‘Legion 15’: The Story Of The Italian Air Force Tornado IDS Shot Down During Operation Desert Storm

A Tornado IDS flying over the desert in 1990, ahead of the beginning of Operation Desert Storm. (Image credit: ItAF)

A Tornado IDS of the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force) was shot down on Jan. 18, 1991, during Italy’s first mission in Operation Desert Storm.

Even though the fact that the Italian Air Force lost one Tornado IDS during the service’s first Operation Desert Storm (ODS) air strike is very well known, the details about that mission that you can find online and in many aviation books are limited, if not completely wrong. In some cases, the only right thing is that the attack aircraft was shot down and the aircrew, pilot Maj. Gianmarco Bellini and navigator Capt. Maurizio Cocciolone ejected and became POW (Prisoners of War). For this reason, it’s worth, once and for all, setting the records straight.

The Italian Air Force Tornado, deployed to Al Dhafra, UAE, as part of Operazione Locusta (the first operational employment in combat missions for the Aeronautica Militare since WWII), were tasked to launch their first mission in the night between Jan. 17 and 18, 1991.

Following the invasion and annexation of Kuwait by Iraq, on Sept. 25, 1990, the Italian Government had deployed 8 Tornado IDS (plus two spare) in the Persian Gulf, belonging to the 6º, 36º and 50º Stormo (Wing).

A Tornado of the Italian Air Force takes off from Gioia del Colle on the way to Al Dhafra at the beginning of Operazione Locusta. (Image credit: ItAF)

Based on the official documentation, two four-ship formations were to take part in the mission: the first one, radio callsign “LEGION 15”, with four aircrews belonging to the 155° Gruppo (Squadron), and the second one, radio callsign “CAESAR 05”, with aircrews belonging to the 154° Gruppo.

The aircraft, supported by two KC-135 Stratotankers and all armed with 5x MK83 Retarded 1,000 pounds bombs (along with 2x BOZ countermeasures pods, 2x drop tanks and 2x AIM-9L Sidewinders), were assigned single targets within four target areas:

  1. Antennas of the Al Matla Umm Al Aish military camp (29°36’N 047°45’E)
  2. Ammunition depot at Unysh (29°42’N 047°40’E)
  3. Army Corps Logistical depot (29°44’N 047°41’E)
  4. Army Corps Storage Area (29°46’N 047°38’E)

The take off time was 22.35Z (01.35LT on Jan. 18) for LEGION 15 and 22.40Z for CAESAR 05, with a TOT (Time On Target) between 00.30Z and 00.39Z (depending on the target).

How it went.

Bellini and Cocciolone are aboard MM7074, the aircraft #4 of LEGION 15 (this might be the reason why Bellini, recalls their callsign as being “LEGION 4” in the book “Operazione Locusta” published in 2016, while in the book “Notte in Arabia” also published in 2016, he says their callsign on that night was “LEGION 14”, whereas the official documentation says they were part of “LEGION 15”). They will take off as number #3, because one of the aircraft has had a failure before taxi (forcing the crew to use the reserve jet and take off later).

Immediately after take off, the #1 aborts the mission: the landing gear does not retract. Out of four aircraft, LEGION 15 will be only two aircraft, with Bellini and Cocciolone #2 of the formation. Not a promising start.

About two hours later, the two-ship LEGION 15 flight reaches the KC-135 (equipped with a hose and drogue system to support aircraft with IFR – In Flight Refueling probe) on a racetrack located over the Persian Gulf off Kuwait City. But the turbulence is severe and all but one aircraft manage to refuel: the Tornado of Bellini and Cocciolone is the only aircraft to take fuel out of about 30 allied aircraft (including the remaining 6 Italian Tornados). According to some sources, as many as 200 sorties were aborted that night because of the bad weather conditions and subsequent issues with the AAR (Air-to-Air Refueling) operations.

An ItAF Tornado IDS refuels from a KC-135 during a daylight mission (Image credit: ItAF)

Since the mission profile dictates that the mission can be performed even by a single plane, Bellini and Cocciolone press on, and head towards the target number 2 (because the time lost at the tanker make it impossible to reach target 1 within the assigned TOT).

The Tornado descends to 250 feet with the TFR (Terrain Following Radar), heading north towards the IP (Initial Point) for the attack. At about 04.30LT the Italian attack aircraft releases all its 5 Mk83 on the target (that would be declared as “Destroyed” in the official documentation) but 40 seconds later, the plane is hit by an Iraqi ZSU-23-4 battery and they are forced to eject before the aircraft crashes some 20 kilometers to the northwest of Kuwait City.

They are captured by the Iraqi Republican Guard, even though their status will remain unknown until Jan. 20, 1991, when Maurizio Cocciolone is shown on Iraqi television in a propaganda video. Bellini is feared to be killed in action because no news about him is given.

The two will be kept separate for the whole time of their captivity and released on Mar. 3, 1991, after 47 days. They were the only Italian Prisoners of War of the entire war.

Maj. Bellini and Capt. Cocciolone in a 1991 photo from La Repubblica newspaper.

Despite the unfortunate first mission, the Italian contingent will successfully carry out the subsequent 225 sorties for a total of 589 flight hours of Operation Desert Storm.

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.