Victor Tanker with Tornado and Buccaneer

Air Power in the Gulf War

Air Power in the Gulf War - The RAF Contribution

By Group Captain Andrew Vallance - Director of Defence Studies for the Royal Air Force

When the Iraqis invaded Kuwait on 2 August, the air power was the only instrument at the disposal of the British Government which could get to the Gulf in time - and sufficient force - to deter the threatened Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia. Because of that, the RAF was from the outset at the forefront of the British effort and remained there throughout.

Moreover, the RAF's contribution to Allied air power in the Gulf - in both crisis and conflict - was second only in importance to that of the United States.

Within 48 hours of the Governments decision to send large-scale forces to the Gulf, a squadron of RAF Tornado F3s arrived in Saudi Arabia and two hours later they flew their first operational sorties. Within a further two days, a squadron of Jaguar fighters-bombers arrived, together with half a squadron of VC10 tanker aircraft and soon after they were joined by half a squadron of Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft.

The RAF build-up continued throughout the closing months of 1990 and by mid-January 1991 our strength in the Gulf stood at some 18 Tornado F3 fighters, about 46 Tornado GR1/1A strike/attack and recce aircraft, 17 tankers, three Nimrods, 12 Chinooks, 19 Pumas, seven Hercules and one BAe125. It continued to increase during the conflict as Buccaneers and further Tornado GR1s arrived in theatre. Other RAF operational units deployed to the Gulf included two RAF Regiment Wing HQ, two Rapier Squadrons and four Light Armour/Field Squadrons. All told (and including those based in Cyprus) some 7,000 RAF personnel were directly involved in operations in the Gulf. Overall, we flew over 6,100 sorties in the conflict, the largest number mounted by any nation except the United States and more than two and a half times that flown by our French friends.

Tornado GR1 and Buccaneer Operations

The Tornado GR1s - thanks to their uniquely effective JP233 airfield denial munition - made a particularly distinguished contribution to the counter-air element of the campaign. The offensive counter-air task facing the coalition was daunting. There were only two anti-runway weapons available; the F-111s armed with the French Durandal and the Tornado/JP233 combination. Because of the known limitations of the Durandal, it fell to the Tornados to take on the Iraqi runways.

The Tornados were tasked to attack over a dozen Iraqi main operating bases at low-level supported by F-15 fighters, F-4G 'Wild Weasels' and EF-111A 'Raven' electronic countermeasures aircraft. The F-15s, flying in the fighter sweep and escort roles cleared away Iraqi fighters, the 'Wild Weasels' fired HARM anti-radiation missiles to close down enemy SAM and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) radars, whilst the EF-111s suppressed the Iraqi early warning radars.

Nevertheless, the Tornado crews still had to fly through intense AAA fire to reach their targets, and it was soon realised that simultaneous toss attacks against AAA clusters by other Tornados using 1,000lb bombs would help further to clear the way for the JP233-armed aircraft. After four nights the air opposition had been effectively neutralised, for the loss of four Tornados. Eight Iraqi main operating bases had been closed while the operations of several others had been markedly reduced.

The severe dislocation inflicted on the Iraqi surface-to-air defence system and air defence fighter force by the Allies, allowed the majority of subsequent Tornado sorties to be flown in daylight and above the reach of Iraqi AAA, the Iraqis one remaining anti-air strength. Initially, the medium-level Tornado GR1 sorties used free-fall bombs to attack large area-type targets such as fuel storage dumps and airfields. But after ten days of battle, Buccaneers equipped with Pave Spike laser designators started arriving in the theatre, and thereafter attacks using laser-guided bombs (LGBs) rapidly became the norm.

By 2 February, and with air supremacy firmly established, the priority for Tornado tasking shifted to interdicting the supply lines to the Iraqi Army in the KTO. The valley of the Euphrates and Tigris ricers provided a natural funnel feature into Kuwait. Between Baghdad and Basrah a major highway had been built which spanned the rivers with some thirty bridges, all of which had to be dropped if interdiction was to be effective. Thus, for the next three weeks, packages of Tornados carrying LGBs supported by Buccaneers with Pave Spike laser designators bombed these bridges.

As the success of the interdiction effort grew, and the number of bridges left to destroy decreased, the focus of Allied air attacks began to shift back again onto the enemy air assets. Hence from 12 February onwards the Tornados and Buccaneers were tasked to attack enemy hardened aircraft shelters (HAS) and subsequently weapon and POL storage dumps, maintenance hangars and other elements of air base infrastructure.

