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British Fliers Suffering Higher Rate of Losses : Combat: Analysts cite the Royal Air Force's daring style and its hazardous mission as causes.

January 23, 1991|KIM MURPHY and DOUGLAS FRANTZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia — British pilots, renowned for flying extremely low and fast at their targets, are suffering dramatically higher casualty rates than their American counterparts in Gulf War missions.

The relatively large number of British Tornado jets lost so far--five--is the result, military experts say, of both the Royal Air Force's daring flying style and the extremely hazardous mission they have been given by allied commanders: destroying the runways that serve Iraq's air force.

In the complex web of tasks assigned the allied partners for the aerial dismantling of the Iraqi war machine--ranging from high-altitude carpet bombing of troops to medium-range attacks on military installations--the dangerous job of sweeping in close over heavily protected airfields and tearing up the runways has fallen primarily to the fabled RAF.

It is a job that makes the British Tornadoes and their crews sitting ducks for Iraqi antiaircraft barrages. Rather than fly at the relative safety of high altitude afforded many U.S. pilots, the British must go in low and maintain a steady course for the length of a runway while they dispense loads of specialized bombs.

It is the large number of these low-altitude missions being flown by their pilots, Britain's own field generals say, that accounts for the fact that the RAF is losing a Tornado jet every 80 sorties, in contrast to the Americans, who are flying more than 750 missions for each downed aircraft.

"It is a reflection of the nature of our flying, in that our tactics revolve around the low-level tactic," Air Vice Marshal Bill Wratten said Tuesday. "That is not to say that these have been losses to enemy action, but low flying is an inherently dangerous business, as we all know."

Phillip Mitchell, a military analyst with London's International Institute of Strategic Studies, said the British Tornadoes "have been alloted a particular role within the alliance, and that role is perhaps one of the most dangerous roles there could be, and the primary reason that so far we've lost so many Tornadoes in action."

The RAF is famous within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for its brash, brazen combat style: flying in groups of two or three aircraft low and fast over the terrain, hitting the target and streaking out again. American pilots, by contrast, tend to go into a combat zone in large groups, covered by protective fire that busts holes in enemy air defenses.

"The RAF's general philosophy is flying in very, very low and fast in small packets," said Mark A. Lorell, a senior analyst at the RAND Corp. "Americans believe in medium altitude and large groups of aircraft."

A big factor in British strategy in Operation Desert Storm, military analysts say, is their high-tech JP-233, a state-of-the-art, runway-busting cluster bomb that is among the most advanced weapons in the British arsenal.

While ordinary "airfield-denial" weapons may chop up enemy runways, the 1,000-pound JP-233 delivers a double dose of destruction: dozens of scattered bomblets that crater the runway asphalt. Then, to prevent bulldozers from simply coming in and repairing the mess, a packet of more than 200 delayed-action mines concealed in the debris will blow up anything that ventures onto the runway later.

Under NATO strategy, such runway destruction is one of the critical tasks assigned to the British even in Europe.

The JP-233 has made Britain's Tornado GR-1 attack fleet an effective airfield killer--the British fliers have gone after 40 Iraqi runways so far with considerable success.

But the down side is that it must be delivered by pilots flying straight down the runway at extremely low altitudes--as low as 100 to 200 feet--in full range and view of enemy antiaircraft guns. Experts say the pilots cannot even take evasive action to avoid enemy fire if they want to complete their mission successfully.

"You can see that this is obviously dangerous," said Squadron Leader Philip Bradshaw, RAF spokesman in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. "If you say that the British are doing the dangerous part and everybody else is doing the easy part, no, that's not true. But under certain circumstances, you have to put yourself in a slightly more hazardous situation in order to do the job. . . ."

British officials have stopped short of blaming their downed aircraft on their vulnerability to enemy fire. Rather, they refer only to the hazards of low-altitude flying and leave open the possibility that their aircraft losses could have resulted simply from running into the ground or suffering mechanical failure with too little altitude to spare.

"What I am saying is that low flying is inherently more hazardous than flying at higher levels, for reasons which are largely self-evident," Wratten told reporters. "If one does suffer a difficulty, then one is that much closer to the ground."

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