A Quick Look At The RAF Tornado’s Reconnaissance Missions Over Iraq During Operation Desert Storm

Scud Hunt was one of the main tasks for RAF Tornado aircrews during the First Gulf War.

Born in response to Great Britain, Germany and Italy’s requirement for an advanced attack aircraft capable to fly at ultra-low altitude, the MRCA (Multi Role Combat Aircraft) program led to the birth of one of Europe’s most important combat planes: the Panavia Tornado.

The “Tonka” (as the Tornado was later dubbed) was developed in three main variants: the IDS (Interdiction and Strike) fighter bomber, the ECR (Electronic Combat and Reconnaissance) specialized in SEAD role, and the ADV (Air Defense Variant) fighter.

The first flight of the Tornado took place on Aug. 14, 1974 and its variants (excluding the Tornado ADV) are still in front line service with the Royal Air Force, the German Air Force, the Italian Air Force and the Royal Saudi Air Force.

The first large deployment of Tonkas was in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm (named Operation Granby by the Royal Air Force) in Iraq, where RAF brought also some examples of Tornado GR.Mk 1A, the reconnaissance version of the European multirole aircraft. The latter represented a new generation in data acquisition platforms, since it recorded its pictorial information on videotape instead of traditional film.

Since this “recce” variant had only recently entered service and was experiencing several problems with the quality of its imagery, six GR.Mk 1As from Nos II and 13 Squadrons were only able to arrive at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, between Jan. 14 and 16, 1991, hours before the beginning of the war.

But this late deployment didn’t prevent a worthwhile use of the Tornado GR.Mk 1A: in fact, the first three missions performed by the reconnaissance version of the Tonka were all “Scud hunts”, conducted against the mobile missile launchers which were attacking Saudi Arabia and threatening Israel. In this kind of mission, the GR.Mk 1A proved to be an invaluable asset, thanks to the so-called “Tornado Reconnaissance System” which consisted of a near real-time observable infra-red line scan mounted beneath the fuselage.

Tornado Scud Hunt

Since the line scan could operate at night without need of photo flashes, all Desert Storm missions were flown after the sunset. The first sortie was flown by the commander of No. II Squadron, Wing Commander Al Threadgould with Flight Lieutenant Tim Robinson as navigator who, due to the lack of tankers, took off with a pair of 2,250 liter drop tanks under the wings and two 1,500 liter tanks beneath the fuselage which dramatically boosted their range.

However, a fuel feed problem forced the two to abort the mission and another pair of Tonkas, flown by Squadron Leaders Dick Garwood and Jon Hill and by Flight Lieutenants Brian Robinson and Gordon Walker, took over the sortie for them.

The two aircrews were able to bring several images of a Scud launcher in firing position back home but the bad weather prevented attack aircraft from destroying the launcher before it was driven away.

Garwood revealed some details of that sortie in the book Gulf Air War Debrief: “It was a very, very black night: probably one of the darkest I have flown on. Once you get out over the desert, especially over Iraq, there are no lights on the ground. You are flying very low. We saw the odd Bedouin encampment flash by on the left-hand side of the wing.” After they landed back to Dhahran, a single flack hole was found in the top of the rudder of their Tornado.

Noteworthy, most of the Scud hunt missions lasted from 2 ½ to 3 hours with 20 to 60 minutes over Iraq, except for one sortie flown by the Flight Lieutenants Rick Halley and Hangus Hogg, of No. II Squadron, which protracted for 4 hours and 25 minutes.

A typical reconnaissance mission involved three to four line searches of a strip of road or a section of river and the aircrews always operated in pre-planned routes to avoid Iraqi air defenses. For this type of sortie the normal operating altitude was 200 ft, with hard ride selected on the TFR (Terrain Following Radar) and speeds between 540 and 580 kts.

Other types of missions flown by RAF reconnaissance crews included target overflights before and after the attack to supply detailed imagery material for pre- or post- strike examination and several sorties to provide cover for Special Forces infiltration routes.

