Tornado Spyplanes go to War

Aerial reconnaissance has come a long way since the first jet reconnaissance mission in the summer of 1944. Today it is a multi-faceted business employing aircraft and drones flying over enemy territory at ultra-low or ultra-high altitude, planes standing-off outside the reach of the defences and looking in or listening from there, and satellites orbiting high above the combat zone. During the recent war in the Persian Gulf the Royal Air Force sent its Tornado GR.1A reconnaissance aircraft into action for the first time. These state-of-the-art planes carry no conventional optical film cameras; instead, they use an electro-optical system similar in concept to the family camcorder to record the scene passing below the aircraft. Photographs are no longer the main product of aerial reconnaissance — now it is ‘electro-optical imagery’.

In January 1991, a few days before the start of the aerial onslaught against Iraq, six Tornado GR.1A aircraft and nine crews drawn from Nos 2 and 13 Squadrons joined the Royal Air Force Tornado detachment at Dhahran in Saudi Arabia. The GR.1A is optimized for the low-altitude reconnaissance role flying at night or in bad weather, and it carries no optical cameras or conventional film. In the space that had been occupied by the cannon and ammunition magazines in the attack version of the Tornado, the GR.1A carries an in-built electro-optical reconnaissance system. The main sensor is the Vinten 4000 infra-red linescan equipment, which scans from side to side, perpendicular to the line of flight, from horizon to horizon, from a small blister beneath the fuselage. Supplementing this cover, looking to each side of the fuselage, are a pair of British Aerospace/Vinten sideways-looking infra-red sensors. The electronic images seen from these three sensors are fed to six separate video-recorders.

Infra-red photography using conventional film has been around for a long time. Tactically, it has the great advantage that it functions in lighting conditions ranging from bright sunlight to the darkest of nights and requires no artificial illumination (i.e. flares) that would betray the presence of the aircraft. Another well-proven technique is to link the reconnaissance system electronically to the aircraft’s navigational computer, so that the latter places in the corner of each image a small block giving the aircraft’s position, heading and other details at the time the image was captured; also, as he passes through the target area, the navigator can press a button to put an ‘event marker’ on any image of particular interest. These features are of considerable assistance to the interpreters who will later examine the imagery. In the Tornado reconnaissance system these features are incorporated and their capability is enhanced.

While the imagery produced by the infra-red electro-optical equipment lacks the crystal sharpness produced by conventional film cameras under optimum conditions, for military intelligence purposes this is a small handicap. The important advantage of the new system compared with normal photography is the reduction in the delay in getting the intelligence to those who need to use it. There is no need to develop or print the imagery before it is viewed. In the aircraft the navigator can observe the video imagery on a television screen in his cockpit in real time (and at night the screen will show things that his eyes may not see), and he can pass on, by radio, any significant discoveries that may have been made. He can even replay in flight particular parts of the imagery if he wishes to identify specific objects on the ground. After the aircraft has landed, the video cassettes can be played immediately for analysis.

During the Gulf conflict the Tornado GR.1As operated as part of a multi-faceted Coalition reconnaissance effort that included several types of drone, F-14s carrying reconnaissance pods, RF-4C Phantoms and Lockheed TR-ls and U-2s. Ground surveillance was carried out by Boeing E-8A (J-STARS) aircraft using a powerful sideways-looking radar to detect traffic movements deep in enemy territory. Electronic reconnaissance (elint) was the domain of the Boeing RC-135 ‘Rivet Joint’, the Lockheed EP-3E ‘Aries’ Orion and the BAe Nimrod R.1. Overseeing the area at regular intervals were the US satellites with their own secret range of reconnaissance sensors.

Each separate system — the low-and the high-flying aircraft and drones, the radar surveillance planes, the electronic eavesdroppers and the satellites — possessed its own unique advantages for intelligence-gathering. That of the Tornado GR.1A was the ability to conduct searches of specified areas or routes at relatively short notice, and to do so at night and beneath a solid layer of low cloud (which would preclude effective optical or infra-red searches by higher-flying systems).

To avoid optically aimed anti-aircraft fire, the GR.1As operated only at night. Flying singly over enemy territory, these aircraft normally cruised at speeds around 645mph using their terrain-following radar to maintain a constant altitude of 200ft. Although the aircraft had provision to carry a couple of AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles for self-protection, the threat from Iraqi fighters was considered minimal and crews preferred to leave the missiles off and so avoid their weight and drag penalty.

The Tornado GR.1As flew their first combat mission on the third night of the war, 18/19 January. Soon after dark three of these aircraft took off from Dhahran to conduct separate searches of areas from which ‘Scud’ surface-to-surface missiles were being launched against Israel or Saudi Arabia. Squadron Leaders Dick Garwood and John Hill, assigned to search the area to the south of Habbaniyah, completed their mission without incident. When their imagery was examined afterwards it was found to show a ‘Scud’ launching vehicle in the open. F-15E attack planes were directed to the area but low cloud prevented them from finding the vehicle.

A second wave of GR.1As also took part of the ‘Scud-hunting’ effort that night. Flight Lieutenants Brian Robinson and Gordon Walker conducted a search in the Wadi al Khirr area. Later analysis of their imagery showed at least two camouflaged sites thought likely to contain ‘Scud’ support vehicles.

