How British Tornados Used A Special Weapon To Ravage Saddam’s Airfields In Daring Desert Storm Raids

Slamming Iraq’s bases at ultra low level with JP233 runway denial weapons was among the riskiest Royal Air Force combat actions since World War II.

byJamie Hunter|
Iraq photo


“With just a few seconds to run to the target, we got a red autopilot caption and the Tornado yawed violently after a massive bang on the left-hand side. I shouted to Paul, “We’ve been hit, we’ve been hit,” and he came back, “mark is good, continue.” So I stuffed the nose down, and re-engaged the terrain-following radar [TFR] — we were right at the point of weapon release. As we flew into a wall of tracer fire, Paul said “Committing.” I already had my “commit” button depressed — the weapons were coming off no matter what!”

“I could see the airfield below lit up through the triple-A [AAA, anti-aircraft artillery] as our JP233 started releasing its munitions. Suddenly, as we’d been briefed, there were three massive bangs as the weapon canisters were automatically jettisoned. We came off target and I pulled us up into a climbing left-hand turn. The TFR had disengaged and Paul called “Height,” and by the time our wings were level, we were back down at 200 feet with the TFR on. It had lasted a matter of seconds, but it felt like hours! There was a palpable feeling of relief as we screamed away into the pitch black as fast as we could, leaving it all behind us.”

A Royal Air Force Tornado GR1 in the “desert pink” Alkali Removable Temporary Finish (ARTF)., Ian Black

These are the words of Nige Ingle, a young Royal Air Force Tornado GR1 pilot back in 1991, who flew some 15 combat missions in Operation Desert Storm with his navigator Paul McKernan. Exactly 30 years ago, British Tornado aircrews were tasked with some of the most demanding, important, and risky missions of the entire conflict. In particular, screaming in at very low-level over the most defended targets in Iraq and in the black of night to employ an exotic weapon exclusive to the Tornado that was meant to do one thing — tear apart the enemy’s runways and make it very dangerous for them to attempt repairs. 

Tornado on the front line

The 1980s was an era in which the focus was on countering the Warsaw Pact threat to the east. The Panavia Tornado Interdictor Strike (IDS) was designed for that time — optimized to fight at low-level on the European front. British Tornado GR1 squadrons based in the U.K. and in Germany plied their trade skimming the treetops, and delivering unguided “dumb” bombs at high speed with great levels of accuracy. It was an environment in which RAF fast jet aircrews excelled, and it’s what they honed their skills for every day.

Few could have expected that when the call to action came, the gray and green-painted Tornados and their aircrews were not plunged into nuclear combat against the vast Soviet war machine. Instead, they had to swiftly adapt to fight an unexpected foe in the deserts of the Middle East. 

For British Tornado GR1 pilot and navigator teams, that’s exactly what happened in 1990 as they joined a vast coalition of air assets that was being assembled to tackle Iraq and its tyrannical leader Saddam Hussein. 

The first few nights of the ensuing air campaign witnessed bravery in aerial combat in what proved to be the baptism of fire for the British Tornado force, which subsequently notched up an impressive service record on almost constant operations that lasted until the type’s retirement in 2019. The accounts of the particular Tornado aircrews in this feature bear witness to one of the most incredible chapters in the history of aerial warfare.

Heading to the desert

When Iraqi forces invaded neighbouring Kuwait in the early hours of August 2, 1990, repercussions echoed around the world. With concerns that Saddam Hussein might order his forces to plough on into Saudi Arabia, a path to potential conflict quickly formed. With over 500 fighter and bomber aircraft, Iraq possessed one of the most powerful air forces on the planet. The threat from Iraq and its formidable air force was taken very seriously indeed.

An RAF Tornado GR1 banks away from a Tornado F3 during the work-up period before Desert Storm., Ian Black

To counter Iraqi aggression, a huge air armada began to be assembled in the Persian Gulf, led by the United States. The Tornado GR1s would form the backbone of a British strike force, alongside SEPECAT Jaguar GR1s, and later, veteran Blackburn Buccaneers, supported by tankers, helicopters and transport aircraft. The hastily assembled coalition air force was quickly integrated into a huge plan to stop Saddam’s forces in its tracks, and liberate Kuwait.

