The missile warning lit up again. Jake checked the strobe indicator on the missile detection gear, which told him the radar was at five o’clock. He swung hard, maintaining his altitude, and searched the blackness. Two missiles were in flight, and a third lifted off as he watched. The missile light flashed and the aural warning wailed. “Three SAMs up,” Grafton said. A grunt was the only reply.
The pilot held the turn until the missiles were inbound at one o’clock, still low but climbing. On the ground a fourth missile ignited and raced skyward. “Four up,” Jake said to Cole.
The bombardier straightened and looked around. “Point the plane at the radar and gimme fifteen degrees nose up,” Cole said. As the pilot complied, the missiles disappeared from their view, hidden by the nose of the plane. “Hold it,” said Cole.
“Shoot!” Cole said, and the pilot squeezed the trigger wth his finger and pushed the pickle button with his thumb. . .and an age later the white-hot fireball illuminated under the right wing with a “whoosh.”
“More behind us,” Cole said. Jake dropped the left wing and clawed the plane around. He checked the indicator. The radar they had fired at hd finally ceased transmitting, but another radar behind them was now guiding missiles.
– Flight of the Intruder, Stephen Coontz
In 1968 the airspace over North Vietnam was rapidly becoming one of the most challenging in the world. The air defenses around the capitol, Hanoi, and major cities and facilities, like the port at Haiphong, ranked up with those around Moscow, with the exception of the nuclear tipped missiles. In some respects it was even tougher – in that the operators of those defenses were becoming battle-tested veterans and had developed tactics, training and procedures to thwart the US air forces’ countermeasures.
On the part of the US, those countermeasures included aircraft accompanying strike groups whose mission was dedicated to electronic countermeasures. Since the first strikes back in 1965, EKA-3Bs and EF-10Bs (the re-designated F3D) jammed radars ad communication nets while A-4 Skyhawk’s carrying the AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missiles would engage in a deadly duel with the radar sites, using the missiles which guided on the fire-control radar’s signal, to shutdown the site. This mission was given the nickname “Iron Hand.”
Combat is a dynamic environment – the ultimate in Darwinian “adapt and survive” methodology. It didn’t take long for the SAM and AAA site operators to discover that when they detected a Shrike launch, if they shut the radar down, the Shrike lost the signal, went stupid and missed the site. Additionally, the duel between a Skyhawk and an SA-2 site was especially lethal in that the Shrike was shorter-ranged and required launch within the envelope of the SA-2. Not a happy situation as more than a few unfortunate Skyhawk pilot found out. Something better was required and came about in the form of the A-6B and the AGM-78 Standard Anti-Radiation Missile (ARM)
In its original form, the Standard ARM (or STARM as it came to be called) was really not much more than the RIM-66 Standard surface-to-air missile body and warhead with the Shrike’s seeker. Bigger, heavier, faster and longer ranged, the STARM would require another, larger aircraft to provide targeting and launch. Fortunately, one was readily available with some modifications – the A-6 Intruder.
First flown in 1960 and making its first combat cruise in 1965 on the USS Independence (CVA 62), the A-6A Intruder grew out of an original specification for a short take-off/landing, two-seat, all weather aircraft to replace the Douglas AD Skyraider. Also, for the first time, bidders were to be responsible for the entire aircraft, including the weapons system. And while the weapons system provided its fair-share of problems in the development and on into operational use, the A-6 and their crews were beginning to make a noteworthy impact in the air war over the North. It was no surprise then that a variant of the A-6A would be chosen to be modified to carry the STARM. A total of 19 A-6As would be modified – the first batch of 10 were stripped of most of the attack systems and fitted with specialized equipment to detect SAM radars and provide targeting information to the STARMs. They were followed by another batch of three were fitted with the passive-angle-tracking anti-radiation-missile (PAT/ARM) system, which used the STARM’s seeker in cooperation with the system onboard the A-6B to triangulatete the location of threat systems. The third and final batch of six were fitted with the target identification acquisition system (TIAS). The first A-6B’s were delivered to VA-75 in August 1967 for the November 67- June 68 deployment of Air Wing 18/USS Kitty Hawk (CVA 63). The last A-6B was delivered in August 1970. Used with some level of success for the remainder of the war, at its conclusion the remaining fourteen A-6Bs (five were lost in action or at the ship) were converted to the A-6E standard (but still maintained the capacity to fire the STARM). The lessons learned from the Vietnam War translated to the development of the AGM-88 HARM and a dedicated ECM variant of the A-6, the EA-6B Prowler.