RAF Tornados Play Crucial Role in Iraq

Tornado

Tornado

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Capable of long-range, high speed precision strikes, the Royal Air Force Tornado detachment remains a key asset in supporting Coalition ground troops in Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

An RAF unit stationed at an undisclosed airfield in the Middle East provides that support around the clock. Deployed there since June, the 12th Bomber Squadron maintains a constant presence in the skies above Iraq. 

“We’re doing reconnaissance and close air support work and operating 24 hours a day to look after the troops,” said Royal Air Force Flight Lieutenant James Clayton, RAF Tornado Detachment aircrew with the 12 BS. 

The 12 BS finished their latest two-month deployment Aug. 1, adding to the Tornado’s five-year legacy of supporting troops in Iraq. 

The RAF makes their presence known in the area of operation by producing impressive statistics in support of allied forces. 

In the past two months, the 12 BS’s eight aircraft flew approximately 240 missions. Ten aircrews, each comprised of a pilot and a navigator, called the weapons system officer, flew 1,400 hours during the squadron’s stint in Southwest Asia. The 617th Squadron will replace the 12 BS and continue providing the same level of support in the theater. 

“We’ve done a lot since we’ve been here. It’s been a pretty heavy task for the squadron to support,” said Flight Lieutenant Clayton, deployed from RAF Lossiemouth, Scotland.

Even though the Tornado is essentially a bomber equipped with a 27mm cannon and up to two 1,000-pound bombs, the aircraft also doubles as a crucial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance element. 

The tornado’s ISR capability is composed of vertical detailed target and improvised explosive device reconnaissance. 

The Tornado’s ‘bread and butter’ is its data-link used to streamline real-time video to ground forces, Flight Lieutenant Clayton said. Once a Tornado is in the area, the joint terminal attack controller will use a computer-based instant messaging system to communicate with the aircraft directing the aircraft’s assistance. 

“It’s a very quick way for the JTAC to assess the situation to see whether somebody is going to attack them or for what we may think is an IED or a road block,” he said. “We can also record that imagery and bring it back.” 

Tornadoes are also frequently re-tasked in midair, requiring aircrews to quickly adapt to changing circumstances. 

“Yesterday, I arrived in theater and was immediately re-tasked so everything must be flexible and that’s what makes the mission interesting,” Flight Lieutenant Clayton said. “We were launched to do a planned close-air support tasking in support of troops who were doing a search and within minutes we were off to another area.” 

A typical Tornado sortie lasts between six and eight hours. 

“It’s a 12-hour day at a minimum for us,” Flight Lieutenant Clayton said. “We’re sending up guys during the night as well as during the day so it’s a constant workload for the squadron here and our engineers to maintain these aircraft.” 

Maintaining the Tornadoes maybe less confining than working from the cockpit, but it can be just as grueling. 

“We split the day in half,” said Flight Lieutenant Tom Summerscales, 12 BS junior engineer officer deployed from RAF Lossiemouth, Scotland. “That way we don’t have one crew working 12 hours in the hot sun.” 

Though the job is rewarding, working in the desert doesn’t come without its challenges, he said. 

“We changed 14 engines in the first five weeks of us being here,” Flight Lieutenant Summerscales said. “We constantly have to do preventive maintenance on these aircraft.” 

The constant need to perform maintenance on the aircraft gives RAF Airmen an opportunity to learn different aspects of their job. 

“When we get caught up with our work it gives us an opportunity to train maintainers in other aspects of the plane,” he said. “We are continually making improvements in the way we do things. The added skills will prove extremely useful when the RAF begins supporting the Afghanistan Theater next year. The challenges will be different, but we have a great group of guys.” 

The RAF currently deploys Tornado squadrons one at a time for two-month rotations. Beginning in 2009, two Tornado squadrons will deploy simultaneously to Southwest Asia and Afghanistan and deployment durations will increase to three months. 

The Tornado units will continue to provide the same level of support for Operation Enduring Freedom as they have for OIF. 

“Iraq is a much quieter country this year than it was for me last year and that’s great news,” Flight Lieutenant Clayton said. “The job the guys on the ground are doing seems to be effective and I’m glad we’re able to provide the crucial support they need.”
Clinton Atkins

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