There is an odd bit of trivia about the U.S. air campaign over Iraq in 1991 that has been a source of curiosity for me for more than fifteen years, and I think I happened upon the answer last night. Or, at least, an answer.
Over forty Iraqi aircraft were downed by the U.S.-led coalition in the course of air-to-air engagements during Operation Desert Storm (ODS); I have a “kill table” here. The table draws upon various official and unofficial historical records that have emerged in the two decades since ODS, and in most cases includes the parent unit and radio callsign of the coalition aircraft that scored the victory. You will see that the overwhelming number of victories were scored by F-15Cs of the USAF (and indeed, a disproportionate number of kills went to one particular squadron, the 58th Tactical Fighter Squadron of the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing). The reasons for this are complicated, involving joint command-and-control arrangements and inter-service politics, and remain controversial even two decades later.
In any event, two air-to-air engagements resulted in kills for the Navy. The first encounter occurred on the first night of the war (Jan. 17), when two F/A-18C Hornets from VFA-81 “Sunliners” shot down a pair of Chinese knock-off MiG-21s while on the inbound leg to their ground target. The second encounter occurred on Feb. 6, when an F-14A Tomcat from VF-1 “Wolfpack” shot down an Mi-8 helicopter while on a combat air patrol.
My puzzle related to the question of callsigns. If you look at the litany of callsigns in the kill table, you will notice that almost all of the callsigns take the form of a call name followed by two digits. The call name usually follows a theme, such as oil brands (QUAKER, CHEVRON, CITGO) or firearms (PISTOL, SPRINGFIELD), and the two digits indicate the position of an aircraft in an element or flight. So, for example, the pair of F-15s from the 36th TFW that got four kills on Jan. 27 took the callsigns OPEC 01 (the leader) and OPEC 02 (his wingman). This uniform system was dictated by the Air Tasking Order (ATO), the theater-wide air plan used to organize and control the very large numbers of armed aircraft crossing the skies over Iraq and Kuwait, the majority of which were ostensibly on the same side and should not be colliding into or employing weapons against one another.
So, let’s look at our Navy flights on Jan. 17 and Feb. 6. We see that our MiG-killing F/A-18s took the callsigns QUICKSAND 64 and QUICKSAND 62, which appears to be consistent with the ATO system. But our helo-busting F-14 was using a strange callsign that is not like the others: WICHITA 103. This is not an ATO-compliant callsign. Rather, this is a “tactical callsign” used by Navy carrier air wings, comprised of a squadron-specific call name combined with the three-digit modex number painted on the side of the airplane. “WICHITA” was the unique call name used by VF-1 “Wolfpack”, and the jet in question was #103. (The Navy tactical callsigns for our Hornets from Jan. 17 would have been SUNLINER 401 and SUNLINER 410.)
Why did the Tomcat on Feb. 6 not use an ATO callsign? It couldn’t have been an Air Force/Navy thing, since the Navy F/A-18s on Jan. 6 were using ATO callsigns. It couldn’t have been a Tomcat/Hornet thing, since we know that when an F-14B from VF-103 was shot down on Jan. 21, it had the ATO callsign SLATE 46.
For years I assumed that this was simply a question of incomplete recordkeeping, and that there had to have been an ATO callsign somewhere that simply hadn’t made it into the public sources. But when I inquired with the pilot of that F-14 last year, he told me that to the best of his recollection, his callsign on that day was in fact WICHITA 103. So it seems there was a discrepancy, but still no indication as to why.
There the matter lay, until last night. I was reading the transcript of an interview of Maj. Gen. ‘Alwan Hassoun ‘Alwan al-Abousi, formerly of the Iraqi Air Force, conducted by a team of American scholars and analysts after the fall of Saddam’s regime (Kevin Woods et al., Saddam’s Generals: Perspectives of the Iran-Iraq War, Institute for Defense Analyses 2011). They were discussing a Jan. 24 incident where a pair of Iraqi Mirage F-1s had made an attack run against a Saudi refinery (the coalition had interpreted this as a move against the fleet in the Gulf). Gen. al-Abousi expressed surprise that the Mirages had not been intercepted by American fighters immediately upon takeoff, which had been the case in the previous two days. The American interviewer, Williamson Murray, responded with the following:
We discovered after the war that the combat air patrol (CAP) was being flown by F-14s based in the Pacific. The Pacific carrier air wings (US Navy) did not work with the US Air Force often. They did not have the call-sign and codes for getting the [Air Force] AWACS transmissions. AWACS called them regarding the two Iraqi aircraft, but the CAP was not listening to the transmission. The aircraft went right past the CAPs. A Saudi F-15 pilot, who heard the AWACS transmission, shot down the Iraqi aircraft.
