The Birth of the Wild Weasel Program
The first American bombing raid in North Vietnam was in retaliation for the Gulf of Tonkin incident in July 1964. To counter the threat posed by U.S. airpower, North Vietnam undertook a massive build-up of its air defenses. In August 1965, Soviet jet fighters were detected operating from North Vietnamese air bases. Hundreds of anti-aircraft guns, many of which were directed by Russian Fire Can fire control radars, were deployed throughout the country.
Back in February, U.S. intelligence officials had begun to speculate that Soviet surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) might be deployed to North Vietnam, manned by Soviet technicians. In April, photographs taken from U-2 reconnaissance aircraft revealed installations under construction near Hanoi, laid out in a pattern characteristic of Soviet SA-2 Guideline missile installations. SA-2 sites typically had radar facilities in the center and launching pads at six points around it, forming a "Star of David". By July 4th, 1965, a defensive perimeter of SA-2 batteries surrounded Hanoi. Policymakers in Washington had ruled the sites off-limits as targets for Rolling Thunder bombing raids, for fear of killing the Soviet technicians helping to construct the facilities and to train the North Vietnamese to operate them.
The SA-2 Guideline was a two-stage, radar controlled missile that could travel at three times the speed of sound. Weighing as much as an SUV and measuring up to 35 feet long, the missile aptly earned the nickname “the flying telephone pole”. It was also controllable. The SAM could be rigged to explode at a specific altitude or within range of a certain aircraft. If a pilot was unaware that a SAM had launched and if the radar trackers could keep the plane within their radar beam, the missile would strike with devastating accuracy.
On July 24, 1965, an SA-2 exploded in the midst of a formation of F-4C Phantom IIs belonging to the 15th Tactical Fighter Wing, flying about 55 miles northwest of Hanoi. Between July and November, three F-105 Thunderchiefs, two F-8 Crusaders, two Phantoms and an A-4 Skyhawk were lost in course of destroying eight SAM sites, amounting to a loss of one U.S. warplane per enemy SAM site. Something had to be done.
The First U.S. Air Force Wild Weasel Aircraft
Immediately, a top secret program called “Wild Weasel” was launched. The plan called for F-100F Super Sabres to be outfitted with the latest radar homing and warning gear. To test the new weapon, five volunteer flight crews were hand-picked from among the Air Force’s best F-100 pilots and electronic warfare officers (EWO). It seemed rather funny to them when Secretary of the Air Force Harold Brown and the Air Force Vice Chief of Staff came to speak with them. They knew then that they had an important mission but didn’t know exactly what they were getting into.
There was no time to lose. Within a month, the Weasels, as the new planes and crews were called, were bound for some real-world testing in Southeast Asia. The men were briefed that the strike forces were taking a beating. If U.S. planes weren’t taken out by SAMs, then they were at least forced down into the range of some of the most deadly anti-aircraft barrages in history.
By November 21, 1965, the first of seven F-100F Super Sabres arrived at the Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand, to form the nucleus of the 6234th Tactical Fighter Wing's Wild Weasel Detachment.
Overhauled F-100F Super Sabres were packed with a series of electronic sensors. With these, the electronic weapons officer, or “Bear”, could find the type and direction of enemy radar. If he wasn’t able to find the SAM from its radar signature, there was an experimental warning receiver built in, to warn of a SAM launch. But the ultimate goal of this warning capability was to ride the radar beams to their source, so that the Weasels could kill before being killed.
SAM suppression flights fell under the code name “Iron Hand”. Generally, the Weasels preferred to fly ahead of the strike force, to allow more time for identifying, and hopefully destroying, potential threats. Essentially, they were sent in to act as bodyguards for the strike force, a job that put them directly in the line of fire.
On December 20, the Weasels learned first-hand just how dangerous their job was. Two crews, led by John Pitchford and Bob Trier, were flying in typical formation, ahead of a strike force of F-105s. 30 miles northwest of Hanoi, they picked up several enemy radar signals simultaneously. There was no time to react. Pitchford and Trier’s plane was hit. Almost immediately the hydraulics began to fail and their F-100 nosed into an uncontrollable dive. While both men were able to bail out after considerable difficulty, they were immediately confronted by North Vietnamese militia upon landing.
Pitchford and Trier never returned. John Pitchford was a prisoner of war for over seven years. Bob Trier, according to information pieced together later, was killed trying to escape capture.
From that day forward, the Weasels changed their tactics. To mask their movements, they decided to fly as low as possible, just above treetop level.
The First Successful Wild Weasel Mission
Just two days later, during a strike against the rail yard located on North Vietnam's Red River, this tactic was put to the test. As soon as the Weasel crew crossed into North Vietnamese territory, they identified a SAM radar signal that was apparently searching for their flight. The crew immediately dove to mask their position. Periodically, the crew popped up from behind the hills, to fix a new bearing on the enemy signal. Soon, a second SAM radar was identified, while the first had locked onto and was tracking their aircraft.
The pilot approached a tiny village, where he discovered a well-camouflaged radar control van and three missiles. The crew unleashed a barrage of 2.5 inch rockets and then strafed the village with 20 millimeter cannon fire. The pilot could see North Vietnamese troops scattering from the site. The 20 millimeter walked right into one of the SAMs, causing a large explosion. With smoke billowing from the site, the rest of the flight struck with tremendous force, repeatedly unleashing barrages of rockets and cannon fire, until the site had been destroyed, and the radar signal was off the air.
While the other SAM sites furiously searched for the strike force, the Weasels led the F-105s down behind a hill and sped from the area. The mission had worked exactly as intended.
The following day, the Seventh Air Force publicized destruction of the SAM site to the world, but there was no mention of the Wild Weasel. Instead, the F-105s were credited with the kill. The project was still so secret that no one outside of the Pentagon and the men back at base knew about this new and unusual strike force.
That was really the beginning of the Wild Weasel program and it demonstrated that yes, they could find and destroy enemy surface-to-air defense installations.