The RAF deployed the first squadron of Tornado GR1s to the Gulf on August 27, 1990, as No 14 Squadron departed RAF Brüggen, Germany, for Muharraq, Bahrain, decked out in a new “desert pink” Alkali Removable Temporary Finish (ARTF). RAF Germany (RAFG) supplied the initial bulk of the Tornado assets for Operation Granby — as the U.K.’s part of the massive operation was known. 

Once the initial British build-up was complete, three reinforced squadrons each averaging 15 aircraft and 24 crews were in position at Muharraq, as well as at Dhahran and Tabuk in Saudi Arabia.

Steve Warren-Smith was a young Flight Lieutenant on his first frontline tour as a Tornado pilot, assigned to No 17 Squadron at Brüggen, when he and some of his colleagues were swiftly dispatched to Bahrain. “Unlike the Tornado squadrons at RAF Marham, none of the eight Germany-based squadrons were qualified to conduct air-to-air refueling, because we were considered to be close enough to the Cold War front line. So initially, there was a huge push to get the RAF Germany Tornado squadrons qualified to take fuel from the tanker, which in its own right was a mad scramble.”

“One guy got the air refueling drogue down his intake before he managed to slow down enough. Another one sailed straight past the basket and popped out his airbrakes, which the drogue promptly snagged upon. This was closely followed by a hail of ball bearings and springs as he dropped back and the basket disintegrated.”

Once in theater, the Tornado crews took their well-practiced Cold War-era tactics that were honed on the plains of Northern Germany and adapted them to the desert environment. The Tornados generally worked as four-ship teams, training with everything from the Hunting JP233 runway denial bomblet-dispensing weapon, to 1,000-pound general-purpose bombs, the latter in low-level lay-down and loft delivery profiles.

Tornado GR1 ZA354 carrying JP233 test rounds during trials in 1983., BAE Systems

“We did a lot of operational low flying [OLF, flying at 100 feet] and a lot of night work,” recounts Mark Roberts, at that time a Flight Lieutenant junior pilot on No 16 Squadron deployed to Tabuk. “The low-level really prepared us well on the basis that we had no idea what we’d be doing when it came to operations. So, being honed for low-level by day or night was a really good thing for us. The value of the training made us really sharp, which meant we could cope with whatever was thrown at us.”

The Tornado crews intensely practiced using the built-in terrain-following radar (TFR), which enabled them to fly hands-off on autopilot at 200 feet above the desert floor. Night-vision goggles were available to some crews later in the war, but in the early stages, the Tornado pilots were offered a hand-held system that nobody used. Unlike the forests and plains of northern Europe, the undulating sand dunes of Saudi Arabia didn’t give the TFR a very good radar return, and so the radar altimeter (radalt) became a vital tool for avoiding the ground.

During the work-up period, it became clear that the Tornados could be called upon to tackle Saddam Hussein’s sprawling airfields, mainly due to their excellent low-level skills. The Tornado and JP233 combination was perfectly suited to the task. The Tornados would need to attack at ultra-low level in order to best avoid the ring of air defenses at these bases, and to accurately deliver their highly specialized, runway-destroying weapon. 

Using the JP233 was aimed at keeping the feared Iraqi Air Force firmly on the ground as the airfields were taken out of action — better to strand them or kill them on the ground than fight them in the air.

A Tornado GR1 deploys the JP233 system during testing at West Freugh in the U.K. in 1983., BAE Systems

Tornado and the JP233

The Hunting JP233 was one of the Tornado GR1’s primary weapons. During the Cold War, the idea behind it was to close down Soviet airfields, thus nullifying any potential air support for ground forces. Taking out the Soviet bases meant that NATO forces would stand a better chance of holding their ground. The Tornados of the German Luftwaffe and the Italian Aeronautica Militare Italiano opted for a different runway denial system, the MW-1.

