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Operations in Iraq: Lessons for the Future

CHAPTER 6 - THE AIR ENVIRONMENT

Key Lessons

  • The targeting authority delegated to UK commanders in theatre was significant and enabled them to conduct operations responsively and flexibly.
     
  • Effects-based operations require improved methods of accurately assessing the result of attacks on targets.
     
  • The UK's precision attack capability has developed significantly since 1991 and made a major contribution to the successful conduct of the coalition's high-tempo operation. Investment in precision guided munitions following the lessons from the Kosovo campaign was fully vindicated during this operation. The UK's weapon stockpile planning is being reviewed accordingly.
     
  • The RN Tomahawk cruise missile again demonstrated its utility as a long-range weapon capable of creating tactical, operational and strategic effect.
     
  • The new RAF Storm Shadow stand-off precision missile proved highly accurate.
     
  • Although support for land forces from the air worked well, there remain areas for improvement. For example the coalition process for planning and tasking aircraft for high-tempo operations needs to be more flexible, and additional joint and combined land-air training is required. MOD has initiated a study into these issues.
     
  • UK forces need a concept for urban operations that determines the role of Close Air Support in that environment. Precision weapons with lower explosive yield would have increased the contribution of UK aircraft to such operations.
     
  • The operation underlined the value of multi-role aircraft such as the Tornado GR4 and Harrier GR7.
     
  • Coalition Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) offered versatile capabilities as both surveillance and reconnaissance, and offensive platforms, and demonstrated that they will play a key role in the future joint battle.

Introduction

6.1  This operation witnessed a genuinely combined air campaign, with RAF and US Air Force assets closely integrated. Coalition air assets were used to great effect by combining resources to support both the effects-based precision campaign against deep Iraqi regime targets and the concurrent close land battle. Air supremacy was quickly achieved due to the technical and numerical superiority the coalition displayed in the air, the Iraqi regime's failure to deploy its airforce, and because Iraqi ground-based air defences, although used extensively, proved largely ineffective. Furthermore, 12 years of UK/US operations to enforce the UN no-fly zones over Iraq had familiarised coalition forces with the area and restricted the regeneration of Iraqi air force and air defence capabilities. The co-ordinated use of coalition air power quickly created the conditions that allowed land forces to achieve high rates of manoeuvre and tempo in response to enemy activity. In particular the coalition air component significantly reduced the ability of Iraqi forces to use tactical and operational manoeuvre; indeed, after the war, captured senior Iraqi General Staff officers reported that the fighting effectiveness of the Republican Guard Divisions had been largely destroyed by air strikes.

A Tornado GR4, armed with two Storm Shadow stand-off missiles, is prepared for a sortie
A Tornado GR4, armed with two Storm Shadow stand-off missiles, is prepared for a sortie

6.2  RAF air assets made a notable contribution to the overall air campaign, and included a number of specialist capabilities not available in the US inventory. RAF attack aircraft were flexible in supporting both the strategic bombing campaign and the coalition land battle. Lessons from Kosovo in 1999 had led to the procurement of Maverick missiles and Enhanced Paveway munitions. For this operation these weapons were complemented by submarine-launched Tomahawk missiles as well as new capabilities such as the RAF's Storm Shadow cruise missile, which could attack heavily protected, hardened facilities from a distance of over 230 km. Although fewer RAF aircraft were fielded than in the 1991 Gulf Conflict, increased use of precision weapons allowed our forces to deliver greater effect, whilst minimising collateral damage. In addition to providing strike aircraft, the RAF also made important contributions to airspace control, reconnaissance and transport capabilities. The RAF tanker fleet was especially highly valued by the US, providing over 40% of its effort in direct support to US aircraft, particularly US Navy and Marine Corps aircraft operating from the US carrier battle groups. The Joint Helicopter Command also offered much in terms of transport, reconnaissance and protective firepower. Specific lessons are described below.

