Cold War Era

Intercepting Iraqi MiG-25s, flying DACT against USMC F/A-18s and flying training sorties with live weapons: how RAF Tornado F3 crews prepared for Operation Desert Storm

‘Some sorties included highly dynamic dissimilar air combat exercises against the US Marine Corps F/A 18, as it had a similar performance to the Iraqi MiG 29. The Marines were excellent, flying Iraqi tactics, so that we could hone our skills,’ Wg Cdr D R Hamilton, commanding No 11 Sqn.

When the Gulf Crisis of 1990 was triggered by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Royal Air Force (RAF) responded by sending Tornado F3 fighters to Saudi Arabia to help defend the country against further aggression. These aircraft were followed by the deployment of Tornado GR1 strike/attack aircraft to Bahrain. Eventually three wings of Tornado GR1s were established in Bahrain, Tabuk and Dhahran, as well as a detachment of Tornado GR1A reconnaissance aircraft.

As told by Michael Napier in his book RAF Tornado Units of Gulf War I, by Aug. 16, five days after the arrival of the RAF Tornado F3s in theatre, there had already been three border infringements by Iraqi Air Force (IrAF) aircraft. One, thought to be a MiG-25 ‘Foxbat’, was five nautical miles south of the border flying at 35,000 ft and 650 knots, and the second, believed to be a Mirage F1EQ, also penetrated five nautical miles into Saudi airspace. Both aircraft turned away as soon as they were radar locked by US Air Force (USAF) F-15s. The third incident occurred at night time, when a contact was declared hostile by AWACS and locked onto by a Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) F-15 – it also turned away in time.

Other air activity included reports by AWACS of Iraqi Combat Air Patrols (CAPs) north of the border. Coalition CAPs were defined by 30 nautical mile squares stretching from over the sea in mid Gulf to the east, to a position some 300 nautical miles inland along the Iraqi border to the west. Transit time from Dhahran to the CAPs was about 30 minutes. There was also a 60 nautical mile buffer zone between the Iraqi border and the CAPs, but only a 30 nautical mile buffer between the CAPs and the Kuwaiti border. USAF and RSAF aircraft could enter the buffer zone right up to the border, but RAF aircraft entering the buffer zone had to remain ten nautical miles from the border. CAPs were controlled by USAF Boeing E-3 Sentry or US Navy Grumman E-2 Hawkeye aircraft. For operational sorties, the Tornado F3s were configured with four AIM-9L and four Skyflash TEMP AAMs and carried 2250 litre underwing fuel tanks.

Training sorties were flown with live weapons too. The advantage of flying training sorties in fully armed aircraft was that aircrews never had to switch between live and training fits, and groundcrews were saved the extra work of unnecessary loading and unloading missiles. Opponents on these sorties included packages of up to ten RAF Tornado GR1s, Jaguars or USAF F-4Gs, although mutual intercepts against Tornado F3s were also carried out. In addition, Wg Cdr D R Hamilton, commanding No 11 Sqn, who was given the task of forming a new unit, No 11 (Composite) Sqn (which became known as the ‘Desert Eagles’) to take over the Tornado F3 detachment at Dhahran on permanent basis, recalled that some ‘sorties included highly dynamic dissimilar air combat exercises against the US Marine Corps F/A-18, as it had a similar performance to the Iraqi MiG-29. The Marines were excellent, flying Iraqi tactics, so that we could hone our skills.’ On another training sortie flown on Nov. 8, the Tornados were pitted against a force of 26 USAF F-16s and four F-4Gs.

As a result of the mix of operational tasking and training sorties, the ‘Desert Eagles’ were flying more than 1000 hours a month, against a normal squadron flying task of 280 hours. More than anything else, this was a remarkable achievement by the engineering groundcrew, led by Sqn Ldr G Morgan.

The reality of the operational situation was brought home on Oct. 16 when a Tornado F3 on CAP picked up a contact in Iraq flying at high speed towards the border. It was an IrAF ‘Foxbat’. The Tornados were instructed by the AWACS controller to arm their missiles and commit northwards, but as they did so, the MiG-25 turned away and no longer presented a threat. In analysing this incident, it was realised that because of the speeds involved and the proximity to the border, if the ‘Foxbat’ had been engaged and shot down, it would probably have fallen on Iraqi, rather than Saudi, soil. This would undoubtedly have sparked off an unwanted crisis at a time when a peaceful solution was still being sought to defuse tensions in the area. As a result, the CAP positions were withdrawn another 50 miles back from the border.

A month later, Sqn Ldr Paxton, flying with Flt Lt M Tetlow, was leading a night time CAP;

‘My nav said that he had two contacts approaching the border from the north. He called the AWACS and reported that we had contact on two slow movers heading south. He gave their position, and an American voice responded, “No you haven’t”. The nav repeated the details and the American replied, much more insistent now “NO YOU HAVEN’T!” That’s when the penny dropped. We subsequently found out that they were our own special forces helicopters returning from a drop behind enemy lines.’

RAF Tornado Units of Gulf War I is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

A Royal Air Force VC10, in the tanker role, carries out the air-to-air refuelling of a two RAF Tornado F3s.

Photo credit: SAC Sarah Burrows, Sgt Rick Brewell / Crown Copyright and Alex Beltyukov via Wikipedia

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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