First off, if you’re unfamiliar with the acronym in the post title, SEAD stands for Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses. During wartime, people generally don’t like having bombs dropped them. (I think they are also not a fan of having bombs dropped on them during peacetime). So naturally, military forces develop weapons to keep bombs from getting dropped on them. Here’s some examples of these weapons;
As a result of this, if your country feels the urge to drop some bombs on hostile people, you’re going to need to develop a method of dealing with these weapons. This is what SEAD is (in a nutshell.
On the American side, the first major experience with SEAD was the Vietnam War. Initially, the main threat facing American strike packages was small caliber anti-aircraft fire, such as 12.7mm and 14.5mm guns. There was also a limited number of 37mm, 57mm, and 85mm weapons, mostly of Soviet origin. However, the arrival of S-75/SA-2 surface-to-air missiles, and their integration into the North Vietnamese air defense system led to a major upset operational environment. While the S-75 did not have a particularly high success rate per individual missile (this DTIC document which I ganked states that 8 American planes were downed by 248 S-75s fired in December 1966, and these were some of the highest losses due to SAMs in Rolling Thunder), they did often succeed in forcing aircraft to jettison their ordnance, or descend into the engagement envelope of light AAA. As an aside, the second point would be driven home during the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War, when Egyptian 2K12/SA-6 missiles in combination with systems such as the ZSU-23-4 exacted a severe toll on Israeli aircraft.
A page from that DTIC report I linked to, showing the layout of a typical S-75 site.
While the initial American response to these developments was somewhat hampered by the restrictive rules of engagement in the Vietnam conflict, American forces did manage to develop fairly effective responses. First, the Americans used electronic countermeasures aircraft, such as the EB-66, to degrade the effectiveness of the North Vietnamese radar warning network. While this was not wholly effective (the EB-66s and similar aircraft were horribly vulnerable to PVAF MiGs, and ECM did virtually nothing against optically aimed AAA), it did succeed in reducing the effectiveness of North Vietnamese S-75s. The other portion was the Wild Weasels, aircrews who would actively hunt down and destroy enemy air defenses assets. Initially, they used aircraft such as the F-100F, and a wide variety of different weapons, including unguided rockets and cluster bombs. However, for much of the latter portion of the Vietnam conflict, the Wild Weasels used F-105F and F-105G aircraft armed with anti-radiation missiles (in addition to other weaponry).
The Wild Weasels would arrive several minutes before the main strike package, in concert with electronic support assets. They would hunt down and destroy hostile air defense assets, which in Vietnam usually took the form of S-75 sites and protective AAA. Once the air defense assets were neutralized, the rest of the strike package would proceed to the primary target.
|A mission patch commonly worn by crewmen of Wild Weasel aircraft.|
During the Vietnam period, Wild Weasel missions were undertaken by dedicated units, the first of which was the 354th Fighter Wing. Naturally, these first units suffered horrific losses (anecdotally, after a few months, the 354th had one working aircraft left, and several of its pilots had resigned). This force structure continued during the 1970s and 1980s, when the F-4G was used as a dedicated SEAD airframe.
The most common anti-radiation missile used in Vietnam was the AGM-45 Shrike. By homing in on the emissions of the S-75s main radar, the AGM-45 allowed Wild Weasel aircraft to destroy it from a longer distance and more accurately than could be accomplished with unguided weapons. This represented a significant improvement in American SEAD capabilities. However, other weapons still had to be used to destroy the SAM launchers and other support vehicles, as the Shrike’s relatively small warhead was only sufficient to destroy the radar itself. Cluster bombs, such as the Mk20 Rockeye were favored for this purpose.
