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Tank Commander Series
By Stuart Crawford - Part 23
Caught in the SCUD in Riyadh

THE AIR WAR had started. We rapidly became swamped with information and statistics – so many radars destroyed there, so many aircraft hit by small arms fire, so many sorties over Baghdad. Very little of it was verifiable or attributable, and we fielded non-stop calls from the UK which were just irritating; how many bombs have the RAF dropped? How many US aircraft have been lost? The truth was we didn’t have a bloody clue most of the time.

On the second night of the air war we had great excitement. At about 0300 hrs we were notified of an Iraqi missile launch against Israel. This in many ways was the nightmare scenario because if Israel responded there was a fear the Coalition’s togetherness might itself not survive. We thought our Arab allies unlikely to support an attack by their traditional enemy on one of their own, albeit an unpopular and ostracised one. After much scurrying to and fro and frantic phone calls from the UK, we established that eight missiles had been launched in all; three landed in Tel Aviv, two in Haifa, two dropped short in Iraq and one was never accounted for or confirmed.

These missile attacks had two fairly dramatic results. The first was that in the HQ we got reports that there might be some evidence of nerve agent at the points of impact. This got us understandably twitchy (the news, not the nerve agent). Our NBC officer was a relatively junior Captain, but on his shoulders now fell the decision whether or not we should start taking our prophylactic medicine against nerve agent poisoning, called NAPS. [1] With no time to refer to a higher authority he quite rightly decided that we should start taking our tablets straight away. The decision was passed down to all 43,000 men and women of the British contingent who also started on the treatment.

Meanwhile Israel had scrambled approximately 76 combat and supporting aircraft to strike back immediately and, unbelievably we thought, seemed to have secured agreement to transit Syrian airspace to reach Iraq. The Coalition and Israel then came to a speedy arrangement over deconfliction of airspace over Iraq, and a line was drawn down the chart in our Ops Room to show the demarcation. Thankfully wiser counsel prevailed and the Israelis never carried through with their attack, but it was a close run thing for a moment or two.

The fourth night of the air war, that of 20/21 January, was to be the most dramatic to date as far as we on the night shift were concerned. As we arrived in the Ops Room three SCUDs were fired by the Iraqis at Dhahran, the main US port for disembarkation in Saudi Arabia, and there were a few tense moments until we heard the US had fired five of its Patriot missiles to intercept and that they claimed that all the incoming missiles had been destroyed [2].

All went quiet again until we went for our “lunch” at midnight, taken as usual in the lean-to shack in the back yard of the HQ. Word came of another missile alert as we were savouring our sausage and chips (did we have anything other than sausage and chips? I can’t remember now), and then a cheerful clerk opened the back door of the main building and told us that this time Riyadh was the target. Quickly we scrambled into our noddy suits on the spot as our food went cold, and then were treated to the sight of three or four Patriot missiles being launched to intercept by the US battery just up the road at the airport.

Patriot missile launched to attack a SCUD

These bad boys went off and quickly broke through the sound barrier with resultant sonic booms and then disappeared into the clouds. It was a bit like Guy Fawkes Night for a moment, and then we remembered that these SCUDs could possibly have had chemical warheads so we masked up quickly. At this point Richard A-F and I decided that our proper place was in the Ops Room so we abandoned our sausage ‘n’ chips and ran down the street towards the main entrance.

As we did so, it appeared that an incoming missile was intercepted and detonated directly over our heads - or so it seemed – with a quite thunderous roar and flash of red. It was a bit like being caught in the middle of a severe thunderstorm, except the lightning flashes were bright pink. I remember quite distinctly that the dust in the street “bounced” at the point of detonation. Awesome, as I would say if I were down wiv da kidz.

It became clear later on that the US missile expenditure that first night had been enormously profligate and extravagant; 35 Patriots fired to intercept just six SCUDs launched at Riyadh by the bad guys. Command and control of the Patriot units was apparently the problem. There were three batteries of them around Riyadh at this stage in the proceedings, but they were not yet controlled centrally. The Patriot system was designed to launch two missiles at each incoming unfriendly missile to ensure a kill. Each of the three batteries tracked the six SCUDs, and as there was no central fire control system yet set up, each fired 12 missiles (one misfire) at all six SCUDs.

The end result was a firework display which easily surpassed the annual Firework Concert display at Edinburgh Castle during the Festival, and which no doubt eventually presented the Saudi government with a bill far in excess of that justified by the actual threat. According to the Washington Post [3], “A total of 158 missiles, which cost an estimated $1 million each, were used to intercept the 47 rudimentary SCUD missiles launched by Iraqi military…” during the course of the war. Not all were targeted on Saudi Arabia of course, with an estimated 24 Iraqi SCUDs aimed at Israeli cities. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Funnily enough, this first raid on Riyadh gave a major boost to those of us working in HQBFME. We all had been a little bit ashamed of our cushy lifestyle whilst the boys roughed it out in the desert. Now, however, we had been the first to come under attack and, despite the lack of any real danger, we could at least claim that we had been fired at in anger. It may have gone some small way to defuse some of the understandable resentment that the front line troops felt.

For my part I lost no time in sending a signal back to 4RTR in Germany claiming to be the fist member of the Regiment to have come under fire in the current conflict, if indeed not since Korea. The message was sent with my tongue firmly in my cheek and would have been treated with the expected good-humoured derision when received. We did feel, however, that we were now really at war and that the conflict was no longer something that we were seeing on CNN.

The following days and nights continued in a similar vein. I got caught out again, this time on my own out in the car, collecting a few personal things I had left in the wrong place. As I drove back to the HQ the air raid sirens started up again. All Hell was let loose on the roads as Saudi drivers, never the most competent or predictable at the best of times, went into a collective blind panic. Ignoring all the road signs and traffic lights – not to mention the speed limits – they drove at breakneck speed with horns blaring in their unseemly haste to get home or to the nearest shelter. In any other circumstances it would have been mildly amusing, but at the time it was all just a bit pathetic.

Later I calculated that up to that point the Iraqis (pronounced “Eye-rack-ees”, by the way, with a south of the Mason-Dixon Line twang if you’re a Gulf vet) had fired 31 SCUD missiles and had killed one person; as a military weapon in Iraqi hands the SCUD had proved to be pretty poor, but they had considerable political impact and an ever increasing amount of time and effort was being committed to hunt them down. Their launches were picked up immediately by US satellites because of their firing signature, and the Hereford Hooligans (aka SAS) were already deep inside Iraq trying to find them. But still they came.

The air war had a way to run yet as the Coalition forces continued to pour into the region for the by now inevitable ground war. But more of that next time, plus how I persuaded US General Norman Schwartzkopf that his original plan was flawed and that I had a much better idea of the strategic requirements.

To come in Part 24; more air war facts and figures, plus my Grand Plan for toppling Saddam Hussein.

[1] Nerve Agent Pre-Treatment Set.

[2] We were told informally that the Patriot missile system had a kill rate of circa 70%, but in fact it was probably closer to 17%!

     The Washington Post

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