Targeting

6.3   The UK assisted in the development of a list of over 900 potential coalition targets to overwhelm the Saddam Hussein regime and its security forces and to degrade the command and control capacity of the Iraqi Armed Forces. These targets included key military installations, weapon sites, command and control centres, notable regime targets and communications networks. The targeting plan was determined with precise military effects in mind, utilising the minimum proportionate force necessary for each target, and seeking as far as possible to avoid civilian casualties or damage to Iraqi infrastructure. Recent lessons from Afghanistan and other operations enabled a coherent plan to be refined through close co-ordination between US Central Command planners, MOD and the Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) in the UK and our National Contingent Commander in the Gulf. Significant targeting authority was delegated to commanders in theatre. However, all UK targets were defined within parameters agreed by Ministers, and legal and political advice was available to those approving targets at all levels. Where potential targets fell outwith the delegations, they were submitted through PJHQ to MOD's targeting organisation, who presented them for approval to Ministers for approval. As well as approving all targeting operations that were prosecuted using UK assets, or conducted from UK bases, on a number of occasions the UK influenced US specific target plans, highlighting the close UK/US relationship throughout this operation.

6.4  Clear parameters were set for the operational use of UK forces to guide the actions of commanders and individuals alike. These covered matters such as strategic level targeting direction down to specific instructions to troops on the ground on the use of personal weapons. For this operation, significant delegated powers were given to in-theatre commanders, enabling them to make rapid military decisions, including the authority rapidly to attack time sensitive targets as intelligence became available. The rigorous targeting process minimised damage to the main Iraqi infrastructure.

6.5  During any operation the relative priorities of targets are continually reassessed, a key factor in which is an evaluation of the effectiveness of previous attacks. Surveillance an reconnaissance platforms as well as satellite imagery are a major source of this intelligence. However, although these sources were useful in previous operations when the intent was to destroy fixed installations, during this operation increased emphasis was placed on creating particular effects - possibly not destruction - and a significant proportion of targets were also mobile. Current surveillance and reconnaissance systems have limited capability in these areas and further work is required to address this shortfall for future operations.

Weapons and Munitions

6.6  The extensive use of precision weapons was vital in delivering an overwhelming, high tempo and effects-based air campaign. Around 85% of RAF munitions used were precision guided, either by Global Positioning Systems (GPS) or by laser or both, with just 138 unguided bombs being used. This demonstrates a huge leap forward in capability since the 1991conflict, when the proportion of precision guided munitions was around 18%, improving to 25% for the Kosovo campaign in 1999.

6.7  Not all of this capability was delivered from aircraft. The Royal Navy's submarine-launched strategic Tomahawk cruise missile again demonstrated its usefulness, providing a long-range, precision capability to project combat power from the sea. This weapon was highly accurate and has both strategic and tactical utility.

6.8  The RAF's Storm Shadow cruise missile was employed against high-value, heavily fortified targets such as communications bunkers. This air-launched cruise missile proved to be highly accurate, providing the UK with a world-leading stand-off capability against hardened targets.

6.9  These two major systems were supported by a range of other precision-guided munitions. For example, the Enhanced Paveway II and III bombs demonstrated the advantages of using smart, all-weather capable weapons to minimise collateral damage. Furthermore, these weapons offered the flexibility to re-programme new target positions whilst airborne. This proved vital in the fast moving battle that took place, where time sensitive targeting has become increasingly important. Moreover, their dual-mode guidance system meant that they could be delivered laser guidance if accurate target co-ordinates were not available. Evidence gathered from Iraq since the end of hostilities has shown that both Enhanced Paveway II and III worked well.

6.10  The Maverick anti-armour missile was also used for the first time on this operation and proved its utility for rapid attacks on mobile targets. The standard infra-red guided Maverick was supplemented by the 'TV' guided version. The TV Maverick's enhanced resolution of the image displayed in the cockpit improves a pilot's ability to destroy small tactical, mobile targets. As a consequence, during the favourable daylight hours, TV Maverick could be fired at greater ranges from the target, reducing the risk to the pilot from enemy air defence systems. The Maverick missile proved a useful addition to the range of available RAF munitions, and the quantities held of both infra-red and TV versions are under review.

