This article is the last of the 3-part series exploring “Operation Rolling Thunder,” a significant United States aerial campaign during the Vietnam War, focusing on the critical role of the “Wild Weasels” in countering North Vietnam’s surface-to-air missile (SAM) threat. You can read Part TWO here.
During Operation Rolling Thunder, daring aviators developed innovative tactics and equipment to protect American strike aircraft from deadly SAMs, leaving a lasting legacy in air defense suppression strategies.
The Arrival of the Block 50/52 Viper: A New Era Begins
As the Vietnam War raged, Operation Rolling Thunder emerged as a significant U.S. aerial campaign. The F-4G had valiantly served as the United States Air Force Wild Weasel’s aircraft of choice, but in 1996, it was time for a changing of the guard.
Stepping into the spotlight was the Block 50/52 configuration of the Lockheed-Martin F-16C Fighting Falcon, lovingly referred to as the Viper. The Block 50 and Block 52 models were virtually identical, with the only distinction being the type of engine they relied on – General Electric engines for Block 50s and Pratt & Whitney engines for Block 52s. Despite this difference, both variants delivered comparable thrust, ensuring no compromise in performance.
The Super Weasel Takes Flight: Formidable Features
The Block 50/52 Viper became the backbone of the United States Air Force’s Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) and Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (DEAD) capabilities.
Even without a dedicated Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) as a second crew member, the Block 50/52 was equipped with state-of-the-art features that transformed it into an incredibly deadly platform. Upgraded radar and avionics, Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing Systems (JHMCS), advanced targeting pods, and the HARM Targeting System (HTS) were among the arsenal of tools that made the Viper a formidable adversary in the skies. Compact, powerful, and agile, these Vipers embodied the essence of a modern fighter aircraft.
A Handoff of Legacy: The Transition from F-4Gs to Block 50 F-16s
The passing of the Wild Weasel torch from the F-4Gs to the Block 50 F-16s marked a pivotal moment in the history of air defense suppression. During this time, Shaw Air Force Base (AFB) in South Carolina teemed with civilian experts from Lockheed Martin, offering a valuable opportunity for young aviators to learn from those with SEAD experience from past conflicts.
Brigadier General Charlie “Tuna” Moore, a witness to this transition, recalled the significance of this momentous shift in focus. The Block 50 was set to become self-reliant, distinguishing itself from its F-4G predecessor.
Overcoming Challenges: The Rise of the Super Weasels
With the transition came skepticism from the F-4G community, voicing serious concerns about the survivability of the relatively new and smaller F-16. As a single-seat aircraft, the Block 50/52 lacked a second crew member who played a crucial role in electronic warfare on the F-4s. The pressure was on for the Super Weasels to prove their worthiness on the battlefield, where split-second decisions could mean the difference between success and failure.
The Rise of the Swamp Fox: South Carolina’s Wild Weasel Legacy
South Carolina became a stronghold for Wild Weasel operations, housing an impressive four squadrons dedicated to this vital mission. The South Carolina Air National Guard’s 169th Fighter Wing (FW) at McEntire Joint National Guard Base (JNGB) emerged as a central figure in this storied legacy.
Operating F-16s since 1983, the 169th FW was among the first to receive the Block 52 Viper in 1995, excelling in the SEAD/DEAD role and achieving remarkable results in operations over Iraq and Afghanistan. The unit’s specialized expertise was a testament to their years of experience operating in the exact location and executing the same mission.
Unity in Specialization: Fostering Collaboration
The benefits of specialization extended beyond the Swamp Fox unit. Nearby active-duty F-16 squadrons within Shaw’s 20th FW – the 55th FS, 77th FS, and 79th FS – also profited from the high level of experience within the ranks of the Swamp Foxes. As all four units focused primarily on the SEAD/DEAD mission, they complemented and supported each other, creating a powerful and cohesive force.
Training for Excellence: Enhancing Interoperability
Training against advanced SAM systems was a costly endeavor, and the ability to acquire or replicate such systems did not keep pace with technological advances. However, the proximity of airspace and electronic ranges tailored to the SEAD mission allowed both bases to train effectively, often collaborating to enhance interoperability between active-duty Air Force and Air National Guard (ANG) units.
The Air Force’s Total Force Integration program further nurtured this relationship, enabling the exchange of personnel between active duty and ANG or Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) units. This partnership created a unique and formidable bond among the Super Weasel units.
The Everlasting Role of SEAD: The Legacy Continues
Colonel Meyer emphasized the enduring importance of SEAD, as the F-35 was planned to become the primary platform for this mission. The threat of air defenses would not vanish, underscoring the continued significance of air defense suppression.
The Super Weasels, guided by the motto “Semper Primus” – always first – stand ready to fight when called upon. They carry on the proud legacy of the Wild Weasels, their unwavering dedication forever etched in the skies as guardians and protectors.
As we bid adieu to our exploration of Operation Rolling Thunder, we pay tribute to these exceptional aviators whose bravery and ingenuity continue to inspire air defenders worldwide. The Super Weasels are immortalized as true sentinels of the skies – First In, Last Out.