Operation Desert Storm: RAF Jaguars over the Gulf

Between January 16 and February 28, 1991, the RAF Jaguar Detachment (JagDet) at Al Muharraq, Bahrain, flew 158 missions against Iraqi forces. 

These comprised 618 individual aircraft sorties, totalling almost 922 flying hours. Some 87% of the missions were for battlefield air interdiction (BAI), 8% surface combat air patrol/combat search and rescue (SuCAP/CSAR) and 5% reconnaissance. The detachment’s 22 pilots dropped 750 1,000lb general purpose (GP) bombs, eight BL755 and 385 CBU-87 cluster bombs, and fired 32 x 19-round pods of CRV-7 unguided rockets, as well as 9,600 rounds from their aircrafts’ 30mm cannon.

RAF Jaguars [via Jon Lake]
Probe out, ready to refuel, one of the Granby Jaguars approaches the tanker. It carries a BAe reconnaissance pod under the belly, and a fuel tank and Phimat pod under the starboard wing. Photo via the author, Jon Lake

The Jaguars represented less than one sixth of the RAF fast jets deployed, but flew almost one third of the Service’s offensive sorties, proving highly effective in what was a new role for the aircraft – operating as a medium-level dive-bomber, rather than ‘down in the weeds’ at low level. This demonstration of the Jaguar’s versatility, together with the ease and speed with which it could be upgraded and modernised, led to an unexpected new lease of life for the type.


Reversed decline

Prior to Operation Granby, as the UK designated its part in the operation to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait, some observers felt that the Jaguar force was in decline. The nuclear strike squadrons assigned to RAF Germany had converted to the Tornado in 1984-88, and although three Jaguar squadrons had been retained at RAF Coltishall as a rapid-reaction and out-of-area force, some cynics suggested that their main purpose was to provide a means of keeping flying personnel occupied until the arrival of the Eurofighter Typhoon.

On August 5, 1990, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2, the UK Government decided to send an expeditionary force to protect Saudi Arabia. The Coltishall Jaguar Wing was ordered to prepare a force for deployment to the Gulf area as part of Operation Granby on August 8, and 6 (Composite) Squadron, led by Wg Cdr Jerry Connolly, left Coltishall on the 11th.

Jaguar Desert Cats Patch

The unit’s 12 Jaguar GR1As were bound for Thumrait, Oman. They were painted in a new low-level colour scheme. Developed by Philip Barley at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, it consisted of a coat of Desert Sand alkaline-removable temporary-finish (ARTF) paint, with a distinctive pink tint.

Each aircraft carried a Westinghouse AN/ ALQ-101(V) jamming pod on its port outer underwing pylon, and a Philips-MATRA Phimat chaff dispenser opposite, two Tracor AN/ALE-40 chaff/flare dispensers under the rear fuselage and three 264 Imperial gallon (1,200-litre) external fuel tanks.

The Jaguars were the first British attack aircraft to arrive in the Gulf, and their rapid appearance was credited with deterring Saddam Hussein from moving further into the region. The JagDet, by then unofficially named ‘the Desert Cats’, was re-deployed to Muharraq International Airport, Bahrain, in early October. The somewhat spartan and over-crowded accommodation in Thumrait had given way to the Diplomat Hotel in Manama. The detachment picked up the appellation ‘Arabian Gulf Aero Club’ somewhere along the way.

Its only casualty of the conflict, pilot Keith Collister, was killed when his 54 Sqn Jaguar crashed during a low-level training mission in November 1990.


Change of command

Before the war began, in late October/ early November, there was a roulement of aircraft and pilots, with 41 (Composite) Squadron, commanded by Wg Cdr William Pixton AFC, taking over from 6 Squadron.

Jaguar GR1 [Nick Wilcock]
The pilot of Jaguar XX741 watches intently as a Tornado tops off from the VC10 tanker. Nick Wilcock

Bill Pixton, or ‘Billy P’, was highly regarded by his pilots, who remember his inspired leadership to this day. Pixton would encourage debate about tactics and consult all pilots, listen to their arguments and only then reach a decision.

A former Jaguar pilot and now highly respected artist, Mike Rondot, shared his memories of Pixton: “He had the most wonderful attitude you could wish for, and he kept everyone off our backs.” He said: ‘There is one aim, and that is to bring back the same number of people and aeroplanes that we started out with.’ He wouldn’t let anyone tell him or his formation leaders how to attack a particular target. How we attacked and what weapons we used were either his decision or the formation leader’s.”