Tornado GR.Mk 1A

Image credit: Crown Copyright via Wg Cdr David Bolsover


  1. From a strictly military standpoint, the Scud hunting (by fighter jets) and defense (by Patriot SAMs) was the biggest, if not the only failure of the campaign, wasting thousands of sorties (and millions of dollars) of the best strikers (F-15E, Tornadoes…) to hit an extremely limited number of targets if any. The political impact was huge keeping Israel out of the fight, but the strike platforms, Tornadoes included, were simply not up to the task back then. Luckily the enhanced range Iraqi Scuds had no military worthiness and even the standard Scuds were ancient weapons already, with their limited effectiveness given the ridiculously large CEP. Since Iraq did not deploy any NBC weapon their use had little military effect (only one hit a US airbase making damage).
    So “In this kind of mission, the GR.Mk 1A proved to be an invaluable asset” the reply is NO. Militarily, they failed.

    • I disagree.

      The Iraqis knew that the scuds were being hunted. This stopped them from simply setting up shop willy nilly and lobbing scud after scud into Israel.

      If that had happened it would have resulted in Israel responding with force and then the entire Middle East could have gone up in flames.

      Detterence is a key role of the military. War is the result of that deterrence failing.

      In the case of the scud hunting flights by the Tonkas and others they completed their mission – deterred and limited the Iraqi use of the scuds on Israel, stopped Saddam luring Israel into the war and hence stopped Iraq getting allies from other Arab nations.

      Mission success.

      • Look at my reply above. I am not saying they lost the political goal , I am saying the military one was unsuccessful, hence the Tornado was not any better or a critical asset in those mission. Any aircraft flying around could achieve the same goal.

        • You’re confusing “political” with strategic. You might argue that these missions were tactically flawed and perhaps not the optimal use of these assets, and I’d agree, but they served a strategic purpose in keeping Israel happy and denied the Iraqi Scud squads freedom of movement and action.

          They served the coalition’s grand strategy perfectly.

          • nononono, you are rather confusing things. I am simply saying:

            “In this kind of mission, the GR.Mk 1A proved to be an invaluable asset” the reply is NO, since they physically hit nothing. Anything flying around with the official mission of hunting Scuds would have scored the same goal. Dot. End that’s it, nothing else.

            • that was rather not very diplomatic, just consider: For the British, it is important that they feel and felt like an “invaluable asset” to the Americans. Most people know that this is not the case since the Americans had and have superior forces in numbers and equipment, and here those few Tornados made no difference. So in essence, you are right, and this is the British dilemma. But its just nice when somebody writes about “invaluable assets”, its charming.

    • Israel was kept out of the conflict + The Arab partners remained in the coalition + Iraq was therefore defeated = The Scud missions were not a failure and proved to be fundamental to the overall war effort.

      • That’s political as I said. Israel stayed out since there was coalition commitment, no matter if that commitment was actually effective in destroying the intended targets. The Tornadoes simply did not score any better against the Scuds than any other platform.

        The point is simple:

        “In this kind of mission, the GR.Mk 1A proved to be an invaluable asset” the reply is NO. Anything flying around with the official mission of hunting Scuds would have scored the same political goal while equally failing hitting mobile launchers not worse than the Tornadoes did.

          • I don’t care. The point stands.

            “In this kind of mission, the GR.Mk 1A proved to be an invaluable asset” the reply is NO. Anything flying around with the official mission of hunting Scuds would have scored the same political goal.

            That’s the only point in discussion, nothing else.

            The Tornado did not achieve anything different from what another platform under the same official mandate could.

            So that does not score any point in favor of the platform which rather proved to be militarily unfit for the task, not hitting a single launcher.

  2. So on to the issue of military effectiveness. If you follow Marco’s logic, the entire nuclear arsenal of the USA has been militarily ineffective in that it has cost a fortune and never been used to get your money’s worth out of it. As I alluded to previously, the Tornado GR1A was really the only effective night recce capability available to the coalition back in 1991. It was able to show that not tanks were on the move at night time, for example. It was also used to verify the location of Scuds. I happened to be there when the Scud hid the chow hall at Dhahran – it was the biggest single loss of life on the coalition side during that conflict (28 dead from memory). Therefore the Scud was not an ineffective system.

    More importantly, Israel was absolutely bursting for a fight. In the best Israeli traditions they simply did not care who got upset along the way. It was absolutely critical for the Israelis to be kept out the conflict and the Iraqis knew that. They therefore deliberately provoked a retaliation from Israel, in the hope that the coalition would fall apart. There was no way the Egyptians or Syrians, for example could find themselves on the same side as Israel! The anti-Scud missions were absolutely critical in preventing Israel getting into the war, with all that would have meant for the final outcome. Therefore, I contend that the Tornado GR1A was a critical asset that helped significantly to hold the coalition together.

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