6.11  There was a continuing military requirement for the RAF to use a small number cluster bombs. However they were only used against appropriate targets such as widely dispersed armoured vehicles and artillery, or mobile targets, which are ill-suited for precision weapons.

Operations against Enemy Land Forces

6.12  Despite the clear success of the air campaign, several areas for improvement have been identified. Currently, production of the daily Air Tasking Order is based on a 72 hour planning cycle. Although large numbers of aircraft were tasked to support land forces, further work is required to compress the planning cycle and improve the command and control, and and coordination, of Interdiction and Close Air Support (CAS) missions. Although some combined land-air training is carried out, lack of experience in requesting, co-ordinating and delivering CAS missions in support of land forces) was apparent. The prevalence of CAS missions in this campaign suggests there is a need to conduct more training in support of this role. To address these and other issues MOD has initiated a review of air support to land forces.

6.13  A relatively new feature of this operation was the requirement for air assets to conduct CAS in an urban environment. The use of weapons with a large explosive yield on CAS missions was often not possible owing to the risk of collateral damage. The lack of smaller precision-guided weapons prevented the RAF from providing full support to land forces in urban areas. Although RAF aircraft delivered inert 1000lb bombs to minimise collateral damage, these often did not create the desired effect.

6.14  The CAS effort was also hampered by the inability to provide sufficiently accurate co-ordinates for mobile targets. The majority of land forces plot target positions on maps, rather than using GPS equipment. Furthermore, GPS information on mobile targets provided by land forces was sometimes quickly out of date, underlining the need for pilots to reconfirm mobile targets by sight before committing to an attack. In order to conduct this type of 'seek and destroy' mission, additional aircraft were fitted with targeting designation systems - the Thermal Imaging and Airborne Laser Designation (TIALD) pod. Thirty such pods were deployed for this operation, and work is in hand to determine the utility of data-linking the imagery to ground stations and other aircraft. The TIALD pod was also used extensively during the campaign as a 'non-traditional' surveillance and reconnaissance tool in order to monitor potential Iraqi SCUD sites and tank positions.

6.15  The capability of RAF Tornado GR4 (fitted with the new RAPTOR pod) and Canberra PR9 aircraft to provide high quality imagery in near-real time was highly valued by the coalition. Another asset used for 'non-traditional' surveillance and reconnaissance was the Nimrod MR2 (which is normally used in the maritime arena). These aircraft supported operations in western Iraq, providing a radio relay capability as well as surveillance and reconnaissance information.

6.16  Several RAF aircraft were employed in a combination of roles. For example, the Tornado GR4 and Harrier GR7 were used to undertake both tactical reconnaissance and attack missions, including missions in support of ground troops. Their multi-role capability was especially useful in adapting to changing requirements as the campaign progressed.

The sun rises over two RAF airborne early warning aircraft
The sun rises over two RAF airborne early warning aircraft

6.17  RAF E-3D airborne early warning aircraft (AWACS) worked seamlessly with US Air Force E-3s to provide continuous coverage of one of the four AWACS orbits, throughout the warfighting phase of the operation. Air surveillance assets were also provided by the Royal Navy. The Sea King Mk7 Air Surveillance and Control System performed well using its Searchwater 2000 radar, normally used over water, to provide battlefield surveillance and target cueing for UK land forces. The radar was able to detect moving enemy vehicles, which could then be attacked by Lynx helicopters. At times, the Sea King provided the only dedicated stand-off sensor coverage 3031for 3 Commando Brigade's operations on the Al Faw peninsula. However, in common with other helicopters, the Sea King is inherently vulnerable to ground-to-air threats, and following the experience on this operation, the utility of the Sea King in this joint role is being explored further.

