Select Committee on Defence Thirteenth Report


Northern no-fly zone

35. Time constraints prevented us on this occasion visiting the UK personnel based at Incirlik in Turkey, on operations in the northern no-fly zones, although our predecessor Committee visited those deployed there on Operation Provide Comfort in 1995 and we hope to be able to visit the region ourselves in the future. We have received information about the UK contribution to Operation Northern Watch (Operation Warden) from the MoD.[87] The UK contribution to operations in the northern zone does not include offensive action against Iraqi targets.[88] Four RAF Jaguar GR3 tactical reconnaissance aircraft are based at Incirlik, supported by two VC-10 tankers providing air-to-air refuelling.[89] The detachment comprises about 200 personnel, under Commander British Forces Warden.

Southern no-fly zone

36. The UK contribution to patrolling the southern no-fly zone, Operation Bolton, is part of a coalition operation, Operation Southern Watch. The operational headquarters for Southern Watch are based at Eskan in Saudi Arabia. It is very much a US-controlled operation, under the US Commander, Joint Task Force-South West Asia (CJTF-SWA). The British commander, Commander British Forces Bolton (CBFB), an RAF Group Captain, is also located at Eskan, with supporting staff, and is responsible for all UK operations in the southern no-fly zone.[90]

37. There are no operational units based at Eskan. Coalition missions are flown from Prince Sultan Air Base at Al Kharj, about 2 hours' drive south of Riyadh. This is a huge airbase, the size of the Isle of Wight. The RAF has six Tornado F Mk 3 aircraft located there, crewed at the time of our visit by about 200 personnel from 43 Squadron. The squadron is supported by Royal Engineers and Logistic Corps personnel, making a total detachment strength of about 280 under the command of a Wing-Commander.[91] The role of the Tornado F3s is to provide air defence from possible Iraqi air attack to coalition patrols flying from the Ali Al Salem base in Kuwait on tactical reconnaissance and offensive strike missions.[92]

38. Air-to-air refuelling for the Tornado F3s is provided by a VC-10 tanker based at Muharraq airfield in Bahrain, crewed since 1997 by 101 Squadron from RAF Brize Norton.[93] The current detachment is about 36 personnel and the crew is rotated every 5 weeks. The tanker can support US Navy aircraft but not US Air Force aircraft which use a different refuelling system.

39. The reconnaissance and ground attack elements of the UK contribution to operations are provided by 8 Tornado GR Mk 1 aircraft based at Ali Al Salem airbase in Kuwait. At the time of our visit, the aircraft were crewed by II (AC) Squadron from RAF Marham. The Tornado GR1s are equipped with Paveway laser guided bombs, thermal imaging and laser designator (TIALD) pods and reconnaissance pods.[94] Ali Al Salem is the Kuwaiti Air Force base and is located only 30 miles from the Iraqi border. II Squadron are supported by a half squadron of RAF Regiment personnel, with Royal Engineers on the base working on infrastructure improvements. The total detachment of about 430 personnel is under the command of a Group Captain.

Maritime operations

40. The Royal Navy's Armilla patrol has been in operation in the Gulf region since the Iran-Iraq war began in 1980. Its purpose then was to ensure the safety of British merchant ships in the region. Its role has since developed to 'provide reassurance to friendly Gulf states and act as a tangible demonstration of UK engagement in the region' and to contribute to the international effort to enforce sanctions against Iraq.[95] The Armilla patrol currently consists of the continual presence in the Gulf Region of a frigate or destroyer supported by a Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel.[96]

41. The Armilla patrol is augmented by Carrier Task Groups and other naval forces deployed to the region from time to time. Earlier this year HMS Illustrious led a Carrier Task Group to the Gulf which comprised a nuclear submarine, nine warships and 2,000 personnel.[97] Its activities included participation in no-fly zone patrols and maritime interdiction operations as well as training exercises for Royal Navy personnel and joint exercises with the US Navy and those of Gulf states.[98] The Task Group included a four-ship mine countermeasures group (MCM) which undertook routine MCM survey work in the region. We were able to visit HMS Inverness, one of the mine countermeasure vessels integrated with the Carrier Task Group, during our visit to Bahrain.

