By Iain Ballantyne, Editor Warships IFR 1998 - Today

There have been many naval milestones in the first decade of this magazine’s existence. When the first edition appeared though, the only hot zone for navies was the confrontation between America and its allies, primarily Britain, and Saddam’s Iraq. This was the world before Al-Qaeda made its presence felt, and acts of piracy rarely made the kind of headlines they make today. Afghanistan was still under the rule of the Taliban, while Russia was in its introspective phase with its navy rarely ever leaving port. There had not been a hot conflict involving the full range of naval war-fighting capabilities - sea, air and land - since the Desert Storm campaign to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait. However, the NATO bombing campaign against Serbian forces conducting ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, between late March and mid-June 1999, changed all that. The Kosovo War heralded the dramatic upswing in operations that today sees naval forces conducting war-fighting and peace-keeping missions around the globe, as well as tackling piracy, narcotics and people smuggling and the results of other criminal acts, plus natural disaster, on a daily basis. The growth in front line operations for the world’s navies has been mirrored by this magazine’s progress from a quarterly (1998-1999), to bi-monthly (2000-2002) and then, as we are today, monthly (2003 onwards). In the first instalment of a five-part series we travel back in time to take a snapshot sample of how WARSHIPS IFR covered some major milestones during the past decade, starting with the face-off with Saddam, NATO’s intervention in Kosovo and the UK’s mission to stop slaughter in Sierra Leone.

Flashback 1


Impasse On Iraq

The British aircraft carrier HMS Invincible was due to arrive in the Gulf towards the end of January 1999, in order to commence joint operations with US Navy forces. Her escort group initially included the Type 22 frigates HMS Boxer and HMS Cumberland, plus the Type 42 destroyer HMS Newcastle, supported by the RFAs Bayleaf, Fort Austin and Brambleleaf. The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce has revealed that the Tomahawk-armed attack boat HMS Splendid was standing by to intervene in the Gulf if needed. HMS Invincible was ordered to the region without the benefit of Harrier GR7 strike aircraft aboard. Her air group for the deployment consisted of nine Sea Harrier FA2 fighters and a dozen Sea King helicopters. The British carrier set sail from Portsmouth on January 9 with tension in the Gulf rising dramatically as Iraq became overtly defiant in the wake of air strikes at the end of 1998.
The Desert Fox blitz of December 17 - 20 last year is alleged to have significantly degraded Iraqi military capability. American and British warplanes flew over 650 missions, with aircraft from the carrier USS Enterprise leading the assault. USN warships also launched 325 Tomahawk cruise missiles. The USS Carl Vinson Battle Group entered the fray in the final hours.

As 1998 drew to a close the Iraqis went on the offensive, firing Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) at British and American warplanes patrolling No-Fly Zones over Iraq. Then, with the New Year of 2000 only five days old, F-14 Tomcat fighters from the USS Carl Vinson and USAF F-15 Eagles were involved in clashes with Iraqi Mig and Mirage fighters over the Southern No-Fly Zone.
The Jan 5 forays by Saddam’s jets into the No-Fly Zone were the first air-to-air encounters between Iraqi and American aircraft since 1992.

In a Pentagon briefing the overall commander of Operation Desert Fox, General Anthony C. Zinni (USMC) revealed that the United States has contingency plans to counter Iraqi moves towards Kuwait, launch of missiles against a neighbour or any other possibilities.
“We have plans for everything,” said General Zinni.

In the next edition of the magazine, we reported from Invincible in the northern Gulf…

Navies Keeping Saddam Caged

Almost unnoticed back home in the UK, the Royal Navy has been up the sharp end in a sustained shooting war with Iraq. Prior to her participation in NATO’s Kosovo campaign, the carrier HMS Invincible was deployed as flagship of a small, but highly effective, task group often furthest ‘up-threat’ of all Allied naval forces in the dangerous waters of the Arabian Gulf. While the Invincible loitered just off Kuwait to launch Sea Harrier FA2s, as part of Operation Southern Watch, the multi-role frigate HMS Cumberland and air defence destroyer HMS Newcastle were taking it in turns to skirt Iraqi territorial waters to enforce a UN trade embargo. The Southern Watch objective is to prevent Saddam from inflicting a campaign of ethnic cleansing against minorities in the south of his country, or gather forces to menace Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The trade embargo aims to ensure Saddam exchanges oil for food, rather than obtaining components for ‘weapons of mass destruction’.