Development of the JP233 system dates back to 1977. It consisted of two huge 21-foot 5-inch-long dispenser pods, weighing a combined 5,148 pounds, that were attached to the underside shoulder pylons of the Tornado GR1 fuselage. Each pod consisted of two sections, the rear portion containing 30 SG357 57-pound runway-busting concrete-penetrators, and the front housing 215 HB876 5.5-pound area-denial submunitions, with both types of sub-munitions being retarded by small parachutes.

The larger SG357 two-stage munitions featured a long, smaller-diameter forward section that included a cylindrical high-explosive charge with a hole in the middle. The shorter, larger-diameter, rear section accommodated a shaped charge. A telescopic fuze at the front of the SG357 created the exact detonation distance for the shaped charge. When the submunition impacted the surface, the fuze initiated this shaped charge, which created a molten metal “spear” that shot through the forward portion and the concrete to create an underground void. The cylindrical high-explosive charge followed this down into the ground before exploding, which was intended to create a crater with significant “heave” at the edges, thus resulting in significant damage to the area around the crater that couldn’t be easily repaired.

The JP233’s submunitions falling and wreaking absolute havoc on an improved surface. , Public Domain

The HB876 was a particularly nasty anti-personnel mine — designed to spread across the rubble and detonate at specific intervals, or if disturbed, in order to hinder repair operations. The outside of the HB876 featured sprung steel strips. After landing a small explosive device fired to release the strips, which served to stand the mine upright, with the fragment warhead pointing upwards. When detonated, it would fire anti-personnel fragments in all directions.

Video thumbnail

The first JP233 test flight was flown over the range at West Freugh, U.K., on February 23, 1982, using a British Aerospace flight trials Tornado (ZA354/BS07). Trials continued throughout 1983 with the release of the munitions, initially from height, and then at lower levels, including against a prepared surface to confirm its concrete-busting performance. The testing also included separation of the JP233 containers, which housed the sub-munitions, and would automatically fall away from the Tornado when the weapon was done spewing out its deadly cargo. JP233 was issued to the RAF front line in April 1985.

Despite operational evaluation trials conducted in the U.S., none of the frontline RAF Tornado squadrons had used JP233 until it was broken out of its crates in preparation to be used in anger over Iraq’s airfields in 1991. Indeed, there weren’t even any training rounds with which to simulate its carriage, they were all live rounds. Practice was restricted to the simulator or to carrying fuel tanks under the fuselage.

The initial tactic for the JP233 was to fly straight down the runway to deploy the bomblets, which floated down on parachutes. However, accurately delivering the weapon was a challenge. If there was any crosswind or if the run was slightly offline, the rain of destruction would be neatly aligned down the side of the runway, leaving it untouched. Moreover, this delivery profile was very predictable. It required the aircraft to be flown in a straight line, wings level, right down the centerline of the runway — usually one of, if not the most highly defended pieces of real estate in the enemy’s entire portfolio.

The weapon had two modes, one for a faster munitions release over a shorter distance, and a slower release that would spread the weapon over a longer stretch of the flight path. The RAF preferred to use the faster release profile, scattering the munitions across runways and taxiways to cut them, instead of along their length, which was considered more predictable and prone to missing the target completely. The Tornado crews became all too aware of how well the Iraqi airfields had been designed and engineered, with multiple parallel taxiways that were also stressed for use as runways. 

Putting even a single Iraqi airfield out of action would be a huge undertaking.

A three-ship of JP233-toting Tornados during training in the Gulf in late 1990., Steve Warren-Smith

“We trained to either cross the runway to cut it up, or to fly down it, and it had two delivery modes: 7.6 seconds or 19, for the two rates of spread,” explains Steve Warren-Smith. “JP233 had to be delivered at around 160 feet, wings level, with no G or angle-of-bank. So you had to fly with very precise parameters for it to be delivered effectively. If you were too high some of the sub-munitions could drift off downwind. Over a peacetime range is one thing, but to do it over an airfield in the pitch black where everyone’s firing at you is quite another!”

