Gary Parsons and Tom McGhee report from RAF Marham on the RAF's plans for Gulf deployment
UK military contingency preparations in relation to Iraq are being conducted under the name of Operation Telic (derived from Greek meaning 'puposeful'). On 6 February 2003 the Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon MP, announced the deployment of an air package comprising some 100 aircraft.
"It is in the nature of air forces that they can be deployed over long distances more rapidly than maritime or land forces. But we envisage that in the days and weeks ahead we will increase the Royal Air Force presence in the region to around 100 fixed-wing aircraft supported by around 7,000 personnel, including members of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force."
"This will be a balanced and highly capable force, including E3D Sentry aircraft for airborne command and control; Jaguar and Tornado aircraft in the reconnaissance role; VC10 and TriStar air-to-air refuelling aircraft; Hercules transport aircraft; Tornado F3 aircraft with the newly integrated ASRAAM missile providing an air defence capability; and Tornado GR4 and Harrier GR7 aircraft providing an offensive capability should it be required, including precision-guided weapons. The RAF Regiment will protect the deployed forces. In addition, the Royal Air Force element of the Joint Helicopter Command will deploy a very substantial proportion of its equipment and personnel, providing helicopter support to other deployed forces. Its contribution will consist of 27 Puma and Chinook helicopters and about 1,100 personnel."
Expeditionary Air Wing
Heading the strike force is the Tornado Wing based at RAF Marham in Norfolk. For Group Captain Bob McAlpine, Commanding officer RAF Marham since only six weeks ago, it is literally a 'baptism of fire' for his new command. Hardly having time to acquaint himself with his new desk, the order to mobilise for Operation Telic came through a few weeks ago and since then the priority has been with the necessary arrangements. "It's like being the Captain of a large ocean vessel", he said, "and you see what you think may be an iceberg on the horizon. You change course, hoping you've done the right thing, but the decision is yours alone." Such is the responsibility that comes with command.
Marham's squadrons' role is to provide and support offensive air power as an Expeditionary Air Wing (EAW). It comprises Rapid Reaction Force Elements of some 2,850 personnel, all ready to move at short notice. As well as the operational Tornado squadrons the EAW comprises the Tactical IMINT (Imagery Intelligence) wing and 3 TAC STO (Survive To Operate), the latter providing airfield protection, ground defence and security.
31 Squadron is currently deployed in the Gulf region as part of the UK's contribution to policing the no-fly zones in southern Iraq under UN resolution 688. Code-named Operation Resinate (south), each Tornado squadron does a two-month tour of duty, Marham sharing the commitment with Lossiemouth on an eight-to-six month ratio (Marham having four squadrons to Lossiemouth's three). The twelve aircraft currently deployed will be joined by others under Operation Telic, although no definitive numbers are available.
The Tornado GR4 is a much more capable aircraft than the GR1, being truly all-weather day and night capable. Usual weaponry consists of Paveway II and III laser-designated bombs (see left), but recent trials with Storm Shadow and Brimstone may see their operational use in the very near future. Storm Shadow is a long-range stand-off missile and Brimstone is designed to replace the BL755 Cluster Bomb - it is an autonomous anti-armour missile, and will be carried by Tornado and Harrier. The GR4A provides tactical reconnaissance using the TIRRS (Tornado Infra-Red Recce System) and can take highly detailed pictures from tens of miles away from the target - so if you're tempted to sunbathe in the nude on the North Norfolk coast this summer, just bear that in mind! The new RAPTOR pod enhances this capability to a real-time day and night scenario, with stand-off ranges of up to 50 miles.
Tornados deployed to the Gulf will sport a light-grey finish with toned-down roundels and fin-flash - subtly different to the ARTF finish of Operation Resinate - there won't be any 'desert pink/sand' finishes this time. When tackled on the subject of nose-art, the pilots gave a wry smile as if to say 'wait and see' - but it will depend upon the whim of the Force Commander. No squadron markings will be carried, as the aircraft will operate under a 'wing' environment.
There are few pilots today with actual experience of Desert Storm, but Bob McAlpine is one of them. He knows the experience of war and was categorical in his assertion that this is a job to do, not necessarily one to look forward to. Many younger pilots have experience of Operation Resinate, but there is a difference in being a potential target in a no-fly zone and being the offensive capability over hostile territory. One hopes that ultimately they won't be needed, but if they are, they are ready.
Only a few days after the British Government's announcement, a dreary Norfolk winter morning saw the first Tornado aircraft leaving for sunnier climes.
Monday 10 February saw the early morning departure to 'the Gulf Region' of a number of Tornado GR4 aircraft from Marham, these freshly painted aircraft taking off to rendezvous with their air-refuelling tanker aircraft which would allow them to transit non-stop to the Gulf, as part of the UK's contribution to the build up of forces in the region.
The aircraft that departed were drawn from a number of RAF squadrons, many of the airframes being well over twenty years old and had served in Operation Desert Storm. However, over recent years they have been through a Mid Life Upgrade programme at BAE Systems at Warton to bring them up to GR4 standard. So these aircraft, although outwardly similar, are quite a step forward in technology from the GR1 versions which took part in the Gulf War of 1991. One obvious difference is the camouflage schemes worn; the 1991 aircraft were painted in a 'desert pink' scheme which suited the ultra low-level runway denial role which was allocated to them. Today's examples were painted in the light grey scheme similar to the air-defence Tornado F3s, which is more appropriate for the medium and high altitude precision bombing role that the GR4 is well suited for.
Armed with a TIALD (Thermal Image and Laser Designator) pod under the fuselage, targets can be pinpointed and 'illuminated', even at night, to allow the laser guided precision weapons like Paveway II and III to strike accurately with minimal error. This method of attack keeps the strike aircraft safer, gives a much greater probability of destroying the target, and ensures a much reduced chance of collateral damage. Another stand-off weapon in the Tornado's armoury is the ALARM anti-radiation missile, used to attack Surface-to-Air Missile sites.
Now with a night vision capability, the aircrew have a much improved navigation and weapons aiming system, and with the backup from highly trained professional ground crew, they have a platform which they can rely on.
In all, Operation Telic is a formidable array of military power - let us hope that all our forces can return home swiftly and safely.
to the CRO staff at Marham for their assistance.