Radar Bombing during Rolling Thunder-Part 1: Ryan's Raiders

Article excerpt

At 3:03 AM, on January 17, 1991, the 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS), the "Black Widows," from the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW), launched eight F-16 Vipers on a strike against two Iraqi air bases in Kuwait during the opening round of Operation Desert Storm. "Rash" and "Chancer" flights took off before daybreak from Al Minhad Air Base, United Arab Emirates. The pilots navigated their Block 40 F-16Cs though darkness using their inertial navigation systems that Global Positioning Satellites updated every two seconds. The planes carried LANTIRN (Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night) pods that clearly showed the ground terrain and their targets on cockpit displays. Upon reaching their targets, the pilots accurately dropped their loads of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines despite bad weather and being shot at by anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). At dawn, three hours later, all eight planes landed back at Al Minhad. The power of their F-16s' navigation and weapon guidance systems gave the 421st their motto, "We own the night." (1)

The F-16's capability for night operations stands in stark contrast to the Air Force's limited ability twenty-four years earlier to strike targets in North Vietnam at night or in bad weather. During Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965 through 1968, pilots in the 388th TFW and the 355th TFW flew F-105 Thunderchiefs from Korat and Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Bases in Thailand. The annual cycle of northern monsoon weather over North Vietnam's Red River valley during late winter through early spring often prevented F-105 pilots from putting bombs on significant targets around Hanoi. If an F-105 pilot couldn't see his target, he could not hit it accurately.

The Air Force tried hard, with only limited success, to overcome this technical deficiency during the Vietnam War. Their efforts during Rolling Thunder highlighted the need for the targeting and weapon guidance systems for bombing at night and in bad weather that today's Air Force employs. This article tells the story of the Air Force's first-generation all-weather systems and the men who used them for attacking targets in North Vietnam.

The Navy's A-6A Flew Night and Bad-Weather Missions

A-6A Intruders from VA-75, the "Sunday Punchers" on the carrier USS Independence (CVA-62), flew their first combat mission against North Vietnam on July 1, 1965. The new Intruders gave the Navy a night and all-weather strike capability that was lacking in USAF fighter-bombers. (2)

The Navy learned from their experiences during the Korean War that their attack aircraft needed the capability to hit ground targets in darkness and bad weather. In 1956, the Navy sought bids for such a plane and selected Grumman to produce it. Grumman's A-6 was subsonic, with a maximum speed of 560 knots, but it could carry a large load of conventional bombs over long distances. It had a capacity for twenty-eight 500-pound bombs and a fuel load that allowed it to reach targets over 1,000 miles away with time to locate its target and drop its bombs before returning home. (3)

The Intruder's avionics system--DIANE (digital integrated attack and navigational equipment)--provided its night and all-weather attack capability. The key components of DIANE were the APQ-92 search radar, APQ-122 tracking radar for terrain mapping and target location, the APN-141 radar altimeter, the APN-153 Doppler radar, the ANS-31 inertial navigation system, and the ASQ-61 ballistic computer. (4) The A-6 carried a crew of two, a pilot and, to his right, a bombardier-navigator who operated DIANE's controls for automatically passing steering and bombing instructions to the pilot's displays. (5)

In the fall of 1965 and into the spring of 1966, as the seasonal monsoons obscured the Hanoi area, the two squadrons of Navy's A-6As--when they weren't grounded by their early reliability and supportability problems--were the only planes that could consistently strike targets in this region. …