back to article How Saudi slush kept UK aero biz afloat

The long-smouldering debate around allegations of corrupt British arms deals with Saudi Arabia reignited yesterday, as both the Guardian and the Beeb published the results of new investigations. To recap: back in 1986, the Saudis agreed with the British government to buy a large amount of military hardware from UK firms under …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    "The JP233 and low-level runway attack doctrine are now widely viewed as suicidal, after RAF Tornados were decimated while using such tactics against Saddam Hussein's airbases in 1991."

    Is that accurate? I read up on this subject recently and the figures I saw were to the effect that of 6 of the Tornados lost in low-level operations against airfields, only one was during the course of JP233 deployment. Though admittedly the other 5 probably were due to low-level attack doctrine even though not deploying JP233s at the time.

  2. Mad Mike


    Interesting comments on the Tornado. The GR version were actually considered very good and way ahead of their time in many regards. The JP233 and the method of delivery was far from perfect, but was miles better than anything the Americans had, which was why Tornados were used. The only American system available involved flying at medium altitude directly down the line of the runway at slow (relatively) speeds. This is way more suicidal than low level JP233 attack. The use of extreme low altitude attack is much prefered over medium altitude. Both methods suffer from the problem of having to run down the length of the runway, which allows the enemy to place their anti-aircraft defences in the most appropriate place. Low level if preferable to medium altitude simply because less warning is given. British losses were tiny in comparison to the alternatives. The JP233 has now been replaced by cruise style missiles (whether aircraft or ground launched) that don't require a manned aircraft to fly down the runway.

    The Tornado F3 was, of course, a complete heap. It only ever existed because politically we had to build our own fighter (at least within europe) and nobody wanted to pay for a new airframe. Therefore, they reused the Tornado GR airframe. The Eurofighter is rather a good illustration of how not to do it as well, as it is a much better aircraft, but at a stupid price. Taking politics out of it, we could have a much larger number of Raptors for considerably less money and less risk.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Great Aviation myths.

    Nice to see this one (JP233 low-level attack Tornado losses) trotted out again. From the "Great Aviation Myths" website:

    [ "The RAF lost six Tornado's in the Gulf War while using the JP 233 airfield denial weapon." - In fact only one of the JP 233 missions were shot down, and that was three minutes after the attack had been completed. The other Tornado losses were incurred when lofting 'dumb' bombs on Iraqi air defence installations ]

    I recall hearing a report at the time that in at least one location the Iraquis had mounted their AA on towers to get a better field of fire clear of the airfield. The result of this was that it was impossible for them to hit a Tornado flying on the deck as AA weapons are not designed to fire downwards and the RAF were flying below the height of the towers concerned.

    It's true that the JP233 system has been canned. This is due to the moratorium on landmines which comprise half a JP233 payload and Cluster bombs (which with a bit of semantic gymnastics you can classify a JP233 as) and nothing to do with any losses incurred in the Gulf or anywhere else for that matter.


  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    When the Tornado was first mooted, there were suggestions that it would be cheaper, quicker and better if Britain dusted off the plans for its mid-1960s TSR-2 which was superior in every respect. And far, far more beautiful.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not a bad idea:

    "....Queen's family - rather than being junior army officers, theatrical types, polo players etc - held all important government jobs."

    They couldnt do much worse then Blair/Brown.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    On the topic of accuracy, don't forget that decimation means to kill or remove/reduce 1 in 10 - not 9 in 10.

  7. sheepdog

    Buying American

    "Taking politics out of it, we could have a much larger number of Raptors for considerably less money and less risk." Oh? How exactly could you take politics out of any defence procurement? If it did happen, it would end up being a compromise of having British components e.g. engines and radar resulting in even more expense. I believe the Phantom was more expensive in this way than buying it purely American.

    Of course, that would be assuming the Americans would actually be allowed to sell it to anyone: export of US Arms/Technology ring a bell?

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    RAF Losses in 1991 Gulf War


    "A total of six Tornado GR1 aircraft were lost in combat"

    "17 January 1991 (...) with 1,000lb bombs."

