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TARGET LIBYA: RAF reveals Marham jets’ 3,000-mile mission, as aircraft prepare to deploy to Italy

PUBLISHED: 14:10 21 March 2011 | UPDATED: 11:31 22 March 2011

A Tornado prepares to take off from Marham on one of the first sorties against Gaddafi's forces. Picture: MoD

A Tornado prepares to take off from Marham on one of the first sorties against Gaddafi's forces. Picture: MoD

Norfolk’s top guns flew their longest mission since the Falklands war, as Marham Tornado jets led air strikes against Libya.

An aerial dance to refuel on the long flight to Libya

RAF Tornados departing last night to deliver crippling blows to the Gaddafi regime were embarking on a highly complex and intricate mission.

Huge distances involved between the jets’ Norfolk base and eventual targets in North Africa meant the Tornados would need refuelling in mid-air.

Two huge VC10 and Tristar air-to-air refuelling aircraft took to the skies to rendezvous with the jets.

They performed an aerial ballet high in the darkness above Europe as the Tornados, VC10 and Tristar connected through umbilical-like funnels.

The VC10 alone can carry up to 69,800kgs of fuel and refuel two aircraft at the same time.

An astonishing 60 tonnes of fuel was used as each jet re-fuelled three times en-route to Libya and once on the return leg to Norfolk.

Once in range of the desert coast of Libya the jets were able to unleash their deadly cargo of Storm Shadow missiles.

The bombs - described by some as a “fire and forget” weapon - boast a range of more than 150 miles and are designed to attack well-defended targets deep inside enemy territory without exposing the bomber to enemy air defences.

Last night’s efforts were overseen by the RAF’s “aerial ringmaster” - the The E-3D Sentry surveillance aircraft, which also took to the skies alongside the jets and refuelling aircraft.

Revealing details of the 3,000-mile mission, the Ministry of Defence said Storm Shadow missiles were launched from the aircraft against “high value targets” in the capital Tripoli and other parts of Libya, as the international community swung into action against Colonel Gaddafi.

This afternoon it emerged British Typhoon and Tornado jets would be deployed to bases in Italy. Defence Secretary Liam Fox said the aircraft would leave their UK bases and fly to southern Italy so they are better placed to strike Libya and patrol the no-fly zone agreed by the United Nations.

“It’s obviously easier if we have access to bases closer to where the targets are and where the no-fly zone is,” he said.

“We will be deploying later today or tomorrow Typhoons and Tornados to Gioia del Colle, a base in southern Italy.”

Detailing British involvement in the coalition’s efforts against Gaddafi’s forces, Air Vice-Marshal Phil Osborn told a briefing in London this morning: “We are entirely comfortable with the way last night’s mission went in terms of success.

“Last night was the longest bombing mission the RAF have executed since the Falklands War - some eight hours round trip, and during that mission we executed highly accurate strikes against high value, hardened targets key to Libya’s air defences.”

He said that the Storm Shadow weapons used by the jets were able to attack targets with an accuracy of between one to two metres.

The Tornados were refuelled three times en route to Libya and once on the return flight to RAF Marham with 60 tonnes of fuel being used in total.

He added that the RAF’s Typhoon fast jets, currently based at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, were being prepared to be deployed “if and when required”.

AVM Osborn would not confirm if the Libyan air force had been destroyed but said: “It’s fair to say that there is a threat, we always have to be aware that there may remain a threat.”

A barrage of 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles - some of them British - was also fired at Libya to knock out the dictator’s air defence systems at more than 20 coastal locations.

A Royal Navy Trafalgar-class submarine stationed in the Mediterranean took part in the co-ordinated assault, which also involved forces from the US, France, Italy and Canada under the operational control of US Africa Command.

The missiles targeted radar systems and ground-to-air missile sites around the cities of Tripoli and Misrata in what was described as “the first phase of a multi-phase operation”, clearing the way for allied planes to take control of the skies.

Shortly afterwards, Tornado jets from as yet undisclosed squadrons took off from RAF Marham.

Defence Secretary Liam Fox said: “The fast jets flew 3,000 miles from RAF Marham and back, making this the longest range bombing mission conducted by the RAF since the Falklands conflict.

“This operation was supported by VC10 and Tristar air-to-air refuelling aircraft as well as E3D Sentry and Sentinel surveillance aircraft.”

