I was alarmed and called on the radio - ‘Dude, are you getting shot at?’ ‘No’. ‘Well you’re flaring. Quit it!’
This is an extract from Harrier Boys Volume 2: New Technology, New Threats, New Tactics, 1990-2010, by Bob Marston, published by Grub Street. Available from the Harrier Force Association
I keyed the mic switch and screamed ‘Break right! Break right! Missile right 3!’ It was dawn on day 2 of Operation Iraqi Freedom (Gulf War 2) and my wingman and I were just north of Basra when I saw my first SAM launch.
We’d had a frustrating start to the fight. I was serving as the RAF Exchange Officer on a USMC AV8B+ squadron, VMA-311 ‘Tomcats’, embarked aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard. The day previously, we’d both spoken to our buddies returning from the first night strikes and were engines-running on deck, about to launch for our own first trip ‘across the berm’ into Iraq. My Plane Captain did his final checks of my airplane, went out in front of me and gave me the hand signal to tell me my jet was ‘down’ (broken) and I should shutdown. There were no spare airplanes that I could take instead; we were launching every serviceable jet. I frantically indicated I needed him to plug in his headset and talk to me as I was aware our launch time was looming and the ship wouldn’t sail into the wind forever. He came on and told me I had a weeping hydraulic leak in the nose wheel bay. I was furious and told him all the indications were fine in the cockpit and I wanted him to strip the chains and let me go. We argued back and forth for a few minutes but all credit to the guy - he stuck to his guns and refused to let me go. So my wingie and I had to sit out the first day of the shooting.
Day 2 started better. We topped off with fuel from a C-130 over Kuwait and were just about to enter the Close Air Support stack when our controller, Blacklist, gave us an urgent task. A Seersucker surface-surface missile had just been fired from the Basra area and we were to go find the launcher and kill it. Exciting stuff and a juicy target to get us started. But when I entered the coordinates and looked through my Litening II targeting pod I couldn’t see anything remotely resembling a military vehicle, let alone a missile launcher. All I could see were people going about their daily lives in an urban neighbourhood. I re-confirmed the coordinates with the controller, double-checked everything and looked again, this time scanning around, zooming in and out, using infra-red to look for the heat signature that a rocket launch would undoubtedly leave - everything I could think of. I spent an unwise length of time with my head in the cockpit, staring at the screen, getting increasingly desperate. When I looked up I realized I’d been a terrible flight lead and had spat my wingman out in front of me.
It had always been emphasized that our personal weapon, the mighty Walther PPK of James Bond fame, was pretty useless.
There he was, about half a mile in front of me with a steady trickle of flares firing out of his top and bottom buckets. He’d activated one of our pre-emptive flare programs that would put out a 30 second firework show, designed to defeat just about every known hostile heat-seeking missile. I was alarmed and called on the radio - ‘Dude, are you getting shot at?’ ‘No’. ‘Well you’re flaring. Quit it!’ I guess our impromptu firework display highlighted our position to the guys on the ground as we suddenly started getting sniffs of the SA-3 system that we knew was in the area on our radar warning gear. We’d just decided we thought we’d better bug out for the time being and let the place cool down when I saw the plume of smoke to our right. It didn’t seem to be guiding but our break turn towards it would/should have made its endgame tracking manoeuvre (if it were to do one) that much harder. After that, we definitely had enough fun for one day and headed for Al Jaber in Kuwait for another splash of gas, re-tasking and a productive morning’s work killing armoured vehicles at the Republican Guard barracks just outside Al Kut.
The US pilots had such a totally different mindset on fighting than we’d had back at Cottesmore. I’d been the Combat Survival & Rescue Officer on 3(F) Sqn at Cottesmore and had been on a bunch of survival and evasion courses. It had always been emphasized that our personal weapon, the mighty Walther PPK of James Bond fame, was pretty useless. Some said, and not terribly tongue-in-cheek, that instead of trying to shoot anyone with it we should take the magazine out as at least then we’d have 2 lumps of metal to throw at someone and have more chance of doing some damage to them. If we got shot down we’d try to go to ground and wait for a pickup and the PPK was a psychological boost. But the USMC chaps went looking for a fight. If they could have figured out a way to get their M-16 onto the ejection seat then they would have. But without a rifle they all flew with the issued Browning 9mm and at least 4-6 clips of ammunition in one armpit. Most guys flew with a K-bar, the Marines standard issue bayonet, stuffed into one boot; a ‘Saturday Night Special’ or ‘boot gun’ pistol jammed into the other boot; and their own weapon of choice in another armpit holster - a Magnum .357, a Colt .45 or some other huge hand cannon. If they got shot down and they lost their primary weapon system, the Marines’ mindset was to use one of their handguns to shoot a guy with an AK-47, use that to take over a T-55 tank and then keep heading for Baghdad in the tank until they got to Saddam’s palace. As I said, they thought of things differently from the RAF.