They had probably the most dangerous missions in the USAF and were the first into an air attack and the last out and had a greater number of losses during the early part of the Vietnam war for their squadron size than any others.
But they developed a technique to destroy the biggest threat to airborne attacks namely radar-guided surface to air missiles and anti-aircraft fire.
This is the story of the men and machines that made up the Wild Weasels and the deadly game of cat and mouse they fought with the missile ground crews and how nearly 60 years on they still have an invaluable role in modern warfare.
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The story of the Wild Weasels starts in 1965 with Operation Rolling Thunder. This was America’s attempt to persuade the North Vietnamese to stop supporting the communist Viet Cong in the South by introducing a sustained aerial bombing campaign against North Vietnam, targeting it’s industry, transport, and air defences.
This was built on the existing bombing raids on the Ho Chi Min trail, a network of trails and paths which North Vietnam used to supply the Viet Cong insurgency in the south.
Operation Rolling Thunder was meant to last for 8 weeks but ended up running for over three and a half years and while North Vietnam had only a small airforce of MiGs supplied by the Soviets, it made up for this by creating one of the toughest air defence systems in the world.
At the beginning of the operation, the north had 1500 anti-aircraft guns but within a year this had increased to over 5000 which ranged from rapid-fire 23mm upto 100mm radar-guided artillery.
These had a range of over 15,000ft and were positioned across the country and close to the border with Laos, a neighboring country which the US overflew on route from their bases in Thailand to North Vietnam.
But the weapon that made the biggest impact was the Soviet S-75 known in the west as the SA-2 Guideline Surface to Air Missile or SAM and the Fan Song, the NATO name for the SA-2’s fire control and tracking radar. Although they could only track one target at a time they could guide up to three SA-2 missiles at once to it.
This was the same as the one used to shoot down the US pilot Gary Powers in a U2 spy plane over Russia in 1960 at a height of 60,000 feet.
In the beginning, the USAF used tactics more akin to fighting a nuclear war with the Soviets than a conventional war with the Vietnamese by flying high and out of the range anti-aircraft guns.
However, when SAM’s were deployed from July 1965 the situation changed when one SA-2 exploded in the middle of a Phantom F-4 strike force bring down one aircraft and damaging the rest, US bombers were forced to fly at below 10,000 ft and under the SAM’s operational height.
This became a deadly trap because if they flew high they were the target of SAM’s and if they flew low, they were susceptible to anti-aircraft fire.
The North soon had about 25 SAM Battalions with six launchers each which moved between about 150 sites around the country and the Soviets also supplied an early warning radar system which was deployed at over 200 sites.
Losses to SAM attacks increased and something had to be done to neutralize them. Trouble was, no one had attempted anything like this before, so the tactics were more or less created as they went along. This would as become be the first time where electronic detection was used to actively go and look for radar and missile sites during the mission rather than attacking predetermined targets, something that today is known as SEAD or the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses.
In 1965 a highly classified volunteer squadron called the Wild Weasels was formed, this used the two-seat version of the F-100 Super Sabre aircraft which was outfitted with specialist electronic equipment to detect the direction of a radar signal so they could be located.
Normally this would require a large receiver dish, too big for a fighter. Instead, they used four small dishes to pick up when a radar was activated and the direction it was coming from.
The name, the Wild Weasels refers to an animal that goes into the lair of its prey to kill it and the YGBSM initials on the patch is the abbreviated version of the comment of an experienced B-52 Electronic warfare officer Jack Donovan when he was told what the missions entailed, the full version you can see here but the shortened version is “You Gota Be Shittin Me” which became part of their patch.
In the front of the F-100 was a seasoned pilot and in the rear was the EWO or Electronic Warfare Officer whose job was to operate the radar detection and tracking equipment.
The usual weasel formation would be to have one F-100 as the lead detection aircraft with four F-105 Thunderchiefs which were faster and carried a greater munitions load or rocket, bombs or both and some were outfitted with a Gatling gun capable of 6000 rounds per minute.
The F-100 weasel would fly ahead using the hills and valleys to aggressively bait the heavily camouflaged mobile SAM sites into targeting them with their radar. Once the radar switched on its approximate direction could be determined but they didn’t know the distance so they would fly high and wait for a missile to launch which they would then have to dodge but the missile’s smoke trail would show the site’s exact location.
The F-100s not only found the SAM sites, they would attack them with cannon, rockets and initially napalm though that was later discontinued, they would also often face heavy anti-aircraft fire and sometimes MiG attacks and the more heavily armed F-105’s would follow to attack the rest of the site.
Doing this they would attempt to clear the area of air defenses so that other aircraft could proceed to and from their targets unimpeded, so the weasels would be the first in and last out to ensure their safe return.
Within the first two weeks of their operation, the results were poor with 1 plane lost but once they got their teamwork together and their first SAM kill, their confidence grew, and more kills followed. The program which was on the edge of cancellation was continued and enhanced.
However, these were one of the most dangerous types of missions in the airforce and after six weeks just one F-100’s remained along with 4 crew killed, 2 captured, three wounded and two quit.