An added complication was that the TFR was calibrated for 200 feet, and it wasn’t capable of flying the aircraft at the 160-foot height that was optimum for employing the JP233. It meant the pilot needed to deselect terrain following and hand-fly the aircraft with a radar height hold of 160 feet on the radar altimeter, in the pitch black of night, without night-vision goggles or a forward-looking infrared, if they were to achieve an optimum release height.

Training for war

The three Tornado detachments in the Gulf spent the last months of 1990 engaged in intense work-ups for what lay ahead. One of the specific training requirements was to low-fly with the JP233 pods fitted, both day and night. However, this presented a problem. The RAF only had live rounds, and the explosive lugs that attached the huge weapon system to the aircraft were only stressed for 1.5 missions. It meant each pod could do a takeoff and landing, but a second mission would require the system to be employed or jettisoned — the Tornado couldn’t land back with the JP233 still attached. The solution was to fly each live system once, then park it ready for if hostilities kicked-off.

“At the end of each training mission from Muharraq we would “hoover” down the runway at Sheikh Isa Air Base with the weapons package selected to fly a JP233 delivery profile at 160 feet,” explains Steve Warren-Smith. “Because we couldn’t actually drop the weapon in training, we just had our HUD [head-up display] symbology with a bomb-fall line to go by. We could fly down a runway, but without the weapon actually coming off, you didn’t really know how effective you’d been!”

An RAF Tornado GR1 over the desert with wings swept fully forward., Ian Black

It became apparent that the number of sorties needed to familiarize each Tornado crew with JP233 could have an adverse effect on available live rounds. A solution was developed whereby manufacturer Hunting modified a complete JP233 system with weighted concrete ballast in place of the explosive charges. With beefed-up lugs, this training store would be available for multiple sorties.

“On December 1, 1990, my four-ship was scheduled for a night training sortie,” says Warren-Smith. “My nav and I were allocated the JP233 training round. I had become increasingly aware of the impending conflict, and of making sure we had the training nailed so we didn’t get all the way to the target and then do something wrong. In fact, it was at the forefront of my mind.”

“When you dropped a JP233, rather than going “now” the pilot held the “commit” button on top of the stick and once the bomb-fall line hit the target the computer would release the weapon. The plan is that you commit, the munitions come out at the computed point, and then the containers fall away automatically 1.5 seconds after the dispensing process is complete. We didn’t have any specific briefing on this training round, and as we walked out to the jet we decided that as there was nothing live on it, we should be as realistic as possible and do all the switches and the commit on our run.”

“Our target was a geographical waypoint in a very flat part of the Saudi Arabian desert. We got airborne, in-flight refueled and then dropped into low level at 200 feet on the TFR in the black of night. As we made our run, we went through the switches and committed the “weapon.” Suddenly the explosive release lugs went bang and the whole 5.5 tons of the two pods came off! The autopilot threw us into a 3.5-G pullup as it thought something had gone wrong. We left the whole thing in the desert!”

“That was the end of the JP233 training round.”

A Tornado GR1 from the Muharraq detachment with JP233s loaded., Ian Black

When the RAF initially deployed Tornados into the theater in August 1990, it sent some of its most experienced Qualified Weapons Instructors and Flight Commanders. The policy of a three-month roulement meant that some of the crews that were deployed right at the start — notably those at Muharraq — started to return home despite all the experience and work-ups that had been completed.

Steve Warren-Smith and many of his colleagues in Bahrain — who had spent three months honing their skills in the desert — headed back to Germany in early January. In their place, a fresh influx of personnel arrived, and these new crews, many of which included some very junior officers, had very little time to get up to speed with the challenges of desert operations as conflict loomed.