On a daily basis Invincible’s Sea Harriers joined US naval aircraft, from the super-carrier USS Carl Vinson and USS Enterprise, in flying missions against sophisticated air defences. Any attempts by the Iraqis to attack the British aircraft, or lure them into a position where they could be shot down, were snuffed out instantly. Air strikes have also been launched against military installations in further attempts to erode the Iraqi military-industrial infrastructure. At the heart of Saddam’s ongoing strategic planning is the development of Chemical and Biological Warfare (CBW) agents. This programme is believed to be at an advanced stage, despite years of UN sanctions aimed at halting it. It is thought that national efforts to weaponise these agents are also proceeding swiftly.

Further in the future is the real prospect of a nuclear-armed Iraq. Now the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) inspectors have been denied access to suspected CBW and nuclear development sites, it is difficult to estimate exactly how much progress has been made of late.

Flashback 2


NATO Strike in Kosovo

As this magazine went to press the situation in the Balkans showed signs of spiralling into a serious region-wide conflict, well outside the original parameters of NATO providing protection for ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

With the bombing and cruise missile campaign intensifying, reporting understandably focused on the air war and the possibility of further escalation, via the spectre of ground forces commitment. While these aspects of the campaign would undoubtedly continue to dominate developments, there was a third factor - the potential of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia Navy (FRYN) to cause havoc in the Adriatic. The pugnacious stance of what is, in effect, the Serb Navy, was well-illustrated three weeks into the Allied air offensive. A FRYN vessel in the port of Bar fired its anti-aircraft weapons at NATO jets flying overhead through Montenegro’s airspace.

Both the American carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and the British carrier HMS Invincible were, by week three of the NATO air offensive, positioned in the Ionian Sea, with a formidable screen of escort vessels between them and any threat.

When Operation Allied Force started on March 24, substantial NATO naval forces were actively participating in, or supporting, strikes against Serb targets. The British attack submarine HMS Splendid fired the UK’s first cruise missiles in anger and then took part in several subsequent Tomahawk attacks alongside American cruisers, destroyers and submarines.

Despite the presence of a naval carrier group centred on the FS Foch in the Adriatic, France was not officially an integral part of NATO action. In practice she was actively involved in joint operations. For example, Super Frelon helicopters from the Foch participated in the rescue of the F117 Nighthawk pilot shot down near Belgrade.

  • US Marines from assault carriers sent to the war zone later spearheaded NATO’s land intervention in Kosovo.

Flashback 3


Sierra Leone Saviours

The Royal Navy has deployed its biggest independent task force since the Falklands War of 1982 to the coast of West Africa. Under the British Government’s concept of Joint Rapid Reaction Forces (JRRFs), which were established after the Strategic Defence Review (SDR) of 1998, one battalion of mobile troops is available at short notice to deploy quickly to any crisis in the world. The battalion is drawn either from 5 Airborne Brigade (centred on the Parachute Regiment) or 3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines. When the crisis in Sierra Leone blew up, it was one of the Para units, which was on stand-by. Only a few days later and it would have been 42 Commando, Royal Marines (part of 3 Cdo Bde) sent to evacuate civilians and to quell rebellion in the war-torn West African state. As the 1st Battalion the Parachute Regiment flew to Sierra Leone, 42 Commando was a few days steaming away in the Med, aboard the helicopter assault carrier HMS Ocean. This new carrier was heading a Royal Navy task group on an exercise called Aurora 2000. The ships, planes and marines participating in Aurora 2000 were practising the Royal Navy’s concept of an Amphibious Readiness Group (or ARG) which, when fully developed, will provide the UK with a third deployable brigade-sized group which will also have its own integrated headquarters. HMS Ocean has been in action, and in the news ever since she entered service two years ago. While still on trials she and her helicopters rendered invaluable humanitarian assistance off Central America, after Hurricane Mitch struck Honduras and neighbouring states. She was also prepared for a role off the coast of Yugoslavia last year during the Kosovo crisis, at the head of the embryonic ARG. Now she is at the centre of action off Sierra Leone. This extensive and continuous use of HMS Ocean certainly removes any doubts about her reliability, and any uncertainties about the wisdom of building the warship to commercial, rather than military, standards of construction.

Night operations on the flight-deck of the USS Enterprise become a ballet of lights as the aircraft carrier launches strikes against Iraqi targets during Operation Desert Fox, December 1998. 

Night operations on the flight-deck of the USS Enterprise become a ballet of lights as the aircraft carrier launches strikes against Iraqi targets during Operation Desert Fox, December 1998. 
Photo: US Navy.

In late 2000, Royal Marines go ashore in Sierra Leone.

In late 2000, Royal Marines go ashore in Sierra Leone.
Photo: Royal Navy.

At sea aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt on May 29 1999, a sailor in the forward magazine prepares to supply bombs for air strikes against Serb targets in Kosovo.

Above: At sea aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt on May 29 1999, a sailor in the forward magazine prepares to supply bombs for air strikes against Serb targets in Kosovo.
Photo: US Navy.