similar missions with their ADM-141A/B Tactical Air-Launched Decoys This was an effective tactic as it not only revealed the location of Iraqi SAM batteries, but it forced them to expend missiles.
The Continuing Campaign
Initial overtures in the air defence suppression campaign were aimed at attritting Iraqi long and medium-range/high and medium-altitude SAM systems to help sanitise the airspace for following coalition strikes. Typically, AAA would be effective up to altitudes of circa 15,000 feet/ft (4,572 metres/m), with Iraqi SAM batteries effective up to circa 40,000ft (12,192m). The controlled kinetic and electronic violence unleashed against the Iraqi IADS/GBAD during the first 24 hours of the war was palpable. The official record notes that almost 48 targets, including an array of air defence aim points, were hit: ‘This was not a gradual rolling back of the Iraqi air defence system. The nearly simultaneous suppression of so many vital centres helped cripple Iraq’s air defence system.’ This inflicted a level of damage from which the Iraqi IADS/GBAD could not recover.
As the campaign unfolded Iraqi air defenders learnt that activating their radar invited an AGM-88 or ALARM attack. By the end of the first week of combat operations, the Iraqis realised that a significant dimension of the coalition air campaign focused on destroying their air defences. SAMs would still be fired ballistically in the hope of a lucky strike, but sans radar, SAM capabilities were severely degraded. Switching off the radars did not stop the attacks. AAA or SAM sites that kept their radars switched off were engaged with conventional air-to-ground ordnance. Life was increasingly unpleasant for Iraqi air defenders who realised that switching off their radars did not stop the attacks. One can only imagine the demoralisation this must have caused.
Benjamin Lambeth correctly asserted that DESERT STORM exemplified the decisive migration of electronic countermeasures and EW in general ‘from a supporting role to a direct combat role.’ Quite simply, without EW, the coalition would not have succeeded in degrading the Iraqi IADS/GBAD to a point where it could no longer meaningfully challenge coalition air power in such a short space of time. One of the major successes of the electronic warfare aspect of the air campaign was its dislocation of Iraqi IADS/GBAD command and control. Despite the technological sophistication of KARI, it could not mitigate the hierarchical nature of Iraqi air defence doctrine. The Intercept Operations Centres struggled to operate when their Sector Operations Centre and the Air Defence Operations Centre was neutralised. There appeared to be little redundancy within KARI by which these centres could assume the responsibilities of their destroyed or badly degraded counterparts. For instance, the Air Defence Operations Centre was destroyed as a priority target at the start of the air campaign. It does not appear that Iraqi air defenders could rapidly replicate Air Defence Operations Centre functions at either a back-up facility or at one of the Sector Operations Centres. Likewise, when Sector Operations Centres were taken out of the fight, their functions were not immediately assumed by Intercept Operations Centres in their area of responsibility or adjacent sectors.
While KARI was a sophisticated system, Iraq possessed radars and SAM systems already known to the US and its allies on the eve of DESERT STORM. The US had encountered similar SAM systems in the skies over Vietnam and during Operation Eldorado Canyon in 1986 when the US attacked strategic targets in Libya in retaliation for the sponsorship of political violence by its leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Likewise, Israel had faced similar defences during numerous conflicts with its neighbours. Although Israel remained outside the US-led coalition, it is all but certain that intelligence germane to Iraq’s air defence systems would have been made available to the US. The French are also thought to have shared intelligence regarding Iraq’s Roland and KARI systems in a similar fashion. Egypt, an avid user of Soviet-supplied air defence equipment and member of the US-led coalition, was also believed to have been furnished the latter with intelligence. Some of Iraq’s air defence equipment may have lacked Electronic Counter-Countermeasure (EECM) protection to exacerbate matters. Some of Iraq’s radars, notably early versions of the SNR-75 S-band and C-band 65nm (120km) to 75nm (140km) range fire control radars accompanying the SA-2 batteries may not have been fitted with ECCM.
Once the war commenced, the Iraqis fell for the US ruse of using drones to seduce radars into revealing themselves, only to receive an ARM for their trouble. A glance at the history books would have revealed that given the success the Israeli Air Force had enjoyed using this tactic a decade previously, there was every chance the coalition may follow suit. This tactic was recently revisited during the 2020 conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The Azeri armed forces skilfully exploited Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). UAVs were used to tempt Armenian GBADs to activate their radars. By activating the radars their location could be determined, and the GBADs then struck with suicide UAVs equipped with explosives.
Furthermore, Iraq’s air defence doctrine lacked flexibility. Indeed, it has been argued that Iraq’s air command and control writ large during the preceding Iran-Iraq War was characterised by over-centralisation and rigid planning. This may have resulted from two factors; the authoritarian nature of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the procurement of Soviet materiel not only for air defence but across the Iraqi armed forces with a similar acquisition of Soviet doctrine not known for its flexibility. There are significant questions to ask regarding the degree to which subordinates in the IADS believed they had latitude and blessing for individual initiative in the tactical battle. Similar questions apply to higher echelons. Did operational commanders in the air force and air defence force feel emboldened to take decisions as the battle unfolded? Saddam Hussein presided over a totalitarian state where insubordination, real or perceived, could be punished harshly. This raises the question as to whether the fear of taking the wrong decision paralysed decision-making. The result being that the Iraqi IADS lost the initiative in the coalition’s electronic battle. An initiative it never recovered. The net result of a lack of doctrinal flexibility, and against the backdrop of Saddam Hussein’s regime, meant that Iraq’s air defences did not respond and adjust to the electronic battle. Tactical and operational flexibility did not extend beyond radar operators switching off their systems to avoid an attack by an ARM.
However, the coalition’s success was underpinned by a vitally important factor, the luxury of time. DESERT STORM was not a ‘come as you are’ war. The US and its allies had 168 days between Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the commencement of the air campaign to plan the electromagnetic scheme of manoeuvre that supporting the air war.
DESERT STORM underlined a truism in air power: Air superiority as a prerequisite for air supremacy must be achieved over an opponent as early as possible. OCA was central to this effort. Electromagnetic superiority and supremacy are central to OCA. One must ensure one can manoeuvre in the spectrum with minimal interference from one’s adversary while denying their adversary use of the spectrum. Working towards electromagnetic superiority and supremacy reduces red force access to the spectrum, denying its use for situational awareness and command and control. Denying Iraqi air defenders’ situational awareness and command and control blunted the efficacy of the kinetic elements of Iraq’s IADS/GBAD, which were then attritted using ARMs and conventional ordnance.
DESERT STORM ended on 28 February. Electronic warfare was intrinsic to the air campaign’s success. Iraq’s IADS and GBAD were prevented from meaningfully interfering with the coalition’s actions. However, this was not the end of the story. The US and the UK would continue to confront the rump of Iraq’s air defences for several years to come until the final showdown with Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.
Dr Thomas Withington specialises in contemporary and historical electronic warfare, radar, and military communications, and has written numerous articles on these subjects for a range of general and specialist publications. He holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham.
Header image: EF-111A Raven aircraft prepare to take off on a mission during Operation Desert Shield. (Source: Wikimedia)
 C. Kopp, ‘Operation Desert Storm: The Electronic Battle, Part-2’ @http://www.ausairpower.net/Analysis-ODS-EW.
 J. Schlight, A War Too Long: The USAF in Southeast Asia 1961-1975 (Washington DC: Air Force History and Museum Programme, 1996), p. 103.
Conduct of the Persian Gulf War: Final Report to Congress, (Alexandria, VA: US Department of Defence, 1992), p. 15.