The problem with the F-100 was that they didn’t have the performance of the F-105 that accompanied them and were often caught by anti-aircraft guns as they attacked the site. They also had to outfly sometimes multiple missiles travelling at Mach 3, so if they couldn’t make a snap turn in time, the missile would get them.
But their actions did affect the SAM operators because they knew that once they turned on their radar they could have a weasel flying down the beam.
After talks with the Pentagon about the F-100’s lack of performance, the weasels were upgraded with twelve two-seat versions of the F-105 which were also given the AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missile, which was designed to home in on the radar signals.
But for the crews, they were still trying to determine the best techniques to use and six weeks after the first F-105s reached airbases in Thailand just one aircraft was left.
Poor weather and cloud cover in the rainy season which lasted up to 8 months of the year also made it difficult to see the missiles launch until it was too late which brought down several of the new weasels.
This learning curve applied to both sides, the North Vietnamese started launching coordinated missile attacks from two or three different sites at once making it difficult for the weasels to avoid all the missiles that were suddenly converging on them.
The Soviets modified the SAMs to lock on the jamming signal which US bombers used to blind the SAM radar and home in on the source of the jammer itself.
This also allowed the tracking radar to be turned off so the Shrike missiles could not home in on them. Another technique was to point the radar off to one side and then turn it off, the shrike would then lose the signal and crash away from the site.
Faking a missile launch by activating the missile guidance signal but without actually firing one could trick a weasel into thinking a missile was being launched at them and getting them to pull up or drop their bombs early to make the aircraft lighter to dodge the non-existent missile.
Once the sites had fired their missiles they would immediately move to a new location to avoid follow-up bombing. According to Soviet advisers, the average SAM unit would destroy 5 to 6 US aircraft before being put out of action
Now whilst the Shike missile could home in on the SAM’s radar, their range was about half that of the SAM missile. The weasels discovered that if they launched their Shrike’s upwards at about 45 degrees towards the target, the ballistic path would give them the extra range and keep them out of the range of the SAMs.
The Americans also modified the weasel’s electronics to get not only the get distance to the radar but also to know if an individual aircraft was the target of the tracking radar and if so to take the appropriate action.
In 1967 the weasels got the new AGM-78 anti-radiation missiles with a longer range and bigger warhead and better guidance, this allowed them to fire from a standoff distance up to 30 miles away. It also included a simple memory circuit so even if the radar was switched off, it would continue to the target.
Now the number of kills went up as the losses went down and by 1969 the weasels had destroyed 97 SAM sites.
As the war dragged on, In 1972, operation Linebacker created the largest aerial attacks since world war 2 with over 350 aircraft in the air during missions including B-52 bombers, tankers, fighters and weasels.
But by then the F-105s were getting old and a newer aircraft, the F-4G Phantom was added to the weasel units.
The North Vietnamese had also developed new tricks to combat them. They changed the frequency of the radar so the weasel’s equipment could no longer pick them up and they also started launching their missiles in the general direction of the target, usually the B-52s, then they turned on the radar at the last moment to get a target lock giving the weasels very little time to find the missile sites. This proved very effective as there was little the weasels could do about it.
But soon a change of tactic saw the B-52s intensively target the SAM sites and with better Electronic Counter Measures the North Vietnamese started to run out of missiles to fire against them which brought them to the negotiating table and an eventual cease-fire.
According to the Vietnamese, approximately 6,800 SA-2’s were fired during the Vietnam war accounting for 31% of US losses but the Fan Song radar-guided triple-A fire is thought to have accounted for 60% of US losses and 9% to MiG fighters.
The weasels had shown that SAM’s could be countered and even defeated but that more work would be needed to match the increasing capabilities of the new Soviet missile systems.
By the mid-1970s, the Phantom F-4G Wild Weasels were fitted with the APR-38, a new digital radar warning & homing system. Now new threats like changes in radar frequency could be dealt with by a software update rather than a major hardware change.
The APR-38 was the most complex system ever to go into a fighter at the time but it was far from perfect and took a lot of time and money to get right but it was eventually used in the Yom Kipor war between Israel and Egypt.
The wild weasels along with the upgraded AN/APR-47 Phantom F-4G’s went on to see action in operation “desert storm” in 1991 with great success and the loss of only one aircraft which was caused by the hang firing of an ARM-88 missile.
The weasel’s role is now assigned to the F-16 Fighting Falcon through the F-35 Lightning II with its much greater stealth capabilities and ability to take even larger weapons internally than the F-22 is slated to take the role as the F-16s are phased out.
SEAD or the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses is now an essential component in modern warfare and can account for upto 30% of all missile attacks in the first week of a campaign.
But without the bravery of the Weasle crews to fly in the face of death in the first place non of this would have been possible.
In many ways the battle between the weasels and the radar crews was also a technical battle between the Soviet engineers that created the radar and SAMs and US engineers that created the weasel’s detection and ARM missiles with each iteration trying to leap ahead of the other.
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