Marham fighters play crucial role

Tornado warplanes from RAF Marham are playing a critical role in the fight against insurgency across Iraq.

Tornado warplanes from RAF Marham are playing a critical role in the fight against insurgency across Iraq.

By providing close air support to ground forces or undertaking reconnaissance missions on a daily basis, the Norfolk-based jets are helping to contain the escalating security situation in troubled Iraq, which many observers fear sits on the brink of civil war.

Operating from the massive al Udeid airbase in Qatar - an hour's flying time from Iraqi territory - Tornado's from Marham's XIII Squadron are carrying out some of the most “fatiguing” missions conducted by the Norfolk-based crews for several years.

A typical sortie can last eight to nine hours, with the planes deployed across the whole of Iraq and often having to refuel from VC-10 tankers up to four times to complete the mission.

Speaking to the EDP last night, the squadron's commanding officer Wing Cdr Terry Jones said the presence of the Tornado GR4s had the effect of helping disperse volatile situations on the ground or deterring militants from planting roadside bombs.

He said: “What we are providing is a show of force - just with a presence in an area we might encourage people to disperse.

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“Or if someone was attempting to plant an improvised explosive device against a convoy, flying over the area might be enough to persuade them to move away.”

He revealed that XIII Squadron Tornados recently took part in support of a major raid by ground forces in Basra where 1,000 British and Danish troops arrested Iraqi suspects in an anti-insurgency operation.

The Tornado squadrons from Marham - including II (AC), IX (B) and 31 - fulfil the role for eight months of the year, completing two-month stints apiece before squadrons from RAF Lossiemouth take over.

But, ground and air crews from XIII Squadron will be away from their friends and families over Christmas as missions continue.

The Tornados can provide critical intelligence from reconnaissance work or pose a threat when supporting ground forces, with the potential to drop bombs or open fire with guns.

But so far, the presence of the jets has been a deterrent either through higher-level deployment or by making menacing low-level sweeps at high speed over potential insurgency positions.

The risk is significantly less than the threat faced during the Iraq war of 2003 when Saddam had ground-to-air missiles, but there is still danger from small arms fire, shoulder-launched missiles or unguided missiles.

Wing Cdr Jones said: “We have the range to be able to operate across the whole country, not just in the south where the British forces are based, but in support of American forces also.

“With the speed and range, we can get anywhere in the country within 25-30 minutes, though normally that is 10-15 minutes but during a mission we often need to refuel three or four times.

“That will often mean that the crew is in the cockpits for eight to nine hours, which can be fatiguing for them.”

The crews normally fly for three consecutive days, plan missions for two and have a day off.

But Wing Cdr Jones also praised the efforts of the ground crew who often work 12-hour shifts to ensure the Tornados are ready for the next mission, which can be at any time of the day or night.