The last Tornado GR4s and VC10 tanker aircraft returned to the UK from the Middle East yesterday, marking the end of 18 years of combat operations for the RAF in the Gulf.
The Tornados from XIII Squadron arrived home yesterday, Wednesday 3 June 2009, at RAF Marham in Norfolk while the VC10s from 101 Squadron, who provided air-to-air refuelling for the Tornados all the way back from the Middle East, came home to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.
Earlier this week crews from the squadrons and other members of 901 Expeditionary Air Wing (EAW) and 83 Expeditionary Air Group (EAG) deployed on Operation TELIC marked the end of UK Combat Air Operations in the Gulf theatre during a sunset ceremony at an airbase in the Middle East.
As the sun went down on Sunday 31 May 2009, UK Service personnel stood shoulder-to-shoulder with invited senior coalition members to celebrate this milestone in the history of UK Combat Air Operations.
As a mark of respect, Squadron Leader Martin Balshaw, Commanding Officer of the Hercules C-130 detachment at 901 EAW, read out the names of the 35 Royal Air Force and Royal Auxiliary Air Force personnel who have given their lives whilst serving their country on Iraq-related operations since 1990.
Following a two-minute silence a Tornado GR4 flew over the assembled company to mark the end of the ceremony.
RAF squadrons, in various forms, have been based in the region since August 1990, when a week after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait the UK sent 50 Tornados and 12 Jaguar aircraft to the area.
After the first Gulf War, they patrolled no-fly zones over Iraq and monitored activity on the ground. During the second Iraq conflict, the squadrons supported troops on the ground and bombed enemy installations.
Group Captain Colin Basnett, Tornado GR Force Commander and Station Commander, RAF Marham, said:
“The 31 May 2009 will be remembered as a significant day in the history of the Royal Air Force when Tornado operations in Iraq come to an end.
“Whether it has been through the enforcement of the no-fly zones, providing a tactical reconnaissance capability to monitor activity on the ground, or the employment of sophisticated precision weapons as a part of the overall campaign plan or in support of Land Forces engaged with the enemy, the Tornado Force’s contribution to deliver air power in this theatre of operations since 1991 has been immense.
“As the backbone of the RAF’s offensive capability in Iraq for almost two decades, the Tornado Force has much to be proud of, and I am honoured to be the Commander of a Force that has delivered in spades, often in arduous conditions, over such a prolonged period.”
101 Squadron and their VC10 tanker aircraft were also deployed to the Gulf in 1990 in support of RAF combat aircraft. Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Steve Lushington, said:
“The last 18 years have shown the incredible capability and versatility of the VC10 force. Circumstances naturally change; we stand ready to provide our world-renowned service and go to wherever it is required. We look forward to the future and hope to further contribute to the illustrious and enviable record of 101 Squadron.”
Air Commodore Tony Barmby, Air Officer Commanding 83 Exepditionary Air Group, said:
“As the UK ends 18 years of combat operations in the skies over Iraq, I am privileged to have had the opportunity to command the RAF folk who support, engineer and operate the Tornado GR4 strike/recce aircraft, VC10 air-to-air refuelling tankers and C-130 transport aircraft.
“I could not have wished for a more outstandingly professional group of airmen and women.”
Missions flown by Tornado GR4 crews flying in the Middle East include close air support, reconnaissance, airborne forward air control and strike co-ordination armed response.
A typical mission over Iraq lasted eight hours, and involved loitering on station for up to six hours, interspersed with air-to-air refuelling provided by 101 Squadron VC10s.
When troops were fighting insurgents Tornado crews were often called in to assist, dropping munitions if the situation warranted it. The process involved working in close co-operation with Army ground forward air controllers, watching ahead of convoys for stopped vehicles and/or individuals acting suspiciously.
Wing Commander Gerry Mayhew, Officer Commanding XIII Squadron, said:
“It is a great honour to be in command of the final Tornado Squadron to conduct combat operations over Iraq and another to fly the very last Tornado sortie in the region.
“XIII Squadron, as part of the RAF’s wider Tornado Force, has been involved in operations over Iraq since 1991, carrying out a wide range of missions that have ranged from finding the infamous Scud missiles during the first Gulf War, to patrolling the no-fly zones and supporting our Army and coalition colleagues on the ground.
“I believe that we have made a significant contribution to the overall operational effort in Iraq and I am extremely proud of our people who have worked incredibly hard and often in difficult conditions to get the job done.”
During sorties flown for Op TELIC, GR4 crews offered the full spectrum of their skills in direct support to coalition ground forces. These included conducting low level shows of force or employing weapons to assist ground forces if necessary.
The Tornado’s mixture of speed and precision made it ideally suited to come swiftly to the aid of troops that found themselves under attack.
The Tornado Force is already prepared to assume responsibility for the delivery of air power in Afghanistan when it replaces the Harrier Force in the summer.
While the return of the Tornados from the Middle East marks the end of combat operations for the RAF over Iraq there are still some support and logistic elements remaining in the area of operations while the British draw down of forces and equipment continues.