Tornados in Combat

Chris England served as a Tornado pilot during the air war in Iraq last year. Here he gives a glimpse of how the Combat Air Wing operated at Ali Al Salem During Operation TELIC. March 20 — April 14.

THE RAF contribution to policing the Southern No-Fly Zone in Iraq had been going on since 1992, and by early January 2003 was termed Operation RESINATE. As part of the regular Tornado GR.4 commitments, 31 Sqn deployed routinely to Ali Al Salem airbase in Kuwait. That January it once again returned with eight crews to conduct medium level reconnaissance with the new RAPTOR pod and medium level bombing, when required, with precision guided weapons.

As the tension in the region grew, these crews were augmented in early and mid-February by the rest of the 31 Sqn Combat Ready crews, along with a number of crews from IX(B) Sqn. At the very end of February, the remainder of the IX(B) Sqn crews deployed together with crews from II(AC), XIII and 617 Sqns, culminating in a grand total of 36 crews available for offensive operations. In total, the crew breakdown comprised 12 from 31 Sqn, 12 x IX(B) Sqn, 6 x 617 Sqn, 4 x XIII Sqn and 2 x II(AC) Sqn crews. From February 15, 2003, overall command of the combined squadron, termed the Combat Air Wing (CAW), rested with Wg Cdr (now Gp Capt) I D ‘Paddy’ Teakle OBE DSO, then Officer Commanding 31 Sqn. These flying crews were assisted by two Squadron Leaders from II(AC) Sqn, who were to be responsible for running the flying programme and allocating aircraft and crews to the war effort. There were other support staff from the intelligence community and over 240 ground crew, again drawn from all five squadrons.

The number of Tornados based at Ali Al Salem rose steadily from the usual Operation RESINATE number of eight to a total of 19 by the beginning of offensive operations. There was a deliberate mix of Tornado GR.4 and GR.4A aircraft available to the UK Air Component Commander. Air Vice Marshal Glenn Torpy. Once all 36 crews were in theatre and fully ‘read-in’ to all the procedures, they began to be used on Operation RESINATE sorties, some of which became more provocative than was normally the case. As the political machine rumbled closer to war, the crews began to adopt the shift patterns they would use for the first few days and weeks of the conflict. Crews which were due to carry out the majority of their sorties at night began to alter their sleeping patterns so that they would go to bed around 5am, sleep through until 3pm and then go into work for planning and mission rehearsal. As time finally ran out for the Iraqi regime, the crews were briefed by Wg Cdr Teakle on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 18 that A-Day, the start of the air portion of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (or Operation TELIC as the UK contribution was described) would begin on Friday, March 21.

The CAW was tasked with a wide range of roles. Clearly the most obvious was that of bombing, initially of static targets to shape the battle space, and then sorties in direct support of the land forces. These latter Close Air Support (CAS) sorties were to make up the bulk of the tasking and were spread more or less evenly across all crews. The other main role throughout the campaign was reconnaissance. The Reconnaissance Airborne Pod for TORnado (RAPTOR) pod had entered limited operational service the previous year and was now to be used extensively to produce high quality imagery for a wide range of ‘customers’. These included the Land Component Commander downwards and the results were used to show Iraqi force dispositions, Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) and pre attack reconnaissance for ongoing operations. Initially, the 31 Sqn crews flew all the RAPTOR sorties as they were the most experienced in its use. As the conflict progressed, more crews were trained up on the use of the pod, so that by the end of the war over half the available crews had used it. Each squadron brought personnel with specific skills other than reconnaissance or conventional bombing. In the early stages of the attacks, especially those against Baghdad, Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) was destined to be of vital importance and this role was allocated primarily to IX(B) Sqn as that was one of its main roles within the Tornado Force. No.31 Sqn also has a SEAD role and a few of its crews were used for later firings. No.617 Sqn was present with six specifically-trained crews to fire the Storm Shadow missile on its operational debut. However, there was only a limited number of missiles ready to fire so the crews also carried out CAS sorties. The II (AC) and XIII Sqn crews were used in their specialist role of night electro optical (EO) low-level reconnaissance to fly over the Iraqi Western Desert and used the Tornado Infra-red Reconnaissance System (TIRRS) and the Thermal Imaging Aircraft Laser Designator (TIALD pod to search for Scud missiles as part of a large Coalition Time Sensitive Targeting (TST) package. A massive range of capability was present at Ali Al Salem, giving the commanders a high degree of flexibility.

