Iraq Bombings: The Air assault - RAF Tornados spearhead second phase of Desert Fox campaign

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IT WAS shortly after 15.00 GMT yesterday that the pink after-burners of RAF Tornados could be seen streaking off into the Kuwaiti evening sky.

Within two hours the pilots had landed safely back at the Ali Al Salem airbase, north of Kuwait City and just 35 miles from the border with Iraq, and clambered from their cockpits into the cool desert air. Their mission, or at least the first part of it, had been completed.

It is a task that will certainly continue. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said yesterday that the British aircraft would carry out 20 per cent of the manned bombing missions of an operation estimated to last two or three days.

The British jets had launched the second wave of attacks, under Operation Desert Fox, on the Iraqi capital Baghdad. They were quickly followed into the air by American B52 bombers which took off from the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Though it was not clear whether the attacks had succeeded in hitting their planned targets or how many civilians may have been killed, Air Marshall John Day, deputy chief of the Defence Staff and director of operations, said yesterday evening that he expected the mood amongst the British air crew to be euphoric.

"There is a very serious job to be done and many sorties still to be flown. So there will be a mixture of euphoria together with a rightful professionalism and concern for what is still to be done," he said. "This is not a simple operation."

The launch of the two-man British Tornado GR1 fighter bombers followed a day of assessment yesterday by senior military commanders of the success of Wednesday night's attack by sea-based American missiles.

"I've seen some of the (reconnaissance) photos this morning and some of the targets that we have looked at appear to be severely damaged," William Cohen, the US Secretary of Defense, said.

This assessment would have been made using pictures from military satellites and U2 spy planes, and from listening to transmissions coming from Iraqi command centres.

Six Tornado reconnaissance aircraft, based in Saudi Arabia, could also have been used yesterday to help in the assessment of the initial attack, in which 50 sites were targeted with around 200 cruise missiles.

There were reports, however, that some of the cruise missiles had struck civilian properties, perhaps because they were diverted by Iraqi anti- aircraft fire that had been unleashed in an effort to shoot them down.

The priority targets from Wednesday would have been Iraq's Russian-designed air defence system. Observers said these needed to be taken out first to establish air supremacy. After that, aircraft would be able to attempt further attacks with the minimum of losses.

The facilities in the air-defence system would include command and control bunkers, radar installations, airfields and anti-aircraft missile sites. Only after these have been neutralised would aircraft be sent in on the other targets.

Further protection to the bombers would be given by the use of US electronic jamming aircraft, whose role is to disorientate any remaining air defence systems. In theory, the aircraft should expect only limited retaliation.

The Tornados, all from 12 Squadron based at Lossiemouth, in Scotland, had designated their own targets but would have flown in the same "packages" with US aircraft.

No Iraqi aircraft had posed any threat during the first phase of operations, said Air Marshall Day.

He said they would would have operated at medium height, above 15,000ft, to avoid low-level anti-aircraft fire from the ground.

Medium level flying means the bombs drop at an 85-90 degree angle so they can penetrate further than drops from low level, when they land virtually flat.

It is unclear how many of the Tornados took part in yesterday's missions. But the Ministry of Defence said that about eight Tornados usually fly together and work in pairs.

The Tornados are armed with Paveway laser-guided bombs, weighing 1,000 to 2,000lbs, which in theory find their way to their target by homing in on a laser signal which has been used to "illuminate" the target. This can be done by a second aircraft, by ground troops or by the bomber itself.

They also have two air-to-air Sidewinder missiles for defensive use. Sidewinder is a well-proven short-range system in service with numerous air forces and navies around the world. It uses an infra-red system to home in on its target.

The lead aircraft of the pair is equipped with Thermal Imaging Airborne Laser Designator (TIALD) equipment slung beneath the aeroplane in a pod. In addition, the lead craft could carry another "bunker buster" Paveway 3 bomb or two of the lighter Paveway 2s.

The first GR1 pinpoints the target with its laser equipment, with co- ordinates programmed into the system from detailed maps before take-off, and the second aeroplane drops its bombs using the equipment from the lead aircraft.

The Paveway bombs have the capability to penetrate concrete, making them useful in attacks on aircraft shelters and command and control posts, some of which are heavily protected.

They are accurate to within yards from a height of up to 35,000ft because of the laser system. This system was unavailable early in the Gulf War and led to more dangerous low level missions.