Britain Beefing Up Air Presence in Gulf

Britain will increase its Royal Air Force presence in the Persian Gulf to about 100 aircraft over the coming weeks for possible action against Iraq, Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said Thursday.

The aircraft — which include sentry planes, refueling tanker and fighter-bombers — will be supported by around 7,000 personnel, Hoon told the House of Commons.

Similar in size to the air fleet Britain deployed in the 1991 Gulf War, it will have greater firepower and will be able to operate in all weather conditions.

Hoon's announcement puts in place the final element of Britain's contribution to a possible US-led military attack on Saddam Hussein's regime.

Britain is already sending 35,000 troops — including a quarter of its army and its biggest naval task force in 20 years — to the region to prepare for a possible war.

The air fleet will include Jaguar aircraft, Hercules transport aircraft and Tornado F3 fighter jets, Hoon added.

War was not inevitable, however, he said, adding: "It is still possible for Saddam Hussein to change his behavior, to cooperate actively with the weapons inspector and disarm by peaceful means."

The Royal Air Force already has eight Tornado GR4 ground attack aircraft based in Kuwait, half a dozen Tornado F3 fighters in Saudi Arabia, and four Jaguar ground attack aircraft based at Incirlik, Turkey, as well as support aircraft, to patrol no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq.