SEAD is very dangerous work. The RUSI fellow who shares my surname agrees, although I find the whole destruction of enemy air defense (DEAD) redefinition mission a tad ridiculous. (I don’t care if friendlies avoid destruction due to missiles, drones, or a cyberattack. If not killing SAM and AAA works to temporarily neutralize it, so be it.) Only two countries in the world are much good at SEAD, the United States and Israel. The Europeans and East Asians have some capabilities, and that’s about it. Before the war, the Ukrainians didn’t have much of one, and now they do, because of HARM. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. Ground-based air defense has been around since the beginning of aerial warfare. In the 1960s, the surface-to-air missile (SAM), transformed ground based defenses.
While World War II bomber crews faced artillery in massive concentrations of flak on their missions, those who flew over Vietnam and engaged in any conflict since also had to contend with SAMs too. These missiles are a threat, something to be mitigated and managed as much as damaged or destroyed. It is a struggle that has been ongoing since Eisenhower was president and B-52s were rolling off of Boeing’s Wichita production line.
America and the Soviet SAM Threat
As far as I can tell, the first SAM kill to occur was on October 7, 1959 when a Chinese PLA-crewed, Soviet-manufactured S-75 Dvina (a.k.a. SA-2) missile system brought down a RoCAF-piloted (i.e. Taiwanese) Canberra reconnaissance bomber northwest of Shanghai. Again it was an S-75 that clawed CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers’ Lockheed U-2 from the skies over Sverdlovsk, deep inside the Soviet Union. Surviving the hit and bailing out, more than a dozen S-75s had been fired at his plane and one of them downed a Soviet MiG-19, killing its pilot. Somehow, Powers parachuted to capture. An international incident theatrically played by Chairman Kruschev followed.
Three years later, another U-2, this time by a U.S. Air Force officer, Rudolf Anderson, was shot down by a Soviet-crewed S-75 at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was Anderson’s sixth mission over Cuba, and part of the intensive high- and low-altitude aerial reconnaissance undertaken to collect up-to-the-minute intelligence on the readiness of nuclear tipped surface-to-surface missiles. That none of the Navy or Air Force low-level reconnaissance aircraft were downed seems miraculous, but it was clear that aircraft operating within the effective envelope of SAMs had grown increasingly dangerous.
This became apparent quickly as the air war over Vietnam escalated. The first SAM kill over North Vietnam came in July 1965, when an Air Force F-4 was downed by an S-75. Recognizing the problem, both Air Force and Navy set to work on the problem and found answers in the ongoing IRON HAND program. By late 1965, IRON HAND missions against Soviet SAMs were regularly flown. In the beginning, these were daring, close-in, knife fight engagements with radar ground stations, pressed home with bombs, rockets, and guns.
Captians Allen Lamb (pilot) and Jack Donovan (EWO) achieved the first Wild Weasel SAM kill on Dec. 22, 1965, while covering a strike force northwest of Hanoi, North Vietnam. Capt. Donovan began picking up radar signals and called out the coordinates. Capt. Lamb guided their F-100F to the site and spotted the camouflaged radar van. He attacked it with a salvo of 2.75-inch rockets and 20mm fire, destroying the van and a nearby SA-2. Four single-seat F-105s accompanying them finished off the SAM site with rockets. The cabled message to the Joint Chiefs of Staff read “Weasel sighted SAM — killed same.”
Both services knew that more sophisticated tools for either shutting down or killing SAMs and associated anti-aircraft radars were needed. Both installed new electronics in twin-seat bombers, the Air Force F-105 and Navy A-6. The electronic surveillance measures (ESM) systems aboard both aircraft made it easier to detect hostile radar emitters. They were also equipped with electronic countermeasures (ECM) gear for jamming radar, increasing their chances of survival. But most importantly, the SAM-killers, called Wild Weasels by the Air Force, were equipped with radar-seeking missiles.
The first of these, the Shrike, was designed to home onto the frequency of an enemy air search radar and deliver 150 lb. warhead from a range of 8 miles. While the Air Force focused on specialized variants of the F-105 and F-4 to carry the Shrike, the Navy was willing to hang them from its major strike types, the A-4 and A-7, in addition to the aforementioned A-6. Later in the war, both services also employed the Standard ARM, which featured a more advanced seeker which could remember the location of a radar transmitter even after it shut down. Shrike lacked that capability and would stop seeking its target the moment it was turned off. The combination of both missiles were updated and used through the 1991 Gulf War.
