Here is my standalone guide and commentary on how to spot a Wild Weasel aircraft. This guide is simple yet comprehensive and will cover how to identify a Wild Weasel apart from a common fighter aircraft. We will also take a look at SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) aircraft, which do the same thing.
What is a Wild Weasel?
The term Wild Weasel refers to aircraft that perform what is now known as Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, specifically sniffing out and destroying Surface to Air Missiles. Wild Weasel mostly refers to aircraft of this role in the Vietnam Era and up to Desert Storm, but has become an unofficial title for modern aircraft of the same role.
The term Wild Weasel was created in the Vietnam War as the Soviets began circulating the S-75 Dvina (NATO callsign SA-2 Guideline) Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM for short) among it’s satellite states. This missile was designed to kill heavy bombers but what was revolutionary about it was the fact that it was radar guided and pretty accurate, as well as being a high explosive missile the size of a telephone pole. The real danger is their mobility- able to be deployed almost anywhere and operated with relative ease- and the ability to conceal their position until the missile was well on it’s way. These missiles could hide, track, and kill practically any unsuspecting aircraft with little to no warning, and kill they did.
(Illustration of an SA-2 site in Southeast Asia)
(photo of an F-105 hit by an SA-2 over North Vietnam)
After a few American planes were shot down and the lethality of these weapons in the hands of the Vietnamese became apparent and conventional attempts at destroying SA-2 sites proved ineffective, the USAF created an experimental program called Wild Weasel, which would equip fighter aircraft with the means to detect and destroy these missiles by tracking their radar signal, kind of like a game of flashlight tag, only at Mach 1.
General Wild Weasel tactics split a unit into two components, a “decoy,” and a “striker.” The decoy would fly ahead, spot the missiles, and distract them while the striker would swoop in and destroy the site. Decoys are almost always the dedicated Wild Weasel airframe, while strikers can be conventional aircraft, although a two plane team of both Wild Weasel aircraft has proven to be just as if not more effective, as the two can interchange on the fly.
It was a dangerous task- among the most dangerous missions any airmen would undertake in Southeast Asia, but the program would see success, and the tools and methods pioneered over the jungles of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos continue today in SEAD. Numerous technologies in electronic warfare, ordnance, and air combat techniques were created by Wild Weasel and translate across the board to today’s aerial battlefield.
In layman’s terms, a Wild Weasel aircraft hunts missiles on their own turf and has several characteristics unique to it’s field that other aircraft generally don’t possess all at once; a Weasel must be agile like a fighter, have a good sense of “smell” like an electronic warfare aircraft, and the firepower of a ground attack aircraft, all in one airframe.
How to Spot a Wild Weasel
There are a few things to look for on a Wild Weasel that can easily be noticed.
1) Two Seats:
A Wild Weasel aircraft generally has two crewmen: a pilot and an EWO (Electronic Warfare Officer). The idea is that the pilot does the flying and shooting from a background of air combat, and the EWO operates the radar and detection equipment from the background of Electronic Warfare (EWO’s like Jack Donovan were taken from duty on B-52′s and the like, and often were uncomfortable in the back seat of fighter jocks like Al Lamb, although teamwork often remedied this). Therefore a Wild Weasel aircraft should be a two seat variant of a single seat fighter.
*Note that some Wild Weasels and modern SEAD aircraft may not follow this rule; for example the modern F-16 Wild Weasel is a single seat aircraft, as modern doctrine dictates that the pilot multitask to avoid critical delays inherent to working with another crewman (kind of like how it’s sometimes easier to do a group project by yourself than with another person), although this may double the pilot’s load. Some aircraft like the EA-6B Prowler however still have multiple crewmen. This rule is a safer bet for Vietnam Era airframes like the F-105F/G.
(F-105F/G, noting the “pit” that houses the EWO)
2) Anti Radiation Missiles:
Using specialized equipment to detect a SAM site is less than half the battle; a Wild Weasel must be able to kill the site. In this vein, development went into making a weapon that functions like the opposite of a SAM; it uses the SAM’s radar signal and flies towards the site to kill a static missile site. The first of these is the AGM-45 Shrike, a repurposed Air-to-Air missile that could track a radiation source, adapted for Air-to-Ground duty. It was finicky, undersized, and had shorter range than the SA-2, but could hit a SAM site better than conventional rocket and bomb attacks could and helped Weasel pilots shoot what they sniffed out.
(Same photo as above, but pointing out the Shrike missile on the outboard hardpoint)
Another Anti Radiation missile used in Southeast Asia was the AGM-78 ARM, which improves upon some of the limitations of the Shrike. This is a bigger missile that can pack more of a punch than the Shrike, although the per weapon cost was greater than the Shrike.
(F-105 Wild Weasel with both a Shrike and ARM missile, the latter being shown by the arrow)
Modern Anti Radiation missiles include the AGM-88 HARM, which improves on the Shrike in just about every respect; it’s big enough to pack a punch against ground targets, and is much more reliable in tracking the target. These are employed today on modern jets.
(AGM-88 HARM missile on a Navy jet, presumably an EA-18 Growler, the Navy’s electronic warfare variant of the Super Hornet)
*This rule is not a strict requirement of Wild Weasel and SEAD aircraft. Early Weasels did not have Anti Radiation Missiles to use and had to rely on old fashioned rockets, bombs, and cannons to destroy SAM sites. After introduction, however, these planes rarely flew without them.
