by Kevin Shannahan
This month marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most historic, yet unheralded, missions in air force history. On the morning of January 16th, 1991 seven B-52G bombers took off from Barksdale Air Force Base for a 35.4 hour mission that took them halfway around the world in the first use of the B-52 in combat since the Vietnam War. It was also a record for longest conventional combat sortie that was to stand until a mission over Kosovo in 2003. When they returned to Barksdale, they had fired the opening shots of Desert Storm, a fact that was to remain secret for a year, and remains little known today, twenty-five years later.
The mission, nicknamed “Secret Squirrel” as the actual name of “Secret Surprise” was Top Secret was the subject of a symposium held earlier this month at LSU in Shreveport. Aircrew members who flew and planned the mission made several presentations about the historic flight and their part in it.
The bombers left Barksdale with 39 of the then top secret conventional air launched cruise missiles (CALCM), almost all of the entire inventory then in existence. Thirty-five of them were launched with ninety percent of them hitting their targets. The bombers were refueled seven times with over 200,000 pounds of fuel each time as they fought higher than expected headwinds on the way home. They had to come home. The four missiles that failed to launch were top secret. They were modified versions of nuclear armed cruise missiles and were visually indistinguishable from their nuclear tipped counterparts. With strategic arms talks with the Soviet Union at a delicate junction, the bombers could not land outside US soil. Nor were all the countries along the route members of the Desert Storm coalition. Political considerations were as much of a factor as military ones for the mission planners.
The most interesting parts of the symposium were the small details that seldom make the history books. The mission commander, Lt Col (ret) Jay Beard, spoke about removing an instructor pilot seat in the aircraft to make room for lawn chairs, a help on a 35 hour mission as were the air mattresses he ordered placed in the aircraft (although, as one of the airmen pointed out, you had the choice of your head being between the two navigator’s seats or by the latrine-B-52s don’t feature plumbing, so it was basically a bucket.) Lt Col Beard also spoke of the difficulties he faced in fulfilling two very different missions, Barksdale’s traditional nuclear alert commitment and a Top Secret mission that took a huge amount of time and resources and that only a handful of people on the base were allowed to know about. It was a delicate juggling job, to say the least.
The symposium panels also featured the other aircrew members who flew on the mission. Pilots spoke of the fatigue of hour long refueling sessions hooked to tanker aircraft as they took on massive amounts of fuel. The weapons were new and still in development, as was the GPS system we take for granted in our everyday life. There were fewer satellites then and the missiles needed to be launched from a precise spot in order to accurately hit their target. The crews had to deal with weather, complex navigational problems and last minute glitches as they arrived on station to launch their missiles.
In terms of things that don’t always make the history books, not all the panelists were quite as serious. One navigator brought down the house as he brought up the B-52’s regretful lack of plumbing. When they got the order to launch, he had time enough to either go to the bathroom or take a shower. It was an easy decision “I smelled bad the whole mission.”
The Secret Squirrel mission struck Iraqi command and control facilities. Combined with follow on strikes, it left their commanders isolated and unable to effectively respond to the coming allied attack. That attack, Desert Storm, was considerably less bloody than it could have been otherwise. The aircrews flew back to Barksdale and resumed their lives in anonymity as the mission was to remain secret for a year. It was an impressive feat of airmanship that saved an unknowable number of lives in the ground war.