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.
Echo-chamber issues aside, the flip side of research in the Internet age is that from time to time, you make the unexpected connection that suddenly provides an information windfall. Something like that just happened today, when a random “people you may know” suggestion on Facebook put me in touch with a fighter pilot who scored a kill in 1991. Within a few hours he provided confirmation of a data point that I’ve been trying to verify for years (specifically, the callsign for his sortie, which had been conspicuously absent from the official USAF sources). Thanks, “Meat.”
With most of the technical and setup issues for the new site resolved, I spent a few hours updating some research that I did fifteen years ago on the roughly three dozen air-to-air engagements that occurred during the 1991 Gulf War. This is historian’s grunt work: combing through conflicting accounts, guessing as to the most likely ways in which memories dim or reports fail, filtering out errors that have been handed down from source to source. One remarkable thing was discovering how far my own work had propagated without citation, leaving me in the mildly entertaining position of seeking to verify my original work using sources that seem to derive from that same work, errors and all. Circular verification (or, if you like, “fact-checking by echo”) has to be one of the principal challenges of historical research in the Internet age.
In any event, with the new information on the Desert Storm air war available, I’ve applied several different “filters” to the original kill matrix, which reveal some interesting facts about those engagements. For example, a surprising number of engagements using the AIM-7 Sparrow (a medium-range missile most associated with beyond-visual-range (BVR) fights) were actually made within visual range. There were also quite a few kills made by wingmen (in some cases where their flight/element leads did not also score), underscoring a tactical fluidity that was very different from the rigid fighter doctrine prevalent in Vietnam, at least in the USAF.
Ultimately I would like to collect and chart more data on these engagements, including geographic locations, precise range of shots, day/night, etc. But unfortunately I think this may have to wait—while some of the necessary information can be gleaned from pilot accounts, I imagine that the complete dataset is probably still classified, even after twenty years. Might be worth considering a FOIA request, as both the AIM-7M and AIM-9M have been superseded by newer weapons in the U.S. inventory. We’ll see.
Well, it turned out that there wasn’t an especially easy solution to the table problem. There is an updated Stacks plug-in for RapidWeaver that permits the creation of tables with unlimited rows, but each cell is a separate Stacks object, which quickly mires down both editor and browser. In the end, there still doesn’t seem to be anything better than a manual process: I ended up creating a “raw” HTML table in Kompozer, applying CSS styles for the various rows, and then pasting the resulting HTML/CSS code into RapidWeaver. The results seem to be mostly acceptable.
I will probably convert the other two Desert Storm air campaign tables this week, and begin implementing some updates based on more recent sources. The original trio of air campaign tables was based on the statistical annex to the USAF’s official 1993 five-volume survey. But Desert Storm began twenty years ago this month, and since then, more detailed accounts of the air campaign have emerged, in some cases correcting errors that appeared in the earlier sources. Two especially useful works are Craig Brown’s Debrief: A Complete History of U.S. Aerial Engagements 1981 to the Present, and Steve Davies’/Doug Dildy’s F-15 Eagle Engaged — I plan to use both of them to update, validate, and expand my Coalition air-to-air victories table.