3) Electronic Countermeasures:
The Wild Weasel program ran in conjunction with Operation Iron Hand, the joint Air Force/Navy operation to eliminate Anti Air defenses in the Southeast Asian theatre, which meant there was some overlap in roles and technologies.
The Navy, in the pursuit of hunting AA defenses, saw that chaff (deploying metallic debris behind the aircraft to create a false radar signature against radar guided missiles) wasn’t enough to stop SAM’s from killing their targets; the SA-2 would calculate the last known trajectory and simply airburst at the point of intersect, still killing the target. The Navy then decided to try another approach: jamming the missile directly.
This lead to the creation of an Electronic Countermeasures pod, a device that would fit onto a standard aircraft hardpoint like a missile would, and could be activated to put out a radar signal that would confuse the missile’s tracking, making it appear at a different spot or disappear altogether. This device changed the Electronic Warfare landscape and gave pilots a real shot at evading missiles that may be fired at them. This technology could also be installed permanently into the aircraft as an integral system, as is done on some modern aircraft like the F-15.
(F-4G Phantom II Wild Weasel with full Weasel loadout, including ECM pod)
*Note that sometimes this system is integral or not present on the aircraft as mentioned above. This means it may not be readily apparent that the aircraft has ECM. The F-105 Weasels didn’t have ECM, as they were employed as bait and ECM was seen as a detriment to drawing the missiles into giving away the site’s position.
4) Identification Markings
This method of spotting is harder to look for but is a surefire method of telling apart a Weasel from an ordinary aircraft, and that is the markings of the aircraft. Wild Weasels in the 35th and 37th Tactical Fighter Wings, the main units for Wild Weasel and SEAD missions in the USAF, are given the tail code WW, as has been used in Vietnam. The first Wild Weasel squadron was the 354th Wing, and many followed with specific tail codes to look for. Knowledge of specific units is critical here, but seeing a WW code is easy to spot.
(35th TFW F-16′s out of Misawa, note the WW tail codes and full SEAD loadout)
Other identifying markings on a Wild Weasel is the image of a Weasel and/or the acronym “YGBSM” (You Gotta Be Shitting Me, uttered by Jack Donovan and the motto of the Wild Weasel program). This motto is present on Wild Weasel patches and may be on the plane as well, although this isn’t consistent.
(This F-16 tail design from the 20 FW flagship F-16 #92-9320 is a good example of Wild Weasel markings without the WW tail code)
(A vintage Wild Weasel patch featuring the namesake and motto)
*Note that this rule is my personal final factor in determining whether the aircraft in question is indeed a Wild Weasel. If the plane possesses neither the markings nor the physical traits of a Weasel, it is indeed not a Weasel.
5) Airframes to Look For:
Wild Weasels have taken many forms over the years. While the mission evolved during the course of the Vietnam War and after, so did the requirements of the airframes, and naturally these have changed numerous times. Knowing which planes were used as Weasels and which weren’t is critical to identification.
In Vietnam, the first Weasels were the F-100 Super Sabre, which proved to be ill suited for the task and had a high loss rate. This mission passed into the use of the F-105 Thunderchief, a much bigger and heavier aircraft but possessed the carrying capacity and speed necessary for the role. Attempts were made to use the F-4 Phantom II during the War, and through much trial and error these efforts eventually succeeded when the Thunderchief was put out of production, and this was used through the end of the War until the introduction of the F-16. The Navy put the A-4 Skyhawk to use as a Weasel in parallel with the Air Force’s Weasels.
(F-100F on the tarmac)
(Model of an Iron Hand A-4 Skyhawk, note the Shrike missile. This is not technically a Wild Weasel but performed as the Navy’s equivalent.)
The SEAD role is now passed to the F-16 Falcon, although some might argue that the Falcon doesn’t qualify as a true Wild Weasel, the argument being that the last aircraft specifically outfitted for Weasel duty was the F-4G, with the Falcon pulling duty due to it’s multirole nature. Nearly every former Wild Weasel unit operate the F-16, the rest being disbanded or repurposed, however.
The modern term of SEAD is applied to what was formerly Wild Weasel. The nature of the modern battlefield means that what in the past had to be specially made into the airframes is now either standard with most fighters or is a modular system that can be put onto hardpoints. This is a good thing, as now the Navy can put the same equipment on an EA-18 Growler or F-18E Super Hornet that can be put on an F-16 or F-15E in the Air Force, which means saving money and time.
What does this mean? This means an EA-18, normally a general electronic warfare jet, can be loaded with HARM’s, deploy off a supercarrier, and perfrom SEAD/DEAD (Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses) without being a permanent SEAD/DEAD aircraft. Similarly, the F-15E Strike Eagle, with it’s integral ECM, can be loaded to perform SEAD/DEAD in a pinch very similarly to how older Weasels have done before.
And there you have it folks! I hope you’ve learned something and enjoyed the read. The Wild Weasel program and missions are a very interesting topic to examine in depth.
While I am not able to give you more info on this right here, I can absolutely recommend checking out The Hunter Killers by Lt. Col (Ret.) Dan Hampton. Dan provides his own perspective on the story of the Weasels (as a former F-16 SEAD pilot and Air Force instructor himself), as well as providing first hand accounts of the pilots and EWO’s who flew in Southeast Asia and an in depth look at the political, technical, and strategic situation regarding the Weasels in Vietnam. I couldn’t recommend reading it any more than this; download/buy it and strap in for a ride.
(Cover of The Hunter Killers, featuring a Weasel crew and their Thunderchief)