This article serves as a continuation of Operation Rolling Thunder, delving into the post-Vietnam developments and the challenges faced by the Wild Weasel community in their relentless pursuit to stay one step ahead of the emerging surface-to-air threat.

Only a few stories resonate with as much audacity and bravery as that of the Wild Weasels. A group of fearless aviators whose sole purpose was to confront the perilous menace of surface-to-air missile (SAM) threats, the Wild Weasels played a crucial role in safeguarding American air power during the Vietnam War and beyond.

The term “Wild Weasel” was coined during the Vietnam conflict to describe a specialized group of aviators and aircraft tasked with the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD). Their mission was clear but perilous: to confront and neutralize the ever-increasing threat posed by North Vietnamese SAM sites. Operating under the call sign “Weasel,” these courageous pilots and their aircraft became the unyielding guardians of the skies, tirelessly engaging enemy radar and missile sites, clearing the way for U.S. strike aircraft to execute their missions safely.

The Vietnam Challenge

The Wild Weasels faced a formidable challenge as the conflict progressed, grappling with over a hundred operational North Vietnamese SAM sites by August 1966. Armed with the AGM-45 Shrike missile, capable of homing in on enemy radar antennas, they posed a more significant threat than previous weaponry. However, the Shrike suffered from limited range, hampering their ability to combat the SA-2s they sought to neutralize. Nonetheless, tactical innovations gradually enhanced the lethality of the Shrike, but the increasing number of SAM sites necessitated the development of a new weapon.

A McDonnell Douglas EF-4C Phantom II aircraft armed with AGM-45 Shrike and AIM-7 Sparrow missiles over North Vietnam in December 1972. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

The AGM-78 Standard Anti-Radiation Missile (ARM)

Enter the AGM-78 Standard Anti-Radiation Missile (ARM), a game-changing development in the Wild Weasels’ arsenal. Equipped with a larger warhead and extended range, the AGM-78 significantly boosted the effectiveness of these brave aviators. Despite this enhancement, their missions remained treacherous, and they endured significant losses—dozens of aircraft and the tragic sacrifice of forty-two aircrew who were either killed, declared missing, or became Prisoners Of War (POWs).

The Unseen Impact

Though challenging to quantify in mere numbers, the Wild Weasels’ impact was profound. The destruction or neutralization of over 40 SAM sites was just the tip of the iceberg. Their presence alone compelled countless SAM operators to shut down their radars, providing safer airspace for other U.S. aircraft to operate. The countless lives potentially saved thanks to the Weasels’ efforts are a testament to their indispensable role as the guardian angels of strike packages.

A Turning Point in History

The audacity, courage, bravery, and dedication exhibited by the Wild Weasels during the Vietnam War did not go unnoticed. Their valor prompted a shift in Air Force strategy, solidifying the importance of SEAD capabilities. Colonel David “Oscar” Meyer, a SEAD veteran, has emphasized the enduring significance of the Weasels’ mission, recognizing the economic appeal of ground-based threats and the continuous need for suppression and destruction of enemy air defenses. In recognition of SEAD’s pivotal role, a dedicated Wild Weasel course was established at the United States Air Force Weapons School, laying the foundation for future generations of these fearless aviators.