6.18  Extensive use of Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) enabled the coalition to conduct unrelenting operations, often in heavily defended areas such as those

around Baghdad. Although the UK's Phoenix UAV, a first generation system, had a more limited capability than the US systems, it played an important and highly valued role in support of UK land forces, and demonstrated the increasingly key role UAVs may play in the joint battle as they become more capable. In all,

A US Navy Sea Knight helicopter passes an RAF Chinook
A US Navy Sea Knight helicopter passes an RAF Chinook

Phoenix UAVs made a total of 138 flights during the operation. Of these flights, 23 ended in either the air vehicle being lost or damaged beyond repair, with a further 13 suffering damage that was repairable. The majority of losses were due to the technical problems of working in such an extreme climate. Phoenix was mostly used to locate targets for attack, and during the first few days of the campaign it operated almost 24 hours a day. Subsequently, the system was used mostly at night to maximise the resolution of its thermal image sensor.

Helicopter Operations

6.19  A variety of helicopters, such as Chinook, Puma, Lynx, Gazelle and Sea King were provided by the Joint Helicopter Command in support of operations. These helicopters were heavily tasked throughout, working closely with a variety of coalition formations to ferry troops, equipment and supplies forward into Iraq in addition to the roles of casualty repatriation and refugee transportation. Their utility across a range of tasks showed that a mix of medium and heavy lift helicopters enhances operational flexibility. Owing partly to support from integrated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets and other offensive platforms, no UK helicopters were lost to enemy fire, even in intensive combat.

6.20  Several potential safety issues raised during this operation highlighted the need for support helicopters to be optimised for ship operations. Similarly, ships need large aviation platforms if heavy lift helicopters are to be operated safely and quickly.

6.21  The operational UK helicopter fleet does not yet contain 'attack' helicopters, although it includes a number of armed helicopters. Despite the need to operate at a distance for self-protection, RN Lynx and Gazelle helicopters provided effective armed support throughout the warfighting phase of the campaign in the Al Faw Peninsula, firing 49 TOW missiles, destroying tanks, armoured personnel carriers and bunkers. The contribution of these helicopters showed the potential utility of Apache helicopters in the provision of fire support during amphibious operations and across the battlespace. There are also potential lessons for the future utility of the UK's new Apache attack helicopters from the US experience in Iraq with its Cobra and Apache helicopters. This operation saw the first operational use of a combined arms aviation battle group, 3 Regiment Army Air Corps, equipped with Lynx armed with TOW missiles and Gazelle. As part of 16 Air Assault Brigade, the battle group had its own mission and area of operations in which to prosecute attacks using direct and indirect fire from infantry, armour, artillery and fast jets. Although the helicopters were engaged in direct firefights, firing 39 TOW missiles against Iraqi tanks and other vehicles, none were lost during such engagements..

THE RAF AIR CAMPAIGN

".The Divisions (Republican Guard) were essentially destroyed by airstrikes when they were still 30 miles from their destinations.the Iraqi will to fight was broken outside Baghdad." Col Ghassan, Republican Guard, Iraqi General Staff "We never really found any cohesive unit, of any brigade, of any Republican Guard Division." Col William Grimsley, 1st Brigade Commander, 3rd (US) Infantry Division.

Two night time missions over Iraq illustrate the RAF's current offensive capabilities and indicate the way in which Network Enabled Capability will enhance air power in the future. The first shows the RAF's ability to deliver very precise attacks against heavily defended targets and to penetrate hardened facilities while minimising risk to the launch aircraft. The second demonstrates how an RAF attack aircraft and a US Air Force UAV, remotely controlled from the USA, were able to attack a target even though the respective crews were on opposite sides of the globe. Together, these capabilities enable the RAF to achieve precise campaign effects, at range, in time.

On 21 March 2003, four Tornado GR4s, each armed with two Storm Shadows, the RAF's newest and most accurate weapon, took off from their base in Kuwait. Their targets that night were Iraqi air defence operations centres housed in bunkers at Taji and Tikrit, both key elements of the Iraqi command and control network. Released into service only days before, Storm Shadow was the most effective weapon in the coalition inventory to penetrate these hardened targets. Storm Shadow's stand-off capability also enabled the attack to be prosecuted from outside the very dense Iraqi air defence missile engagement zones surrounding the targets, reducing the risk to the aircraft and crews.

