The advancement in anti-aircraft technology has made aerial dogfights rare. But in 1991, when the US started Operation Desert Storm, an Iraqi pilot flummoxed the US pilots as his MiG-25 shot down an American F/A-18 Hornet after a dogfight.
The Super Hornets were recently in the news when they shot down drones fired by the Houthi rebels. The F/A-18 jets from the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group and the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Laboon shot down two land attack cruise missiles, three anti-ship ballistic missiles, and twelve UAVs. The complete story can be read here.
It was the first air-to-air engagement between MiG-25 and F/A-18 Hornet. The MiG-25, which at the time was the third most capable Soviet jet in service, was usually regarded as the most powerful aircraft in the Iraqi Air Force in terms of air-to-air combat capability.
During the Iran-Iraq War, the fighter jet was used for air-to-air missions. In the Gulf War, they were deployed in the role of strike bombers, a role for which the fighter jet was built.
The aircraft was the fastest combat plane to enter service anywhere in the world, with a huge and powerful sensor suite and the ability to fly at speeds more than Mach 3. During the war, Foxbats were the biggest threat to American air superiority.
In the wee hours of January 17, 1991, Lt Zuhair Dawoud of the Iraqi Air Force stationed at Qadessiya Air Base received a call at 0238 hours (Baghdad time) to scramble. He was one of the four Foxbat pilots on a stand-by alert at the base. In the words of Lt Dawoud: “A guy was screaming at the other of the line – MiG-25 IMMEDIATE TAKEOFF!”
The task for the MiG-25 PD of the 96 Squadron was cut out – to intercept the approaching “alpha strike.” It was the beginning of Operation Desert Storm, popularly known as the first Gulf War.
Around 2.30 in the morning (Baghdad time), three US Navy strike packages comprising two SEAD (Suppression of enemy air defenses) groups and an “alpha strike” formation of the US Navy fighters breached the Iraqi air space. Their goal was to destroy the large Iraqi air bases operating the squadrons of Russian-built MiG-25s, MiG-29s, and other bombers.
The “alpha strike” formation included 10 F/A-18C Hornets taking off from USS Saratoga. They crossed the Saudi border while flying between the altitudes of 25,000 and 29,000 feet. They were tasked to keep a lookout for enemy bombers and subdue the enemy’s air defenses.
The Hornets were followed by eight A-6E Intruders to bomb Tammuz. After them came three EA-6B Prowlers and two pairs of F-14As. The high-altitude flight path made them easy to detect by the Iraqi radars, which had a greater range at higher altitudes.
The US Navy’s strike formation was detected even before they crossed the border. At this time, the two MiG-29s of the Iraqi Air Force were airborne, and they were trying to intercept B-52s hitting Talha.
It was now that Lt. Dawoud received the call to scramble. “So, I hurried to the aircraft. The technicians were ready for this moment, as was the jet, so the take-off was exceptionally fast — I was airborne just three minutes after I had received the call. After take-off, I switched to safe (secure) frequency and established contact with GCI (Ground-controlled interception) of the Air Defence Sector. The sky was clear, with very good visibility. The GCI started to give me directions to a group of aircraft that had penetrated Iraqi air space to the south of the base,” Dawoud said.
GCI is a method used in air defense in which a command communications center is connected to one or more radar stations or other observational stations, and these stations direct interceptor aircraft to an aerial target.
Dawoud piloting the large Russian jet, turned south, deployed full afterburner, and sped to Mach 1.4. The Iraqi Foxbat was flying straight to the middle of the phalanx of the American fighter jets. The sheer size of the MiG-25 meant that immediately after the take-off, the squadron leader Commander Michael Anderson detected it.
Anderson discovered the MiG-25 on his radar when he was 70 miles short of Qadessiya. “I got an immediate radar contact on an airborne target climbing out of an airfield (ahead of us),” Anderson later recalled.
“I immediately knew it was an enemy airplane because we have some (Electronic ID) technology on board the F/A-18. I could see the afterburner flame, and it was an extremely long yellow flame that I had seen before on a MiG-25. There is no question about what you have when you see that. As soon as I took a radar lock on him, he turned right, and at that point, he started to go around me in a counter-clockwise direction. I did a couple of circles with him.”
Dawoud corroborated Anderson’s version of the initial intercept. “My radar was still warming, and I was 90km [48.6 miles] from the target formation when an enemy aircraft locked (onto) me with radar. So, I performed a hard maneuver, and the lock broke,” Dawoud said.
Anderson awaited confirmation from AWACS (callsign “Cougar”) that the aircraft was indeed hostile. As “Cougar” failed to confirm that it was an enemy aircraft, the Foxbat and the Hornet turned towards each other. As the night was dark, only the afterburners of both the aircraft blazing behind them were visible.
When both reached the opposite sides of the circle, Dawoud rolled out and switched off his afterburners to ditch the American aircraft on its tail. Anderson lost a sign of Dawoud. However, as the MiG-25 was turning East, Dawoud flew over Anderson’s wingman flying “AA406”.
By now even Dawoud lost contact with his target and reported the same to his ground control, which then advised him to turn east and engage another target around 40 km away. The MiG-25 turned east, heeding the advice, and locked on a target at 38 km.
The target was an American AA403 flying in a wide echelon formation piloted by Lt Cdr Scott “Spike” Speicher. Scott was approaching his launch point and had disengaged his autopilot. He put his aircraft into a shallow dive and engaged afterburners to accelerate for his first HARM (High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile) launch.
“I locked on a target at 38km (and at 29 km, I fired an R-40RD missile from under my right wing. I kept the target locked with my radar (un)till I witnessed a huge explosion in front of me. I kept looking for the aircraft going down spirally to the ground with fire engulfing it,” Dawoud narrated the kill.
When the flight data recorder of his AA403 was finally examined in 1995 examination, it provided a detailed account of the jet’s flight parameters. In 17 seconds, Speicher accelerated to 540 knots and descended to 27,872ft.
An AWACS controller observed two contacts “merge” at 03:50 hours. From the left side, under the Hornet’s cockpit, the R-40RD exploded. The aircraft was immediately slanted 50–60 degrees to the right by the explosion of the 154 lb high-explosive (HE) blast-fragmentation warhead, which also produced one HARM and 6G side forces that sheared off the external fuel tanks and their pylons. After ejecting, Speicher passed away. 48 miles due south of Qadessiya, “AA403” crashed.
When Speicher’s fighter jet crashed about 100 miles west of Baghdad on the morning of January 17, 1991—the first night of Operation Desert Storm—it was the first casualty suffered by the US Navy in the first Gulf War.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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