LONDON — BRITISH military commanders are claiming considerable credit for the coalition's apparent success in achieving air supremacy over Iraq in the first two weeks of the war. They say high-grade electronic bombing and targeting systems, until now not used in actual war, made success possible.
The commanders cite the early use by Royal Air Force (RAF) Tornado low-level night attack planes of the JP233 runway destruction bomb, a British invention, as one of the main reasons why Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Air Force has been unable to play a significant part in the war.
These bombs, classed as ``aerial denial weapons,'' are designed to create deep craters in concrete runways, making it impossible for aircraft to use them. On impact, the JP233 also scatters antipersonnel mines designed to prevent ground crews from repairing the runways.
Group Capt. David Henderson, officer commanding Muharraq air base in Bahrain, said: ``We gave Iraq's air fields a good pounding for the first three nights of the campaign. We succeeded in keeping their planes on the ground.''
Britain's Gulf forces are the largest coalition formation after the United States, but are comparatively small. Apart from RAF personnel, there are 27,000 ground troops and 3,000 sailors on 19 ships.
Because the land and sea battle has yet to be joined in a serious way, Defense Ministry sources say, the RAF's contribution to the fighting has attained a high profile. That has involved disappointments as well as successes.
During the series of night attacks on Iraqi airfields, the RAF lost five Tornadoaircraft - one-seventh of Britain's combat aircraft in the Gulf. The planes had to approach their targets at a low level to elude Iraqi radar, and some of them paid the price by exposing themselves to anti-aircraft guns and missiles.
After the first week of fighting, the Defense Ministry ordered a group of Buccaneer fighters to the Gulf. The Buccaneer is a comparatively low-tech subsonic plane built in the 1960s, but it carries laser equipment. Defense Ministry sources say the laser beams can be used either to guide the Buccaneers' own bombs onto a target or to pinpoint targets under attack by Tornados and by Jaguar day-attack aircraft.
Flight Lieut. Glen Mason, a Buccaneer pilot, said that by using laser-guided bombs it was possible to hit a target as small as a jeep.
Another device believed by defense analysts to have been used by British planes in the coalition battle for air supremacy is the Alarm antiradar missile fitted to some Tornado bombers. The system is designed to identify the radar signals coming toward an approaching aircraft and to guide rockets onto the source of the signals.
ANOTHER high-tech device, so far untried in battle, has been placed aboard British Army Lynx helicopters earmarked for use in a land battle. It is a thermal imaging system, which allows helicopters to attack enemy tanks at night.
It was due to go into service in Germany later in 1991. Because of a procurement speedup, half of the 23 Lynx helicopters in the Gulf have been fitted with the device.
The Lynx machines are equipped with Sea Skua missiles which last week were used in the sinking of six Iraqi patrol boats in Gulf waters. The all-British missile is light (320 pounds) and accurate, and enables helicopters to attack targets without having to make a close approach.
British naval officers claim the Sea Skua has no counterpart in the US Navy, and say that it is as useful in its own way as the Patriot, which has been used to shoot down incoming Iraqi Scud missiles.
British artillery commanders, who have been told by the Ministry of Defense to expect to play a major part in any serious ground fighting, are impatient to use a new portable radar system, M-star, which should enable them to identify targets at a range of up to 16 miles.