Granby upgrade standard

The 12 replacement aircraft had been modified to the Granby Stage 3 Upgrade standard under the Fast Track modification programme. As such, their Rolls-Royce Turbomeca Adour Mk 104 engines were modified for higher turbine temperatures (from 700 to 725ºC), giving more thrust and improved hot-weather performance. The ARI.18223 radar homing and warning receiver (RHWR) was upgraded to Sky Guardian 200-13PD standard for improved detection and identification capability against scanning pulse-Doppler radars at long range, and Type 118 and M206 flares were provided for the AN/ALE-40. These burned hotter and longer than the older flares. The associated software was modified to permit the firing of flares even with the undercarriage down.

The wing leading edges were treated with surface-wave radar-absorbent material (SWAM), while radar-absorbent material (RAM) tiles were fitted to the engine intakes to reduce their radar cross-section (RCS). The Jaguars’ windscreens were given a coating of gold film to further reduce frontal RCS.

Jaguar GR1 [via Jon Lake]
Viewed from atop the wing of another Jaguar, whose overwing AIM-9 dominates the foreground, XX725 ‘Johnny Fartpants’ returns from a sortie, inboard underwing pylons empty. Photo via the author, Jon Lake

The aircraft was fitted with Mk XII Mode 4 IFF and a Magnavox AN/ARC-164 Have Quick frequency-hopping UHF radio, which required a new ‘T’-shaped blade aerial in place of the twin homing VHF aerials usually mounted behind the canopy. A W Vinten colour video HUD recording facility was installed in place of the original monochrome wet film system. Inside the cockpit, some forward warning panels and a meter hanging from the bracing strip were deleted to improve pilot visibility. Most obviously, the modified aircraft were fitted with over-wing missile rails, reportedly obtained from the Royal Air Force of Oman, to permit the carriage of AIM-9L Sidewinder air-to-air missiles.


UN Resolution 678

In autumn 1990, a series of United Nations’ resolutions was passed, imposing sanctions on Iraq in an effort to persuade Saddam Hussein to withdraw his forces peacefully. The diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis culminated in UN Resolution 678. This authorised the ‘use of all necessary means’ to evict Iraqi military forces from Kuwait if they had not been withdrawn by a deadline of January 15, 1991. The Jaguars stopped flying on the day before the UN deadline. Engineers prepared the aircraft with their warloads: 1,000lb bombs, CRV-7 rocket pods, AIM-9L missiles, and full chaff and flare pods.

The Arabian Gulf Aero Club was ready. Initially, it was expected the Jaguars would operate at low level, on the basis that it is better to ‘fight the way you train’, and since the aircraft and its weapons were optimised for that regime. But RAF Jaguars were a small element in a much larger force.

Rondot recalled: “The Jaguar element of the daily frag [orders] took up about half a page of a 600-page computer printout, so if you ever got ideas above your station about how important your mission was you just had to look at this huge document, although there was a great sense of being part of some huge machine that was being exceptionally well run.” 

The US had already decided that it would fly the majority of its missions at medium level, supported by dedicated surface-to-air missile (SAM) suppression, electronic countermeasures (ECM) and anti-radar assets. Air defence also included E-3 Sentry AWACS and EC-130E airborne battlefield command and control centre (ABCCC) aircraft, providing a constant commentary on SAM/anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) threats and enemy fighter activity. This was necessary because Coalition aircraft would be operating over the densely-packed ground forces Iraq had deployed, and facing a devastating concentration of AAA and small-arms fire that ruled out the low-level option.

Jaguar GR1 [USAF]
The serviceability of the Jaguar was such that no missions were scrubbed due to aircraft unavailability, and ‘spare’ jets were seldom used. USAF

It was felt that medium-level missions would offer better protection from the AAA and shoulder-launched SAM threat, while allowing easier target acquisition and an increased radius of action.

The Jaguar’s primary Granby weapon was the British 1,000lb bomb. Said to be ‘the envy of the Americans’, its forged steel case ensured excellent penetration and fragmentation characteristics. A Jaguar formation would always use the same types of weapon, but these might be fused differently, with the bombs on the front pair of aircraft equipped with impact fuses, and those of the rear pair airburst. The first bombs would penetrate and then explode, while the airburst weapons would be used as ‘daisy cutters’, causing lots of fragmentation damage. With the decision to operate at medium level, freefall fins replaced the 1,000lb bombs’ more usual retard tails.

