Dawn Patrol…an AC-130H out of Hurlburt Field, Florida (Credit:USAF/James Dale).
1991 was a busy year for Air Force Special Operations. Fresh off of the success of Panama, AC-130H gunships based out of Hurlbert Field were dispatched to the Arabian peninsula in late 1990 as part of Operation Desert Shield, later to become the shooting war of Desert Storm. Nowadays remembered as Gulf War I, one of the least known chapters was the Battle for Khafji and the role AC-130Hs played. When the battle was over, hundreds of Iraqi tanks and one gunship would be destroyed, taking its brave crew with it.
I arrived at Hurlbert Field about a year after this incident, and heard the repeated tale of Spirit ’03; how its crew had decided to stay and support coalition forces in contact until dawn, despite warnings of enemy SAMs in the area. Over the years, I’ve wondered about the conflicting stories told and considered the possibility; did the phase angle of the Moon play a role? I decided to undertake some investigative astronomical research to find out.
Author with 20mm canons, circa 1993 in Djibouti, Africa.
To be sure, the phase of the Moon has played a role in military tactics and history. A few years back, Sky & Telescope published an article about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during the Full Moon; more famously, the ramming and sinking of PT-109 during a New Moon has also been sited.
Loading the 105mm Howitzer..note this is a newer, -U model config. (Credit: USAF/Tony Rodgers).
Born of the Vietnam War, the AC-130H is a second generation gunship, of which the AC-47 was first and the AC-119 was third. Armed with one 105mm Howitzer, one Bofors 40mm canon, and two 20mm Vulcan cannons, the mission of the AC-130H includes interdiction (i.e.- hunting down and blowing up supply lines,) and hamlet defense. Unlike “heavies” such as the B-52, which drop their ordinance from high altitude, or “fast movers”, which dump their loads and swiftly leave, aircraft such as the A-10 and AC-130 have the extremely dangerous task of orbiting the target until the job is done. Thus, gunships typically rely on the cloak of darkness to do their work. Early AC-47 gunships lacked today’s night vision and infrared sensors; they relied mostly on ground troops in contact to either get the target marked or burning, then utilized good old, “Kentucky windage.” All variants of the ACs have the proud record of never having a hamlet fall to the enemy while under their defense.
The Strain placed on the Gunships.
Unlike other combat aircraft, the AC-130 has its array of guns mounted perpendicular down the left side of the fuselage. Thus the pilot puts the aircraft into a banking, continuous pylon turn on the target, and looks out into the blackness leftward through the heads up display. The controllers in “the booth” have a somewhat better view, kind of like an early arcade game! Meanwhile, the gunners operate and maintain the weaponry. The crew of an AC-130H is large, usually a compliment of 14.
Cleaning & Maintenance of the 105mm…(Photo by Author).
The Battle of Khafji was one of the few singular skirmishes of the brief 1991 Gulf War. The air campaign had begun, and the ground offensive was still weeks away. Not coincidentally, the January 15th beginning of the air war was around the same date of the New Moon. We own the night, remember? But during Khafji, nearly two weeks later, the Moon had just passed Full on January 30th.
The town of Khafji is a Saudi Arabian coastal town, just south of the Kuwaiti border. On the morning of the 29th, Iraqi armor rolled into town, their turrets reversed in the universal signal of surrender. Once well into the city center, however, they began to open fire. It was theorized at the time that the attack was a crude sort of reconnaissance, a test of coalition defenses. Never the less, the first ground action of Desert Storm had begun.
AC-130s initially had very little to do in the air campaign. Designed to provide Special Ops teams with heavy firepower, they are ill suited operate in areas known to possess Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) or radar guided triple A. Thus, Khafji presented Special Ops a chance to use the AC-130 for what it does best; kill tanks and trucks.
Initially, during the opening days of the battle, gunships were called in to patrol the coastal road to the west and north of the city. Some had narrowly missed getting hit by SAMs, and one had to bank so violently that it was later sent to Germany for structural repairs. It was against this chaos that gunship call sign Spirit ’03 was sent to silence an Iraqi AAA battery north of the city. On the morning of January 31st, 1991, the battle for the city was about two days old. At about 0530 local, radio traffic began to issue for the recall of Spirit ’03. Twilight had begun, and the gunship was already heavily engaged supporting Marines in contact. At 0635, a distress call went out; Spirit ’03 had been hit by a shoulder fired Iraqi SAM. The gunship crashed into the Gulf, killing all aboard. The loss of the brave men of Spirit ’03 represented the largest loss of USAF life in war.
The Phase of the Moon at 6:35 AM Local on the morning of Jan 31st, 1991 as seen from Khafji. Simulated with Starry Night.
So, what does the phase of the Moon have to do with this? Over my years in Special Ops, I heard conflicting stories; some say the Gunship was hit in broad daylight, and that the crew should have never been operating in the area. An investigation launched by the families in the mid 90′s stirred up similar controversy…
Setting up a simulation for local sunrise in the Khafji area on the morning of January 31st, 1991, we find that occurrence was at about 06:45 local, about ten minutes after the distress call. Khafji has low mountains to the west, but a relatively flat horizon to the east. One can also imagine the sun glinting off the aircraft, a few minutes or so before sunrise.
An Aircraft in Silhouette.(Credit: BBC News).
The Moon was Waning Gibbous, just past Full, about 15.47 days old and about 97% illuminated. Aircrew are typically briefed of this, as Moon illumination can make a huge difference in the night time landscape below. At about 6:30 local, the Moon would have been about five degrees above the western horizon as seen from Khafji. The illumination of the dawn twilight however would have been much brighter than the Moon. Also, if the aircraft had been in a pylon turn over the target, it’s impossible to tell which direction the ground gunner had used to aim at the gunship. If he fired eastward, he would have seen a silhouette against the brightening sky; westward, perhaps a sun-glinting aircraft and a gibbous setting Moon. It is possible that the gunner used the stationary Moon to lead the target… a lack of other visual references in the desert makes this a clear possibility. We may never truly know unless the shooter (if he even survived the battle!) comes forward. We would place the likelihood as thus;
-Downing of Spirit ’03 caused solely by Moon illumination: Highly Unlikely.
-Downing caused by gunner “leading on” the Moon: Possible, but unknown.
- Downing caused by growing twilight: Definitely a Factor.
Why study these events from an astronomical perspective? Because families and special operators deserve to know, and planners need to realize that even this age of high tech warfare doesn’t make us immune to natural factors. Certainly, the valiant men of Spirit ’03 had a job to do, and the loss of Jockey 14 over Malindi, Kenya during operations in Somalia drove this home to me on that deployment.
Very little exists for research on this topic on the web; some sites and articles referenced for information were;
- An Analysis of the Battle of Khafji.
-The Spirit ’03 Memorial site.
-Storm on the Horizon; an account of the Battle of Khafji.
Finally, this article is dedicated to the families and Special Operators everywhere. It is these unsung heroes that truly fight the silent war!
Lest We Forget…