After Desert Storm, the French learned the hard way that Iraq’s air force could still pull off an interception
by ARNAUD DELALANDE
In April 1992, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 688, calling on Baghdad to cease its crackdown on Iraq’s rebellious Shia majority and “ensure that the human and political rights of all Iraqi citizens are respected.”
Operation Southern Watch, the U.S.-led coalition effort to patrol the air space over southern Iraq, began that August. Its goal — to protect the Shia in line with Resolution 688.
But as French pilots soon discovered, the Iraqi air force didn’t just roll over and let coalition planes operate unopposed over Iraqi territory.
The United States, the United Kingdom and France enforced a no-fly zone banning Iraqi military flights south of the 32th parallel. The French component of the no-fly zone fell under Paris’ Operation Alysse.
The French military flew six Mirage 2000C fighters — three each of the Mirage 2000 RDI and RDM variants — plus one C-135FR tanker from Dhahran in Saudi Arabia. Regular six-month detachments of Mirage F1CRs, Jaguars and C-160 Transall transports and C-160 Gabriel spy planes under the command of Pierre-Alain Antoine complemented the Mirage 2000s.
On March 25, 1995, a Gabriel flew a mission over Iraq. The flight came just three days after the surveillance plane’s first Southern Watch mission, during which the modified transport had detected, for the first time, a Flat Face radar in southern Baghdad. The discovery had left U.S. analysts speechless, as America’s own RC-135 signals-intelligence aircraft and eavesdropping satellites had failed to detect the Flat Face.
The Gabriel took off at 4:00 in the morning on March 25. The crew consisted of the aircraft commander — an officer named Thual — plus a signals-intelligence officer by the name of Belkadi and detachment commander Antoine.
More than three hours into the mission, Belkadi announced that an Iraqi MiG-25 fighter was on a course to intercept the Gabriel. Belkadi had detected the MiG by way of the Gabriel’s sensitive radio receivers, which had picked up the MiG pilots’ own communications.
The MiG-25 continued in the direction of the C-160 as the French crew monitored its approach with the Gabriel’s radar receivers. These two intelligence sources— radio and radar — seemingly left no doubt as to the MiG pilot’s intention to intercept the French plane.
The U.S. Air Force’s own E-3 radar plane patrolling in the area still had not detected anything. The French informed the Americans of the MiG-25’s presence and a pair of U.S. Air Force F-15Cs raced to intercept the Iraqi plane, which quickly — and wisely, considering the F-15’s air-to-air combat record — turned around.
The coalition never tried to obscure the flight plans for its routine patrols. Indeed, coalition planners published flight plans a day in advance. Iraqi air-defenders were well aware of them.
The Iraqis knew about the C-160’s mission and had no more reason to object than they did to any declared Southern Watch flight.
But unknown to the French that night, there was an undeclared mission that overlapped with the Gabriel’s flight plan. The U.S. Air Force had sent a U-2 spy plane into southern Iraq and, during the drama with the MiG-25, the high-flying U-2 was directly overhead of the C-160 at an altitude of 60,000 feet or higher.
The MiG-25 was apparently vectoring to intercept the undeclared U-2, not necessarily the Gabriel. And it’s possible that the French crew’s vigilance in detecting the MiG and directing the Americans to intercept it prevented a potentially dangerous encounter between the high-flying MiG and the U-2.
In June and July 1998, two French air force Mirage IVP reconnaissance planes flew missions from Al Kharj in Saudi Arabia on behalf of the United Nations.
On July 1, Mirage IVP No. 25/AX was flying some 300 kilometers west of Baghdad. The crew consisted of captains Erik Pintat and Laurent Faugeron. One objective of the mission was to reconnoiter Al Asad air base, where the Iraqi air force based some of its MiG-25s.
A patrol of Mirage 2000s was located just south of the 32nd parallel and was available to assist the Mirage IVP if it encountered any problems as it proceeded north if needed to cover the crew of the Mirage IVP as it flew north to the 33rd parallel.
Meanwhile farther east, a U-2 was on a reconnaissance mission under the protection of U.S. fighters. In all, there were no fewer than 30 military aircraft in the region southeast of the Iraqi capital area that day.
Approaching Al Asad, the Mirage IVP crew scanned the runway and spotted two MiG-25s armed with missiles — one taxiing on a taxiway, the other coming out of a shelter.
Having photographed the base and its fighters, the Mirage IVP flew in the direction of the H1 airfield, the second objective, after which the French crew planned to turn south, rendezvous with the C-135FR tanker, then return to base.
During the mission, the crew detected several Iraqi radar signals, but deemed none of them critical — until the final one, a tracking signal. The crew was being chased by an Iraqi interceptor, first from the nine o’clock position and then from the six o’clock position. The Mirage IVP pilot accelerated to supersonic, but the hostile fighter still seemed to catch up.
The Mirage IVP flew north toward H1 while the crew struggled to contact the U.S. E-3. One of the Mirage 2000s apparently detected the distress call and relayed it, but no one came to the Mirage IVP’s rescue. The Mirage IVP turned south at Mach 1.2 and 22,000 feet of altitude, hoping to escape weapons range as it crossed the 33rd parallel.
The hostile signal disappeared, but the Mirage IVP crew had had enough. They abandoned the mission to H1 and returned to Al Kharj. Later, U.S. military authorities confirmed that two MiG-25s — apparently the two the French crew had photographed — had taken off from Al Asad and had attempted to intercept the Mirage IVP.
Baghdad insisted its air-defense crews had misidentified the Mirage IVP and the near-interception was simply a mistake.