The Hunting BL755 cluster bomb could only be delivered effectively from low level, and was therefore replaced by the Bristol Aerospace (Canada) LAU-5003B/A pod, containing 19 2.75in (70mm) CRV-7 high-velocity rocket projectiles and, from January 29, the CBU-87 Rockeye II cluster bomb. The CRV-7 was introduced into RAF service soon before the UN deadline and most pilots had the opportunity to fire a few training rounds on the King Fahd Weapons Range in Saudi Arabia.

The standard 264Imp gal fuel tank was initially carried on the inner wing pylons, limiting the disposable weapons load to a tandem pair of bombs on the centreline. But it was decided to carry a single tank on the centreline, freeing up inboard wing pylons for weapons and doubling the warload. Now, four 1,000lb bombs could be carried on tandem beams mounted to each inner wing pylon.


Constituted fours

The Jaguars flew their first mission on January 17, Sqn Ldr Mike ‘Strike’ Gordon leading a four-ship against an Iraqi army barracks in Kuwait. Warrant Officer Mick Cartwright wished them all well with a handshake and a pat on the helmet. The Iraqi air force didn’t threaten the Jaguars on this mission. All that the pilots heard from the airborne warning and control was: ‘Picture clear!’. It seemed the decision to fly higher was correct and so the JagDet continued to operate at medium level.

Jaguar GR1 [USAF]
The initial batch of Jaguars dispatched to Thumrait were replaced by a new batch with ‘Stage 3’ mods at around the same time that the JagDet moved to Muharraq. USAF

On Friday, January 18, Wg Cdr Pixton led a four-ship against a Republican Guard target, but was frustrated by bad weather, the aircraft jettisoning their weapons in cloud and being engaged by AAA. Better weather on January 19 resulted in the Jaguars flying their first full day of operations, with four separate missions and 20 sorties scheduled. The first mission, an eight-ship attack on SA-2 Guideline SAM and AAA sites, was launched at 0425hrs. Thereafter, the JagDet tended to put up an eight-aircraft package (two four-ships) each morning and afternoon. The aircrew flew four days on/one day off, with pilots assigned to five ‘constituted’ flights of four pilots, who always flew together, plus two ‘recce specialists’.

After a day off, a constituted four returned to the fray in the afternoon wave, operating as the second element within an eight-aircraft package. Next day, they would plan and lead the afternoon package. The following morning, the constituted four operated as the second element and on the fourth day flew as the lead element on the morning package.

In-flight refuelling was used on about half the missions, always from RAF Victor tankers, usually radio-silent and using air-to-air TACAN (tactical air navigation) to find the tanker. One pilot said: “They were brilliant. They never failed to turn up and they were always in the right place, at the right time, with the right fuel.”

After each mission, pilots went into the debrief, which could last longer than the mission itself, going over all electronic warfare analysis and RWR indications, studying HUD videos, and going through visual identifications of SAM and AAA sites with the squadron’s ground liaison officer (GLO). Meanwhile, with their required weapon loads known 24 hours in advance, ground crew could immediately re-arm returning aircraft.

The Jaguars demonstrated impressive availability and serviceability throughout the conflict and no engines required replacing. Rondot later said: “When eight Jaguars were needed for a mission, WO Mick Cartwright was always able to provide eight and four spares. I flew 29 combat missions and only once took a spare jet. The engineers and armourers did a fantastic job, but the aeroplane was rugged, dependable and serviceable.

Jaguar GR1 [USAF]
Apart from their ‘desert pink’ ARTF finish, the JagDet aircraft had a ‘false canopy’ painted in black on the underside. USAF

“Two were damaged by AAA fire, necessitating battle-damage repairs in Bahrain, but both were ready to fly again within a few hours. A small team of engineers and groundcrew were able to present 12 serviceable Jaguars every day, for weeks on end, without drama.” This ensured the Jaguar was able to go to war and sustain an effective strike rate even in a hostile AAA and SAM environment.

The Jaguar’s primary role during Granby was battlefield air interdiction, with targets including SAM sites, artillery, weapon storage areas, ASTROS (Artillery Saturation Rocket System) multiple rocket launchers, armoured columns, barracks and at least one airfield.

According to Rondot, with a few exceptions, Granby BAI meant dive bombing: “The Jaguar was brilliant as a dive-bomber. We could barrel roll into a 60º dive with four 1,000lb bombs on board from 30,000ft and get a good laser-locked aiming solution to allow us to ‘pickle’ [release] the bombs right on target and recover from the dive without going below 10,000ft.

“At those dive angles the bombs go in like darts, so some very good hits were achieved. It took some courage to bury the nose that deep and plunge down, but it gave the enemy less time to get a tracking solution on you, and made it easier to get the bombs on target.

