The Need for SEAD Part I: The Nature of SEAD


Editor’s Note: The Nature of SEAD is the first part of a 2-part series calling for the restoration of the defense suppression enterprise that carried the Joint Force from Vietnam until Desert Storm.  This part covers the need for the restoration of the “electronic combat triad” once covered by specialized, well-trained crews in the F-4G, EF-111A, and the EC-130.  Part II will discuss the modern threat environment and the impact of an over-reliance on stealth aircraft on the U.S. Air Force.


Twenty-five years ago, Coalition forces began combat operations to eject Iraq from Kuwait. The method chosen was airpower, which shattered Iraq’s military forces weeks in advance of the ground campaign that punctuated the end of the war. The Iraqi air defense system, called “Kari,” was effectively neutralized within three days, leaving Iraqi commanders with only short-range defenses completely disconnected from the air defense system. The surface-to air missile (SAM)-killing Wild Weasel force, rushed into service in the fall of 1965 to counter the Vietnamese missile threat, had grown into its own a quarter century and five airplane designs later. Unofficial accounts within the Weasel community, based on combat tapes, put the tally of radars killed by the F-4G over 250, with some aviators suspecting that the number was much greater. This was a dominant performance that exceeded the most optimistic projections.

None of that mattered. Following the conflict, the electronic warfare capabilities that made this possible were retired without replacement. The impact of this divestiture should have been apparent over Serbia in 1999, when “after 78 days, we effected little degradation on a modern IADS [integrated air defense] system.” But other events and demands on the force shielded the Air Force from the potential impact of its own neglect.  In an environment dominated by irregular warfare challenges, this lack of capability has not made a difference. Afghanistan never had air defense worth mentioning. When Iraqi Freedom kicked off in 2003, Iraq’s air defense had been shattered by an ad hoc campaign of lethal counter-integrated air defense strikes that had been ongoing since late 1998. In the absence of a modern threat, the lack of capability implied by a limited Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) enterprise went unnoticed. In an environment where the United States had uncontested air supremacy, the Department of Defense was allowed to forget why air superiority is necessary, and how it is achieved.

Operational Implications

Air superiority is an absolute prerequisite for joint operations in an environment where the enemy has the will and capability to contest control of the air. It may be possible to conduct effective operations when neither side has air superiority, but it is effectively impossible if the adversary has control of the air. In the wake of Desert Storm, potential adversaries were reminded of this immutable fact and made major investments in air defenses. Russia and China led the charge, fielding dozens of new systems intended not only to counter airpower, but specifically to counter American airpower. The implications span a number of Air Force missions, including and especially offensive counterair, interdiction, and close air support (CAS) in a contested environment.

The ongoing tribulations of the A-10 have done a great deal to obscure the history of what the A-10 was designed for, the environment it was intended to operate in, and the support assets that would have been available. While the A-10 was designed to be a dedicated CAS aircraft, the implicit assumption was that a Wild Weasel and standoff jammer mix would support A-10 operations, particularly in Europe. F-4G Wild Weasel doctrine at the time was to target SAM acquisition radars, depriving Soviet divisional air defense of cueing and forcing air defense operators into a struggle to acquire targets visually. In Europe, with low cloud ceilings, poor visibility, and rolling terrain, this was a good bet when coupled with low altitude operations. It paid off in Desert Storm, when the electronic combat triad wrecked the radar-dependent portions of the Iraqi integrated air defense strikes. Discussions today regarding a contested environment are focused on building an aircraft that is survivable over the modern battlefield, ignoring the external capabilities that ensured that the A-10 only had to survive against a threat dominated by anti-aircraft artillery and small missiles. The notion of “high-threat CAS” is nonsense. There is no piece of magic aircraft design or technological prowess that will enable an aircraft to loiter over a dispersed target with credible, radar-guided self-defense capabilities.

Similarly, the non-SEAD aspects of offensive counterair operations (SEAD is a subset of offensive counterair) are likewise dependent on robust and effective suppression of the radar defenses. Even stealth aircraft like the F-22 will require robust SEAD support, just as the F-117 and B-2 did during Operation Allied Force. Aluminum aircraft are vulnerable to radar and optical (including infra-red) detection at longer ranges than ever, but aircraft possessed of radar low observability are not immune from a requirement for effective SEAD support. Low observability aircraft are not universally stealthy from all angles; their signature varies in three dimensions based on the observer’s viewpoint. The reality of dealing with an integrated defense on their home ground is that aircrew cannot maneuver their aircraft to minimize signature against all threats all of the time. It is possible to maneuver against a single threat, air or ground — all other threats get a different look angle. If someone isn’t suppressing the threat radars, one of them is going to get a good enough angle on the target to achieve a stable track. Once a radar locks on to a target, the amount of power it can put on target may jump by orders of magnitude, and with more power comes better target detection. Whatever your offensive counterair mission, if you are being constantly engaged, you are not accomplishing it.