By this time it was clear that the weapon-carrying capability of the Buccaneers was being under-utilised and that mixed Buccaneer and Tornado formations raised some inevitable coordination problems. Thus, in the last ten days of the war, Buccaneers using Pave Spike and Tornados using the newly arrived thermal imaging airborne laser designators (TIALD) increasingly carried out self-designating attacks. A brand new system, TIALD offered important advantages over the day-only, manually controlled Pave Spike laser designator used by the Buccaneers. TIALD was more reliable, fully integrated into the Tornado's navigation and bombing system and could be used at night. As a result of this newly acquired night/LGB capability, the Tornados were tasked to help the US F-117A Stealth fighter with its attacks on Iraqi HASs, and thus for the next two weeks Tornado packages hit Iraqi HASs by night and bridges by day. At this stage of the war over 60% of Tornado sorties were using laser-guided bombs.

As G Day approached, the Allied planners once again addressed the possibility that the Iraqi Air Force might try to make one last concerted effort to support its Army. To make absolutely sure that this did not happen, the southern airfields had to be closed. The job naturally fell to the Tornado/Buccaneer team, and for four days waves of Buccaneers and Tornados revisited Shaibah, Talill, Amarah New, Jalibah and other main bases near to the battlefront, names now imprinted on the memories of many RAF aircrew. In spite of the bad weather, the bombing was generally successful, particularly at Shaibah where, in a matter of minutes, ten designated mean points of impact were hit with two LGBs each. All twenty 1,000lb bombs landed precisely on target, only one failed to explode and ten massive holes appeared in the runways and taxiways cutting these operating areas into strips too small for takeoffs and landings. This final effort put paid to the last possibility of the Iraqi Air Force appearing over the battlefield.

The war saw many 'firsts' for the Tornado GR1s. For example, they used the ALARM air launched anti-radiation missile for the first time in action, the ALARM was accelerated into RAF service just before the war began, and the one hundred plus rounds fired during the war achieved a very creditable 75% success rate. Another 'first' was the operational use of the Tornado GR1A recce variant. Also a very new system when the war began, the GR1A demonstrated impressive capabilities. Although small in comparison with the rest of the Tornado GR1 force, the GR1A recce flight provided coalition air forces with an important night recce capability. Six GR1As were based at Dhahran from 14 January, the final modifications to the aircraft's brand new kit being completed only a week before. Flying deep over Iraq, single and unarmed aircraft were employed on a variety of tasks. Most notably these included post-attack recce, line searches and Scud hunting sorties. Missions were flown by night at two hundred feet and six hundred knots over routes chosen to avoid known defences. The GR1As sideways-looking infra-red and infra-red linescan systems provided up to one hours' worth of recorded material for analysis.

In all, over 1,500 Tornado GR1 and some one hundred and forty GR1A sorties were flown during the war, together with a further two hundred plus Buccaneer sorties. Six Tornados were lost in action during these operations, with a further Tornado destroyed in a flying accident. Five RAF Tornado aircrew were killed in action. In relation to what was achieved, such losses were remarkably - and mercifully - light. It is also significant that no Tornado was lost during a JP233 attack (although one Tornado crashed some ten miles after releasing its JP233).

Jaguar Operations

While Tornados flew by night, the Jaguars flew by day. Tasked initially with attacking interdiction targets, supply dumps, surface-to-air missile sites and artillery, the Jaguars distinguished themselves particularly in the maritime arena. Using the newly introduced CRV 7 weapon - a high velocity rocket with a very flat and thus accurate trajectory - the Jaguars proved extremely effective in attacks against Iraqi naval targets.

After some ten days of fighting and already credited with sinking or damaging fifteen ships, the Jaguars turned their attention to clearing the Silkworm missile site, SAM sites and artillery batteries deployed along the Kuwaiti coast. It was obvious that an area-effect weapon was needed for such tasks, one which could be released above the ceiling of Iraqi AAA. The weapon chosen was the American CBU87 combined effects munition. Released from up to 17,000 feet CBU87 remains ballistic until bomblet deployment at 1,200 feet thus retaining good levels of accuracy and an effective footprint over the target. The Jaguar was rapidly cleared to carry CBU87 and used the weapon with spectacular results. In all, over six hundred Jaguar sorties were launched during the conflict, remarkably without any loss.

Nimrod Operations

Also operating in the maritime arena were the three RAF Nimrods based at Seeb. Flying two sorties each day, the Nimrods had at the end of the conflict 'clocked up' eighty five wartime sorties to add to the well over three hundred flown in the Gulf area between 11 August 1990 and 15 January 1991. During some ten years of peacetime operations in the Gulf, the Nimrods had been largely confined to the Arabian Sea.

