Operation Bolton

A Tornado GR1 equipped with a TIALD pod extends its airbrakes during an Operation Bolton sortie.

Since the end of the Gulf War the UN had been monitoring Iraq’s compliance with UN directives on biological and chemical warfare. The work of a team of inspectors established by the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) had largely been unnoticed by the media, but they were thrown into the limelight during late 1997 when the Iraqis stopped co-operating with UNSCOM. As part of the diplomatic response to Iraq, the UK initiated Operation Bolton in October to reinforce British presence in the region. The Saudis were unwilling to allow offensive operations to be carried out from their territory, so initially Operation Bolton comprised the deployment of HMS Invincible, augmented by the Harrier GR.7s of 1 Squadron, to the Persian Gulf. They arrived in theatre in late January. However, in the meantime the Kuwaitis had expressed a willingness to host combat aircraft and on Friday 6 February, just three months after completing their previous operational tour, 14 Squadron at Brüggen was given 48hrs notice to return to the Middle East. Crews were immediately recalled from leave and detachments. ‘I was skiing in Val d’Isere,’ recalls Flt Lt S.E. Reeves, ‘when I got a call saying “come on back” so I had to hire a car and drive back to Brüggen.’ The squadron also had crews taking part in the night Tactical Leadership Training (TLT) exercise at Leuchars: ‘the TLT staff came and instructed the two 14 Squadron crews to return to Brüggen immediately’ recalled Flt Lt K.R. Rumens. ‘At the time we had absolutely no idea why. The next day back at Brüggen the Boss briefed all of the 14 Squadron aircrew and engineers and informed us that first thing Monday morning we would be taking nine Tornado GR1s out to a base in Kuwait. We were to get ready for war immediately.’

An advance party of engineers was despatched to get the airfield ready for operations. As he disembarked from the aircraft, Ch Tech Spanswick was reminded of the disparaging comments he had made a few months beforehand when he had first seen Al Kharj. ‘We arrived at Ali Al Salem at about 04:00hrs with thunderstorms all round, and in the darkness we could just make out collapsed tents and rivers of mud and waterlogged sand everywhere. I said “Finchy, do you remember what I said when we arrived in Al Kharj… well it just has got worse” In my opinion Ali Al Salem was a unique deployment: to my knowledge it was the first time an RAF Tornado squadron had deployed, completely on its own (with no support from any other squadron and certainly no help form the Americans) to a bare-based operating location, especially being so close to the Iraqi border. It was quite scary, as we had no idea what was going to happen, no idea how long it was going to last, nor when we would get home. All we knew was that we had twenty-four hours to get the place up and running to accept thirteen Tornados being deployed from UK and Brüggen. A couple of years earlier I had driven past Ali Al Salem when going to a Kuwait bombing range and saw the devastation of the base with bombed out HASs and building et cetera. However, it was all extremely exciting in a very nervous way and we pulled together as a complete squadron. Twenty-four hours later, the runway was clear and we had sorted out the aprons in front of the HASs to accept the aircraft. It was quite an awesome sight to see thirteen Tornados taxi in, in pitch-black conditions at a bombed out airfield in the middle of the Kuwait desert. And on top of that it was only a few hours later the jets were ready for their first mission over Iraq. And so on a diet of boiled rice and boiled chicken our adventures began… again.’

Back at Brüggen the whole station worked over the weekend to get the aircraft ready and on 9 February 1998, nine Tornados left Brüggen heading for Kuwait. A further four aircraft deployed directly from the UK. Ali Al Salem Air Base, which lay some twenty-five miles to the west of Kuwait City, had been re-occupied by the Kuwaiti Air Force (KAF) after the Gulf War, but details about the airfield were scant. ‘As squadron QFI,’ continued Flt Lt Rumens, ‘I was tasked with briefing the squadron with what facilities the airfield had. The brief was pretty lean. We had no charts/plates, no information on radar services or approach aids. I had worked out from satellite imagery the approximate runway direction and length and it looked like concrete. In fact the only thing we knew was phoned through to us from Tom Boyle, our former Boss, who was already in theatre. Tom informed us that Kuwait City International Airport would see us into the area on their radar and then chop us to Ali Al Salem Tower for which a frequency was provided.’ After a 7½hr flight, the Tornados reached Kuwait in darkness. The runway lighting showed up well, but on taxying off the runway Flt Lt Rumens discovered that ‘there were no lights anywhere else on the airfield so we were waved off of the runway by a few engineers who had torches and we shut down and chocked nine Tornados in a tight “gaggle” on a bit of concrete just off the end of the runway. The next day in the light the engineers had to tow aircraft to the parking places.’ The airfield was still in the semi-destroyed state in which it had been left after the Gulf War.