Command structure and targeting process

42. The commanders of the British operations in the Iraqi no-fly zones, Commander British Forces Bolton in the southern region and Commander British Forces Warden in the northern region, report directly to the Chief of Joint Operations (CJO) in London. CJO, under the authority of the Secretary of State, passes to the commanders 'highly detailed levels of delegated authority for target clearance'. The commander can apply for authority to attack targets beyond this delegated authority; this has been applied for and granted on 5 occasions since April 1991.[99]

43. The Secretary of State told us—

    ... we are very careful to ensure that in selecting targets we do so in a proportionate manner and, indeed, in a manner that avoids, if at all possible, the prospect of civilian casualties.[100]

Although mistakes are made on rare occasions,[101] the MoD takes the view that reports from Iraq about civilian casualties have to be treated with extreme scepticism. Accusations often come from Baghdad of damage caused by coalition bombs on days when no missions have been flown.[102] 'Painstaking battle damage assessment' is carried out after the dropping of any bomb, which gives the MoD confidence that 'in the vast majority of cases, released ordnance by coalition aircraft lands on, or very close to, its intended target'.[103]

Appropriateness and serviceability of equipment


44. During our visit to RAF personnel based at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, we were told about some of the performance problems demonstrated by their Tornado F3 aircraft in undertaking no-fly zone missions. The high temperatures in the Gulf have a significant effect on the performance of the aircraft, preventing them from being able to fly high enough to reach an ideal altitude, in contrast to the US Air Force's F-15s, which regularly fly at 40,000 feet. The Secretary of State told us that all fast jets experience performance problems in hot climates unless they are specifically adapted to operate in that environment and that all F3s deployed on Operation Bolton had been provided with additional cooling equipment to counter this.[104] The F3 was originally intended for air defence of the UK, operating primarily over the North Sea.

45. There were also serviceability problems with the F3. The usual pattern in practice was for four aircraft to take off on a mission; the two performing best on the day would continue on the mission; one would remain in the vicinity of the tanker aircraft in case it was needed; and the one performing least well would return to base. The dangerous nature of the missions means that minor problems with equipment cannot be tolerated in the way they might be on training exercises. The Director of Air Operations told us that all aircraft on operational detachments were given priority in receiving spares and that—

    ... serviceability of aircraft in all of our operational attachments is more than adequate to meet the task that we have been set by the commander in the field.[105]

In response to a parliamentary question about the serviceability of Tornado aircraft, the MoD said that 'operational serviceability of front-line aircraft fluctuates each day according to the maintenance that is required' and as an illustration provided a 'snapshot' of aircraft available on a particular day. On 26 January this year, 79 of the 86 front-line F3s were classified as serviceable. This includes those which require 'first line servicing', undertaken by the deployed squadron itself, where faults can be rectified in a few hours.[106]

46. Ministers have accepted the limitations of the Tornado F3 for some time—

    We all recognise that the RAF's F3 Tornado has a limited further life. It is not ... an agile aircraft. It was designed to deal with the Cold War threat of Soviet long-range bomber attack on the United Kingdom. The missile upgrade currently being implemented will, of course, make it a much more effective system, but that can be no more than a relatively short-term solution.[107]

