“I was eating in the mess tent when those photos hit the screen … the whole tent cheered. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt anything like that.”
Those words were relayed by Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Taliaferro, Air Combat Command plans and programs deputy director, during a fond recollection of when the images showing the bomb damage from the first night of a historic operation 15 years ago that began the combat legacy of the B-1 showed for the first time on CNN.
Taliaferro, then a captain assigned at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., was among the cadre of B-1 bomber crews who – along with U.S. Navy and Royal Air Force assets – began a campaign that would grab the attention of one of the Middle East’s most notorious tyrants.
“Operation Desert Fox was a four-day military response to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein expelling United Nations weapons inspectors out of Iraq,” said Taliaferro.
ODF began just after the Muslim holiday Ramadan. Taliaferro was the 28th Operations Support Squadron wing weapons officer when the 37th Bomb Squadron and 9th BS at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, were tasked to deploy in November 1998.
“In essence, we launched an AEF (Air Expeditionary Force) of fighters and bombers to go to the Middle East,” Taliaferro said. “Then, changing political conditions led many to re-deploy home. The result was a much smaller package than originally envisioned.”
The general said the Air Force personnel conducted training missions for two weeks before being informed of an impending combat situation. Planners determined that four B-1 bombers – two from each of the deployed bomber squadrons – were required to execute the four-day operation.
Lt. Col. John Martin, currently a student attending the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., was among the B-1 aviators who took part in the mission. Then a captain assigned to the 37th BS as a defensive systems officer, he said cruise missiles were primarily used on the first and last night of the engagement, but the second and third nights brought about the operational combat debut of the B-1.
“On Dec. 18, 1998, the first B-1 dropped bombs in anger,” said Martin, “Navy strike and support assets were alongside. The third night we had B-1s and Navy assets serving alongside one another once again.”
Taliaferro explained that unlike today, there were challenges related to personnel on land being able to communicate with those at sea. Once the action began, Taliaferro said phones were the primary form of communication. In spite of those challenges, he added that the bombers and aircraft carriers are well suited to work together.
“It’s a very healthy pairing,” Taliaferro said. “They (aircraft carriers) provide a lot of support we need to penetrate enemy areas. I worked with the flight lead of the carrier over the phone to plan the mission together. A Navy F-18 pilot was the mission commander of the entire package of airplanes flying together.”
Martin explained that the B-1 was the perfect fit for the mission.
“Distance-wise, we were moderately removed from the fight and were therefore able to demonstrate our worth as a long range strike platform,” Martin said. “We were the primary Air Force platform in the area of responsibility with the perfect balance of range, flexibility and firepower for the mission.”
The bombing campaign as part of ODF resulted in significant destruction of Iraqi military infrastructure and degradation of their missile development program.
Looking back, Martin recalled seeing with his peripheral vision what he initially assumed was fireworks, only to realize it was in fact anti-aircraft artillery fire.
“It was a surreal moment,” Martin explained. “At the time, it was tough to grasp the importance of the mission. We just cranked the jets, blasted off, bared our fangs and put steel on target like we had trained to do so many times while at Ellsworth.”
Col. Kevin Kennedy, 28th Bomb Wing commander, said ODF was the start of an amazing combat record for the B-1 and helped secure its role as a critical asset for deterrence and combat operations across the globe.
“Operation Desert Fox was a coming of age for the B-1,” Kennedy said. “It showed that the B-1 had made the transition from a Cold War bomber sitting alert to a lethal strike aircraft ready to execute conventional operations – whenever and wherever needed.”
Kennedy added that the many operations that followed ODF – Allied Force, Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, and Odyssey Dawn – have only solidified the bomber’s role in current and future joint operations.
“The foundation that the airmen from Ellsworth and Dyess built during Desert Fox has served us well,” Kennedy said. “From that night, Airmen have generated and employed the B-1 on more than 11,000 combat missions. The airmen that launch and fly combat operations in the skies of Afghanistan today have the same dedication and warrior spirit that made Desert Fox a reality.”
A major lesson learned from the two B-1 units time together was the realization that Ellsworth and Dyess had independent employment standards, according to Martin.
“ODF allowed us to develop community B-1 employment standards,” said Martin. “Those standards continue to be maintained and developed at the community level today to enhance inter-operation between our bases. This facilitates solid transition between downrange B-1 units currently supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.”
Taliaferro was quick to note that while the B-1 aviators were recognized for the success of the campaign, every airman deployed in support of the operation played a vital role.
“All 700 airmen deployed in support of Desert Fox contributed directly to those historic B-1 missions,” Taliaferro noted. “Maintainers, medics, services providers, defenders, munitions builders and loaders – each and every one of those airmen were responsible for putting those bombs on target.”
Martin said he is proud to have been a part of ODF, adding that he is grateful for the support he and his fellow aviators received from the Airmen who assisted with ODF.
“This operation set the bar high for all future B-1 combat operations,” Martin said. “Truly, it was just fantastic to be part of the experience. I’ll always remember it fondly.”