The interdiction mission gets the worst of all possible worlds. Almost by definition, an interdiction target is one that is worth destroying, and therefore worth defending. The target set is unlikely to be at the edge of an integrated air defense strike. It is often right in the middle, meaning that penetrating aircraft are surrounded by threats. Gun systems are impossible to suppress but are short ranged. Likewise, infra-red SAMs are impossible to suppress, are also short ranged, don’t work in bad weather, and, like anti-aircraft artillery, are not easily to employ effectively at night. If an air defender wants to cover large swaths of territory with a ground-based system, or to do it at night or in the weather, radar is a necessity. An aircraft on an interdiction sortie not only is unable to manage the fine points of maneuvering to maximize signature reduction, but it is always surrounded by threats waiting in ambush. On the bright side, attacks on interdiction targets are often “one pass, haul ass,” where loitering is not a requirement. Beware being the fourth aircraft dropping short-range weapons — because air defenses concentrate around what you want to hit, and only the first aircraft has anything resembling surprise. By the time the fourth aircraft shows up, every gunner in the target area has already counted to three and drawn the obvious conclusion.

EC-130H Compass Call (U.S. Air Force Photo)

In the face of a peacetime readiness state, stealthy aircraft can and do slip through enemy airspace unobserved. So do aluminum aircraft. The MC-130 is the aircraft used to insert and support special operations forces deep in hostile territory — and may be the most effective airspace penetrator ever — and the C-130 is the antithesis of a stealthy aircraft from a design standpoint. Still, neither the single reconnaissance flights nor the Special Operations Command infiltrators are trying to penetrate a dense, alert air defense system in numbers large enough to have an effect. Against a modern air defense network, a robust, redundant, and capable SEAD capability is not a luxury — it is a necessity.

The Nature of SEAD

The experience in Vietnam demonstrated that the suppression of enemy air defenses is a very dynamic mission that required intense training and dedicated crews. The crew mix, matching a pilot with an electronic warfare officer (EWO) was the first of its kind, and it was retained through the retirement of the F-4G Advanced Wild Weasel. Had the Follow-on Wild Weasel program not been cancelled, it would have also had a pilot/EWO crew. Weasel squadrons were not true multi-role units, although they maintained high levels of proficiency in other counterair roles. This specialization requires a heavy investment in realistic training but pays huge dividends in combat.

It would be a mistake to measure the effectiveness of a SEAD effort by counting the number of radars killed. The purpose of SAM suppression is to make the missiles ineffective while friendly aircraft are vulnerable to engagement. The metric is not the number of radars killed but the number of aircraft not lost. Killing an air defense battery is icing on the cake — it means that it is not available the next day — but the SEAD mission is successfully accomplished by just taking the radar off the air for a short time.

An EF-111A Raven taking off for an exercise, April 1985 (U.S. Air Force Photo by SRA Sullivan)

The electronic combat triad was a multilayered collection of countermeasures designed to attack an air defense system at several points. The two-seat Wild Weasels, originally F-100F Super Sabres and eventually F-4G Phantoms, were intended to locate emitting radars and suppress or destroy them using anti-radiation missiles or free fall ordnance —  a step up from the F-100F’s rockets and guns. The EF-111A Raven mounted the same powerful radar jammers as the Navy’s EA-6B and was designed to prevent acquisition radars from detecting aircraft to pass off to fire control radars. The underappreciated EC-130H Compass Call started life in 1981 as a communications jammer, designed to obliterate voice and data communications for Soviet interceptors and mobile SAMs. It was later upgraded to include powerful radar jammers of its own. All three systems, functioning together, were intended to bring an integrated air defense system to a state where radars could not see, pilots and controllers could not talk, and target assignments could not be made — while holding a lethal threat over the heads of enemy radar operators. Just like suppressive fire using small arms, the goal was to encourage enemy operators to keep their heads down and hamper their ability to perform if they elected to try.

It’s the same with SAMs. Suppression happens in the minds of enemy air defense operators. Suppression is accomplished by reminding operators that out there is a well-armed, sensor equipped fighter aircrew that has as their primary mission putting radar systems out of action. A fully autonomous SAM system could not be effectively suppressed if the computers did not care about force preservation. An operator cares very much about force preservation. In Desert Storm, the air defense operators who lost sight of system preservation requirements died in the first 72 hours. Surviving operators often responded to the presence of jamming by shutting down their radars on the theory that if there was a jammer out there, right behind it was a Weasel. They were often right. The earlier an operator figured this out, the more likely the battery was to survive the war.

