Wild Weasel Tactics in Vietnam

Wild Weasel aircraft had, essentially, a receiver that picked up emissions coming from Fan Song trailer-mounted fire control and tracking radars. These radars were housed in vans deployed with SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries; the entire assembly was courtesy of the Soviet Union. Weasel aircraft turned in the direction of the signal and needles that told them that they were headed straight into the source. They didn’t have missiles that could turn a corner to hit a SAM site, they only had AGM-45 Shrikes, which flew straight in. Once the aircrew had lined up and thought they had the kill, they fired the Shrike.

How SAM Sites Were Destroyed

The Shrike had an effective range of about 12 miles and was designed to destroy radar-control antennae by riding the signal beam back to its source. When the missile struck, its warhead scattered 23,000 steel fragments throughout the target. There was one hitch, though, with this anti-radiation missile: If the enemy radar signal shut down before impact, the Shrike’s guidance system was rendered useless and the weapon would miss its target. In addition, the missile had a relatively small warhead. As a result, Weasel crews and the F-105s that accompanied them frequently struck sites with conventional bomb loads after a Shrike hit, just to make sure that the SAM site was destroyed.

Bombs were dropped and would hopefully hit some of the missiles, causing the missiles to explode and to cause secondary explosions in fuel vans and other objects, resulting in a destroyed SAM site. The Shrike’s function was to hit the radar antenna and shut the radar down. Maybe the Shrike would get into the radar van, but it wouldn’t damage the rest of the site.

Among the conventional weapons favored by Weasel crews were cluster bombs. The dispersion pattern of the bomblets and the steel pellets that the cluster bombs emitted allowed Wild Weasels to saturate a relatively large site. As alternative options, rockets and even napalm and cannon fire were sometimes used. The latter options required making direct attacks, with aircrews flying directly over the SAM sites, which were protected by an array of antiaircraft guns.

Games of Chicken

Weasel crews learned early on that they could evade oncoming SAMs in a high-stakes game of chicken, provided that they could actually see the missile. The Electronic Warfare Officer (a.k.a. the ‘Bear’) immediately knew when a missile had been launched. He and the pilot would then frantically search below for signs of a large dust cloud, or for a smoke trail left in a rocket’s supersonic wake. Once the missile was in sight, the pilot began evasive procedures.

The missile would be coming up, the pilot turned downward, and then when the missile got closer, he would turn up again, following what they would call a ‘yo-yo’ pattern. The enemy missile would get out of sequence with the plane, and before long it lost track of the aircraft. This was beyond the capabilities of the Soviet SA-2s, due to their high speed and weight and the limitations of their command guidance systems.

What Was Meant by "First In, Last Out"

By mid-1966, Air Force staff had figured out an effective way to destroy SAM sites before they launched. In the meantime, the threats had multiplied. There were far too many for the Weasels to take on individually. As a result, they simply tried to position themselves far in front of the flight, to act as a decoy for launched missiles.

To many strike pilots, this seemed like an admirable but somewhat suicidal goal. Wild Weasel crews felt that they had an advantage in that they knew where the SAMs were coming from and were expecting them.

The Weasel’s motto, “First in, Last out”, did originate from the mismatch in airspeed between the slower F-100 Super Sabres and the faster F-105 Thunderchiefs that they escorted. However, the motto took on a whole new significance after 1966, when the Wild Weasels received their own F-105s. Rather than changing their tactics, the crews continued the practice, out of necessity, and out of a sincere desire to provide strike crews with adequate protection.

"First in, Last out" meant that they were looking for threats, hoping to kill the operators or to at least get them to put their heads down instead of preparing to launch missiles, while the strike force came in and bombed their assigned targets. So the Wild Weasels did lead the force in. When the strike force left, the Weasels hung around, to make sure that nobody got the bombers and their escorts on the way out.