The Operation TELIC rules of engagement came into force on March 19, although the first true TELIC sorties were not flown until the following day. As things turned out, the war started early with a leadership decapitation attempt (technical term for the attempted killing of Saddam Hussein) on the morning of March 20. The Iraqi response was prompt and consisted of several Al Samoud, Ababil 100 and Seersucker missiles being fired into Kuwait. At that stage in the war, it was firmly believed that chemical or biological weapons would be used and all personnel awoke early to the sounds of the air attack sirens, got dressed quickly in their Nuclear Biological and Chemical (NBC) suits and respirators, and headed for the air raid shelters. Many of the incoming missiles were intercepted by Patriot, and those that were not, detonated harmlessly in the desert. The all-clear was heard around 40 minutes later and all personnel were finally allowed to unmask and go back to their normal duties. Having just got back into bed or back to work, another air attack occurred and this set the pattern for the rest of the next few days. The NBC drills so grudgingly undertaken in the run-up to the war were now carried out much more conscientiously! The air raid shelter used by the aircrew was normally used as a TV room, with seats for around 30 people at most. A few days before the start of the war, the soft chairs were removed to allow around 70 people to be crammed in, using standing room only. Now imagine a scenario where most of those 70 people are trying to dress in their NBC kit whilst wearing respirators and you start to get a picture of how busy the room was. Crews who were at work invariably stayed in their NBC kit and briefed, if necessary, with respirators on. One problem which had to be overcome was if an air raid was called as the aircraft was being started. In that situation the crew had the option of shutting down and running for the shelter or, if they were close enough to taxy, of having the chocks removed and taking off immediately whilst the ground crew made for their shelter. At least one formation did just this, but was then so early for its mission that the sortie had to be cancelled because it did not have enough fuel to wait for the rest of the package. March 20, 2003, started with a conventional bombing mission against the Iraqi Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) in the morning, plus an early-morning RAPTOR formation. Evening brought the start of the TST missions, with two pairs flown covering a four-hour on-task commitment per pair of aircraft. On Friday, March 21 the main offensive sorties began with the so-called ‘Shock and Awe’ attacks. The Storm Shadow missiles were among the first to hit Baghdad, followed shortly afterwards by the ALARM (Air Launched Anti-Radiation Missile) firers of IX (B) Sqn. From this time onwards, the Tornados entered a rolling series of attacks which went on until mid-April.

One of the main features discernible is that the Tornado GR.4 is capable of all the roles placed upon it. In the days of the GR.1, the Tornado force suffered from ‘fleets within fleets’: aircraft which could carry the reconnaissance pod not carry TIALD and so forth. The GR.4 changed all that, and apart from specialist software that needed to be loaded for the Storm Shadow firings, all aircraft were compatible with all roles, making life much easier for programmers and engineers. After mid-April the tempo of operations began to reduce slightly and the tasking rate fell by about 30%. Sorties were now either RAPTOR or on-call CAS. The latter task was vital but as no aircraft was called upon to drop any weapons from April 14 onwards, there was a certain element of frustration amongst the crews. The situation had reached the stage where the crew numbers could be relaxed — the 617 Sqn crews were the first to depart, followed eventually by the whole of 31 Sqn, many of whom had arrived on January 3.

Fresh crews now arrived, predominantly in the form of XIII Sqn, which had been held in reserve back in the UK, assisted by crews from other Marham squadrons who were now combat ready. The change-over was such that all crews who had taken part in offensive operations were home by the end of the first week of May 2003 and the Combat Air Wing ceased to exist.


In this conflict most of the weapons used by the RAF were precision-guided. There were also various ‘firsts’ in terms of weapons recently introduced to service. The Storm Shadow missile was fired for the first time against heavily-defended hardened targets early in the war, and the ALARM Mk 2 missile was also used during the first few days. Of note was the high proportion (171) of Enhanced Paveway 2 (EPW2) weapons used. The Enhanced Paveway uses a Global Positioning System (GPS) tracker to guide it towards a set of coordinates entered into the weapon. The navigator has the ability to change the bomb’s coordinates whilst airborne, to cater for rapidly-moving targets. The weapon can be dropped through cloud or sandstorms as it requires no further designation when dropped. This bestows an enormous capability and was a welcome advance after the problems identified during the Kosovo campaign where poor weather prevented many weapons from being released. If desired, the weapon can either be used in pure GPS mode or can be designated to its target by the TIALD pod or other laser designators. The usual weapon load for the Tornado GR.4 was two EPW2 and a TIALD pod, unless the target was known to be static with a large number of Desired Mean Point of Impacts (DMPI) — such as ammunition storage sites or runways — when three EPW2 would be carried. Typical CAS targets would be attacked with EPW2 or conventional Paveway 2 (PW2) if the weather was known to be good, or occasionally with RBL755 or ‘dumb’ 1,000lb (454kg) weapons. As the ground war approached Baghdad, the Wing began to get involved in urban CAS. Initially the aircraft carried EPW2 High Explosive Substitute (HES) weapons, ie concrete, in an attempt to minimise collateral damage and civilian casualties. However, it quickly became apparent that greater tactical effectiveness would be gained by reverting to high explosive weapons and so only four HES EPW2 weapons were used. Every day during the conflict there would be around four to six RAPTOR sorties flown, usually as pairs. The TST sorties were mostly flown at the beginning of the conflict and then just before the final ground push towards Baghdad. They were all flown at night and the aircraft load was three 1,000lb (454kg) retard bombs and a TIALD pod. The Wing’s aircraft carried AIM-9L Sidewinders for the first few days of the war, but once it became apparent that the Iraqi Air Force was not going to fly, they were downloaded to reduce the drag on the aircraft.

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