Over the next two days, the squadron established a dispersed operating base in one of the HAS sites. Each of the large HAS had an enormous hole in the roof, thanks to the attention of Coalition aircraft during the Gulf War. Despite the holes, the shelters provided ideal storage space for engineering equipment. In one HAS the operations and engineering facilities were set up inside long tents, each of which was protected with sandbags. Initially the aircraft were parked in the open outside the shelters but later on, as the temperatures rose, light-weight canopies were constructed to protect airframes, engineers and aircrew from the sun. Weapons were delivered to Ali Al Salem and the TIALD pods being used by 17 Squadron for Operation Jural were flown in from Al Kharj. Forty-eight hours after arriving in Kuwait, 14 Squadron declared itself ready for operations.

In the end, the Tornados were not required for attack operations. Diplomatic initiatives had quickly defused the crisis and a new agreement between Iraq and UNSCOM was signed on 17 February. However the squadron remained in Ali Al Salem for the next three months to fly Jural-type sorties in the southern NFZ. Within each pair of aircraft, the leader would be TIALD-equipped and also be loaded with two Paveway II LGBs; his wingmen would carry the Vicon pod. Flying continued around the clock and most crews flew a mixture of day and night missions. When compared to Dhahran or Al Kharj, Ali Al Salem was much close to Iraq, resulting in much reduced transit times to Iraqi airspace: sortie times were therefore shorter than on previous detachments, typically being around 2hr. As previously, Coalition aircraft took the opportunity of being in Iraqi airspace to carry out practice attacks on military installations and on occasions the Tornados were partnered with Harrier GR.7 aircraft from 1 Squadron which were now operating ashore from Ahmed Al Jabbar south of Kuwait City.

Between the operational sorties there was an opportunity for some training, low-flying in Kuwait and using the ranges at Al Abraq and Udari. There were also Air-Combat Training sorties as well as fighter affiliation training with KAF F-18 Hornets and more combined training sorties with the Harriers.

Operation Bolton had replaced Operation Jural and now included all RAF operations in the southern NFZ. Thus when 12 Squadron took over responsibility for the Kuwait detachment in early May, the Tornado GR1 force was supporting three simultaneous operational detachments: six aircraft remained at Incirlik for Operation Warden, and six more were at Al Kharj with a further twelve at Ali Al Salem for Operation Bolton. With a full calendar of training exercises and the MLU programme in full swing, the Tornado squadrons would be stretched to cover all the commitments; however responsibility for Operation Warden was returned to the Jaguar force at the end of September.

Over the summer months 617, 17 and 14 Squadrons took part in Exercise Maple Flag from CAF Cold Lake base. The exercise included aircraft from Germany, UK, New Zealand and the US as well as the Canadian hosts. Domestic exercises included a station exercise at Lossiemouth, during which aircraft were sent to Kinloss in a simulated chemical threat environment, to practise the ability to deploy at short notice.

Strategic Developments

The Strategic Defence Review (SDR), published by the British Government in July included some far-reaching developments for the Tornado GR1 force. The WE177 nuclear weapon had already been withdrawn earlier in the year, so the strike role, once the primary role of the Tornado GR1 in Cold War days, had been given up completely. The SDR also signalled the end of the maritime role for the Tornado GR1B, although 617 Squadron would complete one last JMC exercise in October. In this latter exercise the squadron took part in large antishipping packages, flying against ships from Germany, France, Netherland and the Royal Navy as they sailed around the northern coast of Scotland. The exercise alternated daily between blue water and coastal operations and the squadron mounted two daily waves each of four or five aircraft simulating Sea Eagle tactics.

The final fallout from SDR was the confirmation that RAF Brüggen would close in 2000 and that 17 Squadron would be disbanded in early 1999. ‘I had been tipped off by a mate at High Wycombe (and sworn to secrecy) that the squadron was going to go while we were at Goose Bay,’ recalled Wg Cdr Coulls, OC 17 Squadron, ‘so I was the only one who knew it was coming, although rumours had been flying for a couple of months. Jock Stirrup, at the time AOC 1 Group, came down about halfway through to tell us formally. The leadership challenge was an interesting one… we had been away from home for five of the previous six months and still had a month left in Kuwait and now a massive dose of uncertainty had been introduced. However, we got away with it and left with a good reputation.’

In September 1998, 14 Squadron resumed Operation Bolton from Ali Al Salem (AAS) Air Base. The operational pattern was much as it had been earlier in the year, except that political tension was mounting once more, after Iraq declared in August that it would not, after all, cooperate with UNSCOM. Following further diplomatic activity, on 31 October Iraq announced that it would cease all forms of interaction with UNSCOM. Even so there was very little activity below the NFZ over the next two months, making the flying over Iraq pretty dull. Apart from ‘counting flies by the thousand, interspersed with particularly uninspiring (and very definitely alcohol free) evening meals at the Kuwait Officers’ Mess,’ Flt Lt D.W. Hales thought that the ‘operational highlights were forty-five degree dive with [inert] PW II at Udairi range and a few opportunities for HE strafe at Al Abraq.’ The squadron also carried out some air-combat training and some affiliation training with the KAF F-18 Hornets. At the beginning of November, 14 Squadron handed over to 12 Squadron.