The MoD is undertaking a £140 million upgrade programme for the Tornado F3, announced in late 1997 and known as the Capability Sustainment Programme (CSP) which is intended to provide the RAF with an aircraft which meets its current requirements until Eurofighter becomes available. (We discussed the Eurofighter programme in our recent report on MoD major procurement projects.[108]) The Director of Air Operations told us that the CSP will give the F3 the capability to fire advance short range and medium range air to air missiles (ASRAAM and AMRAAM) and will improve the navigation equipment and radar performance.[109] It also includes fitting the Tornados with a Successor Identification Friend or Foe (SIFF) system to allow pilots to identify aircraft flying near them more effectively by electronic means rather than relying on identification by eye.[110] Unmodified aircraft will be kept in service until 2007 and the CSP F3s until 2010.[111] The Director of Air Operations told us that Eurofighter would be an 'ideal aeroplane' to carry out the missions currently undertaken in the no-fly zones by the Tornado F3, that it would be similar to the US Air Force F-15 and that it would not suffer from temperature problems.[112]

47. We understand the frustrations of our air-crew in undertaking difficult missions with aircraft which are not ideal for the task, particularly when they are operating alongside their US colleagues who have demonstrably superior equipment. The Secretary of State pointed out the difference in the budgets available to him and to his US counterpart.[113] Although we have made clear on a number of occasions our view that the UK defence budget should be increased, we accept that the realities of living within any level of budget mean that expensive equipment cannot always be replaced as quickly as would be ideal. However, we expect the MoD to provide all RAF air-crew undertaking dangerous missions in the no-fly zones with upgraded F3 aircraft as soon as possible and to ensure that the highest levels of serviceability are maintained on all aircraft participating in the mission.


48. We were told during our visit that some F3 missions had to be cancelled because of the non-availability of the VC10 tanker based at Bahrain. There were two VC10s in operation until January this year. The Secretary of State told us that reducing the tankers to only one aircraft had not had an adverse effect on operations—

The decision to withdraw one of the aircraft had balanced the needs of the mission with other factors—

    The withdrawal of the VC10 airframe was to allow us to both minimise the impact on the crews but equally to allow additional training and exercising opportunities. There have been real benefits in withdrawing one airframe in terms of ensuring the retention of the appropriate skill levels but also simply in terms of ensuring the people affected have more opportunities to be at home and not to be deployed.[115]

We do not challenge the benefits of the decision to withdraw one of the VC10 tankers from the region, but we conclude that the MoD's view that this has had no effect on operations is an overstatement.

Capabilities of personnel

49. Many of the RAF personnel whom we met in the Gulf were on their second or third rotation and some pilots expressed to us their concern that they risked suffering 'skill fade'. This arises when they train for and are then deployed on operations in which the same type of mission is undertaken every day, as in the Gulf. They are not then able to train over a range of activities as they would normally do and therefore risk losing some of their proficiency in all but the one type of mission being undertaken. The Director of Air Operations accepted that this was a problem in any deployment of this kind, and that—

The Secretary of State told us—

    I must emphasise to you that this is not a new phenomenon ... We have had to deal with this kind of management problem over a very long period of time, and we are very much aware of the implications of skill fade if people are not given the rounder training that they require.[117]

To address possible skill fade problems—

    ... we tend to cycle the crews through after about six weeks, and they come back to the United Kingdom to ensure that the skills that they have do not perish.[118]

To balance this, there are benefits to pilot training from the no-fly zone operations. The Director of Air Operations told us—

    ... operating in the Gulf gives them very good experience of operating in very large packages with the US, and they do not get that opportunity on a day-to-day basis very often in the UK.[119]

Other possible restrictions on operational effectiveness

50. We asked the Secretary of State about possible limitations on operational effectiveness arising from host countries' sensitivities about the way in which their facilities and support were used. He told us—

Saudi Arabia did not permit offensive aircraft to be deployed from its territory during Operation Desert Fox and that policy has continued since then.[121] Turkey is reported to impose restrictions in relation to northern no-fly zone missions operating from Incirlik: US and UK aircraft can fly for only 3 days a week, for a maximum of 3 hours a day; no more than 48 aircraft can take part in any operation; and the types of munitions carried are limited.[122] The MoD was confident that this sort of restriction was not having an adverse effect on operations. The view of the Director General of Operational Policy was that—