“Where possible we went in bunched up really close, hanging on to each other’s wingtips and peeling off like a pack of cards, getting in and out as quickly as possible. The first bomb wakes up the defences, so if you’re all in and out really quickly, you can be outbound before they start shooting. If you drip-feed one aeroplane in every 30 seconds, by the time No 3 has gone down, the AAA is getting very nasty. They might start running out of ammunition, but that didn’t seem to happen; they had more ammunition than the world had ever seen.

“You never re-attack – if you miss a target, tough, you go back and do it again the next day. You never go below 10,000ft. You never attack a target into wind. You never fly over an 8/8 overcast or under an 8/8 undercast. You never bring bombs back or hang on to them. If you can’t get them off on the target, dump them in the desert. You don’t strafe targets using the guns. Of course, in the heat of the moment, we broke all these rules.”

Jaguar GR1 [USAF]
Three Jaguars share the ramp with USAF F-15E Strike Eagles. USAF

SAM routine

Attacks against SAM sites were routine, though perhaps pushed the pilots’ luck a little far. This was a mad mission if Cold War logic was applied, as the Jaguars were going in at medium level, and with no chance of climbing above the missile engagement envelope – but no aircraft were lost on these missions.

On January 26, the Jaguars made a highly-successful dawn attack against an SY-1 Silkworm coastal anti-ship missile battery. This was in support of a supposed US Marine Corps amphibious landing in Kuwait, actually a deception, although it could have gone ahead if the Coalition’s ground thrust into Iraq had become bogged down. A further attack against Silkworm sites on January 29 saw the Jaguars using the CBU-87 cluster bomb for the first time.

Before the start of the ground war, Operation Desert Sabre, the Jaguars’ main operational axis was the area south of Kuwait City, which was very well defended by AAA. Once Desert Sabre began and the Iraqi forces’ withdrawal became a rout, the JagDet moved its operations to the area north of the Kuwaiti capital, mainly directing its attention against Iraqi Republican Guard targets and ranging deep into Iraq.

The Jaguars also flew SuCAP and associated CSAR in support of maritime surface warfare operations. These missions were typically flown in pairs, which maintained a CAP, orbiting while they waited for ‘trade’, much like the famous cab rank operations flown by RAF fighter-bombers during World War II. Typically of three to four hours duration, these missions could require multiple air-to-air refuelling brackets.

Jaguar GR1 [USAF]
Operation Granby demonstrated the versatility, capability and cost-effectiveness of the Jaguar, justifying the later upgrades that would keep it in service, and at the tip of the spear, until 2007. USAF

On January 30, Wg Cdr Pixton and Flt Lt Tholen destroyed a 1,120-tonne Polnochny-C landing craft during a SuCAP mission. Pixton said: “The AWACS was telling us that the picture was clear, meaning that there were no enemy fighters in the area.

“We almost set up an academic range pattern on the ship. It will sound terrible, and my professional counterparts at home will probably have a fit, but we each did two passes ripple-firing CRV-7 rockets and four passes firing 30mm ADEN guns, when normally we would never consider re-attacking in a high-threat environment.” By February 5, the Iraqi navy had effectively been knocked out and SuCAP missions dwindled.


Recce and, almost, interception

The Jaguars also flew reconnaissance missions. Squadron Leader Dave Bagshaw AFC and Flt Lt Pete Livesey, the ‘recce specialists’, usually operated as a pair, although some solo reconnaissance sorties were also flown, often ‘latching on’ to a four-ship for extra protection. For recce, the Jaguar carried the standard BAe reconnaissance pod, with wet film F95 cameras, but with the standard BAe Dynamics Series 401 infrared line-scan system (IRLS) replaced by an F126 survey camera. One aircraft (XZ106) was fitted with a lightweight W Vinten 18 Series 600 long-range oblique photography (LOROP) pod. This was purpose-designed for standoff recce tasks from medium level and was rushed into service to give the RAF this urgently-needed capability.

The JagDet almost added interception to its tasks. Two pilots came close to using the AIM-9 in anger, as Rondot explained: “They were on patrol over the northern Gulf, on a combat search and rescue mission, just waiting to be called in as the cavalry, and they had a misunderstanding with their controller, who thought that they were fully air-defence capable. He’d just been working with a pair of F/A-18s who were carrying the same mix of bombs and rockets, but who also had radar-guided ‘face-shooting’ missiles.

