Who Shot Down U.S. Navy Pilot Scott Speicher?
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By Tom Cooper, War Is Boring
On the morning of Jan. 17, 1991 — the first night of Operation Desert Storm — the U.S. Navy suffered its first loss of the conflict, when Lt. Cmdr Scott Speicher was shot down in his McDonnell F/A-18C Hornet, bureau number 163484, around 100 miles west of Baghdad.
For years, it was unclear whether Speicher was dead or a prisoner of war. Politically-motivated changes in the pilot’s official status significantly contributed to the resulting controversy.
The day after the shoot-down, the military declared Speicher “killed in action.” But in fact, the Pentagon was uncertain about his fate and eventually switched his status “missing in action.”
It was only in August 2009 — 18 years later — that Navy officials confirmedthat the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology had positively identified remains it had recovered in Iraq as those of Speicher.
How Speicher was shot down remains less clear to this day. Initially, the Navy maintained that Speicher was brought down by a surface-to-air missile. Corresponding reports appeared in print media throughout the 1990s.
This piece was originally published in 2017.
This despite several pilots involved in the same mission where Speicher went down clearly recalling the appearance of an Iraqi air force MiG-25 interceptor around the time Speicher’s Hornet got hit — and despite Iraqi newspapers publishing several stories about the MiG.
In 2001, the CIA released an unclassified summary of a report attributing Speicher’s loss to an air-to-air missile fired by an Iraqi aircraft.
A cross-examination of recollections of Iraqi MiG-25 pilots and American participants and eyewitnesses reveals that the U.S. Navy easily could’ve lost three fighters that night. That this did not happen can foremost be attributed to the discipline of the Iraqi pilot in question.
Around 2:30 in the morning Baghdad time on the morning of Jan. 17, three formations of U.S. Navy fighters entered Iraqi air space on a mission to attack Tammuz, a large Iraqi air force base housing squadrons operating MiG-25s, MiG-29s and various bomber types.
The first formation consisted of 10 F/A-18C Hornets from squadrons VFA-81 and VF-83. They flew in a wide “wall” formation — essentially a long line of aircraft flying abreast, spaced out between one and five miles. Five aircraft on the left, western side of the wall were from VFA-83. The five on the right, eastern side of the wall were from VFA-81.
Their task was to sweep the skies ahead of bombers and suppress enemy air defenses.
Behind the Hornets were eight A-6E Intruders from VA-35 and VA-75, tasked with bombing Tammuz. Three EA-6B Prowlers from VAQ-130 and two pairs of F-14As from VF-32 supported the Hornets and Intruders. Because they lacked the latest electronic identification capabilities, the Tomcats stayed behind the Hornets as close escorts for the slow bombers and support aircraft.
Flying at high altitude, the American formation wasn’t hard to detect. One of four MiG-25PDs from No. 96 Squadron, standing alert at Qadessiya air base — known as Al Assad in the West — scrambled to intercept.
With Lt. Zuhair Dawoud at the controls, the big fighter turned south, climbing in full afterburner and accelerating to Mach 1.4. The Iraqi Foxbat flew almost directly toward the center of VFA-83’s phalanx. Unsurprisingly, squadron commander Cmdr. Michael Anderson detected the MiG-25 almost as soon as it took off.
Warned by his radar-warning-system, but lacking permission to open fire, Dawoud reacted by turning west and flying “around” Anderson’s Hornet in a counter-clockwise direction, still around 45 miles away.
Although identifying the Iraqi fighter ahead of him as hostile, Anderson held his fire and awaited confirmation from a U.S. Air Force E-3A Sentry early-warning plane. However, the MiG-25 was at the far edge of the Sentry’s detection range and its radar was off — thus the E-3's crew lacked the data necessary to complete the identification process.
Meanwhile, Anderson followed Dawoud into a turn until they passed each other and the Iraqi turned his afterburner off, causing the American pilot to lose sight of him. Dawoud reported what happened to his ground control. In response, the ground controllers advised him to turn around toward the east and attack another target around 20 miles away.
Following this instruction, Dawoud activated his radar, established a lock-on at 15.6 miles and fired a single R-40RD missile. He kept the target locked-on until he witnessed a huge explosion in front of him — and then saw the enemy aircraft spiraling downward, engulfed in flames.