Nige Ingle was a young Pilot Officer on No 617 Squadron “Dambusters” at RAF Marham, in his first year flying the Tornado GR1. “As all the experienced guys had gone to the Gulf; it left a gene pool of us doing combat work-ups and others who didn’t have the required hours to deploy. I just managed to accrue sufficient hours to get permission from my boss Wg Cdr Bob Iveson to do the Gulf work-up. We flew with heavy weapons [1,000-pound dumb bombs], did night TFR, and operational low flying down to 100 feet. In my heart of hearts, I thought we’d end up deploying, but that Saddam Hussein would call it quits, and I’d come home fully qualified!”

“Our experience of JP233 was that we had the software in the jet, and we knew we needed to fly down the centerline of the runway to use it. That was it,” says Ingle. “They’d worked out that if they put the big 2,250-liter [594 US gallon] tanks on the jet and the two JP233 pods, plus a full load of fuel, the aircraft would be above its maximum take-off weight. I remember the boss of No 617 Squadron proved it could be done by flying a jet in this configuration at Marham.”

A dismantled JP233 pod showing the rear and front sections. , USAF

Wrecking Saddam’s airfields

The day before Operation Desert Storm was launched, the various crews around the Gulf region were told that they were going to war. The Iraqi Air Force was considered to be a formidable opponent, and the RAF entered the conflict with the same level of expectation and preparedness as if it was meeting the Soviet forces in Europe. 

Four jets from the Dhahran detachment and eight from Muharraq were the first RAF Tornado GR1s into Operation Desert Storm as the air campaign started in the early hours of January 17, 1991. Each clutching a pair of JP233s, they were tasked with taking out Iraqi airfields in a bid to keep Saddam’s air force on the ground.

In the dead of night, the Tornados taxied out to their respective runways in radio silence to maintain operational security. “Our objective was to sever access to the runways from the hardened aircraft shelter dispersals at each corner of the airfield, thought to be easier to achieve than putting two runways out of action,” explained Mal Craghill, who was assigned to No 16 Squadron at Tabuk. “In what would become a familiar pattern, we would have “area support” from fighters sweeping a wide area ahead of us for enemy aircraft, electronic attack aircraft jamming surface-to-air missile [SAM] radars, and aircraft capable of shooting anti-radiation missiles at any radars which did threaten us. These aircraft were not dedicated to our formation, but knew where we would be at any given time to ensure they could protect us.”

Led by their respective detachment commanders, the first Tornado “package” launched shortly before 01:00 AM local time headed for Tallil Air Base, near Nasiriyah. This base housed at least one squadron of fighters. Meanwhile, just over an hour later Wg Cdr Travers-Smith led a four-ship of GR1s out of Tabuk towards Al Asad Air Base, to the north of Ramadi, and home to two Iraqi MiG squadrons. 

A Royal Air Force Tornado GR1 flying at low level over the Saudi Arabian desert., RAF/Crown Copyright

For Mark Roberts, he was to fly the first of his 26 Desert Storm missions as number three in a four-ship formation. “I flew at the end of the first wave for a JP233 attack on Al Asad. I remember as we were flying low across the desert at a couple of hundred feet, we could see the triple-A lighting up from about 200 miles away. We commented: “Christ, thank goodness we’re not going there,” only to turn onto our final attack heading to realize that it was exactly where we were going.”

“As I approached the target I remember quite vividly that the triple-A was being arc-fired. I disconnected the autopilot and flew low across the airfield into what felt like a wall of lead. We flew right into it and your senses tell you that everything is going upwards, so the visual stimuli is that you’re going downwards. We were doing a coordinated attack and I remember looking across and seeing the JP233 going off [on another jet] and effectively saying ‘I’m here!’ right inside the triple-A ring. Then we went from all the visual stimuli in the world to absolutely nothing. All I could see was the triple-A in my mirrors.”

Nige Ingle and Paul McKernan deployed to Bahrain on January 1, 1991, to complete a No 27 Squadron four-ship, which was attached to No XV Squadron. The timing meant they flew a total of seven work-up sorties in theater, but they had no experience of flying with the JP233. Yet on night two of the campaign, they were preparing to fly their first combat mission, and it was to be a JP233 raid.

