KUWAIT CITY — Bedeviled by air accidents in the war's opening days, Britain came to grips Sunday with the loss of an RAF Tornado fighter jet and its two-man crew brought down by a U.S. Patriot missile battery early Sunday.
The jet was returning from a mission when it was struck in the skies over northern Kuwait while on its final approach to an airbase, according to British military officials and a pool press report.
British Major Gen. Wall, the chief of staff for the British contingent at Central Command headquarters in Qatar said, "There is clear evidence to suggest that the U.S. Patriot missile battery shot down an RAF Tornado GR-4."
Wall said a "thorough" investigation was launched and there would be no rush to judgment.
"We're satisfied that if we went out tomorrow, from a UK perspective, we would conduct our activities just as we have, in concert with coalition procedures, been doing up until now," Wall said.
British Group Capt. Simon Dobb said the reaction to the accident among other crews at the Tornado base was "one of shock and bewilderment," according to a pool report distributed by Britain's Press Association.
"I am missing two very good men," Dobb said. "They were both experienced Tornado aircrew, excellent at their job, courageous and committed to the job they were asked to do."
The loss of the Tornado was Britain's third air disaster during the four-day war, but perhaps the most troubling for a country still haunted by "friendly fire" incidents that left nine Britons dead and 13 wounded during the first Persian Gulf war in 1991.
The British have sought to upgrade Identification Friend or Foe technology, spending more than $500 million to avoid "friendly fire" incidents, known as "Blue on Blue."
Six Britons were killed Saturday when two Sea King helicopters collided over the Persian Gulf. Eight British troops died Friday when a U.S. Sea Knight transport helicopter plunged in the north Kuwait desert.
The start of the war was "not an ideal one for the UK," British spokesman Captain Al Lockwood told the BBC.
The downing of the British jet highlighted the perils of running such an extensive air war with 2,000 sorties daily in the region. The British may be providing only 10 percent of the daily sorties but they are key to the air war. Their arsenal of 100 fixed-wing aircraft and 27 helicopters includes mid-air refuelers and AWACS planes.
The Patriot — the workhorse short-range ballistic missile defense system — is designed to spot the difference between a plane and a missile. Wall said the system was used to successfully intercept four missiles launched toward Kuwait during the current conflict.
"Were it not for Patriots many more lives could have been lost," Wall said.
British Capt. Jon Fynes, the RAF spokesman in the gulf, said the "friendly fire" incident didn't harm the coalition.
"In many ways, it brings us closer together," Fynes said, noting he received expressions of sympathy from other coalition members.
"We'll certainly learn some lessons," he said. "We'll carry on with the war. Nothing has changed."