The Israeli SAM Wars
While it was hard to quantify the overall impact of IRON HAND missions over Vietnam, Israel would soon learn just how much more lethal SAMs were becoming when Egypt and Syria surprised it in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Hopelessly outmanned and outgunned in both the Golan and Sinai, the IDF’s best answer was close air support. Those strike aircraft, a mix of American Phantoms and Skyhawks alongside earlier French types, flew directly into a buzzsaw called the 2K12 Kub, also known by its NATO designation, SA-6 Gainful. The Kub was far deadlier than the earlier S-75 and its more advanced stablemate the S-125. It could move with armored forces, had impressive performance, and employed a radar for which the Israelis had no defense. The introduction of the Kub was a rare moment in which a single surprise weapon’s effect reached the highest level of strategic discourse. The October 22, 1973 meeting between Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the Meir government is covered in a declassified memorandum of conversation below. After a brief discussion of the cease fire on both fronts, defense minister Moshe Dayan asks, “Would you like to hear something about our Air Force?” Kissinger got an earful from Air Force chief Benny Peled.
The Israelis had suffered grievous losses to the Kub, a majority of them Phantoms and Skyhawks. The Strela MANPADS, known to NATO as the SA-7 and the ZSU-23–4 Shilka, a tracked vehicle carrying a radar-guided, four-barreled autocannon were also significant new threats. Israelis attempting to fly beneath the Kub’s effective range ran into both. The first major SEAD mission undertaken by IDFAF Phantoms in the Golan met with catastrophic results precisely because of this layered air defense. Israel’s air staff prepared for its next conflict with its neighbors, firmly concentrating on when its aircraft would come into contact with Soviet SAMs.
That moment would come in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon nearly a decade later. On a single day, June 6, 1982, Israel visited a crushing defeat on Syria’s air defense forces. While the shooting down of more than 80 Soviet-built fighters without loss by the IDFAF’s newest American models, the F-15 and F-16, made headlines, the SEAD campaign against Assad’s military was perhaps even more impressive. David Ivry, commander of Israel’s air force, developed a clever combination of radar jamming, drone operations, and standoff missile-armed wild weasels, with which the IDFAF wiped out Syria’s SAM defenses in the Bekaa Valley. The once feared Kub accounted for not a single lost Israeli aircraft. To beat it, Israel practiced an early variant of net-centric warfare in which drones, early warning airplanes, and strike aircraft worked collaboratively to shut down the Soviet Union’s SAMs.
In Moscow, the Bekaa Valley operation threw military men into a kind of shock. Top Soviet systems had been trounced. On a visit to Czechoslovakia in 1991, Ivry met a Czech general who had been serving in Moscow in 1982. He told Ivry that the Bekaa Valley air war made the Soviets understand that Western technology was superior to theirs, and in this Czech general’s view, the blow to the Bekaa Valley SAMs was part of the cascade of events leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
American SEAD evolves
A year after the IDF’s tactical victory in the Bekaa, it would be the United States again flying against the ever evolving Soviet SAM threat. Two US Navy aircraft were lost flying strikes against Syrian anti-aircraft batteries near Beirut. Despite the setback, the US military was rapidly developing a new generation of anti-SAM weapons that would make the mission far less dangerous to air crews while at the same time even more effectively shielding packages of strike aircraft than SEAD efforts of the Vietnam era had.
Facing the prospects of Soviet invasion of Western Europe, the US invested heavily in sophisticated SAM killer and radar jamming aircraft. The definitive Wild Weasel, the Air Force’s F-4G, swapped its gun and other systems for advanced sensors and a load out of Shrike, Standard ARM, and newly-introduced HARM missiles. Both services introduced advanced radar jamming aircraft, the Air Force EF-111 and Navy EA-6. Both would eventually also acquire the capability to fire the HARM. The AGM-88 was a generational leap from prior missiles of the same variety.
HARM was a giant improvement in range, able to fly as far as 150 km, and fast, with a speed over Mach 2. It offered three modes of operation: a pre-briefed one in which a target signature and location are known; a second where the missile alerts the pilot of targets of opportunity; and a third in which it could be fired in self-defense when a hostile emitter comes online. The fundamental strength of the HARM is that it has significant sensors onboard to target and strike radar emitters. It is not always precise. A HARM struck a B-52’s defensive radar during the 1991 Gulf War and another hit a Patriot air defense radar in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Three years after the Lebanon intervention, HARM was used in combat. Responding to intelligence linking the bombing of a Berlin discotheque to Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, a mixed force of Air Force F-111 bombers and Navy aircraft launched a lightning raid well supported by radar-jamming and SEAD aircraft. HARMs fired by Navy A-7s and F/A-18s from carriers in the Mediterranean figured prominently in protecting air strikes from Libyan missile defenses. Nonetheless, a sole F-111 was lost to a SAM.
