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Gulf War I – Introduction

Ross Mahoney and Emmett Sullivan discuss the Gulf War 1990-91, which was a major engagement for the RAF
EMMETT SULLIVAN: And now, chronologically, we come to the very end of the Cold War period and the Gulf War. But before we consider the first Gulf War, Ross, can you tell us a little bit about the size and the nature of the RAF circa 1990? DR.
ROSS MAHONEY: Yeah, so the RAF in 1990 is a very different organisation to what it is today, but also a very different organisation to what it was in 1945. Simply in terms of equipment, we’re talking about nine Tornado strike attack squadrons, the IDS variant, the interdiction variant; what we refer to as five Offensive Support Squadrons; three Harrier squadrons; and two squadrons of Jaguars; five reconnaissance squadrons, mixture of aircraft, Jaguars and Tornadoes; two squadrons of Buccaneers, like the aircraft we have behind us, in the maritime strike role. And then there are also 11 air defence squadrons. There are seven squadrons of the air defence variant of the Tornado, but also still four squadrons operating the Phantom.
There’s of course the Nimrod force in the maritime patrol role. And then there’s one squadron of airborne early warning still operating the Shackleton, but will shortly, in 1991, start re-equipping with the E-3D Sentry. There’s a transport force, six fixed-wing squadrons, a helicopter support force of five squadrons. And then there are the refuelling squadrons, and of course there is also the RAF Regiment. By 1990, I mean, essentially it is a force geared up for operations on the central front. The strike squadrons are equipped with weapons such as the JP233 area denial weapon. And that’s what they’re primarily being prepared for, is a hot war on the central front. So it’s a very different force.
And we’ve seen that evolution, as we’ve talked in the course, from the strategic nuclear deterrent to the change and refocus on the central front, to a very capable force. And of course in 1990, it comes to be tested in a war scenario. DR.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Now, in Gulf War I, both the Tornado ADV and the Tornado IDS were deployed– and in the latter case, really deployed in its Cold War role, at least initially. DR.
ROSS MAHONEY: Yeah. So the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, of course, leads to a response from the Western governments. Within 72 hours, the RAF has deployed a full range of aircraft. The air defence variant of the Tornado, the F3, is deployed and is conducting defensive counter-air operations. And also the RAF deploys the Jaguar to Amman, and starts to deploy maritime air assets, and so forth. And of course, eventually, as things start to escalate, we move from what the Americans refer to as Operation Desert Shield to Operation Desert Storm. The RAF deploys its offensive air capability in the form of the Tornado.
Significant forces are deployed from the RAF squadrons, primarily from RAF Germany, but also from the squadrons based in the UK. And yeah, initially in the first phase of operations against Iraqi targets during the offensive counter-air campaign to achieve air superiority, the Tornado is used in a low-level role, using the JP233 area-denial weapon to help take out Iraqi airfields and gain air superiority over the battlefield. That role then changes the RAF. Once air superiority is achieved, RAF moves to a medium-level campaign. And initially, the Tornado force uses dumb bombs, but fairly quickly moves to using precision-guided weapons, Paveway. And indeed, during the course of the campaign, 60% of the munitions dropped by the Tornado force is precision-guided weaponry.
And the RAF and the Tornado in particular, but also its other assets, such as the Jaguar, which is conducting battlefield aerial interdiction, provides a great deal of support for the coalition effort. DR.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Just within that context, Ross, we do see the Buccaneer deployed in one of its last operational roles within the context of Gulf War I. And it becomes, effectively, a laser designator, which links in with the change of the Tornado IDS role that you spoke about. DR.
ROSS MAHONEY: Yeah. When the change of role occurs for the Tornado force during Gulf War I, it requires a laser designator, and Buccaneers from the two maritime strike squadrons are deployed into theatre to help designate, Spike designate, for the Tornado force. Gradually, eventually, the Buccaneer itself carries precision-guided weapons and is attacking targets on its own, and the Tornado starts designating for itself, and so forth. So there is this– what is essentially the swan song for the Buccaneer during the course of the first Gulf War. DR.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: OK. And finally, certainly in the contemporary media, Gulf War I was associated with precision bombing more than anything else. You made the point in terms of the RAF having a very heavy use of precision bombing from Tornado strikes. Was that more generally the case? DR.
ROSS MAHONEY: It’s a bit of a misnomer, yeah. The vision we have of the first Gulf War is, we see it through the lens of the pilot’s screen. There were various– and I remember as a young child based in Germany– my father was serving with the Army at the time– sitting there and seeing the pictures being beamed through BFBS at the time, British Forces Broadcasting Service. But clearly, lots of them came through the Americans. And much was made about the fact that you were taking out bridges and targets precision. But actually, the vast majority of weapons used by coalition forces were still traditional dumb weapons.
PGMs, precision-guided munition, had been introduced in the Vietnam War, but they weren’t being used in the way today. Today, virtually all operations conducted by the West are conducted with precision weapons. Though, of course, that’s a broad term. There are accidents, of course. But during the first Gulf War, the majority of munitions dropped are still non-precision-guided munitions. That’s not to say that they don’t attempt to drop them in a precision manner, but they are free-fall weapons. DR.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Ross, this aircraft has a very distinctive livery. How would you describe it? DR.
ROSS MAHONEY: RAF aircraft, when they were deployed into theatre, were painted– were given a new camouflage. Of course, the Tornado GR1 that’s behind us is in a temperate camouflage used on the central front, which is completely inappropriate for operating over the desert in the Middle East. The RAF use a colour called desert pink. And the pilots took to painting nose art on their aircraft with varying degrees of artistic license. One might describe there are some quite raunchy examples on the front of certain aircraft, including Buccaneers, but also even up to the tanker force. The Victor tankers that were deployed out there do have this livery painted on them. DR.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Now, that really rounds up the operational presence of the RAF in the Cold War period that we’re dealing with in the course.

Freeing Kuwait.

In this step we consider the following statements:

  1. Gulf War I saw both the Tornado ADV and the Tornado IDS versions deployed, the latter in a Cold War role, initially at least.
  2. Eventually Buccaneers were deployed as target designators, and the role of the Tornado.
  3. The emphasis in the Gulf War seemed very much on precision bombing.

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From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

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