Scud Hunting with Delta Force and the Special Air Service (1991)

During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Saddam Hussein launched approximately 350 ballistic missiles against Iran. These attacks included a large number of R-17 single-stage missiles from a stockpile of 650 purchased from the Soviet Union. The R-17, as originally designed, had a maximum range of 300 km and was capable of carrying either a 2,000 lb. conventional or 100 kiloton nuclear warhead. In time, however, Iraqi engineers were ordered to develop a weapon capable of striking deeper into Iranian territory. To this end, designers made use of cannibalized parts from other R-17s to create three longer range hybrids unique to the Iraqi military: a long-range Scud (unnamed), the al-Hussein (600-650 km) and the al-Abbas (750-900 km). Most alterations were made via a reduction in warhead weight and a corresponding increase in fuel load. Saddam also managed to acquire 36 mobile launch vehicles based on the MAZ543 (8×8) wheeled chassis, originally developed in 1965 for the Soviet Army. The TELs as designed had a road range of 550 km, a top road speed of 70 km/hr, and vehicle cab air filtration for use in an NBC environment. Of these, only the Al-Abbas could not be fired from a mobile launcher. However, these successive Iraqi modifications, while providing greater range, dramatically reduced both the structural integrity of the missile and its notoriously poor accuracy (1 km CEP).

delta-scud-hunting
Gen. Schwarzkopf meets with Delta Force following the 1991 Gulf War.

Despite these major drawbacks, it did serve one purpose particularly well: when fired in any number against densely populated urban areas, the Scud was an effective terror weapon. This secondary use was not lost on Hussein. On 18 January, seven Scuds struck Haifa and Tel Aviv, destroying 1,587 apartments and causing nearly fifty civilian casualties. Similar attacks followed in the next few days. These terror attacks caused the desired response. Israel immediately sortied aircraft ready to strike Iraqi targets. Later, they launched a nuclear-capable missile into the Mediterranean Sea to clearly demonstrate to Iraq one of the possible responses to further Scud attacks. Only quick intervention by senior U.S. politicians and the immediate dispatch of Patriot missile batteries to Tel Aviv averted a catastrophe. Hussein’s intent was clear: to divide the Coalition by prompting Israel to attack and thus become an active participant in the war. There seemed little doubt that at the very least, this action would cause Syria, Egypt and others to abandon the Coalition. At worst, Arab nations might side with Iraq and prompt an all-out Middle East war. For this reason, destruction of Scuds became the overwhelming priority for Allied war planners.

The primary focus of counterforce planning at the hme with regard to the Iraqi Scud threat revolved around the location and destruction of fixed launch sites. By August 1990, the Department of Defense had located five such sites with 28 launchers. TR-1 / U-2R reconnaissance, E-8 JSTARS radar ground surveillance aircraft, and DSP early-warning satellite imagery quickly located fixed sites, however these tools proved insufficient in monitoring the transient mobile Scud launchers. Thus, the decision was made to send special operations forces to hunt the Scuds on the ground. The U.S. Army’s Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (SFOD-D), better known as Delta Force, and the British Special Air Service (SAS) were selected to perform what would become one of the largest counterterrorist operations in history.

The senior British officer in the Gulf, Lieutenant General Sir Peter de la Billiere, was the first to convince U.S. General Norman Schwarzkopf, a skeptic of the use of special operations forces, that SAS teams could be inserted behind enemy lines to conduct effective harassment and sabotage missions against the enemy. To the surprise of some, this suggestion was approved and two ‘Sabre’ squadrons (one half of the Regiment’s fighting manpower) were deployed and began operations on 20 January 1991. On 24 January, however, the mission was changed to focus on Scud-hunting in western Iraq. The British teams were assigned a vast expanse near the H-2 airfield, from south of Highway 10 to the Saudi Arabian border. known as “Scud Alley”.

One squadron from Delta arrived in Saudi Arabia by early February 1991 as part of the Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF). Following a period of concentrated planning, teams infiltrated western Iraq by a variety of methods, often working with the pilots and crews of MH-60 Black Hawks and MH-47E Chinooks from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) based in Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. (Heavily armed aircraft from this unit also conducted independent direct action missions against Iraqi radar sites, convoys, and other targets.) The U.S. element was assigned as its hunting ground the area northwest of Highway 10 near Al Qaim, known as “Scud Boulevard”.

The primary mission for both SAS and Delta was to locate and designate targets for destruction by Coalition warplanes. To this end, most teams traveled at night, while hiding out during the day. In periods of darkness or for targets obscured by camouflage, the roving teams carried laser target designators (LTD). Using these, an attacking aircraft could employ laser-guided bombs or missiles riding the beam emitted by the LTD. Those targets that were caught out in the open during daylight hours were targeted visually by the operators on the ground who then directed in aircraft armed with unguided bombs and other munitions. The hunters were able to provide information on enemy vehicle movements, however by the time this intelligence was incorporated into the target package oftentimes the mobile launchers had left their hiding place and moved to another location.