Now they found themselves operating in the far north of the Gulf very much in the front line and potentially vulnerable to attack. However, their highly capable Searchwater radar proved a unique asset, one on which the coalition maritime forces cam to depend almost as much as they did on the AWACSs radar. The Nimrods' principal tasks were to pass maritime surface picture information to the US aircraft carrier Midway and provide tactical direction for the Royal Navy's Sea Skua-armed Lynx helicopters. The Nimrod/Lynx/Sea Skua combination proved to be a particularly productive team, accounting for several Iraq patrol boats.

Like all other RAF aircraft in the Gulf, the Nimrod received valuable system upgrades before the shooting started. These included a comprehensive self-defence suite, a turret-mounted infra-red system for night-time identification and classification of surface ships and a partial Link 11 system which allowed the Nimrod to receive surface picture data from US warships. Software changes to radar and electronic support measure equipment were also made to meet the demands of operations in the Gulf.

Tornado F3 Operations

The air defence effort mounted by the coalition during crisis and conflict was unprecedented in history. Never before have so many fighters been airborne for so long on constant patrol. Our contribution - eighteen Tornado F3s - formed part of the integrated, tri-national Saudi/US/UK overland air defence system; air defence protection for naval units in the Persian Gulf falling to the US Navy and US Marine Corps. Although very small in relation to the overall Allied air defence effort, the contribution of the RAF F3s was by no means insignificant and - in proportion to their numbers - they flew more hours than any other type. Flying fourteen operational sorties per day and usually 'capping' west of the tri-border area in defence of the Central and Eastern AWACS, the F3s protected these very-high-value targets against the anticipated high speed attacks from Iraqi Foxbats. In the event, the Foxbat attacks never materialised, nor did Iraqi aircraft penetrate Saudi airspace. And although our F3s made numerous forays into Iraq to identify tracks, those that turned out to be hostile were always too far away to be intercepted.

The majority of the thirty nine Allied air-to-air kills, were made by US F-15s roaming far into Iraq on fighter sweeps. With its onboard ECM and high cruising altitude, the F-15 was the best Allied aircraft for such tasks. However, by manning the vital air defence CAPS, the F3s allowed the F-15s to be released for these offensive operations and thus performed valuable service. In all our Tornado F3s flew nearly seven hundred and seventy sorties in the Gulf during the conflict, plus another 1,800 sorties during the pre-conflict period of crisis.

Air Transport Operations

The efforts made by the RAF's air transport force (ATF) during Desert Storm were enormous and unprecedented. Even before conflict broke out it had exceeded the achievements of the Berlin Airlift of 1948; by the end of the conflict the ATF had flown 50,000 hours and carried 26,000 personnel and 54,000 tonnes of freight in support of Granby alone.

Almost from the outset of Granby, a small force of Hercules operated from King Khalid International Airport near Riyadh to provide resupply and communications flights within the theatre. A daily 'milk run' was set up between Riyadh, Dhahran, Al Jubail, Bahrain and Seeb, and when the war started the in-theatre Hercules force was increased to seven. To this must be added the Pumas and Chinooks based at Jubail which spent most of their time forward with Army units carrying out resupply, troop insertion, special forces operations, airlifting equipment and casualty and prisoner evacuation. Between them the Pumas and Chinooks based in the Gulf flew some 700 sorties during Granby.

Tanker Operations

The efforts of the tanker force were no less great than those of the air transport force. Flying at nearly four times the normal peacetime rate, the RAF tankers in the Gulf refuelled not only RAF aircraft, but also those from virtually all the other nations of the multi-national force. Equipment modifications carried out to the tankers have been hardly less extensive than those to other RAF aircraft. These include fitting secure radios, new IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) systems and improved defensive aids.

Admittedly, the seventeen RAF tankers operating in the Gulf were tine in relation to the hundreds of KC-135 and KC-10 tankers of the USAF. Yet our tankers gained renown throughout the theatre for their great flexibility, their achievement of the task and their eagerness to refuel anything that possessed a probe. This applied equally to Tristars, VC10Ks and Victors; the Victor detachment for example - despite having ancient aircraft - completed every one of the two hundred and ninety nine tasks that it was allocated. Indeed it was not unusual for out tankers to fly across the border to ensure their receivers had all the fuel they needed to reach their targets and return safely. And they did this in spite of the considerable potential threat posed by Iraqi SAMs and fighters against which they had virtually no defence.


The Gulf War was first and foremost an air power war and the RAF's contribution to the Allied air effort was significant and distinguished. The Service can take just pride in a remarkable feat of arms and a splendid professional achievement. However, that does not mean to say that we can learn nothing of significance from the conflict. On the contrary, it is already clear that many lessons can be learned which could be of key importance to the future.

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