“Suddenly, two or three aircraft appeared, coming out of southern Iraq over the northern Gulf, moving fast, and they looked like Exocet-carrying aeroplanes. The two Jaguars were vectored off CAP to go and intercept them. They tried to make it clear that they weren’t interceptors, but there was a breakdown in communications and they were vectored in towards the Red Air coming in from Iraq. The range was closing down all the time and then, at the merge, they didn’t see the Iraqis. Having flown through they then thought: ‘We didn’t see them, but did they see us?’. Shortly afterwards, the Iraqi aircraft were shot down by a Saudi F-15. If the Jaguars had been able to get visual contact on the bogeys, it could have resulted in two air-to-air kills for the Jaguar – imagine that! The Tornado ADV spends six weeks droning up and down the Saudi border, doing nothing, and two mud-moving Jaguars shoot down Iraqi Mirages – think of how that would have looked!”

Jaguar GR1 [USAF]
Preparing one of the Jaguars for flight. The Jaguar ground crew were the unsung heroes of the operation, working hard but cheerfully to make sure that eight aircraft (and four spares) were available for every ‘push’. USAF

The Jaguar performed well in the Gulf War, despite being worked very hard. Rondot recalled. “We pushed the aeroplane way outside its flight envelope, we overstressed it, flew it supersonic with full external stores, ‘over-temped’ the engines and gave the airframe a real beating, but the 12 jets remained stubbornly serviceable and just soaked it up. We gave them a pretty good workout in the air. The Jaguar always had one throttle setting – full power, with reheat available for maintaining speed in a turn – but we thrashed the engines really hard. The Adour 406 was tweaked to run at a higher temperature and give a bit more power, and we used it all.

“You have to understand that the Jaguar was built to fly at 420kts with a full warload at low level. It would go faster – I’ve flown a Jaguar to 700kts indicated – but in the Gulf temperatures with four 1,000lb bombs, loaded guns, two Sidewinders, ECM suite and external fuel, the Jaguar needed afterburner to get anywhere near a respectable speed for going to war. Anything below 600kts at low level in the Kuwait theatre of operations would have been suicide and we simply could not achieve it in military power without afterburner. But in a hostile area known to be full of heat-seeking SAMs it is not a good idea to fly around in afterburner. My opinion has always been that low-level tactics are good fun in peacetime, but if I have to go to war I want to learn from the Vietnam experience and be a high-level dive-bomber.”

The RAF Jaguar pilots who flew operational missions in the Kuwait Theatre of Operations during Operation Granby were: Wg Cdr Bill Pixton; Sqn Ldrs Chris Allam, Dave Bagshaw, Mike Gordon, Dick Midwinter and Mike Rondot; Flt Lts Nick Collins, Toby Craig, Roger Crowder, Alex Emtage, Dave Foote, Craig Hill, Mark Hopkins, Pete Livesey, Dick MacCormac, Mike Seares, Steve Shutt, Ted Stringer, Pete Tholen, Steve Thomas and Simon Young; and FO Mal Rainier.

Jaguar GR1 [USAF]
Though much has been made of the participation of the stealthy F-117A, Desert Storm was essentially a campaign dominated by so-called 4th Generation fighters – with the F-15E and SEPECAT Jaguar seen here playing an especially vital role. USAF

Mike Rondot said: “Different people saw the war in different ways. You talk to some guys and it changed their lives. They found it a miserable, scary, frightening experience. But I could line up half a dozen of the younger blokes, and if you asked them how the war affected their young minds, they’d turn around and look at you, and say: ‘What? We had a ball! It was a hoot, brilliant, wonderful!’ They’d never drunk so much port and eaten so much Stilton in their lives. They only flew once a day, got every fifth day off, lived in luxury, in a nice climate, with a swimming pool and water skiing, and after the first week we didn’t get shot at and the Iraqi air force didn’t come out to play – thank God!”

Rondot’s own take was more thoughtful. “Being shot at is one of those things you can’t describe. There is no adrenaline fix like running the gauntlet and coming out unscathed. You fly into gunfire and it’s a nightmare, but then half-a-minute later you’re out the other side, you’ve got away with it and you feel just great. I’ve never felt anything like it. Being lucky is a great thrill, but it doesn’t last long. You land, and you suddenly think: ‘Oh no, I’ve got to do it all again tomorrow,’ and it almost gets boring. You start wondering: ‘Just how long can I stay lucky?’.”



The author would like to respectfully dedicate this article to the memory of Mike Seares, who he was fortunate enough to know, a little, and honoured to call a friend, and to the memories of Steve Shutt and Roger Crowder.