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Serbia offensive: `Nobody wants to have to go to war'

The B-52 Squadrons
IT IS a hulking relic from the Cold War, more than 40 years old, and dubbed "redundant" in the 1980s by former US President Ronald Reagan but yesterday the B-52 bomber again proved its use as a front-line component of the Nato arsenal.

Known affectionately by its air crew as the Jolly Green Giant, the eight- engined aircraft saw action first in Korea and has delivered its deadly payload over the years in Vietnam, Libya, Iraq and now Yugoslavia.

Yesterday eight of the USAF airplanes were again called into action, flying from RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire to deliver a payload of up to 20 cruise missiles each. By midnight last night six of them had returned safely.

Neither the Ministry of Defence nor the American military have yet confirmed in what role the bombers were involved, but their renaissance, in an age of stealth bombers and laser-guided missiles, lies in their ability to deliver cruise missiles at great range without exposing their six-strong crew, or the aircraft, to danger.

Major Tom Dolmey, the USAF spokesman at RAF Fairford, said two B-52 bombers which arrived back at the base between 7.11pm and 7.18pm last night had been only been on a training mission. But the other six US planes which left the Gloucestershire airbase in the morning were all involved in military action, he said. "As far as I know everything has gone well and to plan," he said.

The first B-52 air crew to return to RAF Fairford last nighttalked about the mission.

The first two planes back were not used in the eventual air strikes but the pilots, navigators and engineers involved said they did not know this when they took off.

Major Chris Tipsword, from Michigan, said they were relieved to be back safe. "And we are also glad we have been part of a successful mission," he said.

"It is difficult sometimes when you are waiting around and it is good in a way we are finally doing what we have trained for.

"Nobody wants to have to go to war but when the decision's made it's our job."

Maj Tipsword, 34, said he could not discuss details of the plane's payload and routing.

He said: "I have been in the air force for 12 years flying B-52s and this is my first active service. This is what we have trained to do and in many ways it was just like another training mission today.

"We did not know when we took off that we would be one of the spare planes."

Major Dave Conley, 40, a radar navigator from Augusta, Georgia was on the same plane as Major Tipsword. He said: "The situation is so flexible when we are up there, we do not know whether it will be us who will be the ones in action."

The scope of that ordnance is the key to the bomber's continued service. While it can still be employed to "carpet bomb" from a height of six or seven miles, it can deliver not just Tomahawk cruise missiles but also the 2,000lb penetrator, able to drill through 11ft of concrete and 15 inches of hardened Tungsten steel, creating an earthquake effect that can destroy buildings 1,000ft away.

But the B-52 is equally prized for its psychological effect. During the Vietnam War, American prisoners reported that the thunder-like drone of the aircraft's engines alone was enough to make their guards quiver with fear.

Gary Finn