Friday, November 11, 2005

In Their Own Words #4: Eleven Stories For Veterans Day

Capt. Scott "Pole" Vogt, USMC, is a pilot with VMAQ-2 "Death Jesters," part of the 2nd Marine Air Wing, based at MCAS Cherry Point, NC. He graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1994.


March 31 started off the same as the last five days, briefs at midnight and a dawn launch for a morning of cruising around Iraq like a roving biker gang. However, this day was destined to be different.

I signed the Aircraft Discrepancy Book, accepting responsibility for the plane after I was satisfied that it was safe for flight. We walked around the corner from Maintenance and down an alley to VMAQ-2 "Death Jesters" Flight Equipment to pick up our 9mm pistols and get dressed in our survival equipment and ejection harnesses. We then proceeded back to Maintenance Control to catch a ride with the maintainers down to our aircraft, Jester 02. The plane was parked about three-fourths of a mile from the squadron maintenance spaces and hanger area, sheltered under a steel and tapeline structure to protect it from the relentless sun of the Saudi desert. On the way, we passed rows of aircraft: KC-10, KC-135, and British VC-10 tankers; E-3C AWACS; and F-16CJs; all parked on acres and acres of concrete. There were nearly a hundred Coalition aircraft parked at the desert air base that morning, but even more empty spaces were awaiting the return of all the jets flying over Iraq.

It was March 31, 2003. We'd been having a good run of luck with the day CFLCC [Combined Forces Land Component Commander] support missions, and on the previous flight, my crew actually got to shoot our High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) at Iraqi surface-to-air missile (SAM) radars in support of strikers going "Downtown." So we were upbeat. No, actually, we were totally pumped-up.

When we got out to the aircraft, we conducted our preflight of the jet, looking at the overall condition of the aircraft and making sure all of the panels and pieces were in the proper places. Donk was riding shotgun up front with me. I was a recent graduate from Marine Weapons and Tactics Squadron (MAWTS) 1's Weapons and Tactics Instructor (WTI) course, the Marine Corps' version of Top Gun. The two backseaters, Eddie and Dude, took a good look at the jamming pods and our HARM, making sure they were in proper working order. We started the aircraft and got all of the systems up and running in our usual 10 minutes but ended up having to wait to taxi until our inertial-navigation system completed its alignment.

We then taxied to arm up the stores, check stray voltage to the HARM, and arm the missile. Once complete, Donk called for takeoff, and we got lined up on the runway. Cleared, with the throttles at full military power, we began our roll. At 150 knots, I gently pulled back on the stick, and we were off for an uneventful trip down the "Parkway," a special airspace created for aircraft transiting to and from Iraq from our airbases throughout the region. Upon reaching Iraq, we proceeded to our KC-10 Extender, the US Air Force version of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10, a flying gas station, and topped off our fuel tanks, so we would have plenty of on-station time to support strikers delivering their ordnance in and around Baghdad.

At this point in the war, the Baghdad area was a SAM haven with numerous systems in and around the city. We were there to provide our umbrella of electromagnetic protection through our jamming pods and, if need be, with our HARM. We got off the tanker and proceeded to our assigned "Kill Box," talking to the Marine Corps Direct Air Support Center (DASC), as well as the Offensive Counter Air (OCA) on the Airborne Warning and Control aircraft, or AWACS. We let them know we were up "as fragged" (which means we had everything we were scheduled to have). With three jamming pods, a HARM, and a full tank of gas, we were ready to jump in the fight.

As we were coming off the pre-mission tanker, a B-1B, Gash 61, was getting some final coordination instructions and targets. Aboard Gash 61 was another foursome: Gladiator, Flick, Bulldog, and Funk. The B-1B Lancer, affectionately called "the Bone" by its aircrew, uses speed and low altitude to evade surface-to-air missiles. With a length of 147 feet and a wingspan of 136 feet, the Bone is big. Painted black to make it less visible at night, it was very visible during the day. It was approaching 11 o'clock in the am, and the clear skies over Iraq under a bright sun would make the big Bone very easy to spot by anyone looking.

Gash 61 was looking for suppression-of-enemy-air-defenses (SEAD) support. This would consist of an EA-6B Prowler and two sections of F-16CJs, which took the place of the F-4G Wild Weasels after their retirement in the early 1990s. Gash 61 was tasked with dropping some of their bombs on airfields northwest of Baghdad: Al Toqadum, Al Samara, and Balad Southeast. They were going to re-crater the runways in order to prevent the Iraqi air force from getting any of its aircraft airborne.

