|Classified Mission Kicked Off Gulf War |
Classified Mission Kicked Off Gulf War
By Airman 1st Class Ryan Hansen, 2nd Bomb Wing Public Affairs.
Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. -- January 16, 2001 (AFPN) -- The deadline had passed. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had until Jan. 15, 1991, to pull his troops out of Kuwait, but he didn't.
This painting by Roderick Lees was commissioned by Maj. Blaise Martinick, a radar navigator on Operation Secret Squirrel. It depicts the seven B-52Gs on their flight Jan. 16, 1991. At the bottom are nose-art paintings from six of the B-52s, and the Strategic Air Command shield, the 2nd Bomb Wing shield and a "Magnificent 7" emblem.
The United Nations prepared to respond with a fury. At Barksdale Air Force Base, 57 members of the 596th Bomb Squadron readied for the first front: Operation Secret Squirrel.
As a heavy rain fell from a dark Louisiana sky, seven B-52Gs thundered into the air. Desert Storm had begun.
The crews flew their missile-laden B-52s to Southwest Asia and back: 14,000 miles in 35 hours. As the longest combat sortie in history, Secret Squirrel re-defined the reach of U.S. air power. But the mission remained classified for an entire year.
On its 10th anniversary, some members of that mission remember what it was like.
Originally known as Operation Senior Surprise, plans for the secret mission began almost immediately after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. With only a small number of U.S. forces in the region, military leaders needed another option. The new AGM-86C conventional air-launched cruise missile, or CALCM, gave them one.
Developed in complete secrecy, the new missile had never been combat-tested, and the Air Force wanted it to be a complete surprise if ever used.
Barksdale held more than three dozen CALCMs in storage and received the order to get ready.
"There were just two of us briefed into the program initially," said Maj. Blaise Martinick, now with the 49th Test and Evaluation Squadron here, who was a radar navigator on the mission. "Then we eventually briefed in a pilot to help us ... determine how much air refueling we would need to get over there, do a mission and get back."
With the groundwork laid, seven full aircrews entered into the mission.
"When we were first called in, we were all under the impression that we were going to be launched fairly quickly," said Maj. Todd Mathes, an electronic warfare officer on the mission who now works in 8th Air Force headquarters here. "Then it turned out one week went into two weeks, then two weeks went into months. So we started to think it was never going to happen."
"Week after week we would study and brief the wing commander on a regular basis," said Maj. Marcus Myers of the 96th Bomb Squadron, an aircraft commander on the mission. "But I don't think any of us really thought we were going to do it."
In December things started to heat up once again, and the crews realized their time was coming.
At 3 a.m. Jan. 16, the call rang throughout the alert facility: "All Sierra crews report to the vault."
"As we all started filtering in with our flight suits half zipped and so on," said Martinick, "there stood the 8th Air Force commander, the squadron commander and the wing commander, and we realized that this was it."
After the flight briefing, the 8th Air Force commander told the crewmembers how important their mission was and compared them to the Doolittle Raiders of nearly 50 years before.
"It really reminded me of something out of an old movie, like in World War II with the general saying, 'You know some of you guys aren't coming back,'" said Lt. Col. Steven Kirkpatrick of the 93rd Bomb Squadron here who was a pilot on the mission. "It definitely grabbed our attention."
"He hammered home that this was the real deal," said Martinick. "We're going to go do what we've been trained to do."
"There are always some guys who are caught unaware," said Mathes. "But in our profession you have to have a warrior mentality, and you need to be ready to be called upon to perform your duties."
Three hours later the crews boarded seven B-52Gs loaded with CALCMs and headed for the other side of the world.
"It was exciting, yet terrifying at the same time," said Kirkpatrick.
Over the Atlantic the B-52s headed toward their first air-refueling rendezvous in complete radio silence. But the KC-135 crew still communicated a special message.
"Up in the boom pod window, they held up a sign that said, 'Good hunting,'" recalled Myers. "So even though they weren't sure what we were doing, they kind of had an idea."
As they soared closer to their destination, the seriousness among the crews began to rise.
"There were times when things were very calm," said Martinick. "But when we got into areas of potential threat, your sense of awareness obviously becomes a little more heightened."
"The danger of the mission was getting through international air space and going through countries that may not want you there," said Kirkpatrick.
As they moved above the Mediterranean, over the Red Sea and finally to the vast Arabian Desert, the crews hoped that they would not be spotted by other military forces. However, they did come across some inconclusive radar contacts.
"The Soviet navy knew we were there because they were lighting us up (making radar contact) pretty good," said Mathes. "But we had to actually see a missile in the air before we could react."
"All we could do was sit on our hands," added Martinick. "We stuck with our flight plan."
Finally, it was time to launch.
"I don't think any of us really thought we were going to do it," said Myers. "We thought Saddam would pull out and it wouldn't happen, but he didn't."
At that point the seven B-52s moved toward different areas of Iraq and launched 35 CALCMs in all.
"We literally launched the first weapons of Desert Storm," said Kirkpatrick.
"There was a moment of excitement in launching it," Martinick remembered. "But then there's also a moment of remorse, because what we're doing could and most probably will cause death. And that is something that everyone has to think of and has in their mind."
It then was time to head home but their mission was far from over. Thanks to severe weather, the trip home would last even longer.
"The anticipation was gone, and so was our tailwind," said Mathes. "So it was really longer physically and mentally."
"The biggest thing was the refueling," said Kirkpatrick. "It was a real workout on the boom for 45 minutes to an hour of continuous refueling."
Once back at Barksdale, the B-52s with CALCMs still attached were pushed into hangars. The tired crews were debriefed and got some much-needed rest.
But the crew members were unable to share their strong sense of accomplishment with anyone, in order to protect the secret of the AGM-86C.
"It was tough to not talk about it," said Myers. "People knew we were doing something, but they didn't know we were doing a CALCM strike."
"My wife wanted to know, 'Where have you been?'" said Kirkpatrick. "But I couldn't say anything."
Exactly one year after their return to Barksdale, the classification was removed, and the crewmembers of Operation Secret Squirrel could finally tell their story.
"I am proud to be associated with it," said Mathes. "It was something special and unique, and I was proud to do my part."
"The guys who were involved with it still talk about it," said Kirkpatrick. "It's a common bond."
"It was a mission that anyone who was ever involved with it will never forget," said Martinick. "To have an impact like that on the opening stages of a conflict or war is truly amazing."
Each participating crewmember was awarded the Air Medal for superb airmanship and demonstration of the Air Force's philosophy of Global Reach, Global Power.
"Historically, this remains an important mission for the Air Force," said Tech Sgt. Shawn Bohannon, 2nd Bomb Wing historian. "This was the first time a unit from the continental United States took off, struck a target half way around the world and returned back to its origin. Operation Secret Squirrel was the ultimate demonstration of the flexible, expeditionary capability of American air power." (Courtesy of Air Combat Command News Service)