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Gulf Pilots Told Not To Engage Iraq

May 6, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The massive U.S. air operation to patrol the skies over southern Iraq went into temporary retreat last fall when Iraqi fighters repeatedly darted into prohibited airspace.

More than a week of regular violations of the so-called no-fly zone over southern Iraq went unanswered by U.S. warplanes armed and readied for air-to-air combat. Interviews by The Associated Press with military commanders, combat pilots and senior Pentagon officials in recent weeks showed a reluctance in the top ranks to challenge Iraqi fighters _ even though the U.S. and allied forces greatly outnumbered the intruders.

Three weeks after that spate of incursions, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein touched off an international crisis by threatening to shoot down U.S. spy planes.

``Yes, we did back away,″ said Air Force Maj. Gen. Roger Radcliff, who commanded the operation at the time. ``After a period of days, we adjusted that stance. But we never gave up the no-fly zone.″

Some Air Force pilots who flew the missions in the no-fly zone in southern Iraq, where the United Nations since 1992 has barred Iraqi military flights, expressed exasperation.

``The Air Force leadership that was running the war in Southwest Asia was so conservative they never let us get in a position where we could engage,″ Capt. Chris Prusak, an F-15 pilot, told the AP.

``They were just taunting us,″ Prusak said of the Iraqi fighters.

Air Force Lt. Mark Reents, another F-15 pilot, said in an interview: ``We were initially pushed 90 miles to the south″ by his military commander to avoid a clash with Iraqis. After several days of violations, ``incrementally, we were allowed to move north,″ he said.

Both pilots continue to fly F-15s for the Air Force’s First Fighter Wing based at Langley Air Force Base, Va.

Iraq began the series of incursions into the no-fly zone last Sept. 29, sending small numbers of MiG-25 and other fighters into the prohibited area daily, usually two planes at a time. A senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Iraqis would turn on ground-based radars to determine when there were few American planes in the immediate area. They would then carve shallow arcs below the 33rd parallel, which marks the northern end of the southern no-fly zone.

Radcliff said in an interview that the Iraqi fighters would ``dart in and dart out″ of the no-fly zone. Some of the pilots patrolling the area, however, said that after the first few days in which they went unchallenged, the Iraqi planes flew farther into the prohibited airspace.

After U.S. warplanes crept back northward, the Iraqi incursions stopped on Oct. 7, 1997.

Three weeks later, Saddam threatened to shoot down U.S. reconnaissance planes and demanded that U.S. officials no longer participate in international weapons inspections.

Whether the policy of restraint emboldened Saddam is a matter of speculation. Radcliff acknowledged it was possible, saying ``it does seem to be a chain of events that got started (with the no-fly violations) and then continued.″

Nevertheless, U.S. military aircraft have continued to refrain from shooting down Iraqi warplanes that occasionally continue to fly into the prohibited zone despite tough talk from the Pentagon. Last Oct. 9, Defense Secretary William Cohen said no-fly violations ``will be strictly dealt with, and that would include shooting them down.″

U.S. officials initially thought the Iraqi fighters were responding to strikes launched by the Iranian military against enclaves inside Iraq occupied by Iranians hostile to the regime in Tehran.

``I didn’t need Americans, our forces, in the middle of a situation which we did not understand,″ said Radcliff, who watched the flights on radar screens at his command center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

``My first concern was for the safety of our personnel. So that led to a lot of our thinking from that point forward.″

Gradually, however, Radcliff and air intelligence officers concluded Iraq was testing whether the United States would enforce the prohibition.

At that point, Radcliff said, he was worried that the Iraqis were trying to draw American pilots into a trap by leading them into zones covered by Iraqi antiaircraft missiles.

After consulting with superiors, Radcliff ordered most of the U.S. and allied aircraft _ as many as 50 planes at a time _ to clear out of the area. F-15 aircraft, which would have been called upon to engage the Iraqi jets, were ordered to move out of striking distance.

The decisions caused some pilots to question the purpose of a deny-flight mission central to the massive U.S. military presence in the region, a presence that costs more than $1 billion a year.

``The frustration comes when you know that when it really comes to our national interests, they’re not going to use us,″ said Prusak, a top-rated F-15 pilot.

Radcliff said U.S. forces ``did bring the incursions of the no-fly zone to an end and we didn’t get anybody hurt in the process.″ A former fighter pilot, Radcliff said he understood the pilots’ thinking, but said restraint was the right policy.

Reents, one of the pilots, said that in the initial episode, U.S. commanders ``basically rewrote the plans″ that would have enabled American pilots to engage and shoot down the Iraqi warplanes. The rules of engagement for fighter pilots in the region are classified.

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