We coordinated all that we needed to know, and we went into executing the strike. Shank 66 (that's us) quickly pressed north to cover the ingress with jammers, and we were ready with a reactive HARM in case the two CJs taking pre-emptive shots weren't enough. With rapid communications with Shank 64, another Prowler, we coordinated additional jamming support for the B-1's egress to the south. We turned nose on and got the jammers radiating against the known threat systems in the area. The F-16s took two HARM shots against the target area in hopes that the enemy would radiate their missile systems, which would be a fatal mistake. The B-1 dropped down and did a low-level ingress, dropped its payload, and came off the target attack supersonic, climbing back to its assigned altitude. From our vantage point, we could see the bombs hitting their mark. In fact, Donk was able to snap a few photos. With two Prowlers jamming and two CJs shooting HARMs, Gash 61 was able to prosecute all targets unmolested by Iraqi air defenses. We then proceeded to a lake just west of Baghdad and orbited for a few minutes, listening with our on-board system, trying to see if the Iraqis were radiating any of their radar systems.

We then pressed to the tanker for more fuel, while Gash 61 was on the radio looking for more tasking for his remaining ordnance. Twenty minutes later, we checked back on station. Gash 61 was working final coordination to attack a Republican Guard unit located southeast of Baghdad that was threatening the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (1MEF). The B-1 was running low on fuel and would not be able to ingress and egress from the target at high speed. But 1MEF's situation would not permit an aerial refueling without putting the marines on the ground in more danger. The attack on the Republican Guard required Gash 61 to go into the "Super-MEZ" around Baghdad, which consisted of more than fifty strategic SAM systems and more than 200 anti-aircraft artillery sites. Unable to use its advantage of speed and low altitude because of fuel concerns, the Bone was going to need all the support it could get. We were the only support available for the Bone and its precious remaining cargo of seven 2,000-lb. Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) and one 5,000-lb. bunker buster.

The Prowler, almost 60 feet long and 53 feet wide, is also no small airplane itself. It does not have the maneuverability of a F-16 and is limited to speeds well short of supersonic. Without speed and maneuverability, the Prowler stays safe from SAMs by knowing where they are and staying at the outer limits of their ranges. The B-1 would be a sitting duck flying at low speed and high altitude during its target attack; we would be its only protection.

"Hey, AWACS, this is Gash 61. I got some tasking. I am going to need about 40K of gas post strike. Will I be able to get it?"

AWACS replied, "Gash 61, I don't think we have 40K extra."

"How 'bout 30?"

"I'll see what I can do."

"Okay, buddy, you do that. I want to get some support to the Marines!"

With a good chance for getting enough gas after the strike to make it home, Gash 61 was ready to go:

"Shank 66, Gash 61," Gladiator radioed. "We're at Bull 110 for 80, heading 315. If you can get a visual and work it like that, it'd be great, fella."

We used BULL, a common reference point, to let other folks know where we were. Like telling someone you're 50 miles south of Chicago on I-55 heading north. I pointed the jet to the east to join up with the B-1. We would stay close to him until all the bombs were dropped, keeping him as close to the jamming energy as possible and hoping that neither one of us would get shot down. So a big black airplane with a sky-pig of a Prowler on its wing would fly into the heart of the Super-MEZ.

The Iraqi air defenses, by this point in the war, had lost much of its integration. Coalition strikes had destroyed much of the cable that linked sites together, making it hard for the enemy to talk to one another and pass targeting information. But individual systems were still out there, and they had the capability of finding targets. It was still the middle of the day, and no amount of jamming could take away the ability to look through binoculars and see a big gray airplane and a bigger black one on their way to deliver bombs.

At 50 miles from the target, I got sight of the mighty Bone, and we joined on its right side in a tight combat spread: side by side, 27,000 feet above the ground, with less than a half mile between us. At 35 miles from the threat, I called "MAGNUM" (brevity code for HARM shot). With a squeeze of the trigger, we felt the kick of the missile leaving the aircraft, and off the missile went, leaving a thick white smoke trail as it proceeded down range. The missile went straight ahead toward its target. Smoke filled the air in front of the jet, momentarily blocking our view and filling the cockpit with sulfur-smelling fumes. Picking up speed, the missile looked for radar signals from any SA-2s and SA-3s that might looking for an easy kill. "Take that, bitch!" exclaimed Flick inside the B-1.

The Iraqis manning the missiles would certainly see us now; the only question was if they would risk being hit by that HARM in order to shoot at us. The HARM is a good missile, designed to home in on radar signals. It reaches speeds in excess of three times the speed of sound, and its warhead is designed to rip through radar antennas, rendering them useless. But it needs a signal to lock onto. The enemy knows that if he doesn't turn on his radar, a HARM probably won't hit him. On the other hand, he also won't be able to hit anybody either. Without radar to guide the SAM, it's lost and completely inaccurate. We were hoping that the threat of a HARM would discourage the Iraqis from firing at us.