Muharraq was to launch eight jets — four to attack Shaibah Air Base, and another four-ship was tasked to hit Ubaydah bin al Jarrah Air Base, near Kut. “We actually lost the toss for the mission, so our formation got the longer flight that required two pre-strike tanker brackets. We were told the best thing to do was to sleep during the day, then stay awake at night to be ready for the attacks in the darkness. Neither Paul or I slept a wink for what must have been 24 hours before the mission — I’ve never felt as tired as I did for that first combat sortie,” Ingle recalls.

A Tornado GR1 on the flight line at Muharraq, Bahrain, armed with live JP233s., Ian Black

Ingle and navigator Flight Lieutenant Paul McKernan were to be the number four aircraft in the four-ship. “Our formation leader planned the sortie, and we pitched up at the brief to hear that we’d be tanking twice with JP233 loaded before we went low level, supported by four F-15Cs, four F-111s, four F-4Gs and two EF-111 Ravens,” McKernan recalls. “The first time we came face-to-face with a JP233 was on the evening of January 17 when we walked out to the jet and it had these two big wardrobes strapped underneath it!”

The al Jarrah formation left Muharraq at midnight local time. “Night formation, flying an overweight jet, and taking JP233 with us to the tanker was a challenge in itself,” says Ingle. “After departing the tanker we dived down into low level and turned our lights out as we went across the border. Paul was very busy operating the kit and getting the navigation fixes, which was the most important thing that we had to do.”

“The airfield itself at al Jarrah had been under attack for a considerable time before we got there,” Paul McKernan continues. “That was most definitely not Tornado Standard Operating Procedure — we liked to sneak in, drop the weapons, and clear off before anyone knew that we were there.”

“Soon after we had tanked, the number three jet had a problem and had to turn back. Shortly after crossing the Iraqi border we were locked and fired upon by a Roland SAM. Nige spotted the missile and did an evasive maneuver and chaff was dispensed. Thanks to the efforts of the SEAD [suppression of enemy air defense] aircraft the target was easily visible as a huge orange glow on the horizon. None of us had seen triple-A before, and we thought how on Earth are we going to get through all of that?”

Flt Lt Paul McKernan (left) and FO Nige Ingle during Operation Granby, as the British participation in Desert Storm was known., Paul McKernan

Ingle picks up the story: “At a range of around 18 miles to go we were told we should select full combat power [afterburner] and leave that in until around six miles to run, then go to max dry power so we were absolutely as fast as possible, but without the reheat “carrots” coming out the back to give away our position as we ran over the target. I decided that speed was what we needed, so when Paul said cut the burners at six miles, I kept them in for a bit longer. For the run, we were given a choice. We could leave the autopilot terrain-following radar in, which would take us over the target at 200 feet, or we could fly manually down to a height we were comfortable with. With very few hours on the Tornado, I elected to stay on autopilot.”

The remaining Tornados in the formation were offset to the right of the lead aircraft, with 20 seconds trail spacing between each jet, hugging the desert floor. As if they didn’t have enough to do, Ingle and McKernan’s final attack run was interrupted with 2.5 miles to run when what was initially thought to be triple-A hit the port wing. “The aircraft rose to 600 feet but we rapidly got back down to 200 feet,” says McKernan. “I was head down in the radar scope, but it was horrendously bright in the cockpit with all the triple-A. Having gone all that way and worked ourselves through that orange dome of fire, we were damn sure we were going to hit what we were aiming for, and we did!”

Ingle recalls that when the JP233 was deploying its sub-munitions it felt like driving a car over cobblestones; another navigator said it was like driving over a cattle grid.

