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Iraq: U.S.-British Strikes Aimed To Safeguard Own Planes

  • Charles Recknagel

This month's U.S. and British strikes on air defenses around Baghdad demonstrated the two countries' determination to maintain no-fly zone patrols over Iraq despite Iraq's continual challenges. But the strikes also demonstrated U.S. and British respect for Iraq's growing technical expertise. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports that the air strikes were deemed necessary if the patrols were to avoid losing a warplane.

Prague, 28 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When the United States and Britain hit Iraqi air defenses near Baghdad earlier this month (16 February), they did not skimp either on warplanes or targets.

More than 20 jets struck at six Iraqi command centers, including radar and communications facilities. It was the largest air operation since the allies' Desert Fox bombing in late 1998, which aimed at punishing Iraq for failing to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors.

But this time the objective was not to force Iraq to cooperate with the international community. Instead, the strikes were directly aimed at protecting U.S. and British pilots from Iraq's accelerating efforts to down an allied warplane and perhaps capture an airman as the planes patrol the southern no-fly zone.

U.S. officials say Iraqi air defenses fired some 13 missiles at allied pilots in the first six weeks of this year, compared to one missile per month prior to that time. What's more, Iraqi's radar-tracking equipment is growing more sophisticated. Chinese workers have helped Iraq link its radar systems with fiber-optic lines, making it more difficult for U.S. and British planes to counter the radar by electronically jamming it.

To better understand the high-tech contest between the allied planes and Iraq's surface-to-air missile systems, our correspondent spoke recently with Nigel Vinson, a military analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

Vinson says that this month's attack was intended to keep Iraq from making its command-and-control network more inaccessible to allied planes, which largely defend themselves by electronically jamming radar sites trying to track them.

"We know that in recent weeks assistance from the Chinese has been forthcoming in terms of laying fiber-optic cables between the various air defense nodes, particularly in southern Iraq. The purpose behind this is to reduce the electronic emissions given out by the air defense facilities which, normally, the Americans either would jam or spoof, or indeed collect intelligence data from."

Vinson says there is another reason that the Iraqi improvements with Chinese equipment worry the allies: it is a sign that Iraq's military is increasingly modifying its once standard Soviet-era air-defense systems with newer equipment from a variety of sources.

The result is that Iraq's air-defense systems are becoming amalgams of Western, old East European, and Far Eastern technologies that behave in non-standard ways. That makes them less predictable for the U.S. and British planes that are their targets and increasingly difficult to counter. Vinson says:

"[That] makes them extremely difficult to counter because their radar frequencies are unknown, their operational profile is unknown."

Vinson also says that British pilots flying over Iraq have become particularly concerned by the upgrading of Iraqi air defenses because they have less sophisticated capabilities for dealing with non-standard threats than do their U.S. counterparts.

"The U.K., albeit one of the most sophisticated European air forces, is lagging behind [the United States], and it felt that either the Iraqi air-defense network needed to be degraded, sooner rather than later, or alternatively, the threat to the U.K. aircraft would be such that they would be unable to operate with impunity above the skies of Iraq."

The analyst says that U.S. pilots are less threatened because they have supporting aircraft which are specifically designed to smother surface-to-air missile radar sites under broad blankets of electronic noise.

In addition, the U.S. pilots have the ability to strike the radar sites from tens of kilometers away. By contrast, British planes use laser-guided bombs which must be launched from a distance of only a few kilometers.

Britain is moving to improve its own systems. But its newest attack warplane, the GR-4 Tornado, has suffered software problems that have delayed its introduction into service.

During this month's raid, the allies hit about 40 percent of the targets they sought to destroy or damage. Vinson says that the low hit rate is causing many defense analysts to call the strikes only a qualified success and to predict there will be more such raids in the future.

"The raid has been judged a qualified success and is being graded by people within the U.S. as a B-minus or a C-plus, by which they mean that a number of targets were degraded but not all of the six targets that were engaged were sufficiently destroyed. Which leads one to believe that at some point in the future there may well be a return attack on these particular command-and-control and surface-to-air [missile] sites."

Some analysts say there are no signs that Iraq was able to counter the allied attack through measures of its own, such as jamming, even though Iraqi forces are seeking to develop such capabilities. In parts of the country, Iraq has deployed some systems to try to jam the satellite-based Global Positioning System, or GPS, that NATO members use to help guide missiles to their targets.

Vinson says it is uncertain whether Iraq's GPS jammers are homemade or were smuggled in. Such doubts go a long way toward explaining why both the United States and Britain are today so eager to tighten military sanctions upon Iraq.

A report in Britain's "Times" daily this week highlighted the issue's urgency. It said that UN staff in Baghdad often are refused access to airplanes arriving at Saddam International Airport.

In recent months planes from many countries have been flying to Iraq without first seeking approval from the UN Sanctions Committee. That makes it difficult to know what is going in and out of the country.