Wild Weasel is a nickname for aircraft of the United States Air Force tasked with the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) mission. The name derives from Project Wild Weasel—originally developed by Captain Bill McGuigan, naval aviator, of the U.S. Marine Corps—the first development program for a dedicated SAM-detection and suppression aircraft. Originally named "Project Ferret", denoting a predatory animal that goes into its prey's den to kill it (hence: "to ferret out"), the name was changed to differentiate it from the code-name "Ferret" that had been used during World War II for radar counter-measures bombers.
In brief, the job of a Wild Weasel aircraft is to bait enemy anti-aircraft defenses into targeting it with their radars, whereupon the radar waves are traced back to their source so that the Weasel or its teammates can precisely target it for destruction. A simple analogy is playing the game of "flashlight tag" in the dark; a flashlight is usually the only reliable means of identifying someone in order to "tag" (destroy) them, but the light immediately renders the bearer able to be identified and attacked as well. The result is a hectic game of cat-and-mouse in which the radar "flashlights" are rapidly cycled on and off in an attempt to identify and kill the target before the target is able to home in on the emitted radar "light" and destroy the site.
F-4Gs were deployed to four active wings. Two were stationed at George AFB, Victorville, CA. as part of the rapid deployment force; one wing was assigned to USAFE (US Air Forces Europe) at Spangdahlem AB, Germany; and the other to PACAF (Pacific Air Forces) at Clark AFB, Philippines. F-4G's from George AFB And Spangdalhem AB saw combat during the 1991 Gulf War successfully protecting strike packages from enemy air defenses. During this conflict the F-4G saw heavy use, with only a single loss. An aircraft from Spangdahlem AB crashed in Saudi Arabia while returning from a mission. After an investigation into the loss of the aircraft which occurred during several aborted landing attempts in a sandstorm, it was determined that a fuel cell was punctured by anti-aircraft fire. The pilot and EWO safely ejected after the engines seized when the aircraft ran out of fuel attempting to land at a forward airstrip.
After the Gulf War the George AFB aircraft were assigned to the 124th Wing of the Air National Guard at Boise, ID, 190th Fighter Squadron. Aircraft from Spangdahlem and Clark were assigned to the 57th Fighter Wing (Active AF) assigned to Nellis AFB at Las Vegas, NV, 561st Fighter Squadron. The aircraft remained in service until 1996, with both squadrons participating in frequent deployments to Saudi Arabia and Turkey in support of Operation Provide Comfort, Operation Southern Watch, and Operation Vigiliant Warrior enforcing the no-fly zones over Iraq. By this time the F-4G was the last operational variant of the Phantom II in the US forces. Many of the airframes were later used as target drones and Aircraft Battle Damage Repair training aids.
The F-35 Lightning II is slated to gradually replace these aircraft for various air-to-ground roles, including SEAD, beginning with its introduction in 2011. Its stealth capabilities promise a significant increase in effectiveness against air defense radars, though to maintain its lowest radar signature its payload capacity would be limited to the internal weapons bays, reducing the number of kills per sortie.
In 1966 over North Vietnam, Wild Weasel flights of four aircraft sometimes were led by a single F-105F/G two-seat aircraft (aided by its Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) with his electronic receivers & analyzers) plus three F-105Ds. Sometimes two "F"s, each with a "D" wingman, operated independently.
The Wild Weasel mission was to precede strike flights, sanitizing the target area of radar guided Surface-to-Air Missile SA-2 'Guideline' threats, leaving the threat area last, which sometimes would result in 3.5-hour missions, before returning to Royal Thai Air Force Bases. This was achieved by turning toward the air defense site in a threatening manner, firing radar homing missiles at the site, or visually locating the site to dive bomb it. These tactics were attempted while under attack by MiGs and anti-aircraft artillery.
The F-105F did not utilize radar jammers since its purpose was to provide a decoy target, protecting the strike flights, and encouraging a SAM launch which generated enough bright orange smoke to facilitate visually locating the SAM site for immediate dive bombing attack. With multiple incoming missiles in visual sight it was possible to dive abruptly or sharply break to avoid them. Failure to see the missiles approaching at three times fighter cruise speed would result in the destruction of the aircraft and failure of the mission.
Post-Vietnam tactics developed "Hunter-Killer" teams, where a F-4G Wild Weasel would be teamed with one or more conventional F-4E Phantoms. The Wild Weasel would destroy missile radar emitters, clearing the way for the F-4E's to destroy the rest of the missile site using cluster munitions.
A tactic used during Operation Desert Shield was known as "Here, kitty kitty", wherein one Weasel would get the attention of a SAM or AAA site while other Weasels would then sneak up behind the site and destroy it.
In one of the Wild Weasel concept's most famous uses in military operations, five F-105Gs, using callsigns "Firebird 01-05", provided support for the Son Tay P.O.W. Rescue Mission, which was conducted in the early morning hours of November 21, 1970. One of these aircraft was shot down by an SA-2 surface-to-air missile, but its crew ejected safely and were successfully recovered by the HH-53 "Super Jolly" helicopters that also participated in the raid. None of the aircraft of the raiding force protected by Wild Weasels were lost to enemy action.
The unofficial motto of the Wild Weasel crews is YGBSM: "You Gotta Be Shittin' Me". This appears prominently on the logo patch of some squadrons. As the story goes, this was the response of Jack Donovan, a former B-52 EWO (Electronic Warfare Officer):
This was the natural response of an educated man, a veteran EWO on B-52s and the like, upon learning that he was to fly back seat to a self-absorbed fighter pilot while acting as flypaper for enemy SAMs.
The missions are so dangerous and require so much teamwork that before starting their combat tours, some crews—graduating from "Weasel College" (the Nellis Air Force Base training program)—took part in a mock wedding ceremony.
The "WW" tailcode of the 35th Fighter Wing derives from its Wild Weasel heritage.
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