Video thumbnail

Coming off the target run, with JP233 canisters punched-off, and running south at the speed of heat for the border, Ingle remembered the huge bang and yaw on the final run-in. “We were still flying, so it couldn’t be too bad.” The leading-edge wing slats had stopped working and he couldn’t sweep the Tornado’s wings forward from their 45-degree position. The three jets all landed safely and taxied in after what had been a grueling four-hour and 10-minute mission. As they stepped from the cockpit, a television crew awaited Ingle and McKernan. “How was it?” They filmed the weary pair as they inspected the wing to find that the impact hadn’t been Iraqi bullets, but instead a large bird that they’d hit as they screamed towards al Jarrah.

Back in the temporary squadron building, the three crews got together to debrief what they had just done. The sheer enormity of the task they’d achieved started to sink in. “With the debrief complete, the other formation, which had gone to Shaibah, came to see us. One of the pilots was in bits,” Ingle recalls. “They didn’t tell us until we’d got everything finished that they’d lost one of the Tornados in their formation.” They’d seen the commanding officer of No 27 Squadron, Wg Cdr Nigel Elsdon, and his navigator Flt Lt “Max” Collier, go down during their JP233 attack. Both were tragically killed.

Intense first days

In the early hours of January 19, Ingle and McKernan were back in action. This time, they were part of a package of eight Tornados assigned to No 27 Squadron that were again tasked with attacking the Iraqi airfield at Tallil. The lead four-ship was to loft 1,000-pound dumb bombs into the airfield, which were designed to airburst over the SAM emplacements. Then the JP233-armed four-ship would make their run. 

“Our formation was 40 seconds behind the first,” recalls Ingle. “So we could avoid the frag from their bombs. I saw the number two jet in their formation get shot down. It was Dave Waddington and Robbie Stewart, and they’d been hit by a Roland SAM.” Flt Lts Waddington and Stewart were taken prisoner, enduring six weeks of captivity and interrogation in Iraq before being released at the end of the war.

Video thumbnail

During the first four nights of the war, the Tornado crews flew 53 JP233 raids against Iraqi airfields, expending 106 JP233s. After five days, thanks to a mix of coalition successes, it was decided that the threat from Saddam’s air force had been suitably reduced. The intense low-level raids had taken their toll on the RAF Tornados, with four jets lost during these raids and four aircrew killed. The Tornados were instructed to change tactics to fly at medium level at around 20,000 feet, where only the larger SAMs could cause them problems. Much of this threat had by now been diminished by the activities of the coalition SEAD aircraft. 

“Switching to medium-level operations on January 22 took a bit of the intensity out of it,” recounts Mark Roberts. All the Tornado units started flying at medium-level and used 1,000-pound freefall bombs as the Tornado crews took their existing tactics and employed them at higher altitudes. Then came one of the major breakthroughs of the campaign. Both the Muharraq and Dhahran detachments began working with Pave Spike laser designator pod-equipped Buccaneers from February 2 and 5 respectively, before Tornados equipped with TIALD (Thermal Imaging and Laser Designator) pods began arriving at Tabuk on February 10. The advent of laser-guidance enabled the Tornados to attack targets such as bridges and individual hardened aircraft shelters with precision using Paveway II laser-guided bombs.

Three JP233 Tornado GR1s on a mission from Muharraq., Mike Lumb

The end of JP233

While JP233 had an important role to play in Desert Storm, its delivery profile resulted in some of the most dangerous missions of the entire air war. Designed in the depths of the Cold War, it was reliant on having a delivery aircraft directly over the target at very low level, making a long and predictable target run. What the RAF Tornado aircrews did on those first few nights of Desert Storm was unbelievably brave.

While the Tornado crews were told whether or not their JP233 attacks had hit their intended targets, the overall success of the employment of the system against Iraqi airfields was subject to a classified report after the war.

SG357 concrete-penetrators spill from the rear portion of the JP233 during testing., BAE Systems

The JP233 was initially planned to remain in service until at least 2005, but the British Landmines Bill of July 1998 put an end to JP233. While the bill didn’t prohibit the use of airfield denial weapons, JP233 was ruled out by the Ottawa Convention and British legislation prohibited the use in any circumstances of any weapon classified as an anti-personnel landmine.

