Apl 04, 1999
RAF Harrier pilots based in southern Italy are preparing to drop cluster bombs on Serbian targets amid growing frustration at the ineffectiveness of the laser-guided weapons used so far.
Pilots will face greatly increased dangers from anti-aircraft fire because the new munitions are delivered from a height of about 100ft.
Similar bombs were used early in the Gulf war when, in the first week, British pilots flew 4% of the missions but suffered a quarter of the casualties.
At one stage during the Gulf war there was a furious dispute between senior commanders in the field and the Ministry of Defence over whether low-level bombing was worth the cost in aircrews.
A consignment of the 600lb bombs - which contain 147 "bomblets" designed to scatter over an area as large as a football pitch - was flown in last week to the Gioia del Colle base near Bari in southern Italy, where 12 British GR7 Harriers from 1(F) Squadron are deployed.
The BL755 bombs have specially shaped charges which can penetrate the armour of military vehicles.
Their broad use against troop and tank formations will also heighten the risk of civilian casualties.
The plan to use the new weapon follows disappointment over the lack of success of the Paveway II laser-guided, 2,000lb bombs fired by the Harriers.
Five of the eight missions so far flown have been aborted because pilots were prevented by cloud or smoke from identifying their targets. Bombs were dropped on three missions with targets hit on only two. Then, for the first time since raids began, the Harriers were grounded on Friday night because the Combat Air Operations Centre in Vincenza failed to issue an air tasking order.
The cluster bombs were flown to the base last week aboard British Hercules C130 transport planes. British officers refused to detail the contents, saying merely they contained new weapons which would widen "the tactical options" and replace, in part, the Paveway bombs. However, several crates were clearly marked "BL755".
"We have not used cluster bombs so far," said Wing Commander Graham Wright, who leads the British detachment. "So far, avoiding collateral damage has been such a priority that if the Paveway II bombs don't work, nothing else is fired."
Ground crew at the base said yesterday they had stacked the new delivery of weapons, including the cluster bombs, close to each of the Harriers, which are parked under white canvas canopies at the base.
"We haven't instructions to fit the cluster bombs, but whenever the order is given, we can do it in 20 minutes," one said.