    Obviously there are sensitivities about their customs and domestic issues of that kind but in terms of operations I cannot think of any inhibitions that are preventing us undertaking operations as we want to do so.[123]

51. It is part of the Iraqi tactics to use their aircraft to try to lure US and UK aircraft into surface to air missile (SAM) traps. The Iraqi government has offered a substantial cash reward for members of their armed forces who succeed in bringing down a US or UK aircraft or for the capture of a pilot. During our visit to the Gulf, RAF personnel told us that it was made very clear to them that, in undertaking missions, the key priority was for air-crew to return safely: no target was worth risking their lives for. It is regarded as near miraculous by those in theatre that, given the number of missions flown over a sustained period of time, there have so far been no casualties. Some RAF personnel thought it was inevitable that sooner or later casualties would be sustained, either because of mechanical failure to an aircraft or a successful Iraqi attack. The Secretary of State emphasised that it was a tribute to the skill of our RAF personnel that none had so far been lost and that the danger of flying missions should not be underestimated.[124]

52. The conduct of operations also has to take into account the reality, or the perception by governments and chiefs of staff, that public opinion is 'risk averse'; that the public expect none of their Service personnel to be killed or captured and that they would no longer support participation in an operation if casualties occurred. This risk aversion is assessed to be particularly strong in the United States and, as the US is the dominant partner in the no-fly zones coalition, this philosophy inevitably has an effect on the way the missions are conducted and the rules of engagement adopted.

53. We conclude that these considerations do place constraints on the manner in which coalition air operations are conducted but do not prevent our forces from making an effective and valuable contribution to the goals of the mission.

54. We are also concerned that the capacity rapidly to reinforce air presence in the region, either in terms of maritime forces or land and HQ elements, is at best limited. Much of the evidence about this is, for good reasons, sensitive.

Operational welfare


55. The accommodation for RAF personnel which we saw on the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia is of a good standard. Purpose-built units replaced tented accommodation in March last year. Leisure facilities include a swimming pool and UK personnel are able to use the extensive US social, recreational and leisure facilities. The high-tech US medical facilities were made available to the UK medical officer. In Bahrain, UK personnel are accommodated off the base in rented villas and those we met found their facilities satisfactory.

56. The accommodation for personnel at the Ali Al Salem airbase in Kuwait, which is provided by the host government, is of a poor standard and this is acknowledged by the MoD. The Secretary of State told us—

When we visited the base, personnel were accommodated in 12 two-room blocks, with 20 personnel in each room and one bathroom per block. There is inadequate air-conditioning and, given the extreme heat in the region, the rooms are very uncomfortable for much of the year. Plans to improve the accommodation have been agreed: the number of people accommodated in each room will be reduced from 20 to 10 and effective air-conditioning installed. The Secretary of State told us—

    ... we are very grateful to the Kuwaiti Government for both the speed with which they have responded and indeed the efforts that they are making to improve the living accommodation. So the matter is in hand, but clearly we want to get it sorted out quickly.[126]

We understand that the planned completion date for improvements is early autumn. We expect the MoD to be able to tell us in response to this Report that the required improvements to the accommodation at Ali Al Salem airbase have been completed.


57. As so often seems to be the case, we were told during our visit to the Gulf of problems with welfare telephone connections to the UK. The Project Welcome system, which provides telephone links to the UK for Service personnel deployed abroad, has been introduced for personnel on the Prince Sultan Air Base (PSAB) in Saudi Arabia. The system was not fully commissioned when we visited the Ali Al Salem base in Kuwait. We were told by personnel based at both PSAB and Ali Al Salem that the telephone system is not working well: connections are poor and as a result as much as half of the 20 minutes free allocation per week is wasted. Additional time can be bought on the Project Welcome system and on the other welfare systems at a cost ranging between £1.47 and £1.63 per minute but personnel do not take up this option because cheaper and more effective alternatives (such as buying commercial telephone cards) are available. Commanding officers at the Prince Sultan Air Base told us that they had raised the connection problems many times with Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) before they were able to convince those responsible that a problem existed and should be investigated. In Bahrain, where Project Welcome apparently does not use satellite links, personnel reported no problems with telephone connections, although they were equally reluctant to purchase additional time on the system.