Two F-4Gs from the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing (Provisional) fly over Saudi Arabia six days before Desert Storm (U.S. Air Force Photo)

This level of intimidation was achieved despite an environment where the SAM might have been thought to have the advantage. After all, the engagement starts at a time of the SAM battery’s choosing, against a target chosen by the operator, under conditions where it is always a surprise to the aircrew. Conditions can equalize very quickly — a SAM system that brings its radar up is not only revealed but highlighted. In Desert Storm, faced with well-trained and very aggressive aircrew, SAM systems were rapidly and effectively targeted in real time, even when Weasels were themselves targeted. During Desert Storm, there were 21 documented engagements by a SAM against an F-4G where the operator did not abandon the engagement in midstream. In 14 of those engagements the SAM battery was killed by the targeted aircraft’s wingman. No F-4Gs were shot down.

Some suppressive effects last well beyond the immediate engagement, as long as a credible, lethal threat is present. Serbian air defenders planned to move after every engagement, successful or not. The launch of an anti-radiation missile, which “rides the radar” beam back to the radar, was the signal for the surface-to-air missile battery to abandon any shots in the air, shut down, pack up, and move before a NATO aircraft showed up. Radar systems that stayed in place too long because they were broken, dug in, or just had unwise operators were hunted down and killed by the F-15E. Serbian air defenders stayed alive by radiating little and moving much — all of which impaired their ability to defend their airspace.

The Mobility Challenge

Missile seeker video of an Iraqi FAN SONG E Radar mounted on a heavy equipment transport trailer in January 1999. The radar is about two seconds from being obliterated with an AGM-130 fired by an F-15E from the 494th Fighter Squadron. (U.S. Air Force Photo).

One of the outcomes of Desert Storm was that air defenses shifted from static positions to a mobility doctrine. Starting in 1967 with the notoriously incapable SA-4 Krug, the Soviets fielded mobile SAMs for protection of maneuver units. The SA-6 Kub, fielded the same year, was a much more capable system, and proved the bane of Israeli Defense Force aircraft over the Sinai in 1973. Follow-on systems were mobile because they intended to defend advancing ground forces, not mobile because they needed to avoid attack. That changed after 1991, where mobility was embraced as a means for avoiding the consequences of having emerged from hiding. Many formerly static systems were re-hosted on more mobile platforms. Today, only the massive SA-5 Gammon missiles remain immobile, and for good reason. Among countries with air defense networks, North Korea stands alone in not embracing a mobility doctrine, instead electing to fortify and harden their systems, with the result that they cannot support offensive ground movements with radar SAMs.

Desert Storm spelled the end of the static radar system; today everything from the low-band VHF radars to long-range SAM batteries is mobile. But mobility comes with a price. With the exception of the very short-range systems like the SA-15 Tor or the Tunguska gun/missile systems, moving radars cannot acquire on the move, much less shoot on the move. A moving SAM system, especially the long-range systems, is neutered while it is moving and cannot perform its air defense function. A sufficiently aggressive SEAD element may force an adversary into a defensive posture where the systems must move after each engagement to avoid retaliation. This can only be accomplished if the adversary believes retaliation against a revealed position to be inevitable and effective.

System mobility is an attribute, not a constraint. There are indications that some SAM operators are also prepared to stand and fight from garrison positions. Figure 5 illustrates a Chinese long-range SAM garrison southeast of Beijing. There are revetted concrete pods for missile transporter-erector-launchers, two elevated drive-up mounds for radars, and a concrete pad for a mast-mounted acquisition radar. This battery design, emplaced at the peacetime location for the battery, indicates the dual nature of a strategic SAM battery in China. The garrison is a full-up fighting position, with elevated radar mounds, permanent cable runs, and facilities for system repair and battery reload. It is entirely possible that the battery commander would be ordered to stand and fight, relying for survival on the battery’s formidable self-protection capabilities along with other nearby air defense systems. At the same time, the garrison is constructed in such a way to maximize the ability to drive off the facility to a dispersal location. Of the radar and support vehicles visible, only the radar mounted on the mast would remain 10 minutes after an order to move was received, and the mast would be underway within 90.

Restoring Penetration Capability

Chinese Air Defense garrison (Google Earth)

The Air Force is fooling itself if it expects to achieve the effects we achieved in Desert Storm without paying for the capabilities and training that made it possible. The challenge of penetrating well-defended airspace is not subject to simple technological solutions. There is no “magic bullet” that will suddenly obsolete modern systems that have been under refinement since even before 1991. It took the Air Force decades of neglecting electronic warfare, delaying aircraft upgrades, and slashing flying hours to get to where we are today, and it will take some time and a great deal of resources to climb out of that hole. Regardless of the shape of the future force, be it stealth-heavy or stealth-light, SEAD capability will be an indispensable ingredient for a credible airpower-centric deterrent. Not only do we need to have a modern electronic combat triad, but we need to be seen to have one by allies and potential adversaries alike. In an environment dominated by advanced SAMs and integrated networks, we need a custom-tailored solution like the one we used to have, and can have again.


Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha (Wild Weasel #2235) was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions and taking part in 2.5 SAM kills over 10 combat deployments. He is the last “baby EWO” to graduate from the Wild Weasel School.  As an irregular warfare operations officer, Colonel Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of US Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Air Force