After more diplomatic manoeuvring at the UN, the Iraqis reneged on an agreement to cooperate with UNSCOM and as a result it withdrew all its personnel from Iraq on 11 November 1998. The following day, the US and the UK warned Iraq that it would face a substantial military strike if it did not return to full compliance with UN Resolutions. On 14 November, the US and the UK authorized the launch of an initial wave of strike aircraft. The Tornado crews in Kuwait had planned and briefed their mission and were just about to walk for the sortie when they were cancelled. At the last minute, Iraq had agreed to ‘unconditional resumption of cooperation’ with UNSCOM, so the planned air strikes were called off. However, Iraqi cooperation was short-lived and only a month later the political tension had escalated once more

In early November, Wg Cdr S.G. Barnes, OC 12 Squadron, had taken over as detachment commander at AAS and had ensured that a number of contingency plans were in place in case the squadron was called upon again for operations. ‘As things progressed, and the op looked more likely,’ recalled Wg Cdr Barnes, ‘the formation leaders were co-opted into the plan. Throughout, the squadron engineers were tremendous and produced the aircraft we needed for each wave. They moved equipment and weapons to satisfy the requirement for four aircraft per wave with TIALD pods (we had only four) were they could.’

RAF ground crew of 14 Squadron at Ali Al Salem (AAS) air base, Kuwait, during Operation Bolton. In the background is a battle-damaged HAS.

Desert Fox – Night One

The deadline for Iraqi compliance with the UN resolutions passed on 16 December and US and UK forces were authorized to fly airstrikes, which the US military named Operation Desert Fox. The detachment at AAS flew three operational waves early that evening. As there were just four TIALD pods available for all of the operational waves, only the leader and Number 3 within each four ship carried TIALD pods: thus within each pair one aircraft self-designated before cooperatively designating for the wingman. The first four ship was led by Wg Cdr Barnes with Flt Lt J.E. Linter with each aircraft armed with two PW II. They were tasked against the SAM-3 site near Basra (with each pair attacking a different radar system within the site) and then bombing a radio-relay site just to the north. The attack was planned so that SAM site and relay station were far enough apart for each TIALD aircraft to mark two different targets. As they neared the target area, the Tornados met with light anti-aircraft fire, but no missiles were fired at them. The lead aircraft attacked the SAM-3 site successfully, but the TIALD pod on Number 3 aircraft did not work, leaving Flt Lt Linter to use the only serviceable pod to mark both of the Desired Points of Impact (DPIs) at the radio-relay station.

Sqn Ldrs M. Royce and L. Fisher led the second wave against targets on Tallil airfield and a radio-relay station just to the north at An Nasiriyah. ‘The lead pair dropped [destroyed] a large hangar on the northern side of the airfield with three PW IIs and the back pair removed a pair of HAS on the southern side of the runway,’ wrote Flt Lt Royce later. ‘One HAS exploded quite spectacularly turning night into day for about twenty seconds; such was the force of the residual explosion.’ In the Number 4 aircraft, Fg Off A. Robins recalled that: ‘all targets were hit, including a massive secondary explosion on the HAS… a very large mushroom cloud came up to meet us… we thought we’d hit a nuke… someone said “OOH that’s gotta hurt” (a Fast Show quote) and we all sped off hurriedly in batwing and burner. I remember that nobody landed with any extra fuel that night… USN had thoughtfully loosed off some HARMs at a SAM-6 site, and there was loads of triple-A as they put up a lot of stuff against us.’ It later transpired that the hangar at Tallil had contained the ‘Drones of Death’ – Czech-built L-29 Delfin (Dolphin) training aircraft, which were being modified as remotely-piloted vehicles to carry biological weapons and the HAS had been an ammunition store. ‘Satellite imagery the following day showed scorched land and no sign of there ever having been a HAS.’ reported Flt Lt Royce.

