RAF Buccaneer in Op Granby
At the beginning of the RAF's operations in the Gulf it was deemed that Laser target marking for precision weapons was not a foreseeable need or priority. As the air campaign developed, this attitude changed rapidly as the type and nature of the most significant targets demanded the use of precision guided munitions. The all-weather, day and night TIALD (Thermal Imaging and Laser Designation) pod was still in development, in fact, only two existed, and one of these was the trials system.
The Buccaneer Squadrons, at the time a purely Maritime Attack Force, had within their ranks a secondary wartime role of over-land Laser Designation for such aircraft as the Jaguar, and so the superb but ageing aircraft with its Pave Spike designation system was rushed to the Gulf. The term rushed is used advisedly, such was the dire need for the system in theatre that the Squadrons were on a 24 hour notice to move from their base at Lossimouth in Scotland, and several aircraft of the first deployment departed with the paint still wet.
Pave Spike is a 420-pound electro-optical laser designator pod used to direct laser-guided bombs to target in day, visual conditions. The second generation Pave Spike was developed from the AN/AVQ-10 Pave Knife targeting pod that first saw operational use in Southeast Asia. USAF F-4D and F-4E aircraft used the Pave Spike from 1974 until 1989. This system was also used by the RAF on Buccaneer aircraft for precision bombing of enemy targets in Operation Desert Storm. RAF Buccaneers were used to “buddy lase” for Tornado strike airplanes.
The RAF was promised buddy lase support from F-15Es. This was an important consideration to the RAF, since it was not equipped to be expeditionary. Supporting its Tornados and Jaguars in theater was challenging enough, without adding the aging and maintenance intensive Buccaneer to the mix. By late January 1991 the Tornados were ready to shift to LGB missions. Unfortunately, the laser capable F-15Es were occupied with SCUD hunting. In a matter of days the RAF introduced the Buccaneer and its associated laser designation system into theater and commenced LGB operations. Prior to hostilities, the RAF had sped up its development of a laser designator pod for its Tornados. This automated system represented a marked improvement over the day only, manually controlled Buccaneer designator. The Tornados suffered the highest loss-to-mission ratios of the war, being withdrawn shortly after to conserve aircraft and their crews.
Only days after arriving in theater, the Buccaneer Force flew its first mission, on 2 February 1991. Two Buccaneers, crewed by Wg Cdr Bill Cope (Pilot) and Flt Lt Carl Wilson (Nav) and Flt Lt Glen Mason (Pilot) with Sqn Ldr Norman Browne (Nav), flew with four Tornadoes. They flew a route that was to become very familiar, popularly called 'Olive Trail', where they took some fuel on board from a tanker before heading towards the As Suwaira road bridge, at a height of 18,000 feet. The route was in cloud all the way until the final 50 miles where, just as the met team had predicted, there were clear skies. Although the crews knew that their aircraft had been illuminated by Iraqi owned Russian Air Defence systems, there was no enemy attempt to engage and allied AWACS aircraft regularly confirmed that there were no Iraqi aircraft airborne. The bridge was easily identified and the attack successful.
A routine was soon established with daily taskings of mixed Tornado/Buccaneer packages to destroy road bridges over the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, to break the Iraqi resupply lines to their army in Kuwait. Within a week of commencing operations, nine crews were operational and success led to increased tasking. Indeed, the only constraint was the number of aircraft and daylight hours for, unlike modern systems, the Buccaneer Laser pod had no night-time capability. Although the equipment was dated - the navigator had to target the bombs using a roller ball for the 40 seconds between release and impact - the Lasers achieved a 50% success rate which compares most favourably with modern equipment.
In all, the Buccaneer Force is accredited with guiding bombs which destroyed approximately 20 bridges, varying from suspension to double-span motorway bridges. Unknown at the time, the Iraqis had located their fibre optic cables along the same bridges, so every downed bridge also broke a communications line, resulting in disorder at the front line.
Once the land offensive commenced, the Buccaneer role switched from bridge bombing to airfield attacks, specifically against Hardened Aircraft Shelters, runways and any aircraft on the ground, to ensure the Iraqi Air Force stayed out of the battle. In fact, the Iraqi Air Force showed no inclination to engage and the Buccaneers actually stopped flying with air-to-air defence missiles and carried bombs instead. They still flew in packages with Tornado bombers and provided Laser guidance, but in addition would bomb opportunity targets afterwards. Such bombing would be done at steep dive angles of up to 40%, which necessitated applying airbrakes to prevent the aircraft going supersonic, which it was not cleared to do.
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