Dr Fox said HMS Westminster was off the coast of Libya, and HMS Cumberland was in the region ready to support operations. Typhoon aircraft were also standing by to provide support.

He added: “Our capable and adaptable armed forces are once again displaying their courage and professionalism. This action has provided a strong signal - the international community will not stand by while the Libyan people suffer under the Gaddafi regime.”

The onslaught on Gaddafi came after an emergency summit in Paris agreed military action to enforce United Nations resolution 1973, which authorised “any necessary measures” short of foreign occupation to defend Libyan civilians.

Around 20 French Mirage and Rafale fighter jets were immediately sent into action over the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, firing the first shots of the operation to destroy a number of Gaddafi’s tanks and armoured vehicles.

Benghazi had come under fierce attack during the day, despite a supposed ceasefire, raising fears that Gaddafi would take advantage of delays in the international response to smash the opposition and commit atrocities against those who rose up against his 42-year rule a month ago.

Prime Minister David Cameron announced that British forces had gone into action in a brief statement outside 10 Downing Street following a meeting of senior ministers and military top brass in the Government’s Cobra emergency committee.

As he initiated his first military campaign as PM, Mr Cameron described the operation as “necessary, legal and right”.

His thoughts were with British service personnel who were risking their lives to save others, he said.

He said: “We should not stand aside while this dictator murders his own people ... I believe we should all be confident that what we are doing is in a just cause and in our nation’s interest.”

President Barack Obama, making a visit to Brazil, said the US would contribute its “unique capabilities” to enable the enforcement of a no-fly zone which will be led by its international partners.

Repeating his pledge that no US ground troops will be sent to Libya, Mr Obama said the “limited” use of force was “not an outcome the US or any of our partners sought”.

But he added: “We can’t stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy.”

US defence officials said it was too early to fully gauge the impact of the onslaught, but said they believed Libya’s air defences had been heavily damaged.

Meanwhile, anti-aircraft guns could be heard firing early this morning in Tripoli.

Unverified reports on Libyan TV claimed that air strikes by “the crusader enemy” had hit civilian areas in Tripoli and fuel storage tanks that supplied Misrata.

The head of the country’s Congress said many civilians had been injured in the “barbaric and armed attack from Western countries”.

Gaddafi himself made a brief phone call to state TV to denounce the “assaults”, which he said had turned the Mediterranean into “a real battlefield”. Arms depots were being opened to allow the people of Libya to defend their country, he said.

The full extent of the RAF’s involvement in the planned no-fly zone was not immediately clear, though Mr Cameron told MPs on Friday that he expected to deploy Tornados and Typhoons as well as surveillance aircraft and air-to-air refuelling planes.

MPs will be given the chance to debate and vote on the military action in the House of Commons on Monday.

Countries including Canada, Denmark, Spain and Norway announced they were sending planes, while Italy said it would permit the use of air bases such as Sigonella in Sicily and Aviano in the north to launch sorties. A naval blockade is to be established in the Mediterranean to prevent movements from Libyan ports.

Foreign Secretary William Hague said the build-up to last night’s action began weeks ago, but praised the speed with which the Royal Navy and RAF reacted once the UN resolution endorsing action had been secured and orders to attack had been given.

“You really have to take your hat off to them,” he added.

“It has come together extremely well over the last 48 hours. We should always remember there are very brave people who take off in those planes and go to carry out these missions.

“They should always be uppermost in our thoughts.”

Mr Hague said while the UN resolution technically allowed ground operations in Libya, while ruling out occupying forces, it was unlikely soldiers would be deployed.

He added: “None of the countries involved in this operation are envisaging a ground invasion.”

Though the UN resolution does not support regime change, Mr Hague backed Mr Cameron’s call for Gaddafi to quit, saying: “We can’t see a future for Libya which has Colonel Gaddafi staying there, but then I doubt the vast majority of the population of Libya can see that either. We want him to go.”

Labour leader Ed Miliband supported the Government’s action and paid tribute to British troops.

He said: “They are exceptionally brave and courageous.

“It is always a grave decision to send our armed forces into possible combat.

“But the international community could not have stood by as innocent people were slaughtered.”

He added: “The United Nations was right to act to uphold international values and law and to help the people of Libya in their hour of need.

“Britain and its Armed forces were right to join in military action to support the will of the international community.

“We offer our forces all the support they need during the days and hours ahead.”

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