Later on in the Vietnam conflict, the F-105F/G would be replaced by modified F-4 variants, due to several attrition of F-105 airframes during the conflict. Additionally, the AGM-45 was supplanted by the AGM-78 Standard ARM, which had a superior engagement envelope, and would not be completely fooled if the target radar switched off. However, due to its larger size and cost, it never fully replaced the Shrike. Later on in the Cold War, the F-4G, a dedicated Wild Weasel aircraft, became the primary SEAD platform, and when paired with the AGM-88 HARM, became a highly effective platform. Though it was never tested in battle against the Soviet Union itself (probably a good thing), it performed very well against the Iraqi IADS, with only one Wild Weasel aircraft shot down (the crew survived and ejected over friendly territory). More recently, since the retirement of the last F-4Gs in the 1990s, the F-16 has become the primary SEAD platform, with the F-16C Block 50/52 most commonly used.
Since Vietnam, American SEAD doctrine has, at its core, remained the same. Highly aggressive usage of anti-radiation missiles to destroy the emitting radars, coupled with the usage of cluster bombs and similar weapons to destroy other portions of the air defense system, such as launchers. With long range target acquisition and SAM radars destroyed, guided and unguided munitions could be deployed against other short range air defense assets, such as IR-guided SAMs and AAA guns. Operating against such threats at close range, American doctrine naturally dictates the use of fighter derived Wild Weasel platforms. Additionally, for much of the latter part of the Cold War, the United States used dedicated aircraft variants optimized for SEAD. The F-105G, as well as the F-4G, were both fitted with specialized avionics (and in the case of the F-105G, modified from a single-seat base airframe to have two seats) to optimize them for the SEAD role. More recently, though the F-16C Block 50/52 was not designed specifically as a SEAD aircraft, its avionics package is built to allow it to perform that role well. Similarly, American ECM platforms generally consist of jamming pods mounted to fighters or attack aircraft, or at the most, attack airframes modified for an ECM role (such as the EF-111A, or the EA-6B). While were in recent years proposals to build a standoff jammer on the B-52 platform, they did not come to fruition.
The conflict in Vietnam also had a significant effect on Soviet SEAD doctrine. However, rather than being on the receiving end of dozens of S-75 launches, they got to observe their effects on the forces of their most likely opponent. Similarly, the Soviets also learned quite a bit from the performance of their weapons during the Yom Kippur War. However, while this was useful for evaluating how their IADS might perform against NATO strikes, it did not give any concrete information about how to deal with NATO assets. For instance, how should the VVS make a Hawk site nonfunctional, or prevent a Roland launcher from forcing a Soviet strike package to abort its mission? When answering this question, the Soviets’ conclusions were somewhat different from the Americans’.
The MIM-104 Patriot, a likely opponent for a Soviet aircraft in the late Cold War.
During the latter part of the Cold War, the Soviets realized that NATO forces would most likely have technical superiority over Warsaw Pact forces in a Western European conflict. As a result, while NATO air defense systems were not as numerous as their Warsaw Pact counterparts, they would still represent a potent impediment to Soviet operations.
The Soviet response was highly planned and tailored to the Western European battlefield. For one, Soviet planners intended to disrupt NATO air defense networks through use of high altitude nuclear detonations, in concert with tactical nuclear strikes against certain targets. In particular, I have seen reference to the usage of OTR-21 ballistic missiles against Hawk and Patriot sites. The early usage of nuclear weapons by the Soviets, and its likely escalation into a strategic nuclear exchange, is outside the scope of this post. However, in addition to any possible uses of nuclear weaponry, the Soviets also incorporated conventional weaponry into their SEAD doctrine.
The Soviets, having identified what they considered to be the most important NATO targets in West Germany and nearby regions, intended to gain local superiority over several airspace corridors needed to attack these targets. Within these corridors, SEAD aircraft would be responsible for elimination of NATO air defense assets. Typically, out of any given strike package for a mission (which might consist of several dozen aircraft), roughly four to eight aircraft would be tasked with the SEAD mission. These planes would go in with the main strike package, rather than significantly ahead of it like the Wild Weasels.
