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Gulf War I – Part II

Ross Mahoney and Seb Cox discuss the Gulf War 1990-91, which was a major engagement for the RAF.
ROSS MAHONEY: Both Emmett and I have discussed the RAF’s role during the first Gulf War in 1990, which of course, comes at the end of the period of history referred to as the Cold War. We have with us Seb Cox, the head of the RAF’s historical branch. Seb, I’m going to use a term that historians don’t really like, but for the development of the RAF, how important for the development of its thinking was the first Gulf War as a turning point in that process?
SEBASTIAN COX: Well, the First Gulf War is clearly a watershed. The Cold War has come to an end only very shortly before that. And funny old thing, there is a large amount of talk about the peace dividend. And while the RAF deploys to the first Gulf War, the Ministry of Defence back in the UK is still continuing to conduct a Defence Review. It doesn’t stop until the end of the war. It continues while the war is actually being fought. So the RAF is, in one sense, anxious to demonstrate its capability, its importance, its capacity, because obviously, it wants to come out of the Defence Review reasonably well.
So it’s anxious to show that all this expensive weaponry is actually of some use when you get into a war. The war itself, of course, is not the war that they had expected to fight. For the previous decades, they’d been expecting to fight on NATO’s central front. And weapon systems such as the Tornado and the JP233, the munition specifically designed to disrupt enemy airfields by taking out the runway and the taxiways, these are weapon systems predicated on fighting a war against a large scale conventional enemy in Europe. And so when they get to the Gulf War, in the early days, they try to use JP233. And there’s a lot of controversy because it’s a low-level delivery system.
So all of their tactical thinking has been previously predicated on, you go in very low, you go in very fast, and you hope to avoid being shot down because you’re difficult to detect and you’re difficult to hit. But actually, that didn’t necessarily prove to be the case. And the RAF finds itself in a situation where within about the first five days of the war, firstly, the Iraqi air force is not really coming up to play. It’s not interested in trying to take on the United States Air Force because it knows, frankly, it’s probably going to die. So they’re not really flying.
So if they’re not flying, then taking out their runways and attacking their airfields, particularly since it proves to be quite dangerous and the RAF suffers some losses in the early days of the war, and if they’re not flying at all, then this looks like pretty pointless exercise.
Many other things then come into play. The suggestion is, well, if you’re losing people at low level because doing something that isn’t necessary, then best to shift to a higher level where it’s safer, because the Iraqi air defence system is largely been taken out by the Americans. So you don’t have the same level of ground-based air defences you would have in Central Europe fighting the Soviets. What there was has been neutralised. So it’s much safer to go up actually to medium level. But if you’re operating from medium level, actually, the Tornado, and particularly its weapons delivery systems, were not really designed to do that.
And you’re actually going back to a system where the Tornado at that level, at that stage in the war, is no more accurate than a Second World War Lancaster bomber. So how it can be made more accurate is to use, of course, laser-guided bombs. And one of the things that comes out of Gulf War One is the importance of precision weapons system. Now, lots of people believed that most of the war was fought with precision weapons et cetera, because everybody’s seen the videos of bombs disappearing down ventilation shafts, et cetera. In fact, only 10% of the air dropped munitions in Gulf War One were precision. It is a revolution. It’s quite a slow revolution.
The first precision weapons had been used in the Vietnam War. But it was quite a slow transition. It’s not one of those instant transitions. The RAF has some precision weapons, but what it doesn’t have is the capacity in theatre to guide them. Because the Tornado’s system for doing that is under development. A pod that goes on the aircraft called TIALD. Otherwise, it was going to rely on designation from other aircraft, and particularly the Buccaneers. But they’ve been left back in the UK because the Americans had initially said, oh, well if you need laser guidance, we’ll do it for you with our F-15s. Funny old thing, wars are unpredictable.
The F-15E’s are now all off hunting Saddam Hussein’s scuds, so they can’t laser designate for the RAF’s Tornados. So what does the RAF do? It deploys the Buccaneer, which it said it wasn’t going to deploy in the first place. And it also puts into theatre two of the experimental TIALD pods and puts them onto Tornados, and it now has a laser designation capability. And it can now drop precision weapons from medium altitude. And it’s no longer dropping them with the same accuracy as a Second World War Lancaster. So you can see a lot of things feed into a change in thinking.
The lack of medium level opposition, the capacity of the USAF to support with jamming aircraft, the RAF’s ability to operate at that level. The RAF had not developed jamming aircraft in the ’60s and ’70s, partly, funny old thing, on the grounds of cost. The sort of Wild Weasel and Raven aircraft that the USAF uses in that role are incredibly expensive. And so the RAF had chosen the, we’ll stay at low level, we’ll keep ourselves safe down there by operating very fast and very low, had meant they hadn’t developed the capacity to have airborne jammers. But the Americans had.
So you fly in a package with American jammers, which can not only jam for your formation, some of them, but they can jam on a wider area. So other packages of aircraft nearby, but not that close, can also operate under that electronic screen. In the longer term, of course, of the RAF then does go down the precision route, as most air forces have done since Gulf War One. Gulf War One was the watershed for precision. It had been demonstrated on a smaller scale in Vietnam, but now everybody recognised this was the way you had to go. Not least because of legal and moral constraints on the use of air weapons that were not as discriminant as a precision weapon.
You did not want to see significant civilian casualties. And even during Gulf War One, there were a couple of instances where there were significant casualties. And that causes reactions both in the world’s media and in the United Nations, et cetera, which you don’t necessarily want. So famously, an RAF aircraft dropped a laser-guided bomb. The laser guidance system malfunctioned and the bomb– because laser-guided bombs actually fly, the bomb flew off way away from where it was supposed to land, and it landed in Fallujah marketplace. Killed lots of people. And there’s a big public reaction to that. The Americans have a similar incident.
So as the precision weaponry is developed, we’re now in a situation in the 21st century where it’s almost de rigueur to use precision weapons rather than unguided weapons. And it’s largely– well, it’s driven by two things. It’s driven by the military sense of having a weapon that is as precise as possible. But it’s also driven by the political need to be seen to be as precise and discriminant as possible. And all of that largely comes out of Gulf War One. DR.
ROSS MAHONEY: Thank you, sir. Some interesting thoughts there about the importance of the First Gulf War. And it’s interesting to think about the changes Seb talked about– precision guided weapons. Yes, they’d been developed in Vietnam. How would they have been used in a Cold War sense? Or would they have been used? And of course, the impact that, to use the term that Seb used, the watershed of the First Gulf War has had on the development of the RAF and its thinking behind how it operates and the types of weapons that it operates as we move into the 21st century.

Seb Cox on Gulf War I

We were very grateful for the time Seb Cox gave us speaking to Ross and myself at RAF Hendon on a cold December day.

Please let us know what you think of Seb’s analysis below.

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