I then maneuvered the Prowler back, aft, and high of the Bone, placing it in the umbrella of jamming coverage (along with Gladiator, Flick, Bulldog, and Funk). There were indications of a SA-2 attempting to lock onto Gash 61 as it prepared to release its devastating payload into the heart of the Iraqi Republican Guard's Medina Division. A few miles from the target, the bomb-bay doors of the mighty Bone opened, and a string of hate and discontent was on its way to the Iraqis threatening the US Marines of 1 MEF.

Our HARM had 30 seconds remaining in its flight, and I needed to get the sky-pig out of SAM range before the Iraqis started shooting at us. The threat of HARM and our jamming had kept the air-defense missiles on the ground. But with the Republican Guard in danger of attack, some Iraqi might get brave enough to start shooting. I stood the Prowler on its left wing and started to turn around. This gave the Iraqi SA-2 trying to lock on to Gash 61 and us an opportunity to fire a guided shot. Gash 61 broke right, dispensed chaff, and called, "Defending."

Donk immediately signaled for "wings level." Still in the turn toward the south and away from the threat, I pulled harder and dispensed chaff myself. After Donk's second "wings-level" command, I fought every instinct of self-preservation and rolled out. The jammers were slightly more effective with the aircraft flying straight and level. We were way inside the missile's effective range, and there was no way we were going to outrun it. We needed every possible packet of jammer energy we could get in order for us or the B-1 to have a chance.

As Donk looked over his shoulder, he saw a smoke trail headed up toward our aircraft. Leading the trail of smoke was the flaming telephone pole. The SA-2 missile is over 30 feet long and flies at four times the speed of sound. Its warhead, consisting of over 400 pounds of high explosives, can kill anything within 200 feet when it explodes. We were both in trouble. Gladiator called a warning over the radio, and I replied: "Wings level. Jammers on."

After years of training, my voice disguised any nervousness and fear. These emotions were tucked way in the back. With a missile coming at you, there's one chance, and you don't get any more quarters.

Gladiator was executing his SAM evasive maneuvers. I, on the other hand, was holding a straight and level course, as vulnerable as a metal duck at the shotgun sharpshooter booth at a county fair. I twisted my head left and right, looking for the smoke trails of more missiles. Iraqis never fired just one. It was always two or three or six. I could have sworn I saw more strings of smoke starting from the ground: multiple hands of doom reaching for us. "Where's the missile? Where are the other ones?" I pleaded over the ICS [internal communication system].

Every head was turning back and forth, necks craning and eyes straining as we all searched for the missile we couldn't see yet, the one that would hurt - but just for a second. My patience flying the big fat target profile was running out. The little voice in my head was telling me, "Break right! Dispense chaff. Break left! Dispense chaff."

But the one missile that was definitely tracking was starting to turn more towards the Bone. And protecting the B-1 and its crew was more important at that moment than fighting the other missiles that may or may not have been tracking us. There was no "life flashing before our eyes"; no thoughts of wives or children; or what we could've, should've, or would've done in life. The only thing the eight of us in the two jets were thinking of was how to get out of the trouble we were in.

Donk looked down at the HARM page of the tactical computer. Our HARM was still airborne. "Five seconds to impact," his amazingly calm voice stated over the ICS.

Hopefully by now it was homing in on the Iraqi missile site that had dared to shoot at us. At the computed HARM time of impact, the Iraqi missile stopped tracking. It wobbled, then stuttered, and proceeded to go straight up. The HARM had found its target and detonated with precision. Hundreds of metal cubes hurtled out of the warhead, perforating the enemy radar dish and rendering it useless. In all likelihood, the fragments penetrated into the control van beneath the radar dish, where the thin metal walls' jacketing foam insulation would be barely a speed bump before reaching the two Iraqi radar operators, their heads down to the scopes.
Inside the B-1, Gladiator and his crew saw the missiles go away harmlessly. They rolled out, and Bulldog said, "Fucking clowns, they better bring it better than that."

Gash 61 also reported that its radar-warning receiver had ceased picking up indications of enemy emissions. I banked hard in the direction of the B-1, keeping it under the umbrella. I dispensed more chaff and looked for more missiles. Nobody was shooting at us now.

The target, more than 10 miles behind us now, would be receiving its JDAMs and bunker buster. The crew of Gash 61, with their accurate weaponry, had created a circle of death and destruction 1,200 yards in diameter. Tearing into the sides of tanks, trucks, tents, and equipment, the steel fragments would devastate the Iraqis. The hastily built bunker to house the Division's headquarters was receiving special attention: a 5,000-lb. bunker buster, guided by a GPS-assisted inertial-navigation system. Falling from more than four miles above the Earth, the bunker buster has the kinetic energy of a Burlington-Northern freight train. In an instant, the Medina Division's command and control had been killed, burned, and buried.

The Republican Guard paid dearly that day, and so did a SA-2 battery. Later that night, CNN would report that the Medina division of the Republican guard had been decimated. I was glad there would not also be a story of a B-1 or an EA-6B shot down over Iraq.

September 2003

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