Sources suggested the problem was compounded by rivalry between the RAF and the Navy, but there are no real alternatives to basing the aircraft on land. One source said that if the RAF Tornados, which are superb reconnaissance aircraft, could not go, then 'we'll probably forget it'.
The Government said it was sending the Tornados to support the US-led operation to stop Iraqi planes flying south of the 32nd parallel. The Tornado GR1s and GR1as from RAF Marham have been made ready to fly out either to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia or to Muharraq, Bahrain - complete with desert camouflage. But Ministry of Defence spokesmen have repeatedly said their destination was undecided. It is now clear why.
Dhahran and Muharraq are the closest bases to the prime area of interest, the marshes around Kut, An Nasiriyah, Al-Amarah and Basra, where the Marsh Arabs have been under Iraqi Army attack since the end of the Gulf war.
The Foreign Office yesterday confirmed that the Saudis were unwilling to take the British planes at Dhahran, where about 100 US aircraft are already deployed. They cannot throw the Americans out and the Americans can operate formidable F-14 and F/A-18 planes from the carrier Independence in the Gulf.
But the Saudis, who are probably worried about the possible break-up of Iraq and a Shia state on its border, do not want anybody else joining the Americans on land. The Saudis have cited 'technical reasons' as the problem, but, as they also operate Tornados, it is hard to see what these might be.
The Foreign Office would not confirm last night that Bahrain was also unwilling, but said alternatives such as Qatar were under consideration. Kuwait would take the planes but is considered too vulnerable to Iraqi reprisals. No other aircraft has the Tornado GR1a's competence as a reconnaissance plane. Military sources last night ruled out alternative contributions, for example operating RAF Harrier aircraft from a US carrier, or sending one of Britain's light aircraft carriers with Navy Sea Harriers on board.
'You can't just suddenly operate planes off other people's carriers. And their carriers are full of their own aeroplanes,' said an RAF officer. The Navy's Harriers are not optimised for reconnaissance or ground attack, but are primarily to defend the carriers.
Sources said the Navy nevertheless offered to send one of its carriers, but the RAF opposed the idea. A carrier would, in any case, take about a month to reach the Gulf and the plan demands operations begin soon.