During the night of 19th/20th Flight Lieutenant Mike Stanway and Squadron Leader Roger Bennett had a brief tussle with the defences. Their mission was a search of the western end of the main Baghdad — Ar Rutbah highway, an area from which ‘Scud’ missiles were being launched against Israel. Stanway flew along the highway using the aircraft’s moving-map display to follow the line of the road, which, apart from the headlights of an occasional vehicle, remained unseen in the darkness. The search continued without incident until the aircraft was some 20 miles east of Ar Rutbah, then, as Bennett later explained, the mission took on a more exciting turn:

I suddenly noticed a bright glow over my left shoulder in my 8 o’clock. I thought it was an ER, guided missile, either one of the shoulder-launched variety or an SA-9, and it was guiding towards us on a disconcertingly constant bearing. Mike broke hard left and climbed into it to evade. I selected flares, but the dispenser was faulty and they refused to eject. Fortunately the evasive manoeuvre by itself was enough: the missile went sailing past us and detonated some way away.

Subsequent examination of the imagery revealed a ‘Scud’ launching bunker with a man standing outside it. It was clear that the man or someone near to him had fired the SAM because the imagery showed that almost immediately afterwards Stanway had banked the aircraft sharply to avoid the upcoming missile.

Invariably it was the highly skilled photo-interpreters (PIs), viewing the expanded imagery on large TV screens in the Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre at Dhahran, that made all the important Scud finds rather than the aircraft navigators. As Bennett explained,

One of the PIs found the camouflaged bunker. Once he had pointed out what it was, it was almost obvious. But it required an expert to do it. Everybody tried to find the ‘Scuds’, but they were not left out into the open waiting to be found. After each firing, the vehicles dispersed and ran back under cover.

Mike Stanway and Roger Bennett had their most memorable sortie during the small hours of 26 February, two days after the start of the Coalition ground offensive. They took off as an airborne reserve in support of two other Tornados that had been allocated specific tasks, but on the way they received orders to fly a route reconnaissance along the main roads linking An Nasiriyah, Al Amarah, Basrah and Jalibah in eastern Iraq.

First the crew had to rendezvous with a Victor tanker over northern Saudi Arabia in order to take on fuel, and that proved no easy task. Thunderstorms in the area caused considerable turbulence, with dense cloud extending from an altitude of 26,000ft down to below 3,000ft. Bennett recalled:

Normally we would tank at around 10,000 feet. The Victor tanker had tried every level, and at 3,000 feet he was still in cloud and in turbulence. We found the tanker by using our attack radar as an AI [airborne interception radar]. Visibility was down to about 100 metres, with thunderstorms and lightning, and we tanked at 3,000 feet. There was a lot of turbulence, the tanker was moving violently up and down and there was a serious risk of mid-air collision. The weather was awful and getting worse. After a struggle Mike got the probe into the basket but it immediately fell out; he got it back in again and we started to fill up but then the probe fell out again. I looked at the fuel and said, ‘Right, we’ve got enough.’ We left the tanker with about 7½ tons of fuel, climbed out the top of the weather at 26,000 feet and headed off to the north.

Just short of the Iraqi border, the Tornado let down to low altitude and headed for Tallil. Bennett continued:

Still the weather was pretty awful. We did not break cloud until we were below 1,000 feet. At 200 feet we were in the clear, with a solid overcast and no turbulence at that level — perfect conditions in which to do a reconnaissance in a GR.1A!

Near Tallil an SA-8 missile control radar locked on to the aircraft. Stanway hauled the Tornado into a tight turn and Bennett released chaff, and the lock-on ceased. Despite the two pairs of wide-open eyes quartering the sky around the aircraft, no missile was seen and it is likely that none was fired.

The initial part of the reconnaissance, of the highway from An Nasiriyah to Al Amarah, revealed little traffic. Just short of Al Amarah the aircraft turned south and followed the highway to Basrah. The crew saw a moderate amount of traffic, most of it heading north:

As we ran along that road we were fired at by AAA but fortunately it was not tracking fire — it was unaimed. It looked as if they were firing at our engine noise, and at 560 knots [645mph] at 200 feet they did not hear us until we had gone past. So all of the tracer went behind us — it looked quite pretty!

Short of Basrah the crew turned again, this time on to a westerly heading to follow the highway to An Nasiriyah:

The road to An Nasiriyah, part of the main Basrah to Baghdad highway, was chockablock with traffic. It looked like the M5 during the rush hour. I didn’t need to look at the imagery: we could see the vehicles out of the canopy. They had their lights on, and as we approached they heard us and the lights went out. They probably thought they were about to be bombed. There were all types of military vehicle, including transporters with tanks, all moving west about five yards apart. They were not going very fast, about 10mph. The whole time we were looking out for SAMs, but none came up at us.

Later the crew learned that they had stumbled upon the start of the Iraqi massed withdrawal from Kuwait, later termed ‘The Mother of all Retreats’, ordered by President Saddam Hussein earlier that morning. Bennett reported the findings by radio to the AWACS aircraft monitoring activity in the area. The Tornado followed the highway for some 60 miles without reaching the head of the column then, its task complete, it turned south and headed for base. The crew had spent more than an hour over Iraq, all of it at low altitude. Dawn was breaking as Stanway and Bennett left enemy territory and they made the final 40 minutes of the flight in daylight. It was the only daylight operational flying time they logged during the entire war.

The build-up of Iraqi traffic was also observed by the Boeing E-8 J-STARS radar aircraft over Saudi Arabia, and several flights of B-52 bombers were diverted to attack the concentrations of vehicles.

During the Gulf conflict the Tornado GR.1A force flew 125 reconnaissance missions, the great majority of which were designated ‘successful’. Like most types of intelligence-gathering operation, these carried none of the panache and spectacle associated with the more aggressive types of air operation. Nevertheless, in determining the positions of worthwhile targets, the reconnaissance planes significantly increased the effectiveness of the Coalition attack aircraft.