Planning the sorties earlier that day had been relatively straightforward, albeit punctuated by three air raids as Iraqi surface-to-surface missiles were launched at Kuwait. The Air Tasking Order had been issued the night before and detailed how over 2000 coalition aircraft including RAF Harrier GR7 offensive support aircraft, Tornado F3 fighters, VC-10 and Tristar
air-to-air refuelling aircraft, E-3D airborne control aircraft, Nimrod and Canberra intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft as well as US Air Force and Navy aircraft and UAVs were to co-ordinate their movements, attacks and recoveries. Ensuring that the formation took off on time was particularly important on this occasion because the airfield was to be used as a navigation point by sea-launched cruise missiles in the attack package shortly after take-off and any delay would jeopardise the cruise missile attack. Having refuelled from a VC-10 tanker, the formation set course deeper into Iraq but the lead pair of aircraft were soon engaged by an Iraqi SA-2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system forcing the No 2 aircraft to jettison its fuel tanks in order to defend itself. The need to complete the attack successfully was paramount, so despite having insufficient fuel to complete the mission and return to base, the No 2 pressed on hoping to conduct post-strike air-to-air refuelling or, if necessary, divert elsewhere. Arriving at the launch point, all aircraft released their weapons successfully and returned to base (the No 2 aircraft diverting to an alternative airstrip). The following day, radar and electro-optical reconnaissance showed that all four targets had been struck precisely as planned.

In the second mission, on the night of 11 April, two Tornado GR4s took off from their deployed operating base to patrol just outside Baghdad. Refuelling from a VC-10 tanker in southern Iraq, the two aircraft flew northwards, the crews scanning the night skies around them through night vision goggles whilst on-board sensors sampled the electromagnetic spectrum to detect emissions from Iraqi early warning and fire-control radars that would indicate the launch of a SAM. RAF E-3D airborne radars monitored their progress north while Tornado F3 fighters guarded the airspace ahead and to their flanks to prevent enemy fighters interfering with the mission. Having checked in with the US Air Support Operations Centre (ASOC) embedded with the US Army V Corps on the ground, the pair waited in the designated patrol area pending tasking.

Eight thousand miles away and ten time zones to the west, a US Air Force captain was remotely operating a Predator UAV in the skies over Tikrit, north of Baghdad. The UAV's sensors were searching the ground for signs of Iraqi activity and sending the imagery via satellite back to the continental US. Ordering the Predator to zoom in on a suspicious object, the captain quickly identified an Iraqi SA-2 SAM system that had moved into a position from which it would be able to threaten friendly coalition aircraft. Relaying this information over a secure communications link to the ASOC, the Predator continued to monitor the site. Having evaluated the data, including the precise target latitude and longitude, the ASOC ordered the Tornado GR4s to move north towards Tikrit. Meanwhile, a US Navy EA-6B moved into position to jam the SA-2's radar system to mask the approach of the Tornados. Arriving in the target area, the GR4 crew quickly identified the SA-2 and, having confirmed that it was clear of civilian personnel and structures, launched a precision-guided, Enhanced Paveway II 1000lb GPS and laser-guided bomb towards the target. Moments later, the Predator's laser designator illuminated the SA-2 in order to guide the Tornado's weapon to the target. Shortly after launch, the GR4 crews watched the SA-2 system take a direct hit and confirmed its destruction. Turning south, the Tornados, now short of fuel, joined up with their VC-10 tanker, which had been directed by the E-3D to move further into Iraq to meet them. Having replenished the fuel reserves in their underwing tanks, the Tornados returned to their holding orbit, high above the Iraqi desert, and awaited their next task.


An RAF Tornado F3 on dawn patrol
An RAF Tornado F3 on dawn patrol

 Chapter 5 - The Land Environment
 Contents 
Chapter 7 - Working in a Coalition 



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