Scud Hunter/Killers of the Persian Gulf War

Perhaps one of the most popular buzzwords to appear around the Persian Gulf War was “Scud missile”.

Though Scuds were notoriously inaccurate, they were nevertheless a hugely important tool in Saddam Hussein’s arsenal during the war. They could be launched from nearly anywhere in the desert, had moderately decent range, and essentially functioned as weapons of terror. Thanks to their poor guidance and their tendencies to swoop out of nowhere and strike unpredictably and randomly, early-warning and evacuation effectiveness was thoroughly at a disadvantage in target cities. Hussein, in an effort to draw Israel into the war, and therefore bring about a larger war with other Middle Eastern nations involved, used the majority of his Scuds to attack Israel. Some of them were armed with conventional warheads, though the possibility to use biological warheads (Weapons of Mass Destruction or WMD) also existed. This made Scuds a real threat that needed to be mitigated, especially so that Israel stayed out of the war.

The remains of Scud missile, brought down by a Patriot missile battery.
The remains of Scud missile, brought down by a Patriot missile battery.

The problem with Scud launch units was the game they played: shoot-and-scoot. As soon as the coast was clear, a mobile TEL (short for Transporter Erector Launcher; please, no funny business…) was driven out into the open, the missile calibrated and quickly launched. Soon after, the TEL would be withdrawn into hiding, disguised in gullies and caves, blending in with the rest of the misshapen desert. This made them incredibly difficult to find, and allowing them to launch in order to pinpoint their locations was a risky business Coalition commanders didn’t want to partake of. The best solution was to deploy small teams of soldiers to hunt down these Scud launch sites and target them, either using air power or explosives they carried with them to take out the TELs before more missiles could be mailed out. So to that end, the Coalition forces began sending out the best of the very best: their top-tier operators and assaulters.

The British, as part of Operation Granby, brought in their elite- the soldiers of 22 Special Air Service Regiment. They would be inserted in the desert behind enemy lines, either using the CH-47 Chinook or by Land Rovers and dirt bikes, engaging and destroying TELs and launch units as they found them while disrupting communications and, in general, just scaring the daylights out of the Iraqi military by wreaking havoc upon them from the shadows of the night. Sadly, four SAS troopers would lose their lives during the Persian Gulf War on these missions, two of whom belonged to the ill-fated Bravo Two Zero patrol which was sent out to hunt down a Scud TEL in January of 1991.

Delta Force operators behind Iraqi lines hunting for Scuds in 1991.
Delta Force operators behind Iraqi lines hunting for Scuds in 1991.

While the SAS would primarily rely on man-portable weaponry they carried with them to attack Scud launch sites, the United States took a slightly different approach in the application of their special operations forces to the Scud problem. The US Army sent in the operators of 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (1st SFOD-D), also known as Delta Force. These guys didn’t just own the night, but the entire day as well. They would be unleashed behind enemy lines like the SAS patrols, generally functioning in small teams with communications gear that would be able to link them up with nearby Coalition aircraft.

US Air Force generals offered up the A-10 Thunderbolt II, their premier twin engine attack jet with a massive 30mm cannon that could spit out shells at a rate of 4200 rounds per minute, decimating anything that happened to stray into the pilot’s gunsight. Also on deck were the Air Force’s F-15E Strike Eagles, sleek and powerful multirole strike fighters based off the F-15 Eagle air superiority fighter. The Thunderbolt IIs, more popularly known as Warthogs, would take the majority of daytime missions while the F-15Es were turned loose at night, equipped with LANTIRN targeting pods. Later on, the Royal Air Force sent in Panavia Tornados, swing-wing supersonic strike jets, and the USAF used its F-16 Fighting Falcons, to perform the same mission.

F-15E Strike Eagles of the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing during Operation Desert Shield.
F-15E Strike Eagles of the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing during Operation Desert Shield.

Delta operators were either brought into the area of operations by 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) MH-60 Pave Hawks or MH-53 Pave Low IIIs, belonging to the Air Force’s 1st Special Operations Wing. Due to the high need for these helos in other parts of the conflict, operators sometimes had to execute HAHO (High Altitude High Opening) airborne jumps from cargo planes. After leaving the drop zone, these operators would establish an observation point overlooking areas where Scuds were known to exist, waiting for the TELs to show up. Nearby, an AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System), typically an E-2C Hawkeye launched from an aircraft carrier, or an E-3 Sentry, would wait for target confirmation from Delta on the ground. As soon as the call came in, Warthogs or Strike Eagles would be vectored in and given the go-ahead to engage targets on the ground. To ensure the destruction of TELs, Delta teams were given laser designation devices which, when pointed at a target, would enable the sensors on “smart” (precision-guided) weapons and aboard the aircraft they came from to lock onto their prey. As the beam was invisible to the naked eye, nobody on the receiving ends of these smart bombs were any the wiser.

Meanwhile, the Night Stalkers of the 160th SOAR were flying their own insular anti-Scud missions in the desert. True to their nickname, they primarily flew at night, using night vision optics and the terrain to their advantage. Of particular value to the mission they were faced with was the MH-60L Direct Action Penetrator (DAP), a helo unique to the Night Stalkers. Basically a Black Hawk reconfigured to fly attack operations, it carried a pair of forward-facing M134 Miniguns on wing stubs on both sides of the fuselage, linked up to triggers in the cockpit. Rocket pods, Hellfire missiles, and sometimes an M230 30mm cannon, usually carried by AH-64 Apache gunships, completed the combat loadout of this highly-armed helo. Already tricked-out with Forward-Looking Infrared Radars and a few other bells and whistles which give the 160th’s helos their edge, these DAPs were formidable weapons in the hands of extremely capable special operations pilots. Former 160th pilot CW4 Michael Durant recounts such operations in his book, In The Company of Heroes, discussing his involvement in nighttime attack missions. I won’t get into further detail there- it’s a fantastic book and you definitely need to read it!

An MH-160L Direct Action Penetrator of the 160th SOAR(A). Noe the weaponry on either side of the aircraft.
An MH-160L Direct Action Penetrator of the 160th SOAR(A). Noe the weaponry on either side of the aircraft.

By the war’s end, Delta Force and SAS hunter/killer teams had mostly accomplished their mission. The Scud threat was dealt with, and Israel was kept out of the war. On the last day of the Desert Storm campaign, Delta sniper units, armed with .50 caliber long-range rifles, engaged and neutralized 26 Scud missiles, their TELs and the ground teams responsible for manning and launching them.

For more reading on the subject:

  • Delta: America’s Elite Counterterrorist Force by Terry Griswold and DM Giangreco.
  • Night Stalkers: 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) by Fred J. Pushies
  • In the Company of Heroes by Michael Durant
  • Elite Warriors: 300 Years of America’s Best Fighting Troops by Lance Q. Zedric and Michael F. Dilley.
  • On Target: Organizing and Executing the Strategic Air Campaign Against Iraq by Richard G. Davis.

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