    "19 January 1991 (...) with 1,000lb bombs."

    "24 January 1991 (...) with 1,000lb bombs." (medium level)

    "14 February 1991 (...) with Laser Guided Bombs (LGBs)." (medium level)

    "17 January 1991 (...) in a JP233 mission"

    "22 January 1991 (...) delivering 1,000lb bombs"

    So that's 1 in 5 lost delivering JP233, and 6 overall is hardly "decimated" also only 4 of these were even "Low level", although I'm under the impression that medium level is still pretty low for a tornado.

    The low level attack idea makes little sense in a flat desert, the whole idea is that you're hard to spot against the hills that you fly in the shadow of.

  9. amanfromMars

    In the Beginning, IT all Began with a Gift from Global Operating Devices... Dei ITs

    "‘How Saudi slush kept UK aero biz afloat’" ..... That sort of commitment from a trusted friend is something nothing can buy. ITs Reward, Allah Akbaar, Deserved in Seventh Heaven on Earth...... with AI CyberSpace Control. A Gift Born and Bred in Gratitude.

    The Lesson of Life, the West is slow to Learn, n'est ce pas?

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Business is business

    Only the British can get heated about greasing palms with commission payments (or bribes if you so wish to interpret such payments). Every other country does it and kickbacks have been in existence since the "middleman" came into being. Indeed, the history of Britain is built on kickbacks so let us be less sanctimonious about greasing the palms of a few agents that generate us billions. Where do you think your livelihood comes from?

  11. Lewis Page (Written by Reg staff)

    Myths/RAF Losses

    Gents (Ladies) -

    To put the RAF losses another way (same source as JonB above, the RAF's own account.)

    "The first Tornado GR1s deployed to Muharraq during August 1990 followed by Tabuk in October and finally Dhahran early in January 1991. Each squadron had approximately 15 aircraft" - eg a total force of as many as 45 jets. Say a serviceability rate of 90%, for around 40 actually flyable.

    "For the anti-airfield missions, the GR1s used the JP233 anti-runway munitions"

    "The early stages of Operation Granby saw the GR1s involved in low-level anti-airfield and Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) operations"

    Four jets shot down at low level in five days, one with JP233 the rest with bombs.

    For me to write "The JP233 and low-level runway attack doctrine are now widely viewed as suicidal, after RAF Tornados were decimated while using such tactics" seems fair enough. Decimated means one in ten taken out, or four in forty-odd: and not all operational jets were doing low level - as evidenced by the loss of 24 Jan - so in fact of the lowlevel-assigned planes you could say worse than 10% losses. Some accounts put the force size larger: on the other hand some put serviceability lower. Even if you say fifty Tornados flying (unlikely), all at low level throughout (not true), losing four is as near decimation as makes no odds.

    I might add that I have put this version of events past a friend of mine, a serving RAF fast-jet pilot. He had no quibbles to make.

    However, it's quite true that the reason given for binning JP233 was the Ottawa convention against booby-trap landmines. I have been told though that once Paveway laser-guided bombs were available, not many crews would have been willing to fly with JP233, however. I would also point out that Paveway had been available for years by 1991.

    It's nice to see the friends of the RAF upper echelons trotting out the same tired old defences.

  12. preethi


    The things you can do in the name of national security and democracy

    should'nt the same rules apply for the citizens of these democracies.

  13. Chris Miller

    Commission payments

    It is possible to adopt a logically consistent position that we will never make such payments/bribes. That would eliminate our international business activities in Africa, Asia and Latin America and restrict us to North America, Australasia and a few countries in northern Europe (at a generous estimate). If we want to do business in the rest of the world then greasing palms is a fact of life, distasteful as that may be to those of more refined sensitivities.

  14. JJ

    The way it works

    The whole sale of 'surplus' RAF Eurofighters is actually a great way for getting a free (-ish) upgrade from Tranche 1 to Tranche 2/3 aircraft. Given the step change in capability between the tranches, it's worth selling on aircraft that aren't immediately needed in order to get replacement aircraft of a better spec at a later date.

