Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses
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Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD), also known as "Wild Weasel" and "Iron Hand" operations in the United States, are military actions to suppress enemy surface-based air defenses (Surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA)), primarily in the first hours of an attack.
One quarter of American combat sorties in recent conflicts have been SEAD missions.
The weapons most often associated with this mission are anti-radiation missiles (ARMs) such as the American AGM-88 HARM and British ALARM. Weapons used for SEAD missions can be anything which damages or destroys a component of an air defense system. A Paveway LGB, for example, is not a SEAD-specific munition but, when used to destroy a radar antenna, it achieves the objective of Suppression of Enemy Air Defense.
Possibly the most effective type of unguided ("dumb") weapon used during SEAD strikes are cluster bombs, because many SAM sites are dispersed over a fairly wide area, in order to increase the difficulty of inflicting serious damage on the battery, and the relative "softness" of the targets (missile launchers, exposed radars, etc.). The Mk-20 Rockeye II anti-armor cluster munition and the CBU-87 general-purpose cluster munition are often used against these fixed-location SAM sites, often for "clean-up" of a site whose radar or C&C facilities are first destroyed by a longer-range ARM or AGM. The relatively new American AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon is a valuable SEAD weapon due to its fairly long standoff range which allows the launching aircraft to avoid being threatened by all but the longest-range missiles, and its relatively large area of destruction against soft targets.
Artillery is also used to conduct SEAD missions. The earliest uses of artillery to neutralize enemy air defenses took place during World War II, with the British Army the first to develop what became known as counter-flak or "Apple Pie" missions. The largest SEAD operation in history was undertaken by the British XII Corps on March 24 1945 in support of Operation Varsity: twenty-four thousand rounds were fired over the course of twenty-two minutes in a largely unsuccessful attempt to knock out the German air defense network. After World War II the combined arms nature of warfare meant an increased role in ground forces performing SEAD missions in support of air operations. During the Cold War the American military developed a joint definition of SEAD responsibilities, with the Army responsible for all SEAD missions within the range of observable fire and the Air Force for all missions further away. The Soviet Union placed less emphasis on using artillery to conduct SEAD missions, although where possible artillery would be used to clear a path for attack helicopters. Because of their superior range rocket artillery such as MLRS are the ideal weapon for conducting SEAD operations.
In U.S. service during the Vietnam war, SEAD missions were carried out by dedicated variants of tactical fighters such as the F-105G Thunderchief and F-4G Phantom II. These aircraft were nicknamed "Wild Weasels", and often used themselves as bait for enemy defenses. On the other hand, the Soviets preferred to use modified stand-off interceptors such as the Mikoyan MiG-25BM and missile-armed bombers such as the Tupolev Tu-22M to destroy targets from a distance rather than up-close.
Currently the main United States Air Force (USAF) SEAD aircraft is the F-16 Fighting Falcon, a multirole aircraft configurable for a variety of ground strike missions including SEAD. The Air Force and Navy's emphasis in recent decades on multirole aircraft over dedicated single-role designs has largely made specified SEAD variants obsolete; virtually any aircraft in the U.S. arsenal designed to carry air-to-ground ordnance can, if needed, be configured for SEAD and be highly effective in that profile. The F/A-18 Super Hornet navy multirole fighter, F-15E Strike Eagle medium strike fighter, AV-8B Harrier marine strike fighter and A-10 Thunderbolt II close air support aircraft are common secondary choices for SEAD missions depending on availability and mission requirements. The advent of 5th-generation fighters has seen somewhat of a return to dedicated role aircraft; while the F-22 Raptor is capable of carrying ground ordinance, the aircraft's primary mission is air superiority unlike the more balanced profile of the F-16 and F/A-18. The upcoming F-35 Lightning II is intended to fulfill the ground strike mission profiles of most current multirole and strike fighter aircraft.
In European NATO air forces, the SEAD mission falls mostly to Royal Air Force Tornado GR4s, Luftwaffe Tornado Electronic Combat and Reconnaissance variant (ECR), and Aeronautica Militare (AMI) Tornado ECRs. The RAF Tornados rely on the aforementioned ALARM missile and the Italian/German Tornado ECRs employ the AGM-88 HARM missile. The Tornado ECR was designed from the outset as a SEAD platform and is unique in the European NATO air order of battle. Although several European NATO aircraft can carry SEAD weapons, few were designed for, or are specifically tasked with, the dangerous SEAD mission. All modern SEAD aircraft are modified to equip some level of electronic jamming equipment to make the job easier on the pilot.
- Boeing EA-18G Growler
- Fairchild-Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II
- Lockheed Martin F-16CJ Fighting Falcon
- Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler
- Panavia Tornado ECR
- Shenyang J-8G
- Sukhoi Su-24MP
- Xian JH-7A
- CRS Report for Congress Military Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD): Assessing Future Needs by Christopher Bolkcom, 2005, page 5
- Bailey, Johnathan B. A., Field Artillery and Firepower, Naval Institute Press, 2004, p.76
- Bailey, p.77-78
- Vectorsite Sukhoi Su-17 History
|Wikisource has several original texts related to: Audio recordings and transcripts with comments of actual Wild Weasel combat missions over Vietnam.|