Weapons line up for trial of strength

IF THE allies attack Iraq the RAF is expected to play a small but crucial part, although defence sources rule out any addition to the six British bombers already on standby.

The United States has observed the rebuilding of Iraqi forces to 40 per cent of pre-Gulf war levels and constant attacks on the Shia communities in the south of Iraq and the Kurds in the north.

Iraq had begun moving SA-2 and SA-3 missiles southwards even before the air battle on 27 December when one of its planes was shot down. They were moved south of the 32nd parallel this week.

The SA-2 and SA-3 are the oldest of Iraq's surface-to-air missiles and not formidable by modern standards. The SA-2 entered service with the Soviet Union in 1957, and can engage targets in a range from 80,000ft to 130,000ft. The SA-3, introduced in 1961, can hit targets from 40,000ft up to 100,000ft.

The US has about 200 combat aircraft in the Gulf area, although not all would be used in a strike. Eighty-five of them are on board the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk. There are also ground- based aircraft at airfields across Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon refused last night to comment on reports that F-117 Nighthawk stealth attack aircraft were available, but they probably are. Since the Gulf war two years ago other aircraft - including the fast B-1B strategic bomber, - have become available.

The Kitty Hawk is accompanied by more than a dozen other warships. The Americans also have A- 10 ground attack planes in the area, although they are unlikely to be used for a precision attack of this type. 'A capability in a region doesn't necessarily mean something we would use,' a US officer said. 'We have deployed a few additional resources,' he added - RC-135 and E-3 reconnaissance aircraft and KC-10 tankers. Enhancements to the tanker fleet are most significant as they multiply the striking power of combat aircraft many times.

The RAF has six Tornado GR-1 bombers with thermal imaging airborne laser designator pods based at Dhahran, close to southern Iraq. Defence sources say there are no plans to augment the six Tornados, but equipped with the thermal weapons they are ideal for precision attack missions, marking targets with laser beams and then tossing 1,000lb laser- guided bombs which home in on the laser marks.

The laser system comprises a thermal imager and a television camera which operate simultaneously. No other laser designator has this facility. It was first used in anger in February 1991 against hardened aircraft shelters in the H-3 complex in southern Iraq. Two pods guided precision attacks against 18 targets during the rest of the Gulf war. The US air force was very impressed with the GR-1 during the war, a view which has not diminished. Although the RAF admits that 'there is only so much that six Tornados can do', a US officer was more enthusiastic yesterday: 'Tornados are a lot of fun,' he said.