Royal Air Force Nimrods in the Gulf
By Group Captain B K Burridge, RAF
History Repeats Itself
A few short years ago, the demise of the Warsaw Pact and the consequent drawing-back of the Iron Curtain meant that Western governments were left to ponder on their future defence needs.
For those in the NATO Alliance, there was clearly a requirement to re-examine the balance of focus between the European theatre and out-of-area commitments. Old arguments about mobility and flexibility were being dusted off but, as ever, the role of air power in responding to this new world political order was pre-eminent. Air power with its well known characteristics of reach, speed of reaction and flexibility of employment is a vital ingredient in any military reaction to a far-flung international problem. In the Royal Air Force, this lesson was engraved on our minds following our involvement in Operation Corporate which recaptured the Falkland Islands in 1982. In particular, the important contribution of our Nimrod MPA to the success of Corporate was still fresh in our memories. All MPA offer a military commander an invaluable surveillance capability as well as the prospect of an airborne command post should the need arise. In the Nimrod's case, these advantages are further enhanced by its extended range with and varied weapon capability, ranging from 1,000 pound bombs, through torpedoes and the Harpoon missile, to the Sidewinder for self protection.
As a result, when the Gulf crisis arose in August last year, the British government quickly recognised the unique contribution that the Nimrod could make in the theatre. At that stage, the need to preserve the UN embargo against Iraq was paramount and this concept formed the basis of the initial deployment of MPA into the area. This article aims to give a feel for the way in which we operate in the Gulf and describe some of the engineering aspects of the deployment. At the time of writing, the UN Security Council has just passed the resolution imposing a deadline of 15 January for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait while Saddam Hussein has also agreed to direct talks with the US Secretary of State, and has announced his intention to release all the foreign hostages. At this stage, then, the future is especially uncertain and the need to preserve the security of Operation Granby - the UK equivalent of Desert Shield - remains paramount. This article therefore lacks much detail, but might whet your appetite for a later article when the crisis is over in which, hopefully, the whole story can be told.
For some years, Royal Air Force Nimrods have conducted joint exercises with the Sultan of Oman's Navy in the Magic Roundabout series. We therefore already had a sound working knowledge of the Middle East theatre and the special problems it presents to MPA operations. Our normal Magic Roundabout operating base of Seeb, which is close to Muscat in Oman, was therefore the natural choice for our Granby deployment location. Over the years, the Royal Air Force of Oman have grown used to Nimrod operations and close links already existed between ourselves and the base executives. As a result, we rapidly deployed three aircraft from Royal Air Force Kinloss in Scotland to form the basis of the surveillance necessary to support the UN embargo on trade with Iraq. Further aircraft are held on short-notice standby in the UK and, as the roulement of aircraft became established, Nimrods and crews from our sister station at St Mawgan joined the effort. From the outset, air-to-air refuelling tankers have been at a premium so the deploying aircraft normally stage through Cyprus but, on the occasions when tankers have been available, a number of direct transits have been flown. The Nimrod detachment deployed with full ground engineering and operational support and were ready for operational tasking within hours of their arrival.
Nimrod sorties are flown daily in both the Gulf of Oman and the Gulf itself. It is therefore impossible for merchant or other shipping to transit undetected through the region. With surface ships from many nations also contributing to the multi-national effort, command and control was a potential problem. National force levels vary from the sizeable US presence, which includes a battleship group and a carrier battle group, to single ships from individual nations. The Soviets also have a presence in the area and their integration into the common reporting procedures proved less difficult than might have been expected, underlining yet again that war makes strange bed-fellows! Again, we were fortunate that, throughout the Iran-Iraq war and during the subsequent fragile peace, our own Royal Navy had maintained their Armilla Patrol in the region. We therefore had a basis on which to build the command and control structure which has since been adopted to meet the needs of the multi-national forces in the area.
