SALON DU BOURGET, France — Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons are no strangers to combat, having conducted, as of last year, well over half of all coalition sorties against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
But just a few of the aircraft — three squadrons’ worth, to be precise, carry an additional mission: hunt and destroy surface-to-air missile sites, tracking them via their radiation signature and even using the aircraft as nimble bait.
The mission, known as the “Wild Weasels,” dates back to Vietnam, said Capt. “Battle Ship,” a pilot with the 480th Fighter Squadron out of Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, who asked to be identified by his call sign.
The first Wild Weasel missions were carried out by F-105F Thunderchiefs and later F-4 Phantoms. The riskiness of the job is illustrated in a vintage unit patch, which depicts an anxious-looking cartoon weasel and the letters, “YGBSM,” short for “You Gotta Be “S******g Me.”
“The F-4 would go out with the intent, a kind of hunter-killer role. They would go out, they would find the [surface-to-air missiles] being lit up, they would detect the radiation in the SAM … locate the launch location, evade the missile, and they would destroy the site,” Battle said. ” … So you’re essentially the bait. When they said you’re the wild weasel, it goes back to a hunting term. Hunting weasels go down a hole and pull out the bigger prey.”
While a successful technique, it also cost the lives of many pilots, he said.
As F-4s transitioned out of the force, F-16s took on the mission, which remains active today, albeit with improved equipment and a broader name: suppression of enemy air defenses, or SEAD.
Battle gave tours of the F-16 this week at the Paris Air Show, a short 25-minute flight away from home for the jet.
The circa-1991 jet he showed off is an F-16CJ Block 50, equipped to launch the AGM-88 high-speed anti-radiation missile, or HARM, and AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missile.
The aircraft is also equipped with an AN/ASQ-213 HARM Targeting System pod. The AGM-88 and the HTS pod are atypical equipment for the F-16, Battle said, and assist the aircraft when called upon to target and take out missile and radar sites.
“We have a better sensor so we can detect threats better and more efficiently, and we’re still out there doing the same mission. We are suppressing enemy air defenses,” he said. “So capability-wise, we have the HARM, we have a full complement of bombs and weapons that are actually very effective.”
The Wild Weasel mission today is relevant in Syria, which has a robust integrated air defense system, or IADS, and where the U.S. routinely flies airstrikes on targets.
“Syria is a situation we’re involved in and, with jets out there, you want to be understanding, studying, aware of threats and realizing how lethal they can be,” Battle said.
“When you have Wild Weasels out in theater, they may not necessarily be shooting … and going to war with those systems, but we’re providing battlefield intelligence, [situational awareness], and protecting other assets and capabilities,” he said. “So it’s a full-spectrum Wild Weasel mission.”