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Iraq: Air Defenses Increasingly Worry No-Fly-Zone Patrols

  • Charles Recknagel

U.S. concern continues to grow that Iraq is coming close to shooting down an American or British plane patrolling the no-fly zones. Allied warplanes yesterday responded to anti-aircraft fire with bombing sorties, just days after U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Baghdad has "quantitatively and qualitatively" improved its air defenses. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel interviews a defense expert about Iraq's capabilities and U.S. and British strategies for responding.

Prague, 8 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. officials have said little about yesterday's bombing of Iraqi air defenses except to say it occurred in the northern no-fly zone near the city of Mosul.

A statement from the U.S. European Command based in Germany said only that a joint U.S.-British force routinely patrolling the zone from Turkey came under anti-aircraft fire. It said the planes then responded by bombing elements of Iraq's integrated air defense system before departing the area safely.

The statement, as cryptic as usual from the U.S. military, said nothing about the amount of missile fire the planes encountered or whether any of them were hit. It also said nothing about the extent of the allied counter-strike.

Questioned yesterday by reporters, acting Pentagon spokesman Craig Quigley said the U.S. and British bombing was a routine case of self-defense and not "a focused effort to try to degrade the capability of the air defense system."

That appears to make yesterday's events part of the tit-for-tat warfare that Iraq and allied planes have engaged in since Baghdad decided in December 1998 to challenge jets patrolling the northern and southern no-fly zones.

Reuters called it the eighth time this year that allied planes have bombed Iraqi air defenses after coming under fire. Previous years have at times seen almost daily confrontations of the same nature.

But if yesterday's events looked routine, they also underlined what the Pentagon has repeatedly called in recent months a mounting determination by Baghdad to shoot down an allied aircraft.

On 4 August, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Washington believes Iraq has "quantitatively and qualitatively" improved its air defenses since U.S. and British warplanes attacked Iraqi radar and communications targets in a concentrated strike in February.

The February strike came as Baghdad sought to make it more difficult for planes to jam Iraqi radar and so protect themselves from targeted missile fire. U.S. officials said at the time that Chinese technicians were helping Iraq link its radar systems with hard-to-jam fiber-optic lines. Rumsfeld last weekend declined to answer whether Chinese technicians were still providing Iraq with fiber-optic communications cables.

An Iraqi missile was reported last month to have come close to hitting a high-altitude U.S. U-2 surveillance plane over southern Iraq. U.S. media quoted unidentified Pentagon officials as saying the missile was "unguided," that is, fired without the benefit of radar-aiming systems on the ground.

To learn more about the nature of Iraq's growing efforts to shoot down an allied plane, RFE/RL spoke recently with Nigel Vinson, a military analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

Vinson told our correspondent that concern among U.S. and British officials has grown as Iraqi missile systems in recent months have moved from aiming at fighter aircraft among the no-fly zone patrols to slower-moving support aircraft. Nigel Vinson:

"The real difference is a different approach in terms of strategy that the Iraqis are adopting. Whereas traditionally they have attempted to engage the fighter aircraft and the attack aircraft of the British and the Americans, they have now moved to attacks upon the support aircraft, such as tankers, airborne early-warning aircraft, and reconnaissance aircraft (which accompany the fighter planes)."

Vinson says the support aircraft are tempting targets because they move slower than fighters and have larger crews as potential prisoners of war:

"They tend to be slower, less well-protected, and less able to maneuver in the face of incoming surface-to-air missiles and, secondly, they tend to have larger crews. And therefore the downing of any of these aircraft would have far greater political repercussions. And it is that, probably, [that] the Pentagon is concerned about at the moment, particularly with the engagement of the U-2 spy plane in the last few days."

Iraq is reported to have greatly stepped up the volume of its missile fire this year. The Pentagon said last month Iraqi air defenses in southern Iraq have fired 370 times on allied planes since January, compared to 221 times in all of last year. The officials said defenses in northern Iraq had fired 62 times since January, compared to 145 times in all of last year.

"The New York Times" recently reported that U.S. military commanders see four options for dealing with the Iraqi threat.

One would be to leave patrol operations unchanged. Another would be to eliminate enforcement of the no-fly zones entirely -- an option which is reported not to be under consideration. Still a third option would be to step up U.S. and British attacks on Iraqi radar and anti-aircraft positions. And the fourth option would be to reduce the frequency of patrols, relying instead on the threat of massive retaliation to deter Baghdad from violating the prohibited flight zones.

Vinson says that earlier this year the allies appeared to favor reducing the frequency of their patrols and thus the exposure of their planes to Iraqi air defenses. But in recent weeks, that position has shown signs of changing to more frequent patrols and counter-strikes, instead. Vinson says:

"Since the large strikes in February, the U.S. has backed off to a certain extent but the net result of this has been an increasingly assertive Iraqi air defense network and indeed use of [Iraqi] aircraft (inside the no-fly zones). And it may now be that the Americans have decided that what they now need to do is to take a more proactive line in engaging Iraqi aircraft and indeed surface-to-air missile systems. That may be what Rumsfeld was indicating [last weekend]."

Vinson says that Iraq is convinced it can shoot down an allied plane, much as Belgrade did in 1999 during NATO air strikes. Belgrade successfully downed a high-technology U.S. Stealth bomber using upgraded Soviet-era missile systems much like those in Iraq.

"Old 1950s and '60s surface-to-air missiles successfully shot down an American Stealth bomber, so the Iraqis are confident that if they continually improve their equipment, that if they continue to improve and evolve their tactics and remain proactive in trying to engage coalition aircraft and now, increasingly, coalition support aircraft, then eventually they will hit and bring down an aircraft."

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein again warned Washington and London against continuing to patrol the no-fly zones during a speech today observing the 13th anniversary of the cease-fire agreement which ended the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.

He said to the Western powers: "If you care that your pilots and your aircraft are not harmed [then] take your aircraft and battleships and go home."

Britain, France, and the United States originally declared the no-fly zones after the 1991 Gulf War to protect Iraqi Kurds in northern Iraq and Iraqi Shiites in southern Iraq. The move came after both groups launched rebellions against Saddam and then became the targets of brutal reprisal measures, including the use of air power against them.

Baghdad has refused to recognize the no-fly zones -- which were imposed without a UN resolution -- calling them a violation of its sovereignty.

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