‘We had practised in the sim against the “Foxbat” and knew if he decided to run at the AWACS or the tankers, he would be a tricky target,’ Sqn Ldr K J Reeves, RAF Tornado F3 crew member.
For four years from February 1999 to February 2003, the Royal Air Force (RAF) Tornado F3 fighter jets flew hundreds of OCA (Offensive Counter-Air) missions to protect Coalition air assets during Operations Northern and Southern Watch over Iraq.
As explained by Michael Napier in his book RAF Tornado Units in Combat 1992-2019, each of the five Tornado F 3 units, Nos 5, 11, 25, 43 and 111 Sqns, took its turn to provide personnel for two-and-a-half-month roulements, with No 5 Sqn flying its last detachment before disbandment in February to April 2002.
As the build-up towards Operation Telic (as Operation Iraqi Freedom was codenamed by the UK) approached in March 2003, the detachment was expanded to 14 aircraft. The 16 crews were provided by Nos 43 and 111 Sqns of the Leuchars Wing. The aircraft were modified with the fitment of KY-100 secure radio and armed with the MBDA AIM-132 ASRAAM. The southern no-fly zone (NFZ) was divided into three lanes running north-south, each of which was covered continuously by four or eight fighters. At first, the fighters in all three lanes were coordinated by a Defensive Counter Air (DCA) Commander, but once hostilities started, the system proved to be too cumbersome. Instead, the fighters operated semi-autonomously within their designated lane.
‘On the night of 18 March – our last Op Resinate mission – I was DCA Commander running 12 fighters across the three lanes when the Iraqis started launching several Mirages and MiG-23s in an apparent show of force’, recalled Sqn Ldr K J Reeves from No 111 Sqn. ‘Our RoE wouldn’t let us go after them as they were just north of the NFZ, but I could just see them on JTIDS. Everybody in each lane had just finished the second swap out of the mission, and we had just taken over from a pair of F-15s and started our second slot when we were called to go “green” [secure radio] and were informed that at least one MiG-25 “Foxbat” had just gotten airborne opposite my lane.
‘We had practised in the sim against the “Foxbat” and knew if he decided to run at the AWACS or the tankers, he would be a tricky target. The SOP would have involved “retrograding” the AWACS – getting him to run like hell, thus losing us our air picture – while we engaged the “Foxbat”. Our tankers would also leg it, complicating things, as we would have to punch off our tanks to make our tiny engagement window.
‘The F-15s had only just arrived on the tanker, and while they would be a formidable backstop, they needed plenty of fuel to make the intercept behind us. I called them, and told them to keep taking fuel until I called the retrograde (if the “Foxbat” decided to run south) while I watched him appear on my radar, climbing and accelerating in a huge spiral to the north. In the end, I locked him up and started an oblique run towards him, then spiked him with the CW [continuous-wave] Illuminator as he started to turn south. He got the message, probably thinking I was launching a missile at him, and arced away northwards.’
Meanwhile, in the No 3 aircraft, Flt Lt Macintyre ‘watched on datalink all the US fighters abandon their lanes and rush towards the probable boundary crossing point. It was just like schoolboy football! Kenny ordered our F 3 pair back south, and we took up a goalkeeper role about 50–60 nautical miles behind the main action. We were the only unit to do this – last line of defence! We did receive plaudits for this in the mission debrief, but we glossed over the fact that we needed those 50 or so miles anyway to effect an interception against a high-flying target such as a “Foxbat”!’
RAF Tornado Units in Combat 1992-2019 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: SAC Sarah Burrows, Sgt Rick Brewell / Crown Copyright and Alex Beltyukov via Wikipedia