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Desert Storm: 2nd Bomb Wing leads the air war

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. (AFNS) -- In the early morning of Jan. 16, 1991, the 2nd Bomb Wing deployed seven B-52G Stratofortresses and crews to Iraq in a single, secret mission that would mark the beginning of Operation Desert Storm.

This opening salvo, launched by the 596th Bomb Squadron, paved the way for American forces to defeat Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whose troops had invaded neighboring Kuwait. Strategic Air Command called the classified 35-hour mission Operation Senior Surprise, known as “Secret Squirrel” to the operators who would fly the mission. The bombers traveled more than 14,000 nautical miles nonstop and was the longest combat mission in history at the time.

Twenty-five years later, many of the “Secret Squirrel” aircrews continue to serve the 2nd BW.

"The 2nd BW's warrior Airmen who delivered the opening punch of the first Gulf War stand tall in our unit's storied history," said Col. Kristin Goodwin, the 2nd BW commander. "While technology and tactics evolve over time, the bravery, determination and skill demonstrated during that mission are timeless and continues to inspire everyone who wears our wing patch."

Col. Trey Morriss, the 307th Bomb Wing vice commander, was a new captain when he served as a B-52G electronic warfare officer during the “Secret Squirrel” mission.

“The ‘Secret Squirrel’ mission was used to blind Iraq by eliminating certain power and communication nodes throughout the country. This severely hampered their response in the initial phase of the war,” Morriss said. “We proved to U.S. citizens, our allies, coalition partners, and even to our enemies that we will do what we say we’re going to do. In doing so, we solidified the B-52 in the realm of long-range strike capability.”

During Desert Storm, the 2nd BW employed a new weapon against Iraq: the AGM-86C, Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missile. This marked the first time GPS had ever been used to guide a missile toward a target. On Jan. 17, 1991, the B-52 crews launched 35 CALCMs, rendering Saddam’s forces and striking key points of communication infrastructure.

“The B-52 provides a great first-strike capability in any conventional war,” Morriss said. “It gives us the ability to degrade the enemy with the first attack and press in with other capabilities. We also proved to the world that we were on the threshold of a new type of modern warfare with GPS-guided weapons. The results speak for themselves.”

One “Secret Squirrel” copilot, Russell Mathers, faced unpredictable risks when flying to the Middle East, but maintained confidence in his training. Those risks included potential enemy action, landing into friendly territory that may not have been prepared to accommodate U.S. military aircraft or any number of system failures within the aircraft.

“The risks were the unknown,” Mathers said. “We didn’t know if anyone was going to take a shot at us.”

After Desert Storm, SAC learned valuable lessons about long-range combat missions, according to Mathers.

“What we learned as a bomber community is that the bomber is still a huge viable weapons system. We also learned how difficult it is physiologically, to fly these missions and prepare the human body to fly 30 or 40 hour missions,” said Mathers.

Once “Secret Squirrel” kicked off Desert Storm operations, the B-52 continued playing a critical role throughout the campaign. Nearly 70 B-52G crews flew 1,741 missions totaling 15,269 combat hours during which 27,000 tons of munitions were dropped.

Jim Bowles, an Air Force Global Strike Command program analyst, served as a B-52 instructor pilot and aircraft commander during Desert Storm. Bowles said he was fortunate to fly with a copilot, radar navigator electronic warfare officer, and gunner, all of whom were instructors in their respective duties.

“We knew our aircraft, and we knew our training. While there was some apprehension about going into combat and the potential for not coming home, there was also a confidence because we knew we could do our mission. When I look back on Desert Storm, it feels like yesterday. It’s a memory deep within myself and my family. It’s a defining moment that shaped me for the rest of my Air Force career.”

For Bowles, mission success during Desert Storm isn’t only a victory for “Secret Squirrel” aircrews, but for the Airmen and their families who provided critical support at home while combat continued overseas.

“When those bomber crews go off to do their mission, they need the support of every Airman behind them making sure they can get their job done,” he said. “Without the support of the Airmen and their families, it’s a lot more difficult when conducting your mission downrange.”