BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. --
The alert pad at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, buzzed with activity in the early morning hours of Jan. 16, 1991, as seven B-52 Stratofortress from the 2nd Bomb Wing roared to life. A few moments later they climbed into the gray sky, flying to Iraq to launch the opening bombardment for Operation Desert Storm.
Many of the 57 crew members who flew that historic mission were here to celebrate its 29th anniversary last Saturday. The mission’s official name was Operation Senior Surprise, but the participants nicknamed it Operation Secret Squirrel because of the mission’s confidential nature.
The group, unofficially dubbed the Secret Squirrels, has met every year since 2016 to commemorate the event.
Aaron Hattabaugh, one of the crew members, read a proclamation by U.S. Representative Adam Kinziger, recognizing the historical significance of the mission.
In remarks made from the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and entered into the U.S. Congressional Record, Kinziger praised the efforts of the Airmen.
“Madam Speaker, those who served on this mission displayed true endurance and dedication to country in their actions,” he said.
Operation Senior Surprise was the B-52’s first participation in a major campaign since the Vietnam War. The objective was to pave the way for successive air strikes by destroying the Iraqi military’s ability to communicate and generate power.
The mission employed the AGM-86C Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missile. It was the first time the CALCM had been fired in combat, having been developed as a top-secret weapons system only a few years before.
More than 14 hours after leaving Barksdale, the Secret Squirrels unleashed their precision-guided payload on targets in Iraq, destroying over 90 percent of their communication targets and effectively blinding the Iraqi military from seeing U.S. fighters following them.
The Secret Squirrels had reduced the fourth-largest military in the world to a stumbling giant, unable to defend itself.
U.S. Air Force Gen. Timothy Ray, Commander, Air Force Global Strike Command and Commander, Air Forces Strategic - Air, U.S. Strategic Command, spoke about the lasting impact the mission had on military aviation.
“What you guys did was foundational and the enemy has been thinking about it ever since, because it was so effective,” he said. “You wrote the book on long range aviation and strike capability in the B-52.”
The trip back home was as harrowing as the ride in. Two of the B-52’s suffered from engine problems and bad weather forced them to miss a carefully planned in-air refueling, nearly forcing them to land on runways in Europe not designed for the heavy jets.
Each problem was overcome and the Secret Squirrels touched back down at Barksdale after being airborne for more than 36 hours, the longest B-52 mission at the time.
Warren Ward, the event organizer and a member of the crew that night, remembered well the difference between the flight to Iraq and the return flight.
“The whole way over I was scared to death, which was good because we were operating on about three hours of sleep,” he said. “On the way back, the adrenaline wore off and we still had 20 hours left to go.”
The entire mission was cloaked in secrecy before the first jet ever left the ground. It remained that way for a year after the operation. No one associated with the mission could speak about it outside a classified environment for a year afterward.
U.S. Air Force Col. Steven Kirkpatrick, 307th Bomb Wing commander and the last Secret Squirrel member still serving in uniform, offered the customary toast to close the ceremony.
“We were proud to serve, proud to execute the mission and cherish the friendship of all 57 Secret Squirrel members,” he said.