Prague, 12 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The Iraqi government of President Saddam Hussein is reported trying to acquire a Czech-built aircraft detection system reputedly able to pinpoint top-secret stealth aircraft.
Allegations concerning the illegal arms deal come amid speculation that the United States is considering renewed air strikes on Iraq, because of Baghdad's refusal to cooperate with United Nations arms inspectors.
Experts say that if any air raids do take place, the U.S. could well use its radar-evading stealth aircraft, the B-2 bomber or the F-117 fighter.
A stealth aircraft is one which can enter enemy territory without detection by normal radar systems. It does this by means of its shape, which is designed not to reflect radar beams. The Czech-built Tamara detection system however, is claimed to have the ability to pinpoint stealth planes, and thus open them to attack.
A report in a U.S. newspaper yesterday (Washington Times) said the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is aware of Iraq's attempt to acquire five Tamara systems from Bulgarian arms dealers, with the cooperation of high Czech military officials.
Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, who is visiting Washington, described the U.S. report as "almost a provocation". He says he does not rule out that Iraq would want Tamara, or that a Czech company would want to sell the system, but he says such a deal would never receive official permission. He did not immediately address the issue of whether such a sale could take place clandestinely, without the knowledge of the authorities. The allegations are acutely embarrassing to Prague at a time when it is moving towards membership of the NATO alliance. The Czech Trade Ministry issued a statement saying the country is in full compliance with the U.N. Security Council resolutions on Iraq.
The U.S. report further said that a retired Bulgarian general, Peter Barbalov, was a key broker in the sale, and that senior members of the Bulgarian Socialist Party -- the former communists -- knew of it and supported it. The head of the Socialist Party, Georgi Purvanov, is today quoted as saying in the press (Sofia's "24 Hours" Daily) that the report is slanderous, and that he will sue the U.S. newspaper.
The Czech manufacturers of the Tamara system, Tesla-Pardubice was today (Wednesday) not answering its phone.
A western air defense expert has called into question the effectiveness of any Iraqi attempt to stop penetration by stealth aircraft, even if the Iraqis are able to acquire Tamara in defiance of UN sanctions.
Nick Cook, the military aviation specialist with Jane's publishing organization in London, told RFE/RL that Tamara is a passive detection system. He said it is essentially a set of truck-mounted electronic listening devices arranged on the ground in triangular pattern. These devices do not send out radar waves which the stealth planes can avoid. He said that -- if the manufacturer's claims are correct -- they instead pinpoint incoming planes by registering the electronic "footprint" emitted by the planes themselves. These electronic emissions occur regularly as aircraft establish their position and lock on to their targets.
Cook says the U.S. B-2 stealth bomber is a large aircraft which makes regular emissions as it flies. But he says the smaller F-117 is almost completely emission-free in operation, and is therefore likely to evade any threat, particularly since the Tamara is acknowledged to have only a short effective range.
Cook says that even if incoming stealth aircraft were detected, a key problem would remain for Iraq, namely how to attack them. Ground-based missile could not be guided by radar to their target, since the stealth planes to do not register on radar screens. And he says that in addition, the Stealth planes have inbuilt protection against infra-red detection by heat-seeking missiles.