The Air Force F-117 jets that led the attack on the Baghdad bunker last week where Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was suspected of hiding could not have mounted the sudden mission had it not been for a series of fortuitous events that occurred just hours before, according to the squadron commander.
Providing new details of the attack, the commander -- a lieutenant colonel who asked not to be identified by name -- said his crew was able to dispatch two planes in record time because they had been tipped the day before to study the target and had, by chance, already loaded one of the planes with bombs earlier in the day.
They also received word that day from a test team in California confirming that two 2,000-pound, precision-guided EGBU-27 bombs could be dropped at the same time from an F-117. This had never been attempted before, and the idea of even testing whether it was possible, without one bomb somehow interfering with the other, had occurred to squadron members only in the previous week, the lieutenant colonel said.
A day before the actual raid, the officer said, the squadron was first alerted to get ready for a possible imminent attack on the bunker. "We did some critical planning, looking at photos and other things," he said, speaking by phone from an airfield in Qatar. "But the mission was then turned off as suddenly as it had appeared."
Word then arrived around 1:30 a.m. Thursday (5:30 p.m. EST Wednesday) that the mission was back on. In Washington two hours earlier, CIA Director George J. Tenet had presented President Bush with fresh intelligence indicating that Hussein and his two sons were in the bunker complex, located in southeast Baghdad.
The planning done the night before had saved the commander and his squadron hours of preparation. "It paid off for us, because if we hadn't had the warning the night before, we'd have been behind the eight ball," he said.
Additionally, that morning, he had directed that one F-117 be loaded with two EGBU-27s. Because the bomb was relatively new and had never been dropped by his squadron, he wanted to "re-familiarize" pilots with it.
As a result of having one aircraft already outfitted with munitions, the squadron saved 30 minutes to an hour when the call came later to get two F-117s airborne for the mission.
"If we had not had one loaded, we couldn't have gone because it would have taken too much time," the commander said. "Minutes really mattered."
Meanwhile, at a facility in California, testers were completing their assessment showing that the EGBU-27 could be dropped in pairs. They relayed their findings to the squadron at about 9 p.m. local time on Wednesday, 41/2 hours before the order came to prepare for the attack. Within two hours of the order's arrival, two fully loaded F-117s were in the air, although with instructions to await a final approval to enter Iraqi airspace.
At the same time, Navy crews aboard eight warships were entering the coordinates of Hussein's compound into three dozen cruise missiles. The missiles were meant to strike after the EGBU-27s.
Shortly after 5 a.m. local time, Bush issued the order to go, and the F-117s turned toward Baghdad.
The mission itself went smoothly. There were clouds over the target but that made no difference, since the EGBU-27 can be guided to preset geographic coordinates linked to Global Positioning System satellites. A total of four bombs fell on the bunker -- what looked from the air, in the commander's words, like "an open field located between a couple of buildings on the Tigris."
The stealthy, radar-evading characteristics of the F-117s allowed the aircraft to slip in and out of Baghdad's airspace without evident detection. "There was a little bit of triple-A [anti-aircraft artillery fire] that came up a few minutes after the bombs dropped," the commander said.
The cruise missiles followed, ramming into the complex minutes after the F-117s had pulled away. U.S. officials said the airstrikes hit their marks, destroying the bunker and several surrounding buildings. But the fates of Hussein and his sons have remained unclear.
For members of the 8th Expeditionary Squadron, the mission remains a source of particular pride. "It was a special moment for the squadron to be able to respond so quickly," the squadron's commander said.