Using the data from the digital storage unit of Speicher’s Hornet, recovered from Iraq in 1995 under auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross, U.S. Navy investigators concluded that the R-40D approached Speicher’s Hornet from the left side and detonated under the cockpit.
The explosion of the 154-pound blast-fragmentation warhead instantly slewed the aircraft 50 to 60 degrees to the right, causing a six-G side-force that sheared off the external fuel tanks and their pylons. Speicher ejected, but died later. His aircraft crashed 48 miles south of Qadessiya.
Dawoud searched for another target, as ground control advised him of an approaching second wave of American planes. Around 48 miles behind Speicher, Cmdr. Robert Besal — the skipper of VA-75 — led a string of three other Intruders.
This time, the Sentry detected the Foxbat in time and, around two minutes after Speicher went down, issued a warning about a “possible Foxbat … heading south.” Before too long, the MiG-25 came down toward Besal’s Intruder from his 1:30 high position, the Iraqi plane’s two large afterburner flames clearly visible in the night sky.
Besal’s pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Mike Steinmetz, turned hard right, forcing the Iraqi to overshoot and pass to the left of the bomb-laden Intruder — and then zoom upward.
Pitching over the Americans, Dawoud turned back toward the Intruder, screaming down from the Navy bomber’s six o’clock. He locked his radar again and activated a R-40TD head-seeking missile. However, ground control turned down his request to fire. Instead, the controller asked him to confirm the target visually.
Approaching close enough to see the lights inside the cockpit of Steinmetz and Besal’s A-6E, Dawoud repeated the identification of his slow target and again requested permission to fire. Still uncertain, the ground controller ordered him to disengage and return to base.
As he flew back to base, Dawoud expected the Americans to counterattack at any moment. He kept his eyes glued to the display of his SPO radar-warning system.
Dawoud returned to find Qadessiya air base a big mess. Three Royal Air Force Tornados bombers had strewn hundreds of mines from their JP233 containers across the runway. These damaged one of the MiG-25s that attempted to scramble after Dawoud and badly injured its pilot. Because of this, Dawoud was forced to land on the secondary runway before rolling back into the safety of his hardened aircraft shelter.
At dawn, pilots from No. 96 Squadron gathered to discuss the events of the last night over cups of tea. Dawoud’s squadron leader correctly concluded that the U.S. pilot — or crew — was unlikely to have survived because of the R-40’s hefty warhead.
Dawoud filled out his report, attached it to a corresponding report by his ground controller and both were forwarded to the Iraqi air force’s air-defense directorate for confirmation.
That’s where the Iraqi side of the controversy began. Ordered to investigate such claims vigorously, the responsible officers weren’t eager to simply accept Dawoud’s claim. During the first few days of that 1991 war, they had received dozens of similar reports and lacked the means to cross-examine all of them.
Although Dawoud provided general information about his navigation and the place where his missile scored a hit, the officials had no clear idea where to look for wreckage of the downed U.S. aircraft.
Indeed, it was only once the Iraqis captured U.S. Navy lieutenant Larry Slade, the radar-intercept officer of an F-14 Tomcat shot down over Iraq several days later, that they found out that an F/A-18C Hornet from the same aircraft carrier — USS Saratoga — was also missing, together with its pilot.
Nevertheless — and despite all the publicity Speicher’s case attracted in the United States — the Iraqi intelligence services needed almost two years to definitely confirm the identity of the missing U.S. Navy pilot, and then another two years to conclude that his loss matched Dawoud’s claim.
Even then, they did not issue an official confirmation or make this known to the air force. Nor did they recommend that Dawoud receive a decoration or promotion, as would usually be the case. It wasn’t until 1995 that the Iraqi pilot learned about the status of the investigation.
Dawoud wrote a lengthy letter to then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, explaining all the details of his mission and what he had read in American publications. That prompted Baghdad to issue an official confirmation and decorate the pilot for his achievement.
Like hundreds of other former officers and pilots of the Iraqi air force, since 2003 Dawoud has been targeted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. He was forced to leave Iraq and is currently living in exile abroad.
This article is based on research by Col. Doug Dildy (U.S. Air Force, retired) and Tom Cooper for the book F-15C Eagle vs. MiG-23/25: Iraq 1991.
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