58. The Minister for the Armed Forces has admitted that there are problems—

The Secretary of State also assured us that he was aware of the problems and that they would be addressed.[128] We have raised the issue of telephones on numerous occasions in the past, most recently in our report this Session on the MoD's Annual Reporting Cycle.[129] The government said in reply to that report that it endorsed our views on 'the importance that Service personnel deployed on expeditionary operations attach to being able to contact their families regularly, reliably and cheaply'. We are therefore disappointed to find that there are problems in a region where UK personnel have been deployed for nearly 10 years. The contrast with the facilities available to US personnel at the same bases is stark. We hope that the MoD, in response to this Report, will be able to tell us that an efficient welfare telephone system is now in place for personnel deployed in the Gulf and indeed elsewhere. The MoD also needs to continue to respond to the rapidly increasing popularity of e-mail as a way for personnel to keep in touch with their families, by supplying an adequate number of suitable computers.

Force protection

59. The region is not a benign or safe environment in which to operate. There are military threats, terrorist threats and other risks inherent in the nature of the deployment. Although this was not raised as an issue of particular concern during our visit, we would welcome reassurance that these risks have been adequately assessed and that the necessary thinking about preventative measures has been done.

87  Ev pp 27 and 30 Back

88  Ev p 27 Back

89  The GR3s are currently crewed by No. 54(F) Squadron and the VC10s by No. 10 Squadron: see RAF Operation Warden News at Back

90  Ev p 21  Back

91  Ev p 21 Back

92  Ev p 21 Back

93  Ev p 21 Back

94  Ev p 21 Back

95  Ev p 21-22 Back

96  Ev p 21 Back

97  HC Deb., 22 February 2000, c 1394 Back

98  Ev p 31 Back

99  HC Deb., 6 June 2000, c171w; see also QQ 52-58. No offensive operations are conducted by UK forces in the northern no-fly zone and there is therefore no targeting policy there. Back

100  Q 10 Back

101  Since December 1998, there have been two occurrences of ordnance released from UK aircraft hitting unintended targets. See HC Deb., 6 June 2000, c 169w Back

102  Q 60; see also HC Deb., 6 June 2000, cc 169-170w Back

103  HC Deb., 6 June 2000, c 168w Back

104  Q 93 Back

105  Q 95 Back

106  HC Deb., 14 February 2000, c 370w Back

107  HC Deb., 9 July 1997, c 867 Back

108  Tenth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 1999-2000, Major Procurement Projects, HC 528, paras 11-26 Back

109  Q 104 Back

110  HC Deb., 14 June 2000, cc 645-6 w; see also QQ 102-106 Back

111  Jane's Defence Weekly, 8 March 2000 Back

112  Q 96 Back

113  Q 94 Back

114  Q 106 Back

115  Q 106 Back

116  Q 121 Back

117  Q 122 Back

118  Q 120 Back

119  Q 121 Back

120  Q 77 Back

121  Q 83 Back

122  Jane's Defence Weekly, 12 April 2000, pp 23-24. The MoD has said that it cannot comment on restrictions on certain types of weapons as UK aircraft in the northern no-fly zone only conduct renaissance operations; see Ev p 31 Back

123  Q 80 Back

124  QQ 123-127 Back

125  Q 118 Back

126  Q 118 Back

127  HC Deb., 13 April 2000, c 523 Back

128  Q 130 Back

129  Second Report from the Defence Committee, Session 1999-2000, Ministry of Defence Annual Reporting Cycle, HC 158, paras 100-103 Back

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