    In effect you're just swapping delivery slots, trading delay for upgrade.

    Not that the Saudi aircraft will be exactly to the standard spec, they have all kinds of toys but usually not quite as good as the original eg. component downgrades, deleted features (eg. some of the secure comms modes), that sort of thing.

    Though even if the aircraft were exactly the same, I like to think the pilots still make a difference and the UK is still slightly better on that front.

    And the 'Saudi-ised' in-country production doesn't necessarily mean much, usually it just means a large group of Brits putting the kit together in-country. The locals usually couldn't care less about the technology, it's just a way of keeping hold of the cash - if the work is being done in Saudi then at least some of the cash being spent will stay locally. Also it provides for all sorts of legal ways of getting cash to various local VIPs, but that's another story...

    Making payments to various people has long been part of the way business is done, especially in the Gulf. Everyone does it, it's all in the open, and there isn't anything unusual. Plus it's legal. And lets face it, what's wrong with paying the locals with their own money - they pay you, you give some of the cash back. And they're the ones who have to justify the money they've to the rest of the government/family.

    Finally, having heard some of the stories from those involved in the original deals, direct payments were just one of the ways certain people could get cash. Others also existed, and all were legal. For example, a Saudi company would provide all the accommodation for contractors, at cost above the normal market rate. Said company owned by a VIP close to the deal. Not exactly clean, but legal enough. And no-one will complain as it can probably be counted as part of the local offset due under the contract.

    The Saudi Tornados don't seem to be doing too badly, for all the rude things some people have said. They're keeping them for now, with a sustainment program introducing quite a few upgrades to take the remaining fleet to something like a 'GR4-lite' spec capable of supporting the latest toys. F3 spec may be gone, but the airframes are still useful.

    As far as the Lightning II argument goes (don't think you mean Raptor, at $200m each!), they aren't actually particularly cheap unless you fiddle the numbers and hide a lot of the costs. The Eurofighter in unit cost terms actually isn't too bad in terms of cost/capability. In the Raptor/Eurofighter equation, the >3:1 cost ratio between the aircraft means there isn't any argument, Raptor might be slightly better (depending on the tactics employed) but if you can afford a 3:1 force ratio 'slightly better' isn't good enough.

  15. Dillon Pyron

    Low level attacks

    The doctrine of low level attacks was first proved in Viet Nam. Of course, the US used F105s and retarded bombs. The Tornado variant was designed from the begining as a low level ordinance delivery system. The US tried to use F16s, F15s, F14s and FA18s. All except the FA18 were originally designed as air superiority fighters. And the FA18 was supposed to be a mid/high altitude system as well as a fighter and an electronics suppression (HARM) system and a toy delivery system. Ooops, drop the last, I think. And the US has no plans for a low altitude system. I don't see how the F35 is going to kill tanks from 5000 feet when the A10 does it from 100.

    Of course, the Russians don't have an effective low altitude bomber, either.

    With the expense of building and delivering airframes, everybody is going for the multipurpose approach. Which means it will do everything "adequately", but nothing "superbly".

  16. Dillon Pyron

    The PM?

    Market Place yesterday reported that the PM quashed the report for "reasons of national security". Is this accurate or just the Yanks bolloxing up a report again?

  17. Adam Ward

    RAF Doctrine and the JP233


    Lewis is referring to the RAF low level airfield attack doctrine which caused the decimation. As you pointed out all of these casualties were operating against Iraqi airfields. RAF doctrine at the time was that this was the RAF speciality (air force versus air force was (is) much more in vogue than air support for pongoes). In fact without this form of operation the entire existence of the RAF was in doubt. The RAF couldn't compete with Stealth or Cruise Missiles. That meant that the USAF could do most things better, with more people, more often.

    So the RAF chose a speciality that the USAF would not compete with - if only because the USAF has stealth and cruise missiles and doesn't need to throw people away in order to strut like peacocks. The RAF aim was to drive fast (600 MPH) and low, drop the bomb, and run. In the 1980s rather a lot of pilots turned themselves into pizza practising this in Wales. They still do train this way, as its kind of fun, but like the Horse Guards practising in shiny breastplates on real horses its completely impractical for war.