The third four ship, led by Flt Lt J.P. Griggs and Sqn Ldr T.N. Harris, took off shortly after the first one. They were to attack a Republican Guard barracks at Al Kut and once again all aircraft were armed with two PW IIs, with only lead and Number 3 carrying TIALD pods. ‘We decided we would do a “double run” guiding our own bombs then, as soon as they impacted, switching to the target for Number 4’s bombs which were already in the air,’ reported Sqn Ldr D. Armstrong, who was flying the Number 3 aircraft. ‘In the event, this was a bad idea… not enough time to get fixed on the second target and too much pressure on our own target run knowing the bombs were already flying.’ The sortie also ended with some excitement. ‘Our leader got Roland launch warnings linked with a flash on the desert floor as we approached the Kuwaiti border on the way home,’ continued Sqn Ldr Armstrong. ‘He immediately went into his evasive manoeuvre and banged the wing tanks off. Jez said it was the longest two seconds of his life after he hit the jettison button’ As it turned out, the flash on the desert floor was caused by US Navy aircraft dropping their weapons on a ‘dump’ target, of which the RAF detachment was unaware because of communications difficulties with the USN ships; it transpired that the simultaneous Roland warning was also spurious, caused by microwave links in the desert. ‘The engineers gave Jez the bill for the tanks,’ added Armstrong.

In the meantime, six crews from 617 deployed to AAS on 17 December to support the operations. ‘We arrived just after the first trip had taken off and we awoke the next morning to the participants mooching about having faced the reality of combat’ remembered Sqn Ldr A.K.F. Pease. ‘They had had a couple of close calls with Roland launches… Jez Griggs had jettisoned tanks and taken evasive action. Those of us who deployed from 617 Squadron were not used in anger. We did some training flights in Kuwait and having deployed thinking we would be away for a couple of months we actually got home in time for Christmas which was a bonus.’

Desert Fox – Night Two

On the second night of the operation, 18 December, the Tornado waves were launched with enough time spacing between them for all aircraft could carry a TIALD pod and self-designate their own targets; in turn, this allowed a much more compressed attack. Wg Cdr Barnes led his formation against the SAM-3 site at Tallil, attacking the Low Blow and Perfect Patch radars and two HQ buildings within the complex. Once again the attackers were met with very light triple-A, but no SAMs were fired. As Wg Cdr Barnes later summarized the sortie ‘the plan “ran on rails” and all DPIs were hit successfully.’

‘Night two saw us doing a coordinated bombing run on the Republican Guard Barracks at Al Kut,’ recalled Sqn Ldr Royce, ‘with a whole bunch of US bombers and the standard SEAD and fighter escorts. The enemy sent up quite a fierce triple-A defence but no missiles (though I’m sure the EW assets had neutralized whatever they may have had to hand; I had never seen so many HARMs fired at one sitting).’ Once again, however, the difficulty in coordinating with the US Navy was illustrated when their formation ahead of the Tornados slipped back on their ToT. ‘We later calculated that their bombs were within 10sec of dropping through our formation/canopies and hitting the lead aircraft,’ reported Fg Off Robins.

The third wave carried out their attack in the early hours of 19 December. This successful mission, led by Flt Lt Griggs and Sqn Ldr Harris, was also tasked against targets in the Al Kut area.

Desert Fox – Night Three

On the third night of operations the Tornados were armed with the new PW III 2,000lb weapon. ‘DPIs were running out and I had argued (forcibly) with HQ that some of the targets were not worth risking lives over,’ recalled Wg Cdr Barnes. ‘I had proposed sending a two ship only, but we were re-allocated more sensible targets. The target area was Al Kut, close to the 32nd Parallel, and the targets were Low Blow, Perfect Patch and two HQ buildings (déjà vu). There were real problems with coordination as we couldn’t contact the ship… we didn’t get the correct detail and we ended up doing our own thing de-conflicted by height and time, but running in a clockwise direction with the rest of the package going the opposite way. There was a lot of triple-A en-route and particularly in the target area. SEAD reported some missiles fired at the package… but I did not see any. Three DPIs were hit, and Number 3 guided his weapon safely into open desert having misidentified the target. I think this was the first operational use of PW III and at the very least validated tactics and procedures with this weapon. The ground crew piped me into the shelter on return (a piper standing on top of the cab of one of the tractors) leading the aircraft to the shelter, which was very emotional.’

A second wave, led by Sqn Ldr Royce took off shortly after the first wave. This formation, tasked against bunkers and another radio-relay station just outside Basra, was also loaded with PW IIIs. However, the mission was cancelled while the formation was flying a holding pattern before they crossed the border into Iraq, and the aircraft returned to AAS with their weapons.

‘In all 12(B) Squadron dropped forty-eight PW II and four PW III accurately,’ concluded Fg Off Robins. ‘Notable moments were the US Navy trying to kill us… and a fine young navigator, Jonny Meadows, dragging a bomb off the DMPI into the desert because he wasn’t (correctly) happy with his TIALD picture. The poor navigators had to “stir the porridge” on some dreadful pre-acquisition pictures in the early-ish days of TIALD: often pictures would not bloom until very late, very tricky in the increasingly legal world of targeting.’

 

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