Iraq Crisis: Tornadoes armed, targets identified

Kuwait: 'We are the point of a scalpel.' The RAF tells Raymond Whitaker about its plan for action
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THE negotiations in Baghdad to avert another military strike against Iraq are being watched as closely as anywhere else by the pilots and navigators of the RAF Tornadoes at the Ali al-Salem base in Kuwait, only 33 miles from the Iraqi border.

"We are following what is happening on CNN, and although we may be days away from flying in combat, which we are ready to do, I don't want it to happen," said the first Tornado pilot to be allowed to talk to journalists. "But if Kofi Annan doesn't get anywhere, I am happy to go and do what is required. Saddam Hussein should not be allowed to have these nasty weapons."

The flight lieutenant of 14 Squadron, who may be named only as Vince, is an unmarried 28-year-old from Fleetwood in Lancashire who joined the RAF just after the Gulf war in 1991. Like other members of the RAF detachment in Kuwait, which will operate eight Tornadoes armed with 1,000lb and 2,000lb laser-guided bombs, he insisted technological developments in the past seven years have made it possible to hit military targets more accurately and avoid civilian casualties.

"We've heard about bombs going astray last time, and we have learned from that campaign," he said. "Our boss doesn't want it to happen. If you are not happy that the laser mark is in the right place, you don't bomb it."

In the squadron operations centre, pilots could be seen studying computerised images of potential targets. "We use them to get there, step by step," said Vince's squadron commander, Pete. "We might start as wide as a town, then zero in until we are looking at an area only a few yards across." The 44-year-old wing commander flies as a navigator-weapons officer, who in a Tornado shares responsibility with the pilot for reaching the target, identifying it beyond doubt, attacking it and getting back safely.

"It would be wrong to say we are eager for action," Pete added. "It is our job to do as we are bidden, though that doesn't mean we have no opinions about it. We are the point of a scalpel being wielded by someone else."

At the next table survival kits are being laid out - Walther PPK pistols, bags of 12 Krugerrands and a sheet of paper which says in several languages and scripts: "I am British and I do not speak your language. I will not harm you!" It promises a reward if the airman is guided back to safety. Vince has been given the role of combat survival and rescue officer, probably because of the four years he spent as a Para in the Territorial Army before the RAF.

"Obviously my biggest fear is being shot down," he said. "It wouldn't be nice to be on the ground in Iraq. You would not get a friendly welcome after last time. But Iraq is a big haystack and we are very small needles, and we are trained for survival."

In the Gulf war, the Tornadoes suffered proportionately higher losses than any other allied aircraft, having been used for low-level attacks on airfields. The laser technology now in use was rushed into service to allow the RAF to bomb from a higher level, out of the reach of anti- aircraft fire. Although they are still in danger from surface-to-air missiles, electronic counter-measures have improved, and Iraq's defences are weaker.

"You can die," said Vince. "It happened last time, but I don't want it to happen to anyone, on either side. My navigator is a Gulf war veteran. He says you have to picture very clearly what you are going to do in combat, because you won't have time to think about it when it's going on."

Did they talk about dying? "You tend not to. We are all aware of it - most of us have lost friends in training if not in action - but the words are unspoken."