Later conflicts in the Balkans and Middle East would lead to further refinement of HARM and its adoption aboard new aircraft. Although stealthy capability would remain the vaunted capability of US air power, the destruction of an F-117 stealth fighter over Serbia indicated the limitations of the technology. Again and again, SAMs showed themselves to be a threat, but a manageable one for militaries with the right weapons to combat them. By the 1990s, the US was employing Tomahawk cruise missiles against air defense targets while Israel was reputed to have pulled off a computer hack on Syria’s air defense system during a 2007 raid on a nuclear facility in the country. Measures to mitigate ground-based air defenses continued forward in pace with increasingly sophisticated SAM systems.
Ukraine’s lethal skies
SEAD has come to matter again in the Ukraine War, the largest conventional conflict Europe has seen since 1945. In this war, both sides began the fighting with large supplies of ground based air defense weapons, including the Russian-built S-300, generally considered one of the deadliest SAMs currently fielded by any military. Russia also deployed the even more advanced S-400, a weapon which Turkey preferred to purchase over a sizable batch of US-made F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. Those missiles, which combine tremendous speed, range, and an engagement envelope stretching from the stratosphere to roughly 25 meters above the ground.
The massive concentration of highly effective SAMs in Ukraine has made air operations incredibly dangerous for both sides. Traditional air-to-air combat has been comparatively rare. SAMs have been deadly at altitude and the combination of SAM and AAA remain dangerous to everything from supersonic aircraft to drones and helicopters. This brings up an important point for Ukraine. While the Zelinsky government has pleaded for aircraft to replenish its forces, the simple obstacle to their use remained the deadly air defense environment. No discussion of Ukrainian air power could be taken seriously until Russian ground based air defense was pushed aside. As so few militaries are any good at SEAD, it seemed unlikely that the Ukrainians would be rushing to develop such a capability.
And then we saw photographs of an AGM-88 hung beneath the wing of a Ukrainian Air Force MiG-29. Soon after, videos popped up on social media of MiG-29s with Garmin GPS devices kludged inside their cockpits launching what appeared to be HARMs. Only in the last few days has a grainy photograph emerged of a UkrAF Su-27 carrying a pair of HARMs as well. This represented an incredible leap in capability. Observers had speculated that the Ukrainians were using ground launched HARMs, much as the Israelis had done with its Shrike and Standard ARM missiles. This was not the case. It instead appears that wiring for a radar homing version of the Russian-manufactured R-27 air-to-air missile permits firing of the HARM. Once again, whether thanks to the US test fleet of Russian airframes at Groom Lake or an indigenous effort in Ukraine, an incredible hardware hack has been achieved.
And now we witness the most effective Ukrainian counteroffensive of the war rumbling forward. At the moment, a relative news blackout of the Ukrainian press continues, with the goal to deny valuable tactical information from Russian commanders. While we’ve seen some very concrete evidence of how HIMARS/GMLRS has performed a set of battlefield precision guided missions against Russian ammunition depots, command centers, and bridges, it’s harder to know what HARM has done. Certainly, in forcing Russia’s air defense units to suddenly worry about their security is already significant. Ukraine’s SEAD capability will improve the survivability of its drone reconnaissance fleet; expand the opportunity to fly air defense missions, blunting Russian air strikes; and, perhaps at some point down the road, permit for more extensive use of its air force in strike missions.
HARM is the latest of a series of Western precision-guided weapons to make a difference in the Ukraine War. Back in February and March, it was Javelin and the less well-known BAE-SAAB NLAW, which delivered fire-and-forget anti-tank lethality not seen before. Next, it was the drones which began to alter the battlefield. Soon after it was HIMARS/GMLRS which altered the tactical calculus. And now it is HARM. Piece by piece, in a rather unexpected fashion, Ukraine is building the same kind of advanced, Western military that crushed Saddam Hussein’s military in 1991. With each new piece, Ukraine will grow more powerful. Let us hope that it doesn’t provoke an unconventional response from Vladimir Putin.