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Wed, Apr 09, 2003

The Biggest Mission Of Their Lives

They May Have Bombed Saddam And They Didn't Even Know It

If any combat mission could be called routine, this was it. USAF Lt. Col. Fred Swan, the Wing Commander, and his pilot, Capt. Chris Wachter, were flying their B1-B Lancer in search of targets over western Iraq Monday afternoon when they got a call from their airborne controller. That's when routine went into the slipstream.

"We were actually just coming off the tanker in western Iraq and we had another target area that we were planned to go - going to, and we got re-tasked to this target. And in the time frame of 12 minutes from the time we got the coordinates, it took 12 minutes to get the bombs on target. So that's how quick the system can work," said Lt. Col. Swan, speaking from an undisclosed location during a telephone conference with reporters. Within the span of those 12 minutes, the crew of the B-1 had fed new coordinates into the weapons systems, changed course and were approaching their new target. Even then, they didn't know exactly what they were about to hit.

"We were passed a high- priority leadership target," said Capt. Wachter. "We don't really know who's going to be in there, what it's going to be. It could be a general. It could be a head of an intelligence agency. We don't really know. We don't even really know if it's a bunker or not. We just put the weapons that are requested for that target. There's targeteers who look at the building and determine the best weapon to put on the target, whether it, you know, be something where it's out in the open and it needs an impact explosion, or we need a bunker- buster that's going to get some penetration capability to get down underground before it explodes."

A New Sense Of Urgency

Swan immediately sensed the urgency of the redirected mission. "When we got the word that it was a priority leadership target, immediately or - you know, you get kind of an adrenaline rush, the crew does, but then you fall back to your original training that says, 'Hey, let's get the job done.' And we knew we had a - we had to react quickly to it," Swan said. "So there's four crewmembers on the B-1, and we all have our own separate jobs to do, but we have to work in concert, together, to make this happen. So when we get the coordinates in, in a case like this, the only way to make it work is have accurate coordinates. So we crosschecked those three different times with the airborne controller that passed them to us, and then we checked them again with the jet to make it happen."

"At the time, for me, what I was thinking was, "Well, you know, this could be the big one. Let's make sure we get it right."

I had a fairly inexperienced other WSO with me, so I was basically trying to make sure that he was doing his job right and that I was doing mine right. We got the coordinates in, assigned the weapon, turned towards the target area and go. So there wasn't a lot of time for reflection as we were doing the bomb run. It was just mainly quarterbacking the crew to make sure that we got the weapons on the target at the assigned time and to make sure that we had the coordination that we need to get into that area."

Getting There, Getting The Job Done

What went through Wachter's mind as his Lancer approached the target?

Three things, he said. "The first part, when we get the target, there's not a lot of time. They tell us it's a high priority target. And so basically, it's like you're kind of sitting around waiting for something and then you get the call, and it becomes go time really fast. The key there is not what is the target but making sure that we are 100 percent accurate with the proper weapons they have requested to put on that target and our coordinates are right. And then oh, by the way, we're going into a(n) area where we're going to get shot at, so we want to make sure that we have the ways to protect ourselves. We do have good systems on board our aircraft, but also I want to get my package together of my SEAD players, suppression of enemy air defense assets up there. I want to make sure that the airborne AWACS knows where I am and where the other players are and is able to deconflict any other aircraft that may be in the area. And then, as a final qual check, I want to make sure that I'm heading in the right area, we have our right systems on board selected. And a big part of that is just looking out the window to see if anything's coming back up at me. And so, you don't really dwell on so much what the target is or who it could be at the time."

Twelve minutes after the initial assignment, four of the Lancer's 24 GBU-31 2000 lb. "bunker buster" bombs were in the air.

"Once you release the weapons, that's a good feeling," said Wachter. "It's a good feeling to have the bombs come off the jet, because you know that you're aiding someone somewhere by striking a target. And so, that's a good feeling and it lasts for about, oh, three seconds, and then you begin your turn off target and you egress out of that threat environment and - because you want to bring your plane back home so your friends in the squadron can fly it the next day, of course."

Then They Found Out Who May Have Been At The Target Site

When Wachter's B1-B finally landed back at base, he, Lt. Col. Swan and the other two crewmembers on board finally got a sense of what they may have done. They may have killed Saddam Hussein and one or both of his sons.

"When you get back and you find out that - you know, you knew you struck your targets, but then you find out what they are, and especially something like this, it's a feather in the cap. It's a good feeling. But I want you guys to know that anyone could do this. Anyone in my squadron has this ability to go in and do this. It just so happens we were the lucky ones," said Wachter.

A short time after they returned from the mission, they had a chance to see satellite television images of the strike damage. "I think everyone's really proud. That shows a 100 percent surgical strike properly executed with the proper weapon. And we're all real proud of that, that we were able to put the bombs on target and only hit the one target we wanted to hit and do it accurately and very quickly."

Lt. Col. Fred Swan, Capt. Chris Wachter, Capt. Sloan Hollis and Lt. Joe Runci are all members of the 405th Air Expeditionary Wing, based at Ellsworth AFB (ND).



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