    Sadly for the pilots who died in practise the entire thing was a failure. It turns out that in real life, somewhere in the middle of the low-level airfield attack, loads of people armed with everything from rocks to AK47s and SAMs are going to try to kill you.

    So the RAF lost six aircraft out of forty five Tornado aircraft. That's the literal meaning of decimation all right, no question. Five of these aircraft were lost in the first seven days against people with no real air force at all. The only anomaly is the one on the 24th January when a bomb popped prematurely. The remaining casualty (number six) was lost in a mid-level shootdown / crash. These numbers are quite grim - the RAF Tornadoes took 10 per cent casualties within seven days of their anti-airfield operations. The rest of the Coalition air force? 0.05 per cent casualties per sortie in the entire Desert Storm operation (and that includes the massive RAF casualties). The two numbers are frightening when compared. Fly RAF and die, it makes Aeroflot looks safe.

    The net result was that the RAF doctrine from the 1970s died in 1991. Bear in mind this doctrine was intended to go against a real Soviet air defence mobilised for World War 3 in East Germany, not some second-rate, dirt poor, 3rd world nation listed under "where?". The RAF casualty rate was unacceptable even against the Iraqis - against the Russians the RAF would have been combat ineffective within hours.

    Today, in 2007, the RAF justifies this kind of operation after the event by claiming, more or less, that it paralysed Iraqi air operations. This didn't stop the Iraqi airforce in 1991 flying to Iran. Still, details, eh? The alternative would be to say that the RAF high command, for nearly 15 years, were living in a dream-world. That would be cripplingly embarrassing so it'll have to wait another 30 years or so to be confirmed.

    Post Gulf War 1 the RAF went heavily into medium and high altitude smart weapons as seen in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq 2. The Storm Shadow, a second rate Cruise Missile, is part of this new realism. The entire low level doctrine was dumped, along with everything to do with it. Its quite rare now to hear of an RAF plane splattered along a Welsh valley.

    With the doctrine went its trinkets - the JP233 was canned because frankly it was, in a world in which Cruise Missiles exist, suicidally worthless. It joins a long line of similarly impractical British inventions such as the Sticky Mine where, within about 5 minutes of combat time, everyone brighter than a chinchilla realises that its worthless - except the taxpayer that bought the damn thing.


    The Aviation Myths website is right in strict detail, but utterly wrong in its spirit.

    Of the 5 aircraft shot down all were on low-level anti airfield attacks. Its just that the JP233 was so specialised that not all the planes needed it. The JP233 cannister was intended to slow down the bulldozers repairing the big holes in the runway from the 1000 pounders. Basically the aim was to use submunitions to make it take a half a day, rather than an hour. The plane that took 3 minutes to auger in did so because it took that long for the entire flight system to sieze up. It took the missile hit on the way out of the target area. Saying that it was 3 minutes later is more than a little sly - the proximate cause was the low level airfield attack.

  18. heystoopid

    Ha Ha!

    Ha ha , since the good King Richard the first "the Lion Heart" , and 3rd Crusade the only normal way to trade with the Arabs has been with the liberal use of baksheesh to smooth the waters!

    Further it was used extensively in all British controlled middle eastern colonial and influenced middle eastern territories and provinces !

    Talk about dumb , stupid and brain dead politicians swimming against the flow of a thousand years of history!

    As for the Tornado , the pilots were also slaughtered by the unified German Luftwaffe pilots flying the Soviet built export MIG29 Fulcrum's in friendly air war games as well , poor little buggers!

    In a real shooting war against many of the Soviet contemporary designs , these aircraft would be called flying coffins , thats for sure!

  19. amanfromMars

    If the cap fits, don't wear a crown.

    "They couldnt do much worse then Blair/Brown."

    How would we know whenever they can't be bloody well arsed to even try? Spineless gutless wonders, I wonder at times, although I'm sure that they wouldn't prove to be if only they had a stealthy vehicle made of the right stuff to fire their ammo from.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Military tactics on an IT site?