In addition to their targeting duties, Delta undertook other direct action missions against the Scuds. These included using long-range, .50-caliber sniper rifles to disable and destroy missiles both in rearming farms and those mounted on their TELs. Other interdictions reportedly involved eliminating Scud crews as well as the use of AT4 anti-tank missiles on larger targets. One of the more interesting elements of the operation was the group based at the outpostof Al Jouf, approximately 150 miles south ofthe Iraqi border. This was a truly ‘joint’ team made up of SAS personnel, along with USAF A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft and AFSOC MH-53J Pave Lows. These British teams soon developed a close relationship with the USAF crews as the Pave Lows provided insertion and the ‘Warthogs’ were often the first aircraft to respond to reports of TEL sightings. It should be mentioned that other SAS units were also transported in their own version of the Chinook, flown by its own helicopter squadron (based in Hereford) or Royal Air Force (RAF) crews. One 30-man SAS team, reportedly deployed from Al Jouf, successfully assaulted a Scud command-and-control center, despite the presence of an estimated 300 Iraqi military personnel.

Delta and SAS adapted to the harsh terrain by making effective use of light vehicles during their operations instead of patrolling on foot. Delta operated the Fast Attack Vehicle (FAV) while the SAS drove two versions, the Longline Light Strike Vehicle (LSV) and an updated version of the long-lived “Pink Panther” Land Rover. Both vehicles were designed to carry heavy loads, including two or three fully-equipped soldiers, food, water, ammunition, extra fuel and a wide variety of weapons (up to six Milan or TOW anti-tank missiles, and a mount for a 40mm grenade launcher, 30mm cannon or .50 caliber heavy machine gun). One persistent but unverified report from the Gulf War recounted that a single LSV carried 12 SAS troopers and their gear during one such operation.

It was not long, however, before a major shortcoming in the Scud hunt operations became apparent. Upon sighting a viable target, the troopers had to communicate the intelligence over the emergency “guard” frequency. Response times averaged an unacceptably high sixty (60) minutes, during which some targets were able to escape unharmed. The C3I system that had proven so effective for the advance planning of conventional airstrikes proved insufficient for incorporating real-time intelligence being sent back by the troopers. In order to facilitate communications between the ground teams and Coalition air power, the SAS requested and was approved the posting of liaison officers to the Tactical Air Control Center (TACC) in Riyadh. As a result, improvements were made which permitted more direct communication. This was further enhanced by the practice of keeping ground attack aircraft constantly in the air, ready to respond immediately when a suitable target was located. Coalition aircraft were also warned of the presence of special forces operating in western Iraq, in an effort to prevent any “friendly fire” casualties.

These missions were not without loss to the hunters. At approximately 0300 on 21 February, four pilots and crew from the 160th SOAR and three Delta operators were killed when an MH60 helicopter crashed into a sand dune during zero-visibility weather conditions near the Ar Ar airfield. The ground team was reportedly conducting counterforce operations when one of the team was injured in a fall from a cliff and required medevac, to which the 160th responded. Similarly, one eight-man SAS team was compromised while on a reconnaissance mission. Four of these troopers died during escape-and-evasion after they were engaged by subsequent Iraqi patrols. Commandos from both groups were injured in firefights with Iraqi forces on a number of occasions in addition to casualties from exposure to unexpectedly cold nighttime weather.

The effect of the overall ground-based ‘Scud Hunt’ from a military perspective is skill a matter of speculation. There is no question that Coalition aircraft attacked a number of decoys and other targets that only after-action analysis revealed were not Scud-carrying TELs. One graphic incident occurred at a press briefing during the war in which General Schwarzkopf claimed video footage being displayed showed Scud launchers being destroyed when in fact later analysis indicates it was instead a group of fuel tanker trucks. At the end of the war UNSCOM found 62 complete al-Hussein missiles, six MAZ-543 TELs and four other TELs, along with parts of 88 other missiles and nine TELs. The Iraqis were also suspected of hiding other missiles from the UN inspection teams. 14 of 28 fixed sites were also destroyed. From a political perspective, however, the hunt was an unqualified success and may have provided one of the single greatest, and least known, contributions to the victory of Coalition forces in the Gulf.

(Authored by Thomas Hunter)

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  1. Good read. I was a medic with the 3rd AD during Desert Storm at MGM Grand in Saudi Arabia during this period, and have very vivid memories of sitting there waiting to do die during the various Scud attacks. Years later I read, "Bravo Two Zero" by SAS Sergeant Randy McNab which tells the story of his eight man hunting team. Nice to know that you guys were destroying as many Scuds as you were.

    Just want to say thanks to you Operators for the above, and another mission you took on during OIF when I was with the 4th ID in September 2003 outside FOB Speicher, 10 clicks north of Tikrit Iraq. That one involved a village mayor, his wife and duaghter who were being threatened by Sadamn Fedahyine (spelling?). So yes, thanks for hunting down and destroying those bad guys too!

    -Doc

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