The possibility of a difference in operating practices between Atlantic Fleet units and Pacific Fleet units had not occurred to me before. The F/A-18s on Jan. 17 were assigned to VFA-81 aboard USS Saratoga (CV 60), which was an Atlantic Fleet carrier with an east coast air wing. The F-14B lost on Jan. 21 was from VF-103, also from Saratoga. But the Tomcat that shot down the helo on Feb. 6 was from VF-1 aboard USS Ranger (CV 61) — a Pacific Fleet carrier with a west coast air wing. All of the Atlantic Fleet aircraft were using ATO callsigns, but the Pacific Fleet F-14 was using a tactical callsign on Feb. 6.
A footnote in Saddam’s Generals led me to a naval history of ODS conducted by another D.C. thinktank (Marvin Pokrant, Desert Storm at Sea: What the Navy Really Did, Center for Naval Analyses 1999), which contains the following passage:
NavCent [U.S. Navy Central Command] fighters . . . strained interservice command and control. Sometimes it worked very well. For example . . . on 6 February a NavCent F-14 Tomcat in the [southern] BarCAP station shot down an Iraqi helicopter only because of the vectors from the AWACS controlling the Tomcat. At other times, command and control was not so smooth. Conflicting call signs resulted in endless confusion. Generally, NavCent aircraft would be controlled first by their parent carrier, then by the control ship in the northern Persian Gulf. Crossing the coast, they would transfer control to the AWACS; this series of handoffs reversed on the return trip. NavCent and CentAF [U.S. Air Force Central Command] used two different systems of call signs. NavCent controllers used call signs based on the squadron call sign and the side number of the aircraft — for example, “Fast Eagle 101.” CentAF controllers wanted to use the call signs listed in the ATO, such as “Factory 40” for a section of two aircraft. Typically, neither control agent kept track of the other’s call signs.
Pokrant confirms the difference between Navy tactical callsigns and USAF-style ATO callsigns, but he doesn’t make the Atlantic/Pacific distinction that Murray did during the interview with the Iraqi general. Instead, Pokrant simply refers to “NavCent” aircraft — that is, all U.S. Navy aircraft operating under the control of U.S. CENTCOM, which was running the war. During ODS, the Navy operated aircraft carriers both in the Persian Gulf and in the Red Sea; Ranger was in the Gulf, while Saratoga was in the Red Sea. It is interesting that the passage above refers to air control arrangements over the Persian Gulf, but omits mention of naval air activities in the southwest originating from the Red Sea carriers.
This suggests an explanation for why the F-14 that shot down the Mi-8 on Feb. 6 used a Navy-style tactical callsign, while its sister fighter and strike-fighter squadrons on the east coast adopted ATO callsigns consistent with USAF standards. There were procedural inconsistencies between the methods applied by the Air Force and the Navy in controlling fighters, exemplified by two separate callsign systems. The Atlantic Fleet squadrons (perhaps more familiar with the USAF way of doing business because of joint training opportunities in the Mediterranean) were able to overcome this friction and adapt to the USAF-run ATO process, including using ATO callsigns. But Pacific Fleet squadrons, whose usual operating area was the vast western Pacific Ocean, did not “speak Air Force” as fluently, and tended to retain their usual operating methods (including Navy tactical callsigns).
It’s also possible that it was not strictly an Atlantic/Pacific Fleet issue, but differences between the Red Sea and Persian Gulf operating environments, such as the amount of time Red Sea-based Navy aircraft spent under USAF AWACS control as compared to their Gulf-based counterparts. Navy aircraft originating from the Red Sea had to fly a considerable distance over Saudi territory to reach targets in Iraq. If the Air Force’s AWACS crews, rather than the Navy’s own E-2 controllers, had primary responsibility for overland control (as Pokrant suggests was true), then the Red Sea Navy may simply have been forced to deal more closely with the Air Force as a matter of geography.
In the end, of course, the details of a particular radio call sign used on a particular day over twenty years ago are unimportant. But all of this highlights the teething problems that the USN and the USAF faced in developing the processes necessary to conduct truly joint air operations. We see that two Iraqi Mirages were able to slip through a gap in the counterair screen as a result (at least until they ran into a Saudi F-15). And although this merits a much longer discussion, these command and control problems may have also contributed to the uneven distribution of air-to-air victories between the USAF and the USN.
In the two decades of extended joint air operations conducted by the U.S. that have since elapsed, most of these problems have since been addressed. It will be interesting to see how new rising air powers, looking to develop similar operational synergies between their land-based and naval air arms, will fare at the same task.