As with the United States, the Soviets also considered anti-radiation missiles to be of paramount importance in their SEAD arsenal. In fact, considering that the Soviets placed much lower importance on SEAD aircraft destroying short ranged assets (it was expected artillery and the like would deal with them), it could be said that ARMs are of greater proportional importance to Soviet SEAD doctrine. Compared to American ARMs, Soviet ARMs were usually larger. Compare, for instance, the size of the Kh-28 to the AGM-45.
The Kh-28 has roughly quadruple the mass of the AGM-45, and has correspondingly greater range.
Later Soviet missiles continue the trend of large size, with the Kh-58 massing nearly twice as much as the AGM-88 (the AGM-78 was somewhat of an anomaly).
The large size of Soviet anti-radiation missiles is a product of the platforms they were launched from, as well as Soviet doctrine. Whereas the US used aircraft such as the F-4 and F-105 as the base for their SEAD platforms, the Soviets instead used aircraft such as the MiG-25BM. A derivative of the (somewhat) Mach 3 capable MiG-25, the MiG-25BM (known to NATO as the Foxbat-F) would carry an armament of several Kh-58s in the latter years of the Cold War.
The Su-24M was also used as a SEAD platform, though that specific aircraft was not a dedicated SEAD variant like the MiG-25BM. Considering that both the MiG-25 and Su-24 airframes are both significantly larger than the F-4 and F-105 (to say nothing of the F-16), the Soviet preference toward larger aircraft is clear. As a result, instead of launching from close range (usually well within SAM engagement envelopes) like the Americans, the Soviets would instead fire their weapons from much farther away, relying on speed and altitude for safety.
The Soviets’ choices for ECM platforms also differed from the Americans. While the Americans used jammers which operated relatively close to the combat area, based on midsize airframes (such as the F-111 and A-6), the Soviets used larger aircraft as the basis for their jammers, and they operated at longer range. The most prominent Soviet electronic warfare plane was the Tu-22P, a modification of an earlier strategic bomber design.
Electronic warfare variants of the Tu-16, as well as the An-12 transport aircraft, also existed, and would have been used against NATO assets in the event of war. (I have also seen a few references to an An-12 modified to carry the Kh-28, although I believe it was just for test purposes).
The relative effectiveness of American and Soviet SEAD doctrines in a high intensity conflict has not yet been fully tested. However, both nations have done so in lower intensity conflicts within the past few decades. The first major test of US SEAD tactics post-Vietnam was the Persian Gulf War. In this conflict, American aircraft performed very well against the Iraqi IADS. However, it was not perfect; multiple Coalition aircraft were lost to Iraqi defenses, and Baghdad itself remained off limits to all aircraft besides the F-117. The US also did not perform perfectly in Yugoslavia; the loss of an F-117 to a (relatively outdated) S-125 is well known, and Yugoslav/Serbian SAM operators demonstrated remarkable abilities to outsmart NATO planners. The performance during Operation Iraqi Freedom was significantly better, with only one plane being lost to an Iraqi Roland SAM (US Patriot missiles actually destroyed a greater number of Coalition aircraft). Of course, the Iraqi air defense network had been significantly reduced from 1991 levels.
While the 1980s Afghanistan conflict is (not entirely inaccurately) considered to be a Soviet analogue of Vietnam, Soviet SEAD doctrine was not heavily tested. The Soviets gained air dominance almost immediately, and the Afghanis possessed relatively little in the way of integrated air defense systems (Stingers and other MANPADSs were another matter entirely). Likewise, the conflict in Chechnya, while very protracted and brutal, offered little in the way of significant tests for Soviet/Russian SEAD doctrine (again, MANPADSs were a significant concern, as evidenced by the shootdown of an Mi-26 which caused over 100 casualties). Probably the most serious test of Russian SEAD tactics came in the 2008 Ossetian War. In this case, while Georgian air defense assets were reduced in effectiveness, they still performed will, with several Russian aircraft being destroyed, including at least one Tu-22M3.
Whether this is due to intrinsic flaws in Russian SEAD doctrine, exceptional Georgian skill, or the general decrease in competency of Russian forces following the fall of the Soviet Union is uncertain.