B-1 bomber makes historic combat debut during Operation Desert Fox
By Airman 1st Class Ashley J. Thum, 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
/ Published March 07, 2013
ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. -- Dec. 17, 1998. Ellsworth B-1 bomber crews, along with Navy and Royal Air Force assets, begin a campaign that will grab the attention of one of the Middle East's most notorious tyrants.
"Operation Desert Fox was a four-day military response to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein expelling United Nations weapons inspectors out of Iraq," said Col. Randy Kaufman, 36th Operations Group commander, Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.
ODF began just after the Muslim holiday Ramadan, giving credence to what was termed among servicemembers as Hussein's annual "Operation Deny Christmas."
Col. Jeffrey Taliaferro, Principal Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon, was the 28th Operations Support Squadron wing weapons officer when the 37th Bomb Squadron and 9th BS, Dyess AFB, Texas, were tasked to deploy in November 1998.
Less-than-ideal weather conditions over Europe caused most of the Air Expeditionary Force assets to divert from their intended locations. As a result, only a fraction of the aircraft made it to theater.
"In essence, we launched one AEF of fighters and bombers to go to the Middle East," Taliaferro said. "Then changing political conditions led many to re-deploy home. The result was a much smaller package than originally envisioned."
Kaufman, then the initial B-1 aircraft commander, said the Air Force personnel conducted training missions for two weeks before being informed of an impending combat situation, Dec. 16, 1998.
Four B-1s - two from each of the deployed bomber squadrons - were required to execute the four-day operation. Lt. Col. John Martin, 28th Operations Group deputy commander, said cruise missiles were primarily used on the first and last night of the mission, but the second and third nights witnessed the operational combat debut of the B-1.
"On Dec. 18, 1998, the first B-1 dropped bombs in anger from `Slam 11' and `(Slam) 12'," said Martin, then "Slam 4"'s defensive systems officer. "Navy strike and support assets were alongside. The third night witnessed B-1s - `Slam 3' and `Slam 4' - and Navy assets serving alongside one another once again."
Unlike today, Taliaferro explained the ability for personnel on land to communicate with those at sea was greatly reduced. Once the action began, Taliaferro said phones were the primary form of communication. In spite of the impediments, he added, bombers and aircraft carriers are well-suited to work together.
"It's a very healthy pairing," Taliaferro said. "They (bombers and aircraft carriers) provide a lot of support we need to penetrate enemy areas. I worked with the flight lead of the carrier over the phone to plan the mission together. A Navy F-18 pilot was the mission commander of the entire package of airplanes flying together."
Martin explained that the B-1 was the perfect fit for the mission.
"Distance-wise, we were moderately removed from the fight and were therefore able to demonstrate our worth as a long-range strike platform," Martin said. "We were the USAF platform in the area of responsibility with the perfect balance of range, flexibility and firepower for the mission."
ODF caused significant destruction of Iraqi military infrastructure and degradation of their missile development program.
Martin said he is proud to have been a part of ODF. Looking back, he recalled seeing with his peripheral vision what he initially assumed was fireworks, only to realize it was in fact anti-aircraft artillery fire.
"It was a surreal moment," Martin explained. "At the time, it was tough to grasp the importance of the mission. We just cranked the jets, blasted off, bared our fangs and put steel on target like we had trained to do so many times while at Ellsworth."
Taliaferro said a larger number of Airmen have more combat experience today than they did in the 1990s, but that some may be apprehensive about being in the line of fire.
"Before you're shot at, warriors often wonder `Will I be ready when someone shoots at me?', " Taliaferro said. "In the mid-'90s, a guy who had been in (Operation) Desert Storm told me the people who were ready when they trained were the ones who were ready when they went into combat. I think he was right. Folks who have never been shot at, or may still be wondering, can be confident that if they're ready in training they will be ready in combat."
Kaufman added he is thankful for the Airmen who worked to provide him with a jet that was safe to fly, and for those who flew with him to ensure the bombs were dropped on target.
"The B-1 is an incredible aircraft," said Kaufman. "I'm very proud to have played a part in bringing the B-1 to the forefront of the Air Force's combat operations, but it couldn't have happened without the efforts of the B-1 maintainers and weapons loaders. It takes a team to make the mission happen."