    Can't believe an IT site is dicussing military tactics but here are my two pence.

    Firstly lots of people, including Lewis are trying to take tactics in Iraq and apply them to Europe. Easy to do but pointless. The skies in the middle east are (most of the time) sunny and clear, whereas in europe there is (usually) overcast skies and rain. Sourthern Iraq is pretty flat whereas most of Europe is hilly or mountainous. Important differences in this discussion.

    In the 40's and 50's the West and the Soviets all trained for very high altitude, high speed incursions of enemy airspace, to get above any fighter defences. This all changed when Gary Powers' U2 was shot down, being high up made you stand out. In Europe where the terrain is not flat radar performance close to the ground gets very poor so coming in low and fast can work and indeed was used successfully in WW2. Israel used it to good effect against Syria in '67, '73 and '82. There is little or no prior warning when terrain masks your approach. In southern Iraq there is none of this benefit from the terrain so the defences have some warning. In europe, against Soviet air defences, flying at medium and high altitude would have been a bad idea.

    The Soviet air defences at that time bristled with missiles to target these altitudes. The US needed jamming and so-called 'wild weasel' aircraft targeting the air defences to even begin to think of penetrating Soviet airspace. A single strike would have needed 50-200 aircraft. In contrast Iraq did not have an air defence system in the same league of the Soviet Union, what there was was destroyed in the first days of the air war and so flying at altitude was less dangerous.

    JP233 carried a mixture of mines (designed to attack vehicles and personnel) and bomblets designed to break up the runway surface. Contary to what is stated above those 1000lb bombs were not lofted in to hit the runways but to hit the air defences of the airfield. JP233 was withdrawn because a) it carried anti-personnel mines b) the collapse of the Soviet Union. No country in the world today has an air defence system that would rival that of the Soviet Union in the 80's so it is a hell of lot safer to fly at medium and high altitude, out the way of small arms fire and the ground and this is an excellent height to drop laser guided bombs from.

    As for the use of laser guided bombs, they work well in the middle east but, as the RAF found out in Kosovo, they can be pretty much useless in the skies over Europe. Why, because the laser guidance can't penetrate clouds. Once the bomb loses the laser signal it becomes a dumb bomb again. This is why the Americans are rushing to bolt GPS receivers onto laser guidance kit. In an era where collateral damage is (correctly) viewed as a bad thing a smart bomb suddenly reverting to a dumb one is not good.

    On the Typhoon, it is cheaper than the F-22 Raptor and if the Americans won't even think about selling them to Japan and Australia I doubt it will make an exception for the UK. The US had a problem with giving the software codes for the F-35 Lightning II to the UK never mind selling it F-22's. It is also important to remember that the F-35 is still in a development phase, the cost is still to be fully defined. Comparing a definitive sales price with a projected one has given the UK problems in the past, the F-111 was supposed to be cheaper, better and available sooner than TSR-2. It ended up late, over-budget and struggled to meet the performance claimed. In the end the UK cancelled the order and bought F4 Phantoms, promptly crippling them by insisting that RR Speys were fitted.

    Yes the Typhoon programme is late and over budget. The reason is quite simple, it is a multi-nation collaboration. Airbus A380, A350, A400M, Tornado, Concorde, all are/were collaborations and had this common thread. The US struggles to get aircraft progammes to come in on time and on budget and, until recently, only had to deal with multi-company teams. With the Typhoon out of its design stage it is actually starting to meet some of the promises made for it. The aircraft was expected to be 'swing-role' like the F/A-18 and the F-15E but integrating the weapons systems takes time and thats why they weren't available at the start of production. Note that the F-22 is still an air superiority fighter at the moment, the air to ground munitions are still being integrated to the aircraft systems.

    One final thought, an American senator once stated that he would never buy a fighter aircraft that was 20 times the cost of the aircraft it was replacing. But this wasn't a comment on the F-22 in the last few years but about the F-15 in the 70's. I guess we never learn from history.