All HB876 bomblets were to be destroyed by January 1, 2000, and the SG357 submunitions (which did not contravene the Ottawa Convention) by the end of 2002. To achieve this timetable, JP233 was planned for withdrawal from service in August 1998.

It was decided that the advent of modern, precision-guided weapons such as the Storm Shadow cruise missile, which was carried by the Tornado operationally from 2003, more than mitigated the removal of JP233 from the British inventory, although clearly these weapons were not specifically designed to take out airfields in the manner of the JP233.

A JP233 on display underneath a Tornado GR1 at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force., USAF

An era of dramatic change

Operation Desert Storm book-ended the Cold War era of the RAF, which was built around a strict doctrine that was purposely designed to meet the threat from the Warsaw Pact. The RAF Tornados went to war at low level with unguided weapons and emerged versed in smart munitions and pinpoint attacks. Ironically, as the peace dividend brought about huge defense cutbacks, both the British and U.S. military entered a period of sustained combat operations in the Middle East that continue to this day.

When the RAF Tornado crews were sent to the Middle East to confront Iraq, there was very little actual combat experience on the RAF front line. Desert Storm laid the bedrock for a whole new era of warfighting for the modern RAF. One in which the service could strike a point of its choice, at a time of its choosing.

The events of January 1991 heralded a step-change in the way the RAF Tornados conducted business, switching away from the low-level focus towards medium-level tactics with increased use of smart weapons. RAF crews proved that they were able to quickly move away from rigid tactics and that they were highly adaptable and capable of adopting new techniques, even during high-intensity combat operations — making a huge impact on the overall campaign. “When I think about it, it was quite extraordinary what we did when you compare it with the way things are done today — with night-vision goggles, forward-looking infrared, standoff weapons — but actually what we did back then was really advanced for its time,” commented one Tornado pilot.

Overall, six RAF Tornados were lost during combat operations in Desert Storm. These losses were mistaken by some as an indication that the Tornado was incapable of undertaking its intended mission, and that they were forced to switch to medium level. In fact, attacking those Iraqi airfields on the first few nights had to be undertaken at low level. No other aircraft or aircrews were better suited to perform these treacherous missions. Neutralizing Iraq’s airfields played a significant part in the coalition achieving air superiority, which in turn meant the Tornados could safely switch to medium-level operations. One pilot commented: “We knew Iraq had an advanced air defense system and a significant air threat and we believed they’d be up for the fight.”

Video thumbnail

Ingle and McKernan flew together throughout the air war, completing some 15 incredible combat missions. “Our Qualified Weapons Instructor was experienced and he had a seasoned perspective, and our backs,” says Ingle. “And I’d have followed our formation leader to the end of the Earth.” 

Looking back at the events of those nights in the cockpit of a Tornado some 30 years ago, McKernan and Ingle have an impenetrable bond that was forged in the heat of battle. “We set out to do what we were asked to do, and to do it as well as we could.”

It’s easy to see why some retrospectively drew parallels between what the Tornado crews did on those first few nights over Iraq with some of the RAF’s World War II operations, such as the “Dambusters” raid on Germany’s Ruhr Valley. The quietly professional RAF Tornado community was always keen to avoid such comparisons.

Overall, the 61 deployed RAF Tornado GR1s flew some 2,535 sorties in Desert Storm, employing 106 JP233s, and dropping 3,631 unguided 1,000-pound bombs, and 1,079 laser-guided bombs. The Tornados also flew 140 reconnaissance sorties and fired some 113 Air-Launched Anti-Radiation Missiles (ALARMs) on SEAD missions.

The British Tornado story is just one chapter of Desert Storm, an air campaign that helped to shape the face of modern aerial warfare. Some 30 years on, the accounts from aircrews that took part in the massive air war bear testament to the significance of their contributions and their unflinching approach to the missions that they were asked to fly.

Mission markings including two JP233s and nose art applied to Tornado GR1 ZA465 Foxy Killer, seen back in the UK post-war., Ian Black

Contact the editor: