Surprised by Secret Squirrel
Aircrew members gather for a photo at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., before the mission that will fire the opening shots of OPERATION DESSERT STORM, Jan. 16, 1991. Standing - Capt. Scott Ladner, radar navigator, 596th Bomb Squadron, 1st Lt. Michael Branche - co-pilot 596th BS, Senior Airman Guy Modgling, gunner, 596th BS, Capt. Steve Bass, pilot, 596th BS, Capt. Bernie Morgan, pilot, 596th BS, and 1st Lt. Andre Mouton, navigator, 596th BS. Kneeling - Maj. Wes Bain, radar navigator, 49th Test Squadron, and Capt. Trey Morriss, electronic warfare officer, 596th BS. Some of the Airmen who participated in the historic mission gathered recently in Bossier City, La., to commemorate the event. (Courtesy photo)
by Lt. Col. Joseph C. Jones
Commander, 93rd Bomb Squadron
2/1/2011 - Barksdale AFB, La. -- The crews had been awoken at 3 a.m. to the alert, "All Sierra Crews Report to the Vault." Saddam Hussein had missed the United Nations deadline to pull his troops out of Kuwait. At that time, the destination, the highly classified weapons and the very existence of these aircraft was classified at the highest level. Some in the headquarters had referred to this mission as "Flight of the Bad Dogs"--a reference to the Dale Brown book on a modified B-52 titled "Flight of the Old Dog." Indeed, these seven B-52s were "Bad Dogs" and they were well on their way to take big bite out of the backside of Saddam Hussein's command and control system as the opening shots fired in OPERATION DESERT STORM.
The third floor of the 8th Air Force Headquarters had been converted to a make-shift communications facility, and I had been tasked to provide periodic updates on seven B-52s that had launched early on the rainy morning of Jan. 16, 1991.
The veil of secrecy surrounding the weapons, crews and aircraft was impenetrable. The operation was given the official title "Senior Surprise" and without doubt, this was going to be a surprise to majority of the senior military officers involved in OPERATION DESERT STORM. Only a select few General Officers and staff were given details of the missions to be flown by those seven B-52s. The Commander and Chief, George H. Bush had approved the mission and Commander of Strategic Air Command, General John Chain had personally selected those officers and staff who were to be involved in the planning and execution phase of this mission. All others were strictly forbidden any knowledge of the project or any details surrounding the weapons or aircraft. The mission was given the unofficial title of "Secret Squirrel"--a title that sticks to this day when veteran B-52 crewmembers discuss this historic attack.
Eighth Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. Ellie "Buck" Schuler and 2nd Bomb Wing Commander Colonel Ron Marcotte were the execution authorities for launch, command, and control of the initial portion of the mission. The seven B-52 Bombers would be flown by members of the famed 596th Bomb Squadron, stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base, La. The 596th was commanded by Lt. Col. John Beard, the former executive officer to General Schuler. The general had faith in Colonel Beard's command and leadership abilities.
The 57 most gifted men of the 596th BS were augmented by the 49th Test and Evaluation Squadron. The crews were given strict orders not to discuss the mission or any of its many facets with their fellow squadron mates. The shroud of secrecy was complete and created a great deal of curiosity on Barksdale in the days leading up to OPERATION DESERT STORM.
Local citizens who transited the base and military members alike speculated as to why the "Alert Parking" area had been the site of so much activity. Barksdale was no stranger to the routine of B-52 aircrew alerts and daily alert drills complete with the shrill of the alert siren checks at 10 a.m. every morning. Hardly any notice was paid to the periodic alert scrambles to the aircraft that had desensitized the local population to the point that most only felt a twinge of concern as to what it might mean if those alert bombers ever actually took flight. Despite the idle curiosity and speculation, the seven aircrews were trained and the aircraft maintained to the minutest detail to guarantee their mission's success.
Saddam Hussein had developed the world's most sophisticated air and ground force in the Middle East. He had used the war with Iran to hone a fine battle implement and used Iraq's oil wealth to purchase top of the line Soviet fighter aircraft, main battle tanks , and more importantly, sophisticated integrated air defense and communications systems. It was these sophisticated air defense systems and lines of communication that were to be the main focus of the "Senior Surprise" attacks. The 596th BS would use a weapon developed in total secrecy to completely disable the Iraqi air defense system. Indeed, just 35 precisely guided weapons would be deployed to relegate Iraqi command and control deaf, dumb and blind. The historical importance of this mission cannot be overstated and its long term implications are still studied and debated to this day.
The Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) AGM-86B had been developed by Boeing as the lead contractor and was capable on autonomous navigation to targets deep into an enemy's territory. It was the ALCM that provided the substrate for the development of the Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missile (CALCM) AGM-86C. The CALCM made use of the newly deployed space-based navigational aid the Global Positioning System (GPS). GPS navigation gave the CALCM increased precision and the ability to strike targets from well outside Iraqi air defense systems. The precision allowed for the use of conventional explosives to destroy targets that might otherwise require many return attacks or subject the aircrew to unwarranted risk to life and aircraft.
"Secret Squirrel" launched as the first strike in OPERATION DESERT STORM. The B-52s from the 2nd BW would ultimately deliver 35 CALCMs to six main target areas. General Schuler addressed the crews in their pre-takeoff briefing and compared their actions to those of the "Doolittle's Raiders." Doolittle commanded the attacks carried out by 16 Army B-25 Bombers and aircrew that launched off of the Aircraft Carrier Hornet against targets on the Japanese mainland in the early days of WWII. By comparison, "Secret Squirrel Raiders" would fly 14,000 miles and be in the air 35 hours before landing back at Barksdale a day and a half later.
The success of the CALCM was unmistakable. The Air Force would go on to purchase approximately 1,500 of the missiles and would proceed with modifications that would make the weapons more effective and accurate. The CALCM has been used in OPERATION DESERT STRIKE (Iraq), OPERATION DESERT FOX (Iraq), OPERATION ALLIED FORCE (Balkan War) and OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM (Shock and Awe). Aircrews have continuously trained to use this weapon as the "battering ram" to knock down the doors of our opponents on the field of battle for 20 years. In the most recent issue of Armed Forces Journal, military force structure analysts have urged the follow on development of an air launched cruise missile with both conventional and nuclear capabilities to preserve our Nuclear Triad and provide for precisions standoff conventional strike.
It would be a year before the Air Force would break silence on this record setting mission of global reach and importance. To this day, when asked about details of "Senior Surprise" aircrew veterans are hesitant to discuss the event or flatly refuse any questions concerning the operation. I reviewed Air Force historical documents and relied on statements from aircrew members who participated in this aerial fete for information to write this story.
The aircrews were ultimately awarded the Air Medal for this single event though senior Air Force leadership had recommended the Distinguished Flying Cross for special achievement for all the participants of this record setting mission.
The author is the Commander of the 93d Bomb Squadron, 307 Bomb Wing, United States Air Force Reserve at Barksdale Air Force Base, La. In 1991, as a Captain he was attached to Eighth Air Force as the executive officer to Major General Robert Dempsey, vice commander of Eighth Air Force. He was tasked by the Eighth Air Force Command Section with monitoring and providing periodic updates to Generals Dempsey and Schuler on the progress of the seven B-52s participating in a "highly classified mission" on Jan. 16-17, 1991. He was briefed on the historical mission significance of "Senior Surprise" only after the aircraft and aircrew had safely landed back at Barksdale.
Recently, some participants of this historic mission gathered for a reunion in Bossier City, La.