Aircraft taking part in U.S.-British patrols of Iraq's no-fly zones have attacked a surface-to-surface missile system in what appears to be an effort to reduce Iraq's offensive weapons capability ahead of any war. Until now, U.S.-British strikes in the no-fly zones have targeted Iraqi air-defense systems that challenge the allies' patrols.
Prague, 12 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Planes flying in routine U.S. and British patrols over southern Iraq have attacked a surface-to-surface missile system in what could be stepped-up activity ahead of a U.S.-led war against Baghdad.
A spokesman for the U.S. military's central command, based in Florida, told Reuters that planes patrolling the no-fly zone over southern Iraq struck the mobile missile system near Basra yesterday.
Spokesman Major Brad Lowell said the attack was the first on an Iraqi surface-to-surface missile system since a similar attack near Basra in September.
Analysts say the strike on the surface-to-surface missile is an escalation in the normal pattern of activity over the no-fly zone, in which patrols usually strike Iraqi air-defense systems that target them with radar.
Allied planes and Iraqi air defense forces regularly clash in the no-fly zones, which the U.S., Britain, and France unilaterally established after the 1991 Gulf War to protect Iraqi Kurds and Shiites from government reprisals. Baghdad claims the zones violate its sovereignty.
Clifford Beale, an editor at the defense-industry magazine "Jane's Defence Weekly," says hitting a surface-to-surface missile system is not part of usual allied procedure: "I can't think of a direct reason why, as a response to planes coming under attack by surface-to-air missiles or at least being painted (targeted) by radar, enemy radar, that they would take out a surface-to-surface missile."
But Beale says the strike on the Iraqi ground missile system may be part of efforts to weaken Iraq's overall defensive systems in the run-up to a war.
The analyst says that over the past four or five months, the tempo of air operations over the no-fly zones has increased. The U.S. and British air forces have authorized pilots to preemptively strike radar systems and command-and-control systems they deem threatening, even when those systems do not directly target their planes.
Beale says the increased tempo of activity comes in response to intensified Iraqi activities to shoot down allied planes. But the intent may also be to preemptively degrade Iraqi weapons systems so they pose less of a threat to attacking allied forces.
"When we saw an increase in the tempo of reprisals by the U.S. Air Force and the Royal Air Force in the no-fly zones, this in essence was a bit of a softening-up operation," he said. "What they are doing is degrading the entire Iraqi defense network over time. They are just taking it out piece by piece, so that when and if there is a major attack on Iraq, the defenses will be that much less."
Analysts say the increased activity over the no-fly zones is likely a sign that war with Iraq is now just weeks away, unless there is a last-minute diplomatic solution to the crisis.
Ellie Goldsworthy, a defense analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London, says stepped-up strikes in the no-fly zones also preceded the allies' last major military operation against Iraq -- Operation Desert Fox in 1998.
"Just before the beginning of Desert Fox, they started to target things other than surface-to-air missile systems," Goldsworthy said. "It wasn't necessarily obvious to the public, it just kind of happened day by day. There was a slight increase."
Targets other than surface-to-air systems that were hit ahead of Desert Fox included command-and-control facilities that coordinated Iraqi air defenses. The U.S. and Britain conducted four nights of air strikes against Iraq during Operation Desert Fox to punish Baghdad for not cooperating with UN arms inspectors.
Analysts say it is not certain what kind of surface-to-surface missile the planes struck yesterday. But it is not likely to have been one of the Russian-designed Scuds believed to compose the core of Iraq's offensive missile capabilities.
Beale says U.S. officials would almost certainly have announced a strike on a Scud because Iraq is forbidden to have the medium-range missiles under UN disarmament rules. He says the missile probably was a shorter-range weapon permitted for battlefield use instead.
"I think if it was [a Scud], they probably would have said so. But Iraq does have a range of shorter-range missiles," Beale said. "They are allowed to have surface-to-surface missiles, essentially rocket artillery, that go to a range of 150 kilometers. They are considered, essentially, short-range battlefield rockets."
Baghdad fired scores of medium-range Scuds against Saudi Arabia and Israel during the 1991 Gulf War and is believed to have a small but undetermined number left. It is uncertain whether Baghdad has produced any significant numbers of other medium-range missiles during the four-year absence of UN arms inspectors, who returned to work in Iraq last November.
The UN's chief arms inspector for Iraq, Hans Blix, told the Security Council late last month that Iraq has tested two new missile designs to distances longer than the permitted 150-kilometer range. They are the liquid-fueled Al Samoud 2, tested to a distance of 183 kilometers, and the solid-propellant Al Fatah, tested to 161 kilometers.
Depending on the launch site, the new missiles could be capable of striking parts of Iraq's immediate neighbors -- including Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan -- but could not reach Israel.