  21. Cliff

    Re: Military tactics on an IT site?

    >>Military tactics on an IT site?

    Geeks are geeks, man

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Tornados were decimated", errr, no.

    Apparently only one of the Tornados involved in JP233 attacks was shot down and that was a few minutes after the attack had been completed.

    Hadly "suicidal" or decimating.

    The land mine treaty that we entered into rendered the JP233 illegal and probably had a lot more to do with it's being withdrawn from service.

    Making such ridiculous and unfounded allegations at the start of the article kinda damages the credibility of the rest of it.

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Reporter Credentials

    I am concerned that your reporter's credentials are somewhat dubious - for a start he worked in Civil Aircraft Division, they know very little of what goes on in Military Aircraft Division. Two years as a Undergraduate Management Trainee, I have yet to meet one that even knows what day it is and that isn't because of overwork!

    Come on leave BAE Systems alone - they are a great UK success story and have kept UK Ltd afloat for some time now. Even the yanks want their technology for JAS! So Reg et al - lay off!

  24. Jonathan Richards

    TSR-2 plans

    @Mike Richards-

    When I was involved many years ago with defence science and technology I was given to understand by a usually reliable source that the plans, jigs and tools for the TSR-2 had been destroyed on the orders of the government of the time, specifically to prevent any resurrection of the project. There may be nothing there to dust off.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Decimated my senten

    Well, I have to acknowledge that strictly "decimation" does apply, although popular parlance would convey a massive loss, this isn't what happened for an initial air assault against a trained, battle hardened and fully ready enemy.

    The reference to a dirt poor 3rd world nation would certianly be true in gulf war 2, but in 1991 Saddam's army was in the top ten and had plenty of decade old Russian SAM's, a good match for our decade old Tornado's.

    I was mostly providing data points to the assertion in the article that the JP233 was responsible for the loss of so many aircraft, in fact it was only 1.

    >"the RAF Tornadoes took 10 per cent casualties within seven days of their anti-airfield operations. The rest of the Coalition air force? 0.05 per cent casualties per sortie"

    The RAF flew 4000 sorties though, a loss of 0.15 per cent.

    Many sorties are reconnaisance and CAP. Since Saddam (rather wisely) decided to send his air force on holiday that week, the CAP patrols obviously didn't see any action, clearly the US flew most of these. The RAF's Tornado fighter conversion is best kept away from anything resembling trouble.

    If you remember the tv coverage of 1991, there was a lot of footage from the targetting cameras and smart bombs hitting their targets precisely, the performance of these bombs, some can glide a sunstantial distance, makes the idea of flying into an airport and dropping a bomb off ridiculous when you could have set it gliding nicely in a few miles away.

    And you can't stop a runway with a big dumb bomb, they just fill the hole.

    >"Post Gulf War 1 the RAF went heavily into medium and high altitude smart weapons as seen in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq 2."

    Where there was no air defence at all - total air supremacy.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    £1b - paid back into public accounts - yeah right..............

    ................if its the same account that pays for the private jets, expensive cars, designer clothes and the rest of the decadent lifestyle - maybe.

    I can understand the reasoning that to an extent Saudi Arabia belongs to the Al Sauds (they run everything public, for one) but there are still 20 odd million citizens who have no voice at all in how the country is run. Buying all this military hardware (or to use its correct term, swapping it for oil) is not on. It might some in the UK with employment, but what is the true cost?

    The ruling family has squandered billions in their lavish lifestyles, wasted public money on useless military equipment, personnel and misguided exercises (who do you think bankrolled Desert storm 1?). Internally there are problems with the supply of basic services to the public - visible even in hospitals where there is a lack of medicines and medical supplies. Then we wonder why there are disgruntled Saudi nationals lashing out at their government and their allies?

    The real icing on the cake came when head of Opec secretary general Abdullah El had the audacity to say: moves to use biofuels would make his members consider cutting investment in new oil production.

    all this after 3 or 4 years of record high oil prices! aha....yep...anything you say........ – NEXT!

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