The Nimrods tasked to locate, identify and, where necessary, photograph and challenge all merchant shipping in the area. Intelligence support provides daily updates on contacts of interest which, if located, are challenged on the marine-band FM radio to establish their intentions. An unsatisfactory response leads to the uninvited presence of a boarding party. Similarly, the Nimrod broadcasts details of the merchant shipping plot at regular intervals on a common frequency for the benefit of all the friendly military shipping in the area. The post-mission report is also a vital tool for a number of agencies that need to maintain an up-to-date surface plot. The Nimrod detachment also provides a vital long-range maritime and overland search and rescue capability. Both aspects of this task have already been practised during Exercise Imminent Thunder, yet again highlighting the Nimrod's flexibility.
The small ops support team that deployed with the Nimrod detachment provides the combined functions of a maritime headquarters, an ASWOC and a squadron ops facility. They are well equipped with secure communications, including a number of different real-time message handling systems which allows instant communication with Royal Air Force Kinloss, where we attempt to solve any difficult engineering problems, and with the Granby operational command chain. At the heart of our normal UK base organisation is the Mission Support System (MSS). This high speed, post-flight analysis and high-capacity, data-handling system, which was manufactured by the UK company Thorn-EMI, entered Royal Air Force service almost four years ago. MSS has been installed at the two maritime bases at Kinloss and St Mawgan and the Northwood headquarters of Cinceastlant. A recent innovation was to link all three stand-alone systems. Fortunately, this project was completed before the onset of Granby, and had proved invaluable in helping handle the vastly increased level of communications. More importantly, within days of the start of the current crisis, Thorn-EMI produced a remotely-deployable MSS which was rapidly positioned in the Ops Centre at Seeb. This system consists of little more than a PC with three, cabin-trunk sized units providing the additional store and processing power. It is also linked to the UK MSS data highway, and thus takes a substantial part of the in theatre communications system. The construction of all Rainforms is automatic and the friendly surface picture is also retained in the Seeb database which can, of course, be assessed by the UK users. In summary, the quality of the data-handling and communications provided by the MSS network has been a vital factor in establishing a robust command-and-control structure for MPA operations.
Elsewhere in this issue of Maritime Patrol Aviation is an article giving a detailed description of the AAR modifications which were made to the Nimrod for Operation Corporate. Clearly, it is not possible to give full information on all the Operation Granby modifications at this stage, but much effort has been applied to fine-tuning the sensors for the Nimrod's role in the Gulf. The communications suite has also been enhanced with a view to making it compatible with all the other air and naval forces in the theatre. Other ex-Corporate systems have been upgraded and developed and, in this respect, the Nimrod Aircraft Engineering Investigation and Development Team or AEDIT has, once again, proved invaluable. This small, elite team of engineering experts is based at Kinloss and is usually engaged in investigating complete or obscure defects or designing and fitting equipment for special operations and trials. As a team, they possess a wealth of expertise on Nimrod engineering and, in an operations such as Granby, they are able to design, instal and conduct trials on new equipments within days. The success of their work also hinges on close liaison with manufacturers and, once again, those elements of the UK defence industry involved with the Nimrod, particularly British Aerospace, have risen to the challenge of Granby with great energy and determination.
Turning to the problems of operating the Nimrod in an extremely hot and dust-laden climate, there have been remarkably few difficulties. The high-bypass Rolls Royce Spey engines seen unaffected by the ingestion of so much silicon dust and, with sensible ground management, the sensors have remained remarkably serviceable. AS any maintainer knows, the more an aircraft flies, the more serviceable it becomes!
At this stage it is impossible to predict the next stage in the Gulf Crisis, let alone the final outcome. However, in the months that have elapsed so far, the Nimrod detachment in Seeb has provided a vital ingredient to the UN embargo and, together with the surface units in the region, represents a powerful deterrent to would-be sanction busters. The ease with which the Nimrod has been able to provide this vital service again highlights the importance of air power in this type of operation and underlines the flexibility and importance of MPA to a commander faced with the type of complex problems that will continue to arise in the new world order.