Editor’s Note: The following pieces were written by U.S. Navy leadership from two very different backgrounds as they share their personal stories on how they were introduced to, and then became champions of, Navy’s SPEAR program. This year, SPEAR marks its 30th anniversary of providing tactically relevant threat assessments to naval aviation and our partners. After three decades, the division remains focused on its original charter of informing the warfighter and the foundational concept of having operators embedded in the intelligence community.
By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
This is the story of how I came to know of, understand, and greatly appreciate the Strike Evaluation and Anti-Air Research (SPEAR) division. While I was out fulfilling my mission as an Intelligence Officer, an organization in Washington DC, called SPEAR, was analyzing the same intelligence we were, and wrestling with the implications. SPEAR had been established a couple years before the start of Desert Storm at the Navy Operational Intelligence Center in Suitland, Maryland, and was an outgrowth of lessons learned from the botched Lebanon strikes in 1983, and the somewhat lackluster Libyan strikes in 1986. The idea behind SPEAR was to bring in aviators (pilots and naval flight officers) to the intelligence center, give them access to all the most sensitive and highly classified intelligence, so that they could study it and devise operational countermeasures, and produce reports at lower classifications that could be widely shared by the rest of the aviation community. It was a great idea, and worked very well.
It was early December, 1990 in Mina Salman, Bahrain and my nose was seriously out of joint as I listened to the briefing given by the Navy captain from Washington DC. He wasn’t even an Intelligence Officer, yet he was briefing much the same material that I had given in previous briefings to the staff. By the end of the brief, I saw the brilliance of it. Because he was an aviator, wearing wings on his chest, he could use the intelligence to do something I really couldn’t; recommend to Vice Admiral Arthur, the new Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the most combat experienced aviator in the Navy, that we discard years of training and doctrine and use completely new and untried tactics for air strikes into Iraq. Only another aviator had the credibility to get away with that one.
Providing intelligence support to plan a bombing campaign in Iraq occupied much of my time throughout the fall. Although we had significant gaps in our knowledge of Iraqi Air Defense capability we had very detailed intelligence on key part. During the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq bought a completely new Air Defense Command and Control System from France (called “KARI” — “Iraq”, in French, backwards) to replace their older Soviet designed system, although they still relied primarily on their Soviet-provided SAM systems, particularly SA-2, SA-3 and SA-6 missiles. Fortunately, the French were on our side during Desert Shield and Desert Storm; their aircraft would be flying along with ours against the very Air Defense Command and Control System that they had sold to the Iraqis. The French shared what they knew about the KARI system, which was just about everything. As a result, we had very detailed understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the KARI system, and most importantly, how to exploit the weaknesses. The KARI was a very sophisticated system, but it could be saturated and overwhelmed with the right electronic warfare and jamming tactics.
The Navy also had new weapons systems, that we didn’t have in Lebanon, such as the High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM), that could hone in on Iraqi SAM acquisition and guidance radars, effectively turning the tables on the SAM operators, since the HARM could get to the SAM radar systems before the SAM missiles could get to the target aircraft. If the Iraqis turned on their SAM radars to try to shoot U.S. aircraft, they took a great risk that they would be hit by a HARM. With the understanding of the weaknesses of the KARI system, new jamming and defensive electronic counter-measure systems, and the new suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) systems, like the HARM, we assessed it would be possible to degrade the Iraqi air defense missile network, a network that with the KARI system was even better than the Egyptian air defense system that shot down over 100 Israeli jet aircraft during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The strike planners I was supporting began to believe that we could fly jets within much of the dense Iraqi SAM coverage, with a reasonable chance of surviving.
Unfortunately, the Iraqis also had well over 5,000 anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) pieces, by far the most dense AAA coverage in the world. Although “smart” Iraqi weapons such as radar guided SAMs could be “tricked” by our jamming and electronic countermeasures, “dumb” weapons like AAA were immune. Once an AAA round was fired, nothing could keep it from going wherever it was aimed. Whether or not a plane got hit by AAA was purely a matter of altitude and probability, the more lead that was fired into the air, the more likely that a jet would fly into it and get hit. Based on my description of the Iraqi AAA threat, our strike planners soon realized that aircraft flying at low altitudes near urban areas or military targets had a very high probability of getting hit by AAA. Unfortunately, our primary tactics called for our aircraft to fly very low. The tactics had been devised during the Cold War, when the low altitude AAA threat was considered the lesser of two evils, compared to the highly lethal medium and high altitude Soviet SAM threat.
At the time of Desert Shield, SPEAR was led by Captain “Carlos” Johnson, an A-7 attack pilot with combat experience from Vietnam, and he came out to personally brief Vice Admiral Arthur and other senior Navy and Air Force leaders on his findings. I didn’t find anything especially new in the intelligence in his brief, but his conclusion was stunning, and the sound of wind whistling through teeth could be heard in the briefing room.
Captain Johnson stated that we could defeat the KARI and SAM systems with our new capabilities, but there was nothing we could do about the AAA. He recommended to Admiral Arthur that we should throw out our standard tactics and fly our strike aircraft above 15,000 – 20,000 feet, above the effective AAA altitude, but right in the heart of the SA-2/SA-3/SA-6 envelope, which he argued could be defeated by HARMs and jamming. This would have been considered suicide tactics only a year or so earlier, and now Captain Johnson was arguing that, based on the intelligence and new electronic warfare tactics, our aircraft would have a relatively “safe” sanctuary above 20,000 feet.
There were clearly a lot of aviators in the briefing room who still thought it was suicide. If I had made such a radical tactical recommendation, I would have quickly been shown the door. The discussion was heated, but Captain Johnson eventually carried the day with Admiral Arthur, and the fact he was an experienced aviator made all the difference. Then he had to convince the Carrier Group and Airwing Commanders, and hardest of all, he had to convince the U.S. Air Force and General Horner, the Joint Force Air Component Commander, who was in charge of the air and strike campaign planning. It was an uphill fight, but Captain Johnson eventually prevailed, for the most part.
On the first night of the war, one Navy airwing, the Saratoga‘s, opted to stick with the traditional low-altitude strike tactics; they flew into a buzz-saw AAA barrage at H3 airfield in western Iraq, loosing one A-6 over the target, another heavily damaged A-6 crashed in Saudi Arabia while trying vainly to get back to the carrier, and several others were shot up. Based on the post-mission pilot debriefings describing the astonishing density and intensity of the Iraqi AAA, it was a near-miracle the Saratoga Airwing’s losses weren’t worse. After that strike, Admiral Arthur issued orders taking away the option from Airwing Commanders.
It turned out that Captain Johnson was right and the new tactics worked. In my view, Captain Johnson and SPEAR, and the intelligence they used, were responsible for saving dozens if not hundreds of U.S. and Coalition pilots and aircraft that would otherwise have been shot down by Iraqi AAA. He was a real hero of Desert Storm.
Several years later, when Captain Johnson made admiral, he gave his captain’s shoulder boards and insignia to me, which I have worn with honor.
By Admiral Mark “Lobster” Fitzgerald, SPEAR Director immediately after Desert Storm
I arrived at SPEAR in September 1991 relieving CAPT Mike Carlos Johnson. SPEAR had distinguished itself during the Desert Shield/Desert Storm by delivering timely intelligence analysis to the fleet, which
enabled the coalition to dismantle the KARI Air Defense system and protect numerous aircraft and aircrew. SPEAR was the recognized Navy expert in delivering operational intel on air defense and maritime capabilities to the fleet.
As I arrived, major reorganization of Suitland, Maryland was underway. Construction had started on the new Maritime Intelligence Center building but we were still in the old center. The staff had been reorganized and now the operational branches (SPEAR, SWORD, SABER) were all aligned under one code, DI40 lead by Capt Jack Samar and his deputy, Mr Ray Elliot. The typical bureaucratic infighting was well underway to see who would be the building power brokers. SPEAR itself was insulated to some extent from the intel bureaucracy by its personnel (many provided by the fleet operators) and its ‘go to’ status among fleet users. Many great folks were assigned at this time who would go on to excel in various careers. During this period, almost all deploying Battle Groups were briefed by the SPEAR team and well as the Forward Deployed Naval Forces. These briefings were typically attended by the entire Chain of Command and were well received by all. They were an important part of the pre deployment training of the various Carrier, Amphib and other Groups who were heading in harm’s way. Production continued on Libyan and Iranian tactical and operational threat guides and a large national intelligence collaboration network which had begun during Desert Shield continued to expand during these years. I was selected for CAG and left after 13 months, totally impressed by the efforts of the SPEAR team. As I was leaving, the move to the new building started. Some of the discoveries in the nooks and cranny’s of the old building probably gave the security folks pause for alarm, but the history and knowledge stored in the